Université Laval wins funding to build new Northern research centre

Mark Mann
September 5, 2018

Université Laval in Quebec has obtained funding to build a flagship research centre for its Northern studies institute, the Institut nordique du Québec (INQ). With contributions from the federal ($25.5 million), provincial ($27.5 million), and municipal ($5 million) governments, the university and its partners will commit the remaining funds necessary to complete the $83.5-million building. The new research centre will facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations to address the many complex issues facing the North, especially related to the changing environment, modernization, and industrial development.

Interest and investment in Northern research are growing rapidly, both in Canada and abroad. “There’s a lot more international activity now, even from countries that do not have a border with the Arctic,” says Jean-Eric Tremblay, a professor in the Department of Biology at Université Laval and Director of Québec-Océan who specializes in biological oceanography and polar research. “The changes that are going on in the North now are affecting the region locally, but they have repercussions on the rest of the world.” Three key factors motivating the increase in Northern research are accelerating climate change, emerging resource development opportunities, and the health and well-being of local communities.

The North is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, due in part to a feedback loop called polar amplification. Sea ice reflects radiation back into space, keeping temperatures low. When the sea ice disappears, it leaves dark ocean water in its place, which absorbs rather than deflects solar radiation. Less ice means more heat in the ocean, which means ice melts faster. Melting ice releases large amounts of fresh water at the ocean’s surface, negatively affecting marine ecosystems. Ice loss also affects mobility and food security for Northern communities. 71% of the total volume of sea ice that historically covered the Arctic is already gone.

Likewise, warming temperatures are causing Northern permafrost to thaw, which destabilizes critical infrastructure, like airports and roads, and undermines foundations for buildings. Thawing permafrost reinforces climate change by releasing ancient organic carbon. Once degraded by bacteria, this carbon becomes a source of climate-active gases entering the atmosphere.

While scientific research on the changing environment remains a primary focus, the INQ’s new research centre will address other changes in the North related to modernization and resource extraction, as well as priorities set by Indigenous peoples. The challenges faced by Northern communities are complex, involving the changing environment, public health, lodging, access to clean and abundant water, communications, clean energy, and more. The new research centre aims to foster cross-pollination between researchers. The goal is to “take a broad challenge or issue and attack it from all these different angles,” says Tremblay.

The centre will also provide a platform to support partnerships between scientists, Indigenous communities, and public and private-sector development projects. The INQ’s $25.5 million in funding from the government of Quebec was channeled through the province’s Plan Nord initiative, a program to corral nearly $2.7 billion in investment in sustainable development in northern Quebec over 25 years. The new research centre will serve as a research pillar to support the scientific needs of Plan Nord.

Plan Nord will bolster these projects by improving transport and communication infrastructure, and by assisting Quebec enterprises and international corporations that wish to establish and expand operations in the North. The resource development opportunities in northern Quebec encompass mining, energy, and forestry. For example, northern Quebec’s 200,000 square kilometres of exploitable forests represent an annual potential harvest of 11.8 million cubic meters of wood.

The success of Plan Nord demands strong collaboration with Northern and Indigenous communities, particularly the Inuit, Innu, Cree, and Naskapi First Peoples. “For far too long, researchers have enjoyed great privilege as they have passed through our communities and homeland, using public or academic funding to answer their own questions about our environment, wildlife, and people,” writes Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the representational body for Inuit in Canada, in his introduction to the 2018 National Inuit Strategy on Research. “This type of exploitative relationship must end.”

The INQ strives to learn from those past wrongs and improve outcomes by aligning its research with the priorities of Indigenous people. “We are more in a setting where the projects are co-constructed from the onset,” says Tremblay. To that end, the INQ is hosting workshops to look at ways to better merge traditional and scientific knowledge. Though not yet officially announced, the institute plans to build three more smaller research stations in different Northern communities. As well as a rallying point for diverse Northern researchers, the large research centre at Université Laval will serve as a staging ground for the increasing number of research missions to the North. Construction will begin in 2021.


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