Written by Vivienne Steele
This June, I participated in the two-week field school for Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health Canada (CoPEH-Canada) – Communaute de pratique canadienne en approaches ecosystemiques de la santé, which was hosted by Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM). The course, which welcomed students from Canada, Latin America and the Carribbean (CoPEH-LAC) and West Africa (CoPES-AOC), was focused on the health of the St-Lawrence river ecosystem through a 3-day workshop, a 1-day symposium and a 9-day field course organized by CoPEH.
As part of the 3-day workshop, the group organizers exposed us to a variety of topics in EcoHealth through information sharing sessions, field trip outings and reflective journal assignments. We were guided through Montreal’s Old Port to better understanding the environmental challenges facing the St-Lawrence river; such as management of used industrial waster, of drinking water distribution and of marine transport regulation in the port. At Parc des Rapides, a brief ride west of downtown, alongside the Lachine canal, we were shown some of the flora and fauna being protected around the Lachine rapids island area (snapping turtles, Great blue herons, balsam poplar, etc.). As a great complement to the day’s discussions on systems thinking, ecosystem resilience and active eco-toxicology projects in the St-Lawrence river region, we shared our “sense of place in nature” experiences through a wonderfully-led traditional sharing circle.
The day-long symposium, hosted by CoPEH field course alumni, was built upon the base topicc of ‘self-organizinsg systems’ in the context of environmental health. As the leaders encouraged us to ‘self-organize’ into groups, we had a great opportunity to network, to share, and to reach agreements on our definition of the role of self-organizing groups in environmental health research.
The nine-day field course was organized in sessions, which revolved around the six principles of EcoHealth: equity, viability, transdisciplinarity, system dynamics, participation and action. Each of the nine day involved understanding several different (and interconnected) principles through lectures, field trips and group work . One day, for example, we discussed the principles of systems thinking, transciplinarity and participation through a lecture on narratives, a field trip to Montreal’s Center for Sustainable Development (Maison du développement durable) and a group activity on social movements. A highlight of the course was the field trip to Sorel, which is a community southeast of downtown Montreal. Guided by the assigned “rich picture map” group task, we snapped photos of the day’s activities, which we were to be presented to our fellow classmates. Our photos showed the boat tour along the Yamaska river (we learned about the river system’s currents, nearby maritime trade routes, and the overall health of the shoreline), the aquatic species identification activity (we donned hip waders and dragged a heavy net through a small stream area) and lunch at a local riverside restaurant (we ate fried perch and catfish stew from the nearby river). The day concluded with a talk on measuring contaminants and their effect on ecosystem health, and a presentation by a community conservation group whose focus is to increase public awareness of the importance of the river. Due to this day’s diverse schedule, we had managed to capture photos of many aspects of the St-Lawrence river ecosystem, and were able to organize them onto our “rich picture map”. Our map’s main feature was hourglass-shaped river sketch, onto which we organized the photos on the top or bottom of the hourglass; where the top showed a healthy, well-managed river system and the bottom showed an unhealthy, poorly-managed and deteriorating river system. In our group’s concluding presentation, we showed how good management and a community involvement can maintain the complex, healthy ecosystems as desired at the top of the hourglass. We are lucky to live so near to the St-Lawrence river ecosystem, and the time is now for us to act to maintain the health of the ecosystem.
While the jam-packed and excellently organized schedule allowed for participants to share knowledge and build valuable relationships, it has also left me inspired by what I have learned and the people I have met. After a couple days’ rest and reflection, I look forward to incorporating ecosystem approaches to health in my upcoming research project.