Edward Cholo has spent his whole life working on and around the Mackenzie River and the last 14 years as a land monitor in Liildii Kue First Nation (LKFN), situated in southwestern Northwest Territories (N.W.T.).
Accessing traditional trails and his trap line has become difficult because of widespread permafrost thaw and land cover change.
“The water was high, way up. All where my trail was supposed to be was gone. Just washed out, so I had to go a kilometre detour around it,” he said.
Cholo is an Indigenous guardian who’s trained to monitor and describe the health of land and species that has undergone rapid change in the Dehcho region of the N.W.T.
Guardians are federally funded and employed as “eyes on the ground on traditional lands to monitor ecological health, protect sensitive areas and species, and look over important cultural sites.”
But transferring 50 years of land-based knowledge to the next generation is a process that requires patience.
“Younger generation don’t know any changes because they are born into it. They look around and they don’t see anything,” he said.
But Cholo is in tune with the sights and sounds along the river and looks for indicators of climate change with each passing season.
“When you see bushes along the shore you know it can’t be there because the ice cleans up everything off the shore so you know it’s a landslide. Wildlife keep away from it as well,” he said.
Land subsidences, when large amounts of groundwater are withdrawn from certain types of rocks, have been spotted from Great Slave Lake to the delta at the mouth of the river flowing into the Arctic Ocean.
It’s a growing concern for the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit who have taken care of the river since time immemorial.
Dieter Cazon, Manager of Lands and Resources for Liildii Kue First Nation, told APTN News there’s been an increased boots-on-the ground approach to tackling climate change ever since 2017-18, when the band consulted with Enbridge for a section of pipeline to be replaced under the Mackenzie.
Dieter presented aerial footage to 30 Dehcho Guardians who were to be on the land monitoring the Line 21 pipeline replacement.
“Everybody (Dehcho Guardians) that was from Fort Providence, Wrigley, other communities, everyone was saying ‘ that is happening near us too,’” Cazon said.
He noted the urgency in developing knowledge on permafrost thaw and create customized predictive strategies for membership to adapt to changes.
Out of response to the need, the Dehcho Collaborative on Permafrost (DCoP) was born. The initiative works with Wilfred Laurier University located in Ontario and Dehcho First Nation membership, to combine scientific and Indigenous knowledge on permafrost.
“One of the things we are trying to do with DCoP is create a computer model to better predict permafrost melting. See if we can figure out ways to alleviate issues occurring like if someone had a cabin and one corner was sinking. There’s ways to use thermo culture as was to foster regrowth of permafrost,” Cazon said.
In the spring of 2020, guardians and members of DCoP like Cholo and Cazon were trained in digital mapping. They learned how to transfer field notes from paper to computer to identify areas at risk of melting permafrost and respond to them faster.
Cazon speaks of the importance of collaboration between Indigenous knowledge holders and western science.
“One of the things you have to take into consideration is doing as much as you can with the resources that you have. Researchers are there for one thing. They want to figure out the breeding patterns of one certain type of subspecies of mosquitoes. That’s the only thing they are doing,” Cazon said.
Cazon asked researchers to fill out journals on types of vegetation and animal spieces they observe in the field so Elders can interpret the information and provide feedback to all parties involved.
Now when Cholo arrives at a permafrost slump he takes photos with a camera that tracks GSP data.
He believes the partnership within DCoP has been beneficial so far and he hopes the next generation can make the most of the data they helped gather.
“I’ve learned about some things that we don’t care about – or as Dene people we don’t care to study, like bugs. You’re never too old to learn off of each other. Something we learn is there may be an easier way to do something,” Cholo said.