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Canada–U.S. joint emergency preparedness policy in the North American Arctic: Indigenous knowledge and engagement

June 11, 2019


Nadine Fabbi

From left: Whitney Lackenbauer, Michael Kendall, Peter Kikkert, Nadine Fabbi, Dennis Stavrou, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur R. Jordan, and Andrew Chater.

As sea and air traffic in the Arctic grows, so does the importance of U.S.–Canada joint preparedness and emergency response capabilities. To address these issues, the International Policy Institute Arctic Initiative in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, hosted five representatives, part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, to engage in a roundtable discussion with UW faculty and students. The discussion focused primarily on current Canadian policies, practices and challenges to search and rescue in the Arctic region, as well as how the two countries might work closer together to resolve some of these challenges. All of the participants stressed the importance of Indigenous knowledge and engagement in effective search and rescue policy and planning.

Dennis Stavrou, executive director of Iqaluit Health Services in Iqaluit, Nunavut, noted that the greatest strength of Iqaluit health care is its “human capital.” He also cited the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act (1993), which clearly defines Inuit values as well as legal rights in terms of increased transit and its impact on the environment. Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University, has worked with and written extensively about the Canadian Rangers, the citizen-soldiers who have served as Canada’s eyes and ears across the Arctic for decades, joining local knowledge with national security capacity.[1]

Search and rescue incidents in the Canadian Arctic have more than doubled over the past decade in part as a result of climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather. A recent policy paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal cites that in 2014 there were a total of 543 incidents in the Canadian Arctic and, of those, 20 percent of the individuals involved were in critical condition or did not make it.[2] The authors note that risks are increasing while emergency preparedness and health care services are inadequate. Most importantly, the article argues that disparities in the Arctic region must be dealt with in collaboration with Inuit communities. “Opportunities for intervention include promotion of intergenerational exchange of traditional knowledge that has long underpinned safe and respectful use of the Arctic environment”[3]

The U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook, released in April 2019, also stresses the challenge to search and rescue in the Arctic region and notes the importance of ongoing engagement with Alaskan Native communities.

A key theme among the roundtable participants was that any new or future policies and practices for effective responses to future Arctic search and rescue cases must include local peoples and knowledge, and that in both countries considerable resources are needed to reduce inequities in and access to health and search and rescue services.

The roundtable discussion was led by UW’s Canada Fulbright Chair in Arctic Studies, Andrew Chater. U.S. Department of State guests included Lieutenant Colonel Arthur R. Jordan, Search and Rescue, Royal Canadian Air Force; Michael Kendall, Nunavut Emergency Management Division, Government of Nunavut; Dr. Peter Kikkert, St. Francis Xavier University; Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North and Professor in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University; and Dennis Stavrou, Iqaluit Health Services, Government of Nunavut. Guests were joined by Bob Pavia, formerly of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA and now a faculty in the UW’s Arctic minor; Astri Dankertsen, Nord University, Bodø and UW visiting faculty in Sami studies; and UW doctoral and undergraduate students conducting research in Arctic studies.

[1] See Whitney Lackenbauer, The Canadian Rangers: A Living History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).

[2] Dylan G. Clark and James D. Ford, “Emergency Response in a Rapidly Changing Arctic,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 189, no. 4 (2017): E135–E136,

[3] Clark and Ford, “Emergency Response,” E135–36.