Navigating the Ethics of River Tourism in the Canadian Arctic

Researchers worked with tourists and Indigenous groups to explore how these communities create the “nature” of a Canadian Arctic riverscape through distinct perspectives and practices, as a way to foster understanding and mutual respect for diverse ways of relating to the natural environment.

McMaster Researcher


Grimwood, Bryan S.R., and Doubleday, Nancy C. Illuminating traces: enactments of responsibility in practices of Arctic river tourists and inhabitants. Journal of Ecotourism, 12 (2), 53-74. DOI: 10.1080/14724049.2013.797427 Epub: 2013 May 10.

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What is this research about?

The Thelon River runs across northern Canada from the Northwest Territories to Nunavut. It is the homeland to distinct Indigenous groups – the Denesoline and Caribou Inuit – but also attracts tourists (mainly canoeists) for whom “wilderness” is a key element of its attractiveness. The researchers engaged members of communities who interact with this natural environment in order to document the living philosophies and lived experiences through which the communities “enact” on a daily basis what nature means to them. Through its participatory research model, the study identified the key principles of cultural respect and relational understanding as contributing to responsible and culturally sensitive forms of ecotourism. 

What did the researchers do?

The two main groups involved in the research were local Indigenous inhabitants and river tourists, each group expressing a specific orientation toward “nature” that reflected cultural differences but also challenged some taken-for-granted assumptions. Contemporary tourism often depicts nature as an uninhabited, static object that exists for the tourist’s consumption and enjoyment, but this view conflicts with Indigenous understandings of nature. To local Indigenous residents, the Thelon River is central to the knowledge, memory, subsistence, and social relations of the Inuit community. Yet increasingly tourism is also viewed as important facet of regional development. Keeping these perspectives in mind, Grimwood and Doubleday facilitated a series of dialogues to identify common or overlapping responsibilities that both tourists and residents shared, despite having different views and practices of interacting with “nature.”  Qualitative and visual data from Thelon River tourists and local residents of Baker Lake, Nunavut were collected between 2008 and 2011 using three approaches:1)    Photo-elicitation. The researchers requested photographs and personal accounts from canoe tourists and Baker Lake inhabitants that reflected for them themes related to responsibility and nature-based experiences. Interviews and questionnaires further documented the knowledge, stories, meanings and experiences these individuals associated with the “nature” of the Thelon River.2)    River trips. Observational data and experiential knowledge were gathered during four trips taken with local Inuit guides and two trips taken independently.3)    Community workshops with Baker Lake residents. Workshops were designed so that local residents could examine the photographs provided through the photo-elicitation process. Participants analyzed these photos in relation to their own experiences and meanings of the Thelon and also engaged in collaborative interpretation of the research findings.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers compared the meanings ascribed to the daily acts through which these groups interacted with the natural environment, and concluded that river tourists and Indigenous inhabitants initially expressed different philosophies of relating to “nature.” When asked to identify the meaning of responsibility, many canoeists described ideas and practices associated with “leaving no trace” as a form of wilderness travel etiquette. However, in Inuit practices, traces may be left behind as a form of sustenance or communication (e.g. leaving a small rock on top of a boulder to indicate the direction that caribou herds move across the land). Inuit participants also described “hiding their traces” as they saw themselves as agents responsible for safeguarding the natural world for future generations, while canoeists appreciated when their guide preserved artefacts or highlighted signs of former habitation or trails. A common theme between the groups emerged when both local residents and tourists expressed a sense of being responsible to and for others within the surrounding environment – the humans and wildlife who will follow in their tracks. Therefore, despite each group’s distinct activities and value systems that make and remake “nature” in multiple ways, the researchers identified among participants of both groups a shared understanding in terms of the importance of one’s own ethical position and of one’s identity as an integral part of sustaining place and culture.

How can you use this research?

This research provides a case example of how culturally sensitive modes of tourism within the Thelon River region are being practiced, and encourages application of such practices in places beyond the Arctic. This study, which advances theoretical insights applicable to other contexts of social-ecological change, will interest students and scholars working in fields such as Indigenous studies, philosophy (applied ethics), environmental studies, and recreation and leisure studies. It will also benefit researchers and general readers who wish to explore the impacts and responsibilities associated with ecotourism. On the broadest level, the project models how community-based participatory research can illuminate the actions and experiences of different groups in order to promote mutual understanding. When this new awareness is situated within historical relations and engages current-day communities and environments, the resulting dialogues can foster respectful co-existence within a landscape.

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