Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography & Environmental Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Derek Armitage

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor

Second Advisor

D. Scott Slocombe

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


Human and environmental systems in the circumpolar north are particularly affected by the Earth’s changing climate, thus acting as a bellwether for other parts of the globe. Rural indigenous communities are most visibly impacted due to their close relationship with the land. These challenges are compounded by socio-economic transformations typical of peripheral communities within a larger, centrally governed system.

This dissertation links a community-based study of environmental change in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, Canada to evolving adaptation science. The study was prompted by local concern about changing environmental conditions caused by climatic, hydrological and resource development drivers. Its collaborative research approach incorporated a combination of participatory methods (e.g. semi-structured interviews, a household questionnaire, focus groups, and experiential excursions on the land) during ten months spent in the field between 2004 and 2008. This methodology provides a basis for including traditional knowledge in a detailed assessment of environmental change, evaluating both individual and collective adaptive capacity, and analyzing contextualized information that may be used to forecast future conditions.

The study draws on elders’ and harvesters’ knowledge to address the primary relationships among changing environmental conditions, impacts on human livelihoods, and past and current adaptation strategies. Residents, who have shown significant resilience through past adaptations, are dealing with multiple and cumulative pressures. Adaptive capacity is strongly influenced by social dynamics at the local scale, as shown through an analysis of trust, reciprocity and sharing, social values and collective action, group participation levels, and regional relationships. Our evolving understanding of the social-environmental context in Fort Resolution provides a basis for further progress in adaptation planning. Key areas of individual and collective vulnerability to potential climate- and resource development-driven changes are identified, and a range of adaptation options are examined. While residents feel more able to adapt to climate-driven changes, the types of response strategies they propose under different scenarios show significant overlap.

Environmental change affects people through multiple pathways; as well, groups are differentially impacted depending on their social and economic circumstances. Dealing with rapid, non-linear change requires a collective response. Actors and institutions play important roles in building adaptive capacity and supporting adaptation within a context of transition and uncertainty. While endogenous determinants of adaptive capacity (knowledge and skills, access to resources and technology, institutional support, social networks and equity) are vital, important exogenous influences (government support programs, regional economic development, aboriginal-aboriginal and aboriginal-state relations, emerging self-governance arrangements) also influence outcomes. Each community is a complex system (within a nested hierarchy of systems) where different drivers act at multiple levels; however, to be effective, capacity-building and adaptation must be grounded in the local context.

Study findings contribute to the growing literatures on both community vulnerability and environmental change impacts and adaptations in the north. They provide a better understanding of the nature of social dynamics and their influence on adaptive capacity at local levels, with particular relevance to rural aboriginal communities. The emergent themes emphasize resilience and adaptation, and have implications for environmental change research and policy-development. Primary contributions include theoretical advancements regarding social capital, traditional knowledge, and the relationship between local-scale social dynamics and adaptive capacity in rural aboriginal communities; methodological advancements relating to the mixed methods approach and application of qualitative scenarios; and practical outcomes including an improved understanding of the applicability of adaptation options, and the identification of challenges and opportunities for both multi-level governance and capacity-building for adaptation.

This dissertation offers practical recommendations for actions at the local level and for policy at multiple levels in a number of areas, including environmental quality, visioning, adaptation planning, and governance. This study adds to our knowledge of community-based adaptation research and offers leads for developing more effective strategies to support rural, northern aboriginal communities as they face changing social-ecological conditions.

Convocation Year