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Geographic Information Systems as Communication Tools: Environmental Assessment and the Health Impacts of Natural Resource Developments on Circumpolar Indigenous Peoples Open Access


Other title
Indigenous Health
Health Impact Assessment
Environmental Assessment
Natural Resource Development
Circumpolar Arctic
Public Health
Geographic Information Systems
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
McGetrick, Jennifer Ann
Supervisor and department
Bubela, Tania (School of Public Health)
Hik, David (Biological Sciences)
Examining committee member and department
Jardine, Cindy (School of Public Health)
Parlee, Brenda (Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology)
Laing, Lory (School of Public Health)
Department of Public Health Sciences
Global Health
Date accepted
Graduation date
Master of Science
Degree level
Introduction. The industrialization of circumpolar regions confronts a legacy of disproportionate bio-physical, socio-economic, heritage, and health impacts borne by indigenous populations. As natural resource development continues to accelerate in the north, concerns about impacts to the health and well-being of indigenous communities lead many to question whether the benefits of industrialization outweigh the risks. Legally mandated consultation processes to identify and mitigate development impacts are beginning to incorporate provisions for improving health outcomes to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks for indigenous communities. Nevertheless, the complex nature and diversity of evidence involved necessitates new tools to network information across scientific and cultural gradients, and ensure the long-term viability of health impact assessment within decision-making forums. Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, are one tool with the potential to facilitate appropriate public health planning in the context of natural resource development. My thesis research is among the first to engage arctic and subarctic stakeholders on the topic of whether GIS can improve communication and consultations about health impacts in forums focused on environmental assessment of natural resource developments in circumpolar regions. Methods. I employed a mixed-methods qualitative approach involving three lines of inquiry. First, I conducted semi-structured interviews with circumpolar experts in policy, research, and practice. This research engaged expert perspectives on whether GIS can improve consultations by leveraging health impacts in the process of project approvals and regulation, which currently focus on changes in the physical environment. Second, I conducted document review / automated content analysis on the public record for two environmental assessments (the Prairie Creek and Nico mines) in the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. This research identified health and socio-economic content, characterized the communication practices of key stakeholder groups, and linked salient features of the environmental assessment processes with public health planning-related outcomes in each case. Third, I conducted semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in the Nico environmental assessment in the Wek’eezhii region of the NWT. This research provided evidence from which I derived an organizational analysis of how GIS can be used to leverage health issues from the community-base, thereby increasing the impetus to establish and sustain health impact assessment within the environmental assessment process. Results. My results can be grouped under three main themes. First, self-determination and governance are the critical issues which define circumpolar indigenous communities’ relationship with the state, stewardship of resources, and capacity for public health planning. Second, the complexity of health inequities in these indigenous communities requires extensive participation and guidance from community members who articulate their priorities and worldviews to help operationalize appropriate public health planning in the context of circumpolar developments. Third, while GIS may appear advantageous for communicating health inequities in decision-making forums, circumpolar indigenous communities must see its demonstrated utility for their own needs and aspirations, in ways that they define for themselves. Partnerships with government and academia can help to facilitate “counter mapping” processes in communities that may generate appropriate, relevant, timely, and local-scale data about the socio-ecological parameters of health and well-being. Conclusion. My results lead to three recommendations and two implications for future research. My recommendations are (1) Circumpolar nations should establish legal norms that recognize a full range of rights for indigenous populations; (2) Circumpolar jurisdictions should revise environmental assessment frameworks to incorporate equity-based health impact assessment; and (3) Circumpolar researchers and health practitioners working with community-based participatory GIS should publish detailed protocols for knowledge translation. Future research should (1) consider how to support indigenous researchers and research methodologies to examine the socio-ecological pathways or mechanisms by which development impacts circumpolar health and well-being. Additionally, research should (2) evaluate best practices to employ GIS in participatory research with indigenous peoples.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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