Documentary explores changing Canadian Arctic

‘People of a Feather’ playing at N.L. theatres

Published on January 7, 2013

Joel Heath, originally from St. John’s, first arrived in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, in 2002, studying eider ducks and sea ice with the Canadian Wildlife Service. Inuit on the Belcher Islands — in eastern Hudson Bay — had contacted the CWS with concerns about a die-off of thousands of the ducks, which they had long used for food and clothing.

Heath, a renowned ecologist, spent years listening to people’s concerns about the ducks and nearby hydroelectric dams, and has merged science and art to create his first film, an award-winning documentary called “People of a Feather,” which is screening in this province this week. Heath completed undergraduate and masters degrees at MUN before moving to B.C. to complete a Ph.D at Simon Fraser University. As part of that, he worked with the Inuit in Sanikiluaq, using timelapse monitoring and an underwater camera system to record images of eiders diving under the sea ice — the first images of their kind in the world.

“In Sanikiluaq, there was no caribou for hundreds and hundreds of years, so people switched to using the eider duck for their clothing and food. They would use the skins to make coats with feathers and they would hunt for food throughout the year,” Heath said.

“It was only in about the mid-70s that they switched to using down collected from the nests instead, and putting them in modern textiles.

“The film is really about the relationship between Inuit a hundred years ago and present day. The story of the eider kind of connects the past and the present and the future together, and it deals with how hydroelectric projects are affecting the ecosystem.

Heath doesn’t have a film background, although he’s an experienced still photographer. After attracting the attention of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and working with the British broadcaster to share his incredible underwater images, he decided to tell the story of the people of Sanikiluaq, Arctic culture and the environmental changes taking place in a documentary.

The 90-minute film starts with ducks and the Inuit, and grows to include issues of hydroelectricity — not isolated to Hudson Bay and relevant to this province.

The problem comes from timing, Heath explained: electricity demands are at the opposite time of the year from when the water normally flows. Run-off happens in the spring, but electricity consumption peaks in the middle of winter. Spring run-off is held behind dams and released when energy demand is at its highest, dumping fresh reservoir water onto sea ice.

“These huge plumes of fresh water travel a lot further than they normally would because the ice is there,” Heath said. “It’s a little bit complicated, but normally when snow melts, it’s pretty cold going in the ocean in the open water, but now it’s sat in the reservoirs and it’s gotten warm. In the fall, it can take longer for the ice to freeze, and in the spring it can cause the ice to break up earlier.”

In the middle of winter, because fresh water freezes quicker than salt water, having a layer of fresh water on the top can cause areas to freeze up quickly and wildlife get trapped as a result.

“Birds like eiders get trapped and can’t find any open water, and belugas get trapped at the head of bays. They can’t hold their breath to find another open water habitat and end up getting trapped and starve to death,” Heath explained.

Scientists have discovered effects in the Labrador Current due to freshening, Heath said.

“People of a Feather” has had incredible feedback since it was released, winning at the International TV/Film Awards, and Leo Awards, as well as film festivals in B.C. and Korea, Estonia and New Zealand, among others.

Along with the film, Heath is part of the Arctic Eider Society, a charity formed to work with Inuit on environmental monitoring programs (providing hunters with oceanographic equipment to measure the changes they observe, for example), and education, by developing a curriculum for high schools that is culturally relevant.

The society is also interested in helping develop solutions that work with the hydrological cycle, Heath said, and this includes local hydroelectric projects.

“We’ve been talking with HydroQuebec and now we’re trying to inspire Muskrat Falls,” he said. “The river flows when people turn on their light switch, but there are other ways to store and distribute it. What we’re really interested in for here is (similar to) places like Iceland, which are using their hydroelectricity projects to power shipping. We have everything here to make that happen.

“By doing that, it would be clean energy going out to the rigs, but at the same time we could probably get carbon credits for our oil as well. By combining those industries, we could probably make our oil more valuable.

“We don’t think there’s any one solution; everywhere there are lots of things to be done.”

“People of a Feather” will be screened at Empire Theatres Studio 12 in the Avalon Mall from today until Thursday (various times), in Corner Brook at College of the North Atlantic at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and in Happy Valley-Goose Bay at the O’Brien Arts Centre Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m..

Twitter: tara_bradbury