UVic’s Arctic initiatives showcased in PM’s annual tour

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University President Jamie Cassels walks with PM Stephen Harper. Provided(photo)
University president Jamie Cassels and Ocean Networks Canada president Dr. Kate Moran walks with PM Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen. –Provided (photo)

CAMBRIDGE BAY, Nunavut — UVic president Jamie Cassels and Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) president Dr. Kate Moran met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other key government officials this August as part of Harper’s ninth annual Northern Tour. During this meeting, Cassels and Moran were able to showcase the ONC’s Cambridge Bay cabled ocean observatory and a variety of other UVic initiatives in the Arctic.

“It was a great opportunity to show him a lot of the good things that we are doing up there,” Cassels said. “The core of the discussion was to actually show him the equipment that is about to be positioned in the coastal waters.” The ONC’s underwater sensing systems are able to measure a variety of ocean properties; hydrophones listen for and track marine wildlife, while other devices measure and monitor the formation of ice along the coast.

“Because we have world-leading technology, and because the Arctic is changing so rapidly, we thought it important to observe the Arctic Ocean in real time,” explained Moran. The ONC’s Cambridge Bay observatory, which was established in September 2012, is the first of its kind in the Canadian North. “We’re the first in the water there, and demonstrating that the technology that’s been developed mainly by the University of Victoria can be used in pretty harsh environments,” Moran said.

The Cambridge Bay observatory, which was built in collaboration with five Canadian companies, is meant to nurture scientific discovery and economic growth, but also to encourage community involvement and development in the North. “Because coastal communities in the Arctic are probably going to be the first communities greatly impacted by climate change, we wanted to have something in the water that communities could use themselves.” Using air temperature alone, UVic scientists have been able to come up with a simple way for communities to predict the ice thickness where they live. “It’s important for people in the North because they use the ice for transportation, fishing, and going out to hunt,” Moran explained.

According to Moran, Harper is “a big advocate for supporting communities, resource development, and economic growth in the Arctic.” In fact, the prime minister has put aside funding for the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), which was announced several years ago and will join the ONC’s observatory in Cambridge Bay.

“We [were] very keen to have the prime minister see, now that [the observatory] has been successful for two years, what we’re doing and how nicely it aligns with his initiatives in CHARS,” Moran admitted. “We’re going to see more interest in the Arctic in science, so we hope to really grow the scientific community around this observatory.”

As the Arctic develops into a hot spot for scientific discovery and community advancement, the federal government has become more eager to show its involvement in the North. “Northern countries are all beginning to express greater interest in issues of sovereignty in the Arctic, and the federal government is therefore quite interested in showing its engagement with the Canadian Arctic,” Cassels explained.

UVic initiatives, such as the History Department’s Great Unsolved Mysteries Project, and the Akitsiraq Law School, which Cassels developed in collaboration with Iqaluit communities, also caught the prime minister’s attention during his visit to Cambridge Bay.

“The most recent [Great Unsolved Mysteries Project] that they’re developing is on the lost Franklin Expedition,” Cassels said. For the last several years, there has been an annual expedition to look for the lost Franklin ships, a process which has involved a great deal of undersea mapping. “[These ships] are using very sophisticated sonar equipment to search the ocean floor and to develop maps of the ocean floor,” Cassels explained.

UVic participated in these expeditions last year and helped to develop the ocean-mapping technology, which continues to be used today. According to Cassels, “the prime minister was very interested in that project,” which resulted from a partnership between UVic and the Nunavut Department of Education.

“In a way, it’s a little odd because here we are, the University of Victoria, at the edge of Canada, but we’ve got a significant involvement in the North,” Cassels said. As diverse as UVic’s initiatives in the Arctic may seem, Cassels maintains, “It’s all part of the same goal, which is to take some of the strengths of the University of Victoria and find out how [these strengths] can partner with communities for the benefit of communities.”