Queen's University

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Peter Harrison

From pole to pole

Peter Harrison

With more than 2000 abstracts submitted from over 45 countries, the International Polar Year 2012 "From Knowledge to Action Conference" was one of the largest polar conferences in history. And at the helm of this international event, held in Montreal from April 22-27, was none other than Queen’s School of Policy Studies Director, Stauffer-Dunning Chair, and IPY 2012 Conference Chair, Peter Harrison.

A professional geographer by trade, he is a Fellow, Governor and Vice-president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Harrison’s research, writing and teaching focus on ocean and coastal management, particularly with reference to the Arctic ocean and Arctic and northern policy issues.

This experience, complemented by a 30-year career as a senior public servant in federal departments including Natural Resources Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the National Research Council of Canada, and Indian Residential schools Resolution Canada, make him a central figure in Canada in terms of northern and Arctic policy.

Harrison's selection, first as Deputy Minister Champion for Canada’s $150-million investment in research for the International Polar Year (2007-2008), and then as Chair of the 2012 conference, was a natural continuation of this career trajectory. Both are roles he’s embraced with relish.

"As the final conference of IPY, the From Knowledge to Action conference represented both a significant ending as well as an exciting beginning," says Dr. Harrison. "We saw a significant outpouring of research findings, but we didn’t just involve the research community. We really pushed for a human dimension to this conference, so there was a huge emphasis on indigenous knowledge and knowledge transfer and the use of knowledge by the private and third sectors and key decision-makers.”

The emphasis on a human dimension, Dr. Harrison notes, was not without its challenges. As chair of a global conference examining both polar regions, he had to balance the requirements of north, south, east and west.

"The human dimension of the poles doesn’t really mean anything to a great number of countries, and it doesn’t mean anything for the Antarctic because no one lives there and there’s no indigenous population," he says. "However, it means a lot and is extremely significant to circumpolar countries, and for Canada it’s critical."

[photo of penguins]

Dr. Harrison says indigenous involvement and cultural presence at the Montreal conference was significantly greater that at the previous global conferences in St. Petersburg (2008) and Oslo (2010). In addition to bringing in attendees from the circumpolar north, the 2012 conference organizers put a significant effort into working with First Nations and Inuit groups, and leaders from many groups were present throughout the conference. Aqqaluk Lynge, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and president of ICCGreenland, was one of several keynote speakers and attendees who helped to provide an indigenous perspective on issues like ocean management, melting sea ice, melting permafrost and changing migration patterns – some of the most significant issues affecting indigenous communities in the Arctic today.

Queen’s researchers Scott Lamoureux (Geography), Paul Grogan (Biology), Ryan Danby (Geography), Priscilla Ferrazzi (Law) and 15 other faculty members, fellows and graduate students also presented results and views on a range of pertinent topics from mental health and criminal justice to environmental monitoring, permafrost disturbance, traditional knowledge mobilization, and sustainable energy plans.

For Harrison, the conference concretely established what the global research community has discovered during the past few years of intensive polar research and continued the momentum gained in terms of international cooperation and knowledge dissemination. on the domestic front, he hopes the conference contributed to an enhanced understanding about the Canadian north, why it’s important, and who its people are.

"It's critical that we understand the role that the polar regions play in the Earth's systems," he says. "What happens at the poles will not only alter the polar environments, but will change the course of human and economic development at a planetary scale."

Profile by Christina Archibald
(e)Affect Issue 1, Spring 2012