Joel Heath

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Elected in 2020
Because of the pandemic, Joel Heath was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.


Joel supports Inuit self-determination in research, education, and environmental stewardship via new trust-based online networks that enhance communication between geographically dispersed northern communities. Joel’s new idea accelerates the uptake and application of Inuit oral knowledge in modern day resource management with external partners while fostering inter-territorial governance systems to catalyze local conservation economies.

The New Idea

Joel is bringing new cross cultural and integrated knowledge and resource management systems to life in critical ecosystems with profound climate implications for Canada and the rest of the world. Joel accelerates the uptake and application of Inuit oral knowledge in modern day resource management and inter-territorial governance systems with bridging infrastructure for external partners, specifically the west scientific research community.

Joel’s approach is enabling Inuit communities on the frontline of climate change to record their traditional oral knowledge and observations of the land in new ways that elevate the recordings from anecdote to qualitative and quantitative data on environmental changes. To do so, Joel has created SIKU, an online multimedia social networking platform built by and for Inuit communities. SIKU allows Inuit communities to communicate and track the effects of climate change in the Arctic through real-time data collection and peer-review by other Inuit users. It is allowing Inuit leaders to make better decisions informed by their traditional knowledge and observation skills to manage the cumulative impacts of climate change and development projects affecting the land. The SIKU data management and protection policies uniquely ensure local populations own, manage, and control their intellectual property. This new way of documenting Inuit observations bridges Western and Indigenous knowledge systems, while incentivizing local conservation economies.

SIKU invites Inuit to connect across remote geographies in new ways to map changing sea ice and weather conditions, share hunting stories, document wildlife migration patterns, track invasive species, and integrate research results and projects. SIKU builds living data sets through a variety of interactive multimedia forms - pictures, stories, videos, and interactive animations – to accommodate different capacities and learning styles. As a result, there are new and meaningful employment opportunities in environmental monitoring in a region where jobs are scarce. SIKU also builds food security, intergenerational and intercultural knowledge transfer, and language conservation in these northern communities. Inuit become systematically recognized as researchers contributing valuable insights about environmental change on the ground to the rest of the world. As well, stakeholders from across jurisdictions use these insights to coordinate stewardship initiatives, inform decision making, as well integrate it back into Northern Schools’ curriculum. Initiated in 2018, SIKU has engaged thousands across the Canadian Arctic and is being used in 26 out of the 51 Inuit communities in Canada. As a result of Joel’s new idea, Inuit communities are supported to contributing millennia old knowledge and land management practices to the stewardship of the Hudson Bay ecosystem.

The Problem

Sea ice is critical to the environment and culture of Inuit who have relied on it for millennia for hunting and travelling. Changes to sea ice ecosystems in the Arctic have negative impacts on the livelihoods of Inuit. Between 2010 and 2020, winter in the Arctic has been shortened by about six weeks, and sea ice coverage has become about a third smaller. Vanishing ice and unpredictable seasons make it harder for Inuit to travel long distances to visit other communities, limiting the traditional transfer of knowledge through oral stories. To compound this, warmer ocean temperatures are also changing the distribution of marine species and affecting communities who rely on fisheries for food and livelihood.

While Inuit are the population most impacted by climate change, they are also excluded from research and environmental stewardship efforts in the Arctic. Colonial legacies continue to influence the way in which research is conducted in the Arctic. Research projects are developed by non-Indigenous researchers from the south who often control data collection and ownership. Western knowledge is prioritized over Inuit knowledge and observations which are often viewed as anecdotal and secondary to scientific knowledge which places greater value on documented, written, and quantified data. As a result, this millennia-old knowledge is lost in mainstream research and environmental stewardship efforts – often resulting in the mismanagement of sea ice ecosystems.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made visible the extent to which Canada’s colonial history and residential school system systematically disadvantaged, disempowered, and discriminated against Indigenous peoples. The Indian Act, written in 1876, made it illegal for Indigenous people to practice their cultural and spiritual ceremonies. The internalized oppression throughout generations makes it still very hard today to break down the multiple layers of harm within Indigenous communities and reconnection to their traditional ways of being and knowing. The intergenerational impact of colonization has been felt intensely by Inuit throughout the Arctic, resulting in seemingly intractable social challenges and inequities compared to the rest of Canada. For example, in 2020, the rate of suicide in the four Inuit regions in Canada (called Inuit Nunangat) was 5 to 25 times higher than for Canada as a whole. Statistically, Inuit youth have the lowest levels of education and the fewest opportunities for employment, and they are faced with food insecurity and overcrowded housing. While 86% of all Canadian aged 25 to 64 have earned a high school diploma, only 34% of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat have earned one. Income for non-Indigenous people in living in Inuit Nunangat is four times higher than that of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat ($92,011 vs $23,485). These realities limit Inuit self-determination.

The Strategy

In the early 2000s, the Inuit community of Sanikiluaq in the Hudson Bay experienced a significant decline in Eiders ducks, a species they rely on for food and clothing. This was reported to Canadian authorities who began to research the phenomenon. At that time, Joel was a Ph.D. student and spent six winters at the edge of sea ice, under the guidance of two Inuk hunters from Sanikiluaq, collecting footage of eider duck survival. Joel immersed himself in the community and built trust with community members. Inspired by the movie The Fast Runner – the first feature film ever to be written, directed and acted entirely in the Inuktitut language – and seeing Joel filming animals, the Sanikiluaq community got inspired to make a movie to tell their own story and relationship to climate change. Together, te documentary, People of a Feather (2011), was completed to highlight the mismanagement of natural resources and knowledge in the region and the impact of hydroelectricity projects on communities. Joel was deeply immersed in the problem and following the documentary he realized he needed to stay with the community. He left academia and, together with Lucassie Arragutainaq, co-founded the Arctic Eider Society (AES) - an Inuit-driven charity.

Joel believes that facilitating Inuit self-determination in research, education and environmental stewardship can address complex interconnected social, economic, and ecological issues. Through AES, SIKU was piloted in five Inuit communities in 2018. In December 2019, it was officially launched to offer new tools to bind research, education, and environmental stewardship. The SIKU platform provides core infrastructure for integrated tools and services that link Inuit and scientific approaches. It allows for Inuit knowledge, language, and ways of knowing (e.g. Inuktitut sea ice classification) to be incorporated into research projects while supporting Inuit’s millennia-old way of living. The technology supports cultural transfer between Elders and young Inuit through traditional naming of places, wildlife and sea-ice categories. SIKU facilitates better management of wildlife stocks and migration through new means to track data on climate change. For example, the platform might be used to monitor sea-ice conditions which provides safer travel on sea-ice. SIKU is also used to build trusting relationships and facilitate consultation and community driven programs that in turn provide new employment opportunities in environmental monitoring. 

As of 2020, there are 27 collaboration projects between Inuit/Cree communities and University research teams from southern and government agencies. For example, Inuit communities are working with the Canadian Rangers Oceans Watch Program to share and record oceanographic measurements using SIKU across the North. In partnership with the AES and the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Earth Observation Science, the Cree Nation of Chisasibi has created the Sea Ice and Eelgrass Project to understand what is causing the decline of eelgrass, an important marine plant. The study will create a baseline data set that will help monitor the health of eelgrass beds in James Bay. Thanks to these new collaborations, there has been an increase in the number of Inuit involved in Community-Driven Research Programs, individuals trained, and the number of work opportunities for hunters and youth. In particular, the number of research employment opportunities for hunters and youth has more than doubled in Sanikiluaq. In 2020, the AES hired over 12 local individuals and over 40 community members (out of a total population of 800) in Sanikiluaq are engaged in collecting data for the Qikiqtait protected area. In Nunavik in 2020, planning and development is underway to significantly expand programs in communities for year-round wildlife monitoring and seasonal sea ice monitoring as tools for community adaptation to environmental change. Through partnership with the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, Joel is expanding these programs, tools, and services to the remaining Nunavik communities.

Joel aims to create experiential learning resources rooted in Inuit knowledge and culture to engage Inuit youth in Arctic science. Joel and team have created the Arctic Sea Ice Educational Package which contains 27 lessons plans developed by northern researchers, hunters, and elders. The goal is to link Western science with Inuit knowledge in learning resources to inspire and train the next generation of Arctic researchers and environmental leaders. This education package is being implemented in the high-school land-based science curriculum of all 14 of the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq schools across the Nunavik region of Northern Quebec. Joel’s goal is to integrate these resources into schools across the remaining Canadian Inuit regions by 2022 by partnering with local school boards. In a context where high school drop-out rates are alarmingly high, Joel’s work is providing meaningful, decolonized and relevant education. In 2020, 38 workshops were conducted, reaching over 335 students.

SIKU also improves the capacity for networking across jurisdiction and remote geographies. In February 2018, he initiated the Hudson Bay Consortium, a cross-sectoral collaboration that supports environmental stewardship, sustainable development, and inter-jurisdictional coordination in the greater Hudson Bay ecosystem. It is brings together twenty-seven Inuit and Cree communities from the region as well as representatives of ninety-seven organizations involved in the region. The first summit helped to form the four working groups that continue to collaborate through regional roundtables. The goal is to overcome environmental injustice and governance gaps by coordinating across broad geographies and complex jurisdictional structures. This new system is increasing Indigenous communities voice in governance and planning.

In 2020, the AES also created Qikiqtait, the first Inuit Indigenous Protected and Conservation Area in Canada located in Sanikiluaq. This project will have long term benefits for stewardship and development of capacity, infrastructure, and a conservation economy for the community. The AES received $5.5 million from the Federal Government to lead the project. Critically, the infrastructure of a research station gives the AES the ability to directly mentor community members into leadership positions, creating local employment opportunities. This project will include a significant increase in part-time and seasonal jobs for hunters and youth in environmental monitoring. A BBC Frozen Planet II episode will also coincide with this launch in 2020, providing broad international exposure for the project and has the potential to be designated as UNESCO world heritage site. 

Joel’s programming is already deployed in more than 26 Inuit and Cree communities across the Arctic through SIKU (out of 51 communities). Created by Inuit for Inuit, SIKU continuously evolves as more communities adapt it for their own challenges, interests, and priorities. Within six months of its launch, SIKU has over 4000 users across the Arctic, with an average of 290 posts per month. To expand to more regions, Joel has created a grassroots champion network, hiring Inuit across the north as local champions for SIKU. Joel is intentionally hiring young Inuit women to fill in that regional champion role as they traditionally are the knowledge holders and connectors in communities. In addition to this grassroots network, Joel is partnering with northern organizations to reach more communities. The Canadian Ice Service is working with the AES and Google to determine how SIKU can help deliver new products for Inuit communities, including novel ways to classify ice incorporating Inuit terminology/classification systems. This has the potential to make SIKU a government service provider. SmartICE, an award-winning technological innovation for the North, is now using SIKU as their only delivery platform to disseminate their programs such as ice thickness data. Joel and his team are also leveraging community outreach workshops and conferences to reach audiences such as researchers and international organizations. In 2020, SIKU is expanding to Indigenous circumpolar communities in Alaska and Greenland and receives requests from diverse global Indigenous groups for its services.

Joel’s end goal is to create conservation economies across the Arctic leveraging the unique skills of Inuit youth to become the next generation of researchers and environmental stewards. By creating meaningful employment pathways for young Inuit, Joel is ensuring they are the ones leading thriving conservation efforts across the North while growing capacity for similar efforts to be replicated across the Arctic. Going forward, the AES will focus on developing new tools for travel safety, climate change monitoring, and gender equity in environmental stewardship and Inuit self-determination.

The Person

Originally from the province of Newfoundland, moving to Uganda at 14 years-old was a transformative experience for Joel. During his time in Uganda, Joel’s passion expanded from computer games to animals. Coming back to Canada after a year abroad, Joel knew he wanted to study animals. He has been working in the environmental field since he was in high school where he was part of a wildlife co-op and conservation corps. After high school, he studied Biology and Psychology before completing a master's degree in Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology. During his Masters, Joel developed a passion for birds. He then began to explore holistic multiscale approaches to ecology in order to study the scalability of duck’s behavioural patterns. This led him to his Ph.D for which he completely immersed himself into the small Inuit community of Sanikiluaq for a research project to understand why so many eider ducks were dying around the community, and to observe changes in the sea ice ecosystem. After spending six years in the community to study eider ducks, Joel managed to fundraise $350,000 to make the documentary People of a Feather alongside the community, connecting past, present and future through the unique relationship of Sanikiluaq’s people with the eider duck and changing sea ice conditions.

After completing his Ph.D, local Sanikiluaq Inuit congratulated him and told him he was still in kindergarten in Inuit knowledge. This helped shape Joel’s transition from a highly successful academic career to creating the AES to support Inuit knowledge and community capacity. A Canadian scientist, filmmaker and social entrepreneur, Joel has spent twenty years in the Arctic with Inuit communities, combining his expertise in ecology, sea-ice dynamics, and mathematical biology with Inuit knowledge. Joel’s gift is his ability to act as a translator and bridge builder between different knowledge systems.