Resident reflects on importance of award-winning SmartICE venture to community
Nain resident Rex Holwell says weather in the North is “not the same as before.”
It’s less predictable, and traditional Inuit knowledge – gained over millennia – is conflicting with the rapidly changing climate.
“I think it was like three years straight – we had rain in February,” he said.
It’s affecting hunting routes on sea ice, as well as inland on frozen freshwater.
A social enterprise called SmartICE (Sea-ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments) uses a combination of traditional knowledge and technology to better equip local hunters and travelers with information about ice depth.
Holwell is the organization’s northern production lead.
He’s in St. John’s this week learning how to construct a SmartBUOY – a device that is lodged in ice to gather data using special thermometers. On Friday, he’ll bring that knowledge back to Nain, where he is part of a team that will employ and train six youth in the community.
A group of seven people gathered around a workbench at Choices for Youth on Ropewalk Lane to assemble the buoy.
Painted on the wall above them are the words, “Modern Technology Meets Traditional Wisdom” — and that’s what’s happening here.
Their work has garnered international attention and awards. Most recently, the social enterprise won a 2019 Governor General’s Innovation Award, one of only six given out across the country.
The enterprise began when the Nunatsiavut government did a survey after a particularly warm winter in 2010 to learn about the effects of such changing weather. The survey found that one in 12 people had fallen through ice, two-thirds feared travel on ice, and half said they couldn't use their traditional hunting routes.
Trevor Bell, a Memorial University researcher and lead scientist with SmartICE who has been with the project from the beginning, said these changes mean people go hungry.
That’s what makes SmartICE such a critical project, but its innovation goes beyond the technology – the venture is also taking a social enterprise approach to production and hiring.
“Too often stuff is made – I don’t want to name places, but big centres like Toronto, Montreal, Halifax – and the finished product gets shipped up. And all the employment and the training is in the South, and all the profits stay in the South. This is the social enterprise way of doing things – turning that around on its head and saying this can be done in the North,” said Bell.
To that end, SmartICE has brought Todd Perry on board – he’s a social work student whose internship with the organization will involve helping to recruit, train and support six young people in the community.
“When you’re working with youth that have experienced adversity, they’ve experienced employment barriers – they kind of go hand-in-hand, right? So, as opposed to creating this make-work project that might just be a Band-Aid solution, we’re going above and beyond that to create something sustainable.”
Holwell says that what attracted him to the project is more than the fact SmartICE is bringing a technology production plant to Nain and helping to improve safety on the ice – it’s that benefit to the young people in the community.
“For me growing up, there were never opportunities like that – we always had to go outside of Nain to do it,” he said.
He hopes the production centre – which will begin training youth by mid-June – will be a success.
“So they’ll start coming into Nain and training the youth more and more in the community instead of sending them out. It’s a great thing to have in Nain.”
Shawna Dicker is a business administration student at Memorial University who will return home to Nain this summer on an internship with SmartICE in charge of co-ordinating logistics.
She said she’s “very proud” to be working with the award-winning organization.
Bell and Dicker will be in Ottawa May 29 to accept the Governor General’s Innovation Award at Rideau Hall, along with two other members of the SmartICE organization: Shelly Elverum, community capacity and support worker, and Jenny Mosesie, Nunavut operations lead.