Johns Hopkins University Press


We are living in a time characterized by ongoing and accelerating ecological loss. Indeed, with recent reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) Global Assessment (2019) identifying unprecedented species declines and accelerating extinction rates with 1 million species threatened with extinction, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) calling for "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes" in society, it is clear that now is a time of great environmental upheaval, loss, and change, with resulting effects on human emotions and mental wellness ("Focus on climate change and mental health," 2018).

The already-present, worsening, and projected environmental stressors and experiences (IPBES, 2019; IPCC, 2018, 2019) are creating the need for new understandings and new [End Page 31] lexicons—understandings and lexicons that reflect the full range of our emotional relationships with the land, ecosystems, and the more-than-human worlds. With eco-emotional terms such as solastalgia (Albrecht et al., 2007), biophilia (Fromm, 1973; Wilson, 1984), topophilia (Tuan, 1974), and other types of psychoterratic syndromes (Albrecht, 2019) entering both the research and mainstream lexicons, it is clear that new concepts are needed to identify, understand, and communicate how the loss of environments, ecosystems, and species globally is associated with emotional pain, psychological distress, and anxiety (Albrecht, 2019; Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018; Cunsolo & Landman, 2017a).

One such concept that is gaining continued traction in research, professional practice, policy, and general public interest is "ecological grief" (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018; cf. Albrecht, 2019; Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, et al., 2017; Cunsolo & Landman, 2017a; Minor et al., 2019). Ecological grief, or the "grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change" (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018, p. 275), is a natural human response to ecological degradation or destruction.

Global research has documented ecological grief related to: warming temperatures and resulting sea ice loss and environmental alterations in Northern and Arctic regions (Clayton et al., 2017; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2012; Cunsolo Willox, Harper, Edge, et al., 2013a; Cunsolo Willox, Harper, Ford, et al., 2013b; Durkalec, Furgal, Skinner, & Sheldon, 2015; Minor et al., 2019); long-term drought and agricultural land loss in the Wheatbelt in Australia (Ellis & Albrecht, 2017); forest fires, and the resulting destruction of home and place, often leading to displacement in the Northwest Territories, Canada (Dodd et al., 2018); the decline of sparrows in urban landscapes in the United Kingdom (Whale & Ginn, 2017); the disappearance of culturally-significant plants in ecosystems in Australia (Ryan, 2017); and the loss and degradation of wild soundscapes (Krause, 2017). Ecological grief has also been documented in scientists and ecologists who research climate change and biodiversity loss (Clayton, 2018), as well as within stories and testimonies from the general public (cf. Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, & Speiser, 2017; "Is this how you feel," n.d.). [End Page 32]

Like other forms of grief, research, published literature, and testimonies of lived experience indicate that ecological grief, if left undiscussed and unsupported, has the potential to cause psychological disruptions and disturbances in one's life and activities. Authors such as Judith Butler (2004) and Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman (2017a), however, have identified the ways in which ecological grief—and what we choose to grieve—illuminates not only our fundamental dependency on healthy and thriving ecosystems, but also the political and ethical responsibilities we have to these systems, and to each other, and opportunities for action and healing. Butler (2004), for example, argues that grief and mourning carry a "we-creating" capacity, at once exposing our deep and often-unacknowledged connections to others (human or non-human) and reminding ourselves of our responsibilities to mitigate human-induced environmental destruction and degradation.

Building on this diverse and growing body of literature on ecological grief and loss, this article characterizes the lived experiences of loss and grief experienced by Inuit, specifically beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement in the Nunatsiavut region and Inuit members of the NunatuKavut Community Council, in Labrador, Canada, in response to the rapid decline of caribou in their homelands. Research indicates that many caribou herds around the Circumpolar North are at risk of extirpation, with some herd numbers declining rapidly (Campeau, Rickbeil, Coops, & Cote, 2019; Chiu, Goddard, & Parlee, 2016; Gunn, Russell, & Eamer, 2010; Kenny, Fillion, Simpkin, et al., 2018; Parlee & Caine, 2018; Parlee, Sandloss, & Natcher, 2018; Vors & Boyce, 2009) due to a variety of interrelated factors including, but not limited to, climate change (Le Corre, Dussault, & Côté, 2017; Mallory & Boyce, 2017), human development and resource extraction (Parlee et al., 2018; Plante, Dussault, Richard, & Côté, 2018), changes in food abundance and availability (Campeau et al., 2019; Champagne, Tremblay, & Côté, 2012; Gunn et al., 2010), changes in predator-prey dynamics (Chiu et al., 2016; Latham, Cecilia Latham, Knopff, Hebblewhite, & Boutin, 2013), and infectious diseases (Ducrocq et al., 2013; Simard et al., 2016). Caribou have been characterized as an essential species for Indigenous peoples across the Circumpolar North (Bali, 2016; Parlee et al., 2018). As such, these declining numbers are also posing a [End Page 33] variety of complex and significant challenges for Indigenous communities who have relied on and continue to rely on caribou for food (Chiu et al., 2016; Kenny et al., 2018), cultural identity and practices (Bali & Kofinas, 2014; Polfus et al., 2017), spiritual ceremonies (Castro, Hossain, & Tytelman, 2016; Rixen & Blangy, 2016), clothing (Bali & Kofinas, 2014; Zoe, 2012), and livelihoods (Mason, Dana, & Anderson, 2007; Parlee et al., 2018) for millennia.

This decline is particularly concerning in Labrador, Canada, as caribou herds have experienced rapid declines in recent years (Gunn et al., 2010; Kenny et al., 2018; Russell, Gunn, & White, 2015). For example, the George River Caribou Herd has declined by 99% since 2001, leading to concerns that the George River Caribou Herd is "at its greatest known risk for total extirpation" (Skinner, 2018; cf. Campeau et al., 2019). To prevent further decline of the caribou, and to support a potential recovery of the herd, in 2013 the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador issued a total hunting ban on caribou (Castro et al., 2016; Timmins, 2016), with support from the Nunatsiavut Government and the NunatuKavut Community Council. This hunting ban, and lack of access to caribou, has created serious impacts for Inuit in Labrador who have relied on these caribou for hundreds of years (Alton Mackey & Orr, 1987; Bergerud, Luttich, & Camps, 2008; Kenny et al., 2018; Natcher, Felt, & Procter, 2012; Wilson et al., 2014).

While much is broadly known about the critical relationships Inuit have with caribou throughout Canada, little is known about the emotional, affective, ontological, and epistemological effects of these declines on people. As such, drawing from an ecological grief framework developed by Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis (2018), and building on the diverse and growing body of research and literature on ecological grief and loss, this article characterizes the lived experiences of grief and loss experienced by Inuit in the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador, Canada, in response to the rapid decline of caribou and resulting lack of access to caribou for harvesting, and the subsequent impacts on food systems, cultural continuity, community connections, and health and wellbeing. [End Page 34]

Inuit Research Leadership in the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut Regions of Labrador, Canada

This research was conducted in partnership with beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement in the Nunatsiavut region and members of the NunatuKavut Community Council, both located in Labrador, Canada.

Nunatsiavut region: The Nunatsiavut (meaning "Our Beautiful Land") region became self-governing through the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement in 2005, and is now governed by the Nunatsiavut Government. The Nunatsiavut region contains a range of landscapes, including subarctic tundra, coastal barrens, and boreal forest. There are approximately 4,700 Nunatsiavut beneficiaries, with approximately 2,600 living in five fly-in, coastal communities, all of which were involved in this project (south to north): Rigolet, Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale, and Nain, as well as beneficiaries living in North West River, Mud Lake, and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Nunatsiavut lands are home to the Torngat Mountain Caribou Herd, a mountain caribou, the George River Caribou Herd, a migratory barren ground caribou, and the Mealy Mountains Caribou Herd, sedentary boreal caribou.

NunatuKavut region: NunatuKavut (meaning "Our Ancient Land") is the homeland of the Inuit in Southeastern and central Labrador. There are approximately 6,000 Inuit belonging to NunatuKavut, with the majority living in the NunatuKavut region of Labrador. NunatuKavut Inuit are politically represented by the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), and in July 2018, moved into active negotiations with the Federal Government under the Recognition of Indigenous Rights and Self-Determination (RIRSD) Process. In September 2019, NCC and Canada formalized a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will further guide negotiations as they develop self-government agreements with Canada. Four NunatuKavut communities were involved in this research: Cartwright, Port Hope Simpson, Charlottetown, and St. Lewis, as well as members living in North West River and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. NunatuKavut lands are home to the George River Caribou Herd, the Mealy Mountain Caribou Herd, and the Red Wine Herd. [End Page 35]

Inuit in both regions of Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut continue to rely actively on the lands and waters in their regions for food, well-being, and livelihoods, as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Caribou has been a primary source of food, clothing, and related materials for Inuit in Labrador for millennia, and the recent loss of species and access to hunting has led to potential wide-ranging physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts (Figure 1).

Figure 1. George River Caribou herd, northwest of Nain, Nunatsiavut, Labrador. Photo: David Borish, 2018.
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Figure 1.

George River Caribou herd, northwest of Nain, Nunatsiavut, Labrador. Photo: David Borish, 2018.

Inuit-Led Caribou Research and Management for Adaptation and Resilience

Inuit in both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador have a long history of mobilizing their extensive knowledges and sciences about caribou to take research leadership and management action. For example, Inuit in Labrador have been actively working to promote the preservation and stewardship of caribou through: co-management boards such as the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board (Nunatsiavut region); ongoing caribou monitoring and stewardship (NunatuKavut region); active participation in provincial caribou surveys and research (both regions); and the creation of Indigenous-led management strategies, such as the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table, which brought together 13 different Indigenous regions and multiple Indigenous knowledge systems that culminated in a unique Indigenous-led and Indigenous-focused management plan for the George [End Page 36] River Caribou herd (both regions) (Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table, 2017). Inuit in Nunatsiavut have also called for, and led, research about the Torngat Mountain Caribou herd (Wilson et al. 2014) and Mealy Mountain Caribou herd, and Inuit in the NunatuKavut region have led research on the Boreal caribou herds in their region (Russell, 2011) and continue to lead monitoring efforts and incorporate considerations for caribou health within other management plans and strategies, such as climate change adaptation plans.

Currently, both regions are actively monitoring caribou range, abundance, and health and are leading and participating in research that prioritizes Inuit-led caribou research and management in Labrador, such as the research included in this article. Indeed, this research and ongoing monitoring reflect not only the importance of caribou to Inuit in the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions, but also the ongoing commitment in both regions to ensuring that even during times of difficulty (such as caribou decline), Inuit will continue to use their knowledges and their sciences to ensure Inuit rights and sovereignty are asserted, Inuit strengths are recognized, and Inuit health, wellness, and resilience are supported.


This research draws from data collected through a Labrador-wide, multi-year, multi-media study examining the relationships among caribou and Inuit in both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions, and the ongoing effects of the declining populations and current hunting ban. In addition to publications and reports, this project is also producing a participatory documentary film, which is led by Inuit voices, as well as related arts-based educational and knowledge-sharing materials, such as an interactive website, a photobook, and policy briefs.

Supporting the advancement of Inuit governance and the ethical conduct of the research working in partnership with Indigenous peoples (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018), this research is Inuit-led and follows decolonizing methodological practices outlined by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) and Margaret Kovach (2009), [End Page 37] as well as the principles identified by the National Inuit Strategy on Research: advance Inuit governance in research; enhance the ethical conduct of research; ensure Inuit access, ownership, and control over data and information; and build capacity in Inuit Nunangat research (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018). Accordingly, this research is led by a Steering Committee, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous members spanning disciplinary expertise (e.g. social science, natural sciences, wildlife biology, Inuit sciences), sectors (e.g. academia, government, community members), and knowledge systems (e.g. Inuit and Western knowledge systems). The Steering Committee is actively involved in all aspects of research, and provided regular and ongoing advice, connections within communities, direction in all phases of the project design, delivery, and dissemination, and overall management and guidance of all research activities.

Data for this article were gathered via: 1) audio-recorded in-depth conversational interviews (Kvale, 2007) with Inuit from Rigolet, in the Nunatsiavut region (n=21), focusing specifically on the Mealy Mountain Caribou Herd, which Inuit in Rigolet have not been able to legally hunt for over 40 years; and 2) filmed conversational interviews with Inuit throughout Labrador (n=84: 54 from the Nunatsiavut region; 30 from the NunatuKavut region), for a total of 105 interviews analyzed (Figure 2). All interview questions were co-designed with members of the Steering Committee and pre-tested with research partners in the regions. The interviews focused on the relationships among Inuit and caribou in Labrador, and how the changes in caribou populations affect people in both regions physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. All interviews were conducted in English, due to participant preference, although a translator was always available if needed or chosen. Interviews were audio- or video-recorded, with informed consent. The audio interviews in Rigolet lasted, on average, 40 minutes, totaling 648 minutes, and the video interviews in both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions were 25 minutes on average, totaling over 2,100 minutes of recorded discussion throughout the region. All interviews were transcribed by a professional transcription company (both audio-recorded and filmed) and checked for accuracy by at least one member of the research team. [End Page 38]

Figure 2. Map depicting the participating communities in Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut, and Upper Lake Melville, and a breakdown of participant numbers by gender per community.
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Figure 2.

Map depicting the participating communities in Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut, and Upper Lake Melville, and a breakdown of participant numbers by gender per community.

Data analysis

Data were analyzed using an emergent, constant-comparative method, following a hybrid inductive and deductive qualitative approach for open and thematic coding (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006; Flick, 2013; Green & Thorogood, 2004). A list of themes and codes was generated from the audio-recorded interviews (n=21). Initial themes were shared with members of the research team for ongoing discussion, to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the codes. Codes were expanded or combined and refined as needed, based on ongoing dialogue and team analysis. Finally, a list of final codes was created, and transcripts were re-coded if necessary. NVivo 12 was used to organize data, facilitate manual coding, and retrieve quotations.

Transcripts from the video interviews (n=84) were uploaded into the Lumberjack Builder application, a text-based video-editing and organizational program. Similar to the ways [End Page 39] that codes can be applied to text-ranges and quotes within qualitative data analysis software (such as NVivo), Lumberjack Builder has a "clip logging" function that allows users to apply codes to specific parts of a transcribed video interview. Through this function, a broad list of codes was developed from the video interviews, and, as with the process from the audio interviews, the codes were merged, expanded, or separated as the analysis progressed, resulting in a final list of codes representing themes and sub-themes.

Data management and consent

In every effort to support Inuit self-determination in research, and aligning with the National Inuit Strategy on Research (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018), this project ensures Inuit access to and control and full ownership of all information collected (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018), including qualitative data, video footage, video transcriptions, and photographs. All data belong to participants and the regions from which the data were gathered, and are used by the research team via ongoing consent processes. At the end of the project, all digital files will be stored in community, permanently and indefinitely (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018).

Oral and written consent were provided by all participants in this research. Participants under the age of 18 provided assent, and also a signature from a parent or guardian. All participants had the right to withdraw at any point in the research process, and have been in regular contact with members of the research team through ongoing communications, information sharing, and sharing of photographs and video clips. This work has received ethics approval from the University of Guelph, Memorial University, and the University of Alberta, and research approval from the Nunatsiavut Government Research Advisory Committee and the NunatuKavut Community Council Research Advisory Group. [End Page 40]


Participants in this research identified three main ways in which ecological grief was experienced due to the caribou population decline and resulting hunting ban: 1) the physical ecological decline of caribou leading to the hunting moratorium, and the resulting impacts to intertwined ways of Inuit life and place-based attachment, food security, and cultural continuity; 2) the disruptions to knowledge systems related to caribou, leading to disruptions to sense of self and cultural practices and continuity; and 3) identified anticipatory grief related to the possibility of ongoing lack of access to caribou, and resulting effects on individual and community social, cultural, and food practices related to caribou. All of these expressions of, and experiences with, ecological grief stem from the deep and enduring connections Inuit have with caribou in Labrador.

"When you eat caribou, you pay it reverence": Inuit relationships with caribou

For Inuit throughout Labrador, caribou were characterized as essential to all aspects of food security, cultural identity, family and community connections, spiritual practices, and health and well-being. As one experienced male hunter described,

when you're eating caribou, it's something that sustained our culture for generations [...] thousands of years. And, so, it has very important significance in our culture. [...] In order to know where we're going, we have to know where we come from. So, I think it's important to keep that [caribou knowledge] alive. That connection, that spiritual connection with the caribou.

Many people explained that hunting caribou was about being on the land, spending time with family, and connecting with culture. As one long-time hunter described hunting caribou, it [End Page 41]

lets us be out on the land, lets us do what we want—Inuit were born to be out on the land, that's what I feel and that's the biggest pride you can ever have as a hunter, is when you go out and you can have a successful hunt. And, you'll come back [to the community] and you can share it and you can take that around and you can, it like swells you up inside, it really do. That's the only way that I can describe that feeling when you get that [caribou].

Connected to the feelings of pride, multi-generational connectivity, and community connections, a senior participant explained:

From a hunter's perspective, you got the same joy whether you saw, whether you saw one [caribou] or you saw 100,000. You still had that excitement. You had that satisfaction. It put your skills to test. You learned behaviors, you learned skills [...] Built pride in people. I had that same feeling whether it was a single animal or whether it was a thousand animals. Still gave you that joy. Still gave you that joy.

"It just tears me down": The decline of caribou and loss of access

All participants in this study discussed myriad emotional responses to the rapid decline in caribou in Labrador, and the resulting hunting ban and lack of access to caribou and related socio-cultural practices. Using words and phrases such as "sad," "angry," "pissed off," "devastated," "upset," "depressed," "frustrated," "shocked," "disappointed," "bad," "makes my heart sink," "hurt," "emotional," and "brings tears to my eyes," people repeatedly expressed deep emotions experienced throughout Labrador from the loss of this important animal. As one NunatuKavut member explained: "you can never replace the caribou. [...] Nothing replaces the caribou."

Several people described not having the relationship with caribou as full of "hurting." As a middle-aged male explained, [End Page 42] "Miss it [caribou hunting] really myself [...] it hurts me sometimes [...] That's all I wanted to say, it hurts me really bad." Another female participant expressed deep sadness over the loss of caribou: "I think that [the inability to access caribou] takes a piece of a person. When that ban came on and the caribou population declined, I think that that was, by far, one of the biggest hurts to Labrador." An avid hunter echoed this hurting, and described his reaction on hearing the news of the caribou decline and the subsequent ban:

Oh, the first time I heard there was gonna be a ban on [hunting] caribou, it was just awful, right? I just couldn't believe it; it was like oh no, right? This can't be true, but it was. You had to accept that it was true. And knowing you're not allowed to even kill them anymore, ban and all that, it's just really hard. We felt it was really hard on the people, right? And really hard on myself. Definitely, definitely hard.

Many people discussed the ways in which the decline of caribou "changed the culture completely," and "I just couldn't believe they'd declined. I was, like, in total shock." Another senior participant discussed the difficulty and pain of this loss by explaining: "When you take that part away from people […] it depresses you, people have no reason left." Several people likened the decline to a loss of a person, because, as this one participant explained: "it's [caribou] just part of people, and to lose that is like losing a friend."

All participants in this research also discussed the pain of losing caribou as an important food source, and missing the nourishing meat. As one middle-aged woman explained, "I'm missing my food. I'm missing my culture too." A youth participant added, "I was totally devastated. Because caribou is such a big part of our diet. And just really, really miss it." Another youth expressed worry for her grandparents and Elders, and concern that they "will not taste caribou before they die, and I think that's very, very sad. […] I think that really, really hurts them […] I think it's even another thing that they probably feel sad about." [End Page 43]

A senior female participant commented on the importance of caribou to Inuit food systems, by explaining: "At first off when we ran out of caribou and you couldn't get no more, like, you felt, I don't know, like there was a loss, you know, like there was, it wasn't there. To cook, it wasn't there." This was echoed by a middle-aged male, who described hunting caribou as part of a much larger socio-cultural experience that linked family, communities, the land, and food together: "[the loss of] that shared experience, it robs your families and your community of all that. So yeah, there's a significant loss. Some sort of grieving thing I would think. But, you do miss it, you miss all that."

Finally, several people discussed feeling sadness and fear for the caribou themselves, thinking the caribou must be suffering due to the decline. As one middle-aged female explained,

The first word that comes to my mind is sad. Not only sad for us, but sad for the caribou. [...] I'm sad for the people because we don't have caribou meat to eat. I'm sad for the caribou because they're declining. They're getting killed off, or being starved, or whatever it is that's happening to them. It's sad that they could possibly get wiped out. Which is really bad, and sad for the caribou themselves.

"Our identity is taken away": Caribou loss and disruptions to cultural identity, ways of knowing, and knowledge sharing

Many people throughout the interviews discussed the varying ways in which their identity and their sense of self in relationship to caribou were shifting—often with attendant feelings of grief and loss. As one male hunter explained, "I miss the hunt. I miss the meat. I miss everything about it. It's like I said... Big, big part of who we are, our identity, is taken away." Another participant identified that

the biggest pride I ever had is when I can go out and I can harvest, I can take it back and I can share it. I can't do that now, I can't do it. I sit down and I look at it walking [End Page 44] along and I feel like a big part of who I am is taken away from me, like somebody just squashed me, just put me down and says your value, your opinion, don't matter.

Several participants discussed the differences in impacts to culturally-related identity and sense of self based on gender, with particular concern for the lasting effects on young male identity and sense of self-worth. As one young woman shared,

I guess a lot of young men like to go hunting along the coast, and women too, but I just want to speak to the men in this part because they [the men] feel more Inuk when they go off. And having a caribou hunt is one of the proudest things that a young man can say, is that they shot their first caribou. And now, my generation don't have that option. So, that is a loss to them. [...] And I think that loss is affecting them in a way that they don't really know because they haven't experienced it. [...] And I think, in regards to the men, it's a loss of, a little bit a loss of identity, I think. And when you have that loss, where are you going to get it back?

Connected to a shifting sense of identity linked to caribou and caribou hunting, many Inuit from the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions were particularly concerned about the loss of knowledge and epistemological disruptions to important traditional and cultural practices, many of which have endured for thousands of years. One long-time hunter shared:

You know, you're losin' your traditional practices that we've had, and it is emotional. It's kinda hard to explain, I guess. But, yes, it is, it's sad. You feel like you're kinda trapped. You're not allowed to hunt them, even though you want to, and on the other hand, you're not wantin' to hunt because you want the herd to survive. So, it is, it's emotional, yeah. It's sad.

The majority of participants expressed concern, fear, and sadness over the disruption to intergenerational knowledge transfer related to caribou and caribou hunting. One middleaged mother and grandmother explained: [End Page 45]

I have four children. And three of my children now have children of their own. So, you know, not having caribou in our diet is one thing, but not being able to teach them how to hunt and how to prepare and preserve the caribou in the way that our grandparents did, you know. So, I think that's so important, and it's something that they're losing out. Now, my youngest child, he doesn't really even know what caribou tastes like, you know. So, that's pretty sad, and it's actually quite devastating.

Resonating with this experience, a father and grandfather explained that when he is out on the land with youth, he is struggling to maintain cultural knowledge about caribou:

But, I try and keep talk[ing] to my kids and my youngest one now, about our huntin' places, where would we go, this is where we kill caribou, this is where we had to climb up, this is where we had to camp, and all that kinda stuff. But, it's really hard to carry it on when you can't take 'em out, take them to travel the routes and shoot the caribou. So, it's quite sad.

Many hunters discussed how the decline of caribou was creating gaps in the next generation of hunters, leading to a whole group of youth who do not know how to understand, harvest, or prepare caribou. As one middle-aged male hunter and youth mentor described:

I've taken a few kids out over the year, and there's been times that we saw caribou, and we would stop, and I would ask them, "So, like, if you guys were hunting now, what animal do you think you would take first?" And they're like, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, to be successful back in the day when you wanted more than one caribou, you would knock down a certain one, and that certain one that you got would determine whether or not the other ones would stay in that same spot or disappear." It's just little things like that now, we can't share with our young people any more. And even the preparation of the animal, and even something as simple as sharing [End Page 46] it out with others, you can't do it the same, like we did when there was an abundance.

Interestingly, a number of participants discussed the effects that these disruptions in knowledge-sharing were having not just on themselves, but also on Elders, explaining that many Elders are feeling pain because of declining herd numbers, and the resulting loss of access to caribou

is a huge impact on us as Inuit. You just gotta live it to actually understand what we're feeling and what we're going through, and the pain that you see in Elders' eyes when they know they can't hunt something that they've been hunting their whole lives, they can't pass on the knowledge because they're getting older, they're getting sick. They have to feel those traditions being taken away.

"They won't have the stories that we have": Anticipatory grief and loss

Almost all participants in this study expressed feeling various forms of anticipatory grief for the expected continued losses of caribou and cultural connections in the coming years. As one middle-aged male explained,

Oh, I think everybody is sad. Everybody you talk to is wishing they would come back and wishing that they could go for a hunt, everybody I talk to just waiting. That's all we're doing is just waiting. But we don't know if they're going to come or not, but we'll wait, been seven years now. Maybe I wait another seven years or longer.

Many people discussed sadness for the loss of stories about caribou and hunting that would be passed on in the future, as the younger generations either have limited or no caribou hunting experiences. As one father in his mid-thirties shared, "I say for me, being a younger hunter, I suppose, I'm not gonna have as many stories to tell my kids, like my old man [End Page 47] told me." Resonating with this, a female in her sixties explained the effects of the younger generations being unable to hunt, share knowledge, and make their own memories: "that's the sad part—there's nothing they can pass down." A number of Inuit in this research also expressed the fact that since future generations were not going to be able to "tell their own stories," they were experiencing a deep sense of cultural loss.

Many participants shared their sadness at the loss of future knowledge-sharing and storytelling related to caribou:

Well, I think it's very sad, especially for the Elders. They don't want to see that being lost, and not only do they miss the caribou as a source of food, but I think it's sad for them to know that their children, their grandchildren, are not gonna get the chance to do it [hunt caribou], and not know how to do it, probably.

Finally, many participants did not feel hopeful that the caribou population would grow and return to previous abundance levels, indicating "we'll never get another hunt." As one male hunter in his sixties explained,

the hunters of my generation, we talk about this quite openly [...] we don't think we'll ever live long enough again to see a hunt like what we did, let's say 10 years ago [...] I'll never live long enough I don't think, to see that again. I'll be dead then before that ever happens, and we can't pass on that knowledge, we can't pass on that experience, and that's what—what's gone is gone, it's not there no more.

If and when the caribou do come back, several of the senior participants worried that with such a gap in hunting and eating caribou meat, and disruptions to caribou-related cultural practices and knowledge, if "the caribou do come back, maybe they [youth] mightn't even like it. Maybe they wouldn't want it." [End Page 48]


This research adds to both a burgeoning body of scholarship and testimonies of lived experience linking human grief and mourning to disruptions to ecological systems or species. It is clear from the voices and lived experiences of Inuit from the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions that caribou play a central role for culture and cultural continuity, livelihoods and sustenance, long-standing intergenerational knowledge sharing, spiritual practices, social cohesion, physical health, and mental and emotional wellness (Parlee & Caine, 2017). While Inuit in both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador have been actively researching, monitoring, and making management recommendations about caribou, the rapid decline in caribou, the current ban on harvesting, and the resulting loss of access to caribou have led to experiences of strong emotional responses, such as the experiences of sadness, anger, frustration, shock, depression, and grief. These findings align with results from a recent scoping review by members of our research team, with other studies that documented the mental and emotional connections between caribou and Indigenous peoples in the Circumpolar North (Bali & Kofinas, 2014; Polfus et al., 2017; Reedy, 2016; Zoe, 2012), and with research examining the ways in which changing climates and environments at a broader scale lead to negative mental health outcomes, including grief over environmentally-based losses (e.g. Berry et al., 2010; Clayton et al., 2017; Cunsolo Willox, 2012; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2012; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2013a, 2013b; Dodd et al., 2018; Minor et al., 2019).

Inuit in Labrador identified an interconnected relationship with caribou that has spanned thousands of years, at once connecting people to caribou, to the land, to each other, to culture, to knowledge, and to both previous and future generations. Given this type of enduring cultural relationship with caribou—and indeed, a relationship that has been expressed by Indigenous peoples about caribou throughout the Circumpolar North (Castro et al., 2016; Meis Mason et al., 2007; Muir & Booth, 2012; Parlee & Caine, 2017; Parlee et al., 2018; Polfus et al., 2017; Reedy, 2016; Rixen & Blangy, 2016; Wray & Parlee, 2013) [End Page 49] —the loss of caribou is something that challenges people on a deep personal and cultural level. Many Inuit in this study were expressing stress, sadness, and grief about what it means for Inuit life, livelihoods, communities, culture, and ways of knowing to move forward in a world that may no longer include caribou. As we learned from the voices of Inuit in Labrador, these ontological, epistemological, existential, and cultural disruptions to self, community, and society are deeply rooted and carry potential for experiences of loss and grief when relationships to essential species, such as caribou, are disrupted. More research is needed to understand the ways in which experiences with ecological grief transcend the original loss—be it of the species itself, or access to hunting and harvesting—and lead to ongoing challenges to identity, knowledge systems and intergenerational sharing, language structures, and cultural continuity (e.g. Cunsolo Willox et al., 2012, 2013a; Durkalec et al., 2015; Minor et al. 2019; Parlee & Caine, 2018; Parlee et al., 2017).

Additionally, this research identifies place-based disruptions to Inuit connected to the decline of caribou in Labrador, and subsequent loss of access to hunting. For Inuit, like many Indigenous peoples globally, self-identity and knowledge systems are often created in relation to land, place, and the morethan-humans with whom they share it (Cunsolo Willox, 2012; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2012; Durkalec et al., 2015; Kirmayer, Fletcher, & Watt, 2009; Rigby, Rosen, Berry, & Hart, 2011; Schultz & Cairney, 2017). This reliance on, relationship with, and identity and knowledge connected to the land mean that even subtle alterations have direct and indirect implications for personal wellness and one's understanding of one's place in the world (Cunsolo Willox et al., 2012). This also resonates with the concept of solastalgia (Albrecht et al., 2007), or feeling disoriented in a rapidly changing home environment leading to feelings of homesickness and grief, as well as other psychoterratic syndromes and 'Earth emotions' (Albrecht, 2019). A place-based understanding of ecological grief emergent from this research on caribou suggests that planning for ecological grief, with place at the forefront, is a strong strategy for creating locally-sensitive programming and policies, enhancing resilience, and decreasing grief-related burdens. [End Page 50]

Many Inuit from both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions also discussed the ways in which they are not only grieving the decline of the caribou and the resulting losses to hunting, food, and cultural practices, but they are also worried about future losses, including the possibility that future generations may never experience a caribou hunt, may not know the taste of caribou meat, and may lose all the knowledge developed and passed on for thousands of years that Inuit have about caribou. This "anticipatory grief" experienced in relation to non-humans (see Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018; Cunsolo Willox et al., 2013a, 2013b; Ellis & Albrecht, 2017 for other examples of ecologically-based anticipatory grief) is emotional and difficult, as people are worried they are potentially witnessing the end of a beloved species, as well as the erosion and degradation of related complex knowledge systems.

This experience of anticipatory grief can also be linked to the concepts of 'ambiguous grief' (i.e. grieving for something that is still alive) (Boss, 2010) and "disenfranchised grief" (i.e. grief that is not discussed or understood) (Attig, 2004; Doka, 2002, 1989). Ambiguous loss has been linked to ongoing sadness, depression, anxiety, an inability to concentrate, and loss of interest in daily life (Boss, 2010). As witnessed through the voices of Inuit from both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions through this research, ecological losses such as caribou decline and the resulting disruption to access are often a type of grief that lacks closure, because there is no final break event or conclusive end. Furthermore, since there are often few, if any, rituals to support ecological loss, finding ways to effectively and productively grieve something that is still alive becomes harder still. There is an important opportunity within ecological grief, then, to find ways to discuss, honor, celebrate, and ritualize non-human losses, such as species, ecosystems, or specific places, to support psychological health and robustness.

As a form of disenfranchised grief, ecological grief is often not discussed or acknowledged at the individual or societal level, leading to experiences of related sadness and emotional distress being ignored or silenced. Indeed, in many cases, those who are most likely to be most acutely affected by ecological grief because of their close connection to and reliance on the land and environment are those who are likely to be marginalized [End Page 51] from and silenced by systems of power and privilege (Cunsolo & Landman, 2017a; Cunsolo Willox, 2012) and therefore also unable to change the systems to stop the loss. Within the context of access to caribou as seen through this study, and also of the loss of other species on which Indigenous peoples rely and with which they have deep relationships, more research is needed to understand how systems of power, decision-making, and management affect Indigenous lives, livelihoods, and cultural structures, as well as to discover strategies for more effectively, and healthfully, moving forward in decision-making in times of rapid change to mitigate ecological loss and resulting grief.

While this research examined the loss of a singular species, it is clear that a singular ecological loss has the potential to lead to cascading forms of ecological grief—or cascading ecological grief. In this case study, there is the decline and loss of access to caribou, which in and of itself is a deep and emotional loss; then, there is the disturbance and disruption to all of the interconnected pieces linked to caribou, which become additional, and cumulative, losses, compounding and cascading from the original species decline and loss of access. This builds from the concept of cascade effects in ecology, or the ways in which the loss of or disruption to one species or system triggers subsequent ecological losses or disruptions. A similar phenomenon of cascading losses can be mapped onto human ecological grief responses. Cascading ecological grief, then, can be understood as the sequential, ongoing, and interrelated forms of grief triggered by a singular ecological loss. Currently, the majority of literature around ecological grief is focused on a singular event, species, or place (whether acute, chronic, or gradual), and the resulting effects from that singular loss. Yet, it is clear from this study that more research, focus, and policy development is required to reflect, communicate, and properly understand the multiple, complex, interconnected, overlapping, and cascading ecological grief stressors, as well as related risk factors (see Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018).

In this light, this research, and the concept of ecological grief more generally, ties into broader global discussions around intangible loss and damages (Tschakert, Ellis, Anderson, Kelly, & Obeng, 2019; Tschakert et al., 2017), and what Jon Barnett et al. (2016) call "a science of loss." Both concepts aim to ensure the [End Page 52] more intangible, harder to measure, and often-invisible—but just as important, or often more so—ecological places, values, and identities are considered and included in environmental change research and policy, and also accounted for in decisionmaking. For example, while Inuit in this research are adapting to the loss of access to caribou by substituting caribou for moose, or continuing to hunt and trap on the land for other species, there is still an emotional cost to this type of adaptation that needs to be considered, as "nothing replaces the caribou." For Barnett et al., a strong component and "minimum standard for a science of loss is that it does not claim to predict where and when losses will arise, but rather identifies where, for whom, and why certain losses would be unacceptable and intolerable" (2016, p. 977). This is an essential way forward in ecological grief research, ensuring that place-based, locally-appropriate, and culturally-relevant standards of what is "unacceptable" and "intolerable" losses are applied, in order to ensure that equitable research and policy approaches are applied to reflect and respect different historical, cultural, ontological, and epis-temological values and frameworks, and to mitigate painful or irreversible outcomes (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Summary diagram depicting Inuit relationships with caribou, and the resulting forms of ecological grief from the decline of caribou and disruptions to relationships, harvesting, livelihoods, cultural continuity, social networks, and knowledge sharing.
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Figure 3.

Summary diagram depicting Inuit relationships with caribou, and the resulting forms of ecological grief from the decline of caribou and disruptions to relationships, harvesting, livelihoods, cultural continuity, social networks, and knowledge sharing.

[End Page 53]


Inuit in both the Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut regions of Labrador maintain strong, deep, and enduring connections with caribou, stemming from thousands of years of reliance on and relationships with caribou, and they continue to actively lead research and adaptation programming that demonstrates Inuit leadership, is based on Inuit knowledge systems and sciences, and connects human health and caribou health, together. While traditional knowledge indicates that caribou herds have always cycled, this current rapid decline in caribou, coupled with the loss of access to hunting due to the moratorium, has created significant challenges for Inuit in Labrador. While research and monitoring will remain key to Inuit management and adaptation strategies, an understanding of the mental and emotional experiences of loss of access to caribou, particularly ecological grief, continues to demonstrate the essential need to create place-based health and adaptation policies and programs based on Inuit wisdom, lived experiences, and resilience. Indeed, increasing scholarship is indicating that embracing ecological loss from a place-based perspective that is situated with people and in culture is the strongest strategy to mitigate harm, increase resilience, and potentially prevent future losses (Barnett et al., 2016; Cunsolo & Landman, 2017a; Tschakert et al., 2017).

It is clear from this research, and from other emerging work, that ecological grief is a natural and growing response to environmental loss (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018), and may be one of the signature labors of the Anthropocene. Ecological grief research, however, is still an emerging field, with limited research and understanding of the nuances of the ways in which grief manifests across geographies, cultures, and demographics, both individually and collectively. Little is also known about the long-term effects of ecological grief—whether from acute, rapid, traumatic events; slow, creeping, cumulative events; vicarious experiences with the grief of others; through anticipation of future change and loss; or through cascading ecological grief—on individual or population health and global mental health burdens. [End Page 54]

While the voices in this research were from two Inuit regions in Labrador and about one species, the experiences of ecological grief and the ongoing ramifications reflect experiences and processes all over the world as people continue to grapple with wide-spread and large-scale biodiversity loss, and the attendant human emotions and grief. Indeed, the growing 'science of loss,' and understanding intangible loss and damages, requires us to confront within environments and ecosystems what we value, what we think is at risk, what we believe is worth preserving, and how we choose to respond (Barnett et al., 2016; Butler, 2004; Tschakert et al., 2017). Within the pain of ecological grief, then, we also find the doors to ethical and political transformation, as grief asks us to become open and bear witness to global ecological decline, and to do the political and ethical work—individually, collectively, globally—to mitigate further ecological losses and the resulting grief (Cunsolo & Landman, 2017b). [End Page 55]

Ashlee Cunsolo

Ashlee Cunsolo is the Director of the Labrador Institute, a former Canada Research Chair, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada's College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists. She is a global leader in the field of climate change and mental health, and is widely known for her work on ecological grief and anxiety. She is the co-editor of the book Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Grief and Loss (2017), producer/ director of Attutauniujuk Nunami/Lament for the Land, a regular commentator in media nationally and internationally, and has given over 200 talks and presentations. Ashlee currently serves on a number of national and international assessments and advisory boards, including as: a Collaborating Author on the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report; Chapter Lead on both the Natural Resources Canada Climate Change National Assessment and the Health Canada Climate Change and Health National Assessment; and Commissioner on the Lancet Commission on Arctic Health.

David Borish

David Borish is a PhD candidate in Public Health and International Development at the University of Guelph, and a research-based videographer and photographer. David's work unites an interest in research for transformative social and environmental change with a passion for visual media. With the intent of utilizing the strengths of both fields, his academic and work experience has been shaped by the desire to push at the frontiers of using audio-visual techniques to explore and understand social and environmental issues around the world. In collaboration with Inuit from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut, Labrador, David is focused on co-producing knowledge about the relationship between caribou and Inuit well-being through community-based documentary film and photography.

Sherilee L. Harper

Sherilee L. Harper is a Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health and an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. Her research investigates associations between weather, environment, and Indigenous health in the context of climate change, and she collaborates with Indigenous partners to prioritize climate-related health actions, planning, interventions, and research. Dr. Harper serves as: Lead Author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC); Lead Author on the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report (AR6-WG2); member of the Gender Task Group for the IPCC; member of the Editorial Board of Epidemiology and Infection; Chapter Lead for the Health Canada Climate Change and Health National Assessment; and Contributing Author to the Natural Resources Canada National Climate Change Assessment.

Jamie Snook

Jamie Snook is a PhD candidate in Public Health at the University of Guelph, and Executive Director of the Torngat Wildlife, Plants, and Fisheries Secretariat, a co-management organization created from the Nunatsiavut land claims agreement. Born and raised in Labrador, Jamie is a member of the NunatuKavut Community Council, and dedicates his research and policy leadership to serving the needs and priorities of Inuit and the North. His PhD research examines the ways in which co-management of fish and wildlife influences Inuit health and wellbeing. Jamie is Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar, and a recipient of the inaugural Aboriginal Scholarship from the University of Guelph. He is the former Mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay (2013–2017) and a recipient of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Inez Shiwak

Inez Shiwak was born and raised in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador. Proud of her Inuit heritage, Inez has worked in a number of positions in her community that promote connection to and preservation of culture and heritage, including as a member of the Heritage Committee. Inez was previously the lead of the "My Word" Storytelling and Digital Media Lab in Rigolet, where she led community-based participatory processes to conduct research on a variety of research topics including climate change, cultural preservation, youth mentorship and resilience, food and water security, and contaminants. She is a regular presenter at national and international conferences, and is known across the North as an Inuit research leader. In 2016, Inez was the recipient of the prestigious Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami's Inuit Research Recognition Award. She is also a well-known Inuit artist, sharing her love of culture through arts and visual media.

Michele Wood

Michele Wood is a Health Researcher/Evaluator for the Nunatsiavut Government, Department of Health and Social Development based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Michele was born in the beautiful community of North West River and has spent most of her career in Labrador. She strongly believes in the importance of supporting community-based participatory research partnerships and promoting community wellness. Michele has a Master's degree in Information Management from Dalhousie University and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Acadia University. Her love for her job within the Nunatsiavut Government gives her hope that, as a beneficiary, she is contributing all that she can to make the experience of others and future generations a positive one.

The Herd Caribou Project Steering Committee

Aaron Dale (Torngat Wildlife, Plants, and Fisheries Secretariat); Charlie Flowers (University of Guelph); Jim Goudie (Nunatsiavut Government); Amy Hudson (NunatuKavut Community Council); Charlene Kippenhuck (NunatuKavut Community Council); Meredith Purcell (Torngat Wildlife, Plants, and Fisheries Secretariat); George Russell (NunatuKavut Community Council); Jamie Snook (Torngat Wildlife, Plants, and Fisheries Secretariat); Joseph Townley (Nunatsiavut Government); Michele Wood (Nunatsiavut Government).

Our sincerest and deepest thank you and gratitude to all the participants who gave their time, wisdom, and insights to this study: to the Elders who shared their lifetime of memories and deep cultural and ecological knowledges; to the middle generation who so eloquently expressed the feelings of loss and the challenge of potentially being the last generation to know what it is like to hunt caribou; and to the youth who shared their dreams of hunting caribou once more, and of hoping their parents and grandparents knew that joy again too. Nakummek. Thank you also to Amy Kipp, for research assistance with the interviews in Rigolet, and to Alex Sawatzky for the visual design and development for this article and the overall project.


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