Storytelling Links Climate Change and Health

Researchers, Inuit community collaborate on digital storytelling project

Story by Natalie Osborne, a U of G student writer with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge)

Students at the Northern Lights Academy in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, participate in a digital media workshop. Photo courtesy My Word: Storytelling and Digital Media Lab


For centuries, Inuit knowledge, culture and history have been passed down from one generation to the next through storytelling. Now, researchers are using digital media to document stories that are first-hand accounts of how climate change is affecting the lives and health of Inuit people in Canada.

Led by the Rigolet Inuit Community Government in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, this project is the first of its kind and is funded by Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. The work is supported by U of G researchers Victoria Edge, an adjunct professor in the Department of Population Medicine and a senior epidemiologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada, and PhD candidates Sherilee Harper, Population Medicine, and Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, Rural Studies.

They’ve partnered with Rigolet community leaders, including town manager Sarah Blake and AngajukKâk (mayor) Charlotte Wolfrey. Through the process of digital storytelling, community members are given the opportunity to create their own three- to five-minute first-person narratives, highlighting the impacts of climate change on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and well-being of community members.

“The digital stories are much better than a series of numbers that don’t have a context; they really give a better understanding of what health means to Inuit people,” says Edge.

Since November 2009, more than 20 adults and youth have participated in week-long digital storytelling workshops, creating 25 digital stories. These workshops are led by Rigolet community members, who received training in this technique from the Centre for Digital Storytelling. In addition, Rigolet has also created the “My Word” storytelling and digital media lab, the first northern centre dedicated to using community-based digital media to promote Inuit culture, oral wisdom and stories. These stories can be screened in community centres and shared online (view stories at

Researchers will also collect information using more traditional qualitative methods, such as interviews, focus groups and questionnaires. But the digital stories serve as the initial data collection and provide important aural and visual narratives about life in the North.

“Video allows community members to tell their stories free from outside intervention, unlike an interview where questions can frame the discussion or introduce researcher bias,” says Cunsolo Willox. “The voices and faces you see are Inuit people, not southern researchers.”

Adds Harper: “It’s an emerging process, not an extracting process. So you’re not extracting information from people but allowing it to emerge naturally from what they consider to be important. It’s a very different way to initiate the collection of health data, and it should give us a much richer picture of what health means to the community.”

The project hired and trained community members, including Tanya Pottle, Dina Wolfrey, Ashley Flowers, Marilyn Baikie, Inez Shiwak and Joelene Pardy, to co-ordinate the workshops and facilitate communication and participation in the project. All community workers also created their own stories and participated in the study.

For example, Pottle’s story talks about how climate change affects the ice and snow that she and her community members rely on for transportation and hunting. Delayed and insufficient ice formation prevents access to caribou, their main source of healthy, fresh food in the winter. Baikie’s story discusses the ways in which changes in the weather and on the land are affecting Inuit culture, traditional activities and food harvesting. And she wonders what these changes will mean for her children.

“The land is our healer,” says Wolfrey. “We rely on the ice to go out on the land, but with the changing climate, we can no longer trust our traditional knowledge of which ice paths are safe to travel.”

Normally, Rigolet residents can go out on the ice from December to May. But last year, they were only able to spend two months on the ice. Community members used the digital stories lab to record this unusual winter, which Wolfrey believes will be useful for comparing to future seasons.

She also believes the stories could be used to preserve Inuit heritage, culture and language, and would be a good learning tool for use in northern schools. This summer, the Rigolet My Word team organized an elder and youth storytelling and culture-sharing summer camp, which brought together youth and elders from all the Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut.

The community of Rigolet is continuing to run digital storytelling workshops and, through the My Word lab, can travel to other communities to run workshops and look forward to collaborating with researchers and policy-makers interested in using digital storytelling to gather community-based narratives.

“The ultimate goal is for Rigolet to become the leader in the North for digital storytelling,” says Wolfrey. “We can use the talent and capabilities we have locally to spread the word and show other communities how to start these projects.”

The Rigolet stories have been screened at community gatherings and story nights, as well as posted to the Rigolet town website, YouTube and Facebook. DVDs were also given free to all community members in Rigolet.

Funding for the project was provided by Health Canada’s Climate Change and Health Adaptation in Northern First Nations and Inuit Communities Program and the Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments.