In the landscape of northern science in Canada, two scientists stand above the crowd showing excellence in their fields of study. Louis Fortier and Serge Payette have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to northern research, each being awarded a Canada research chair, published numerous times and work to shape the next generation of northern scientists. To honour and support their life’s work, Payette and Fortier each received a Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Explore below to learn more about these two award-winning Canadian scientists.
To read more about the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, visit www.westonfoundation.org/northern/Pages
Growing up in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saint-Maurice rivers in what is now Trois-Rivières, Louis Fortier spent his winters digging holes in the ice and catching fish. That childhood pastime has a lot in common with his professional life — and passion — today as a biologist and an oceanographer who has devoted his career to understanding climate change and its impacts in the Arctic. His work puts him in the North for weeks at a time, often atop the Arctic Ocean’s ice pack and often doing the same thing he did as a boy: digging holes and catching fish. “Let’s say that I’ve always liked the cold,” says Fortier.
Fortier was chosen by his peers to receive the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research in 2012. The generous $50,000 prize is both a celebration of his contribution to date and a means of enabling his work in the future. For the recipient, the impact of the prize is twofold: it is a catalyst for future research and validation of a dedicated career.
Fortier, who studied Arctic oceanography at Université Laval and McGill University, has become one of the world’s foremost experts on zooplankton. He has a profound appreciation for the microscopic organisms that float along ocean currents and graze on algae, and for the fish that eat these tiny creatures. His research has allowed him to dig deeply into the life cycle of the Arctic cod, a keystone species in the Arctic ecosystem, as well as other marine fish, in an attempt to understand how the pressures of climate change and industrialization will alter Arctic ecology and the lives of Inuit and other northern residents. But just as an ecosystem is a complex web with myriad interconnected elements, Fortier’s road to big-picture science has been far from a direct path.
In the mid-1980s, as Fortier was settling in to an academic position at Laval, funding for Arctic research in Canada took a downward turn. The strong support that had been abundant through the 1970s and onward faded. By the 1990s, it became clear to Fortier and other scientists that to tackle climate change and modernization in the Arctic would require bigger teams and a multidisciplinary approach. “We didn’t have this in Canada,” says Fortier. “The typical project was a researcher, a couple of grad students, a sled, some dogs and an Inuit guide.”
Today, Fortier serves as the scientific director of ArcticNet, which brings together scientists from academia and government agencies throughout Canada and facilitates collaboration with international researchers. Peter Geller, president of the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies, which administers the Weston Family Prize, says, “Prof. Fortier clearly demonstrates a deep understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of northern research.”
Fortier is also project director of the CCGS Amundsen, a retrofitted icebreaker-turned-research-vessel that allowed scientists to overwinter in the Beaufort Sea in 2003-2004 for the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study and in 2007- 2008 for the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study, which was part of International Polar Year. The secret to accomplishing such ambitious objectives, says Fortier, is to take a page out of Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen’s approach and build an outstanding team of dedicated collaborators.
These last two projects breached a significant academic barrier. Researchers from fields as diverse as human health and social sciences merged their interests into comprehensive programs that incorporated traditional Inuit knowledge. A good deal of Arctic research in Canada now combines evidence-based work from multiple disciplines, says Fortier, an arrangement that other countries and groups admire and are trying to emulate. That framework will play a key role in the creation of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker Polar Class Icebreaker Project, both of which are expected to begin operations in 2017. “This is the direction we’re going,” says Fortier. “I don’t think there will be any reversal of the trend, and that’s a good thing. The bigger the teams get in the Arctic, the more fun the research is, and you get things done. It is the only way that you can go from knowledge to action to policy.”
Informing policy is Fortier’s ultimate goal. He would like to see research address the needs and questions of Arctic residents —people who are among the first to experience the effects of warmer temperatures, shrinking sea ice, transformed ecosystems and increased oil and gas exploration and marine traffic. The work done during earlier phases of ArcticNet, which was established in 2003, as well as ongoing work, is being integrated into regional impact studies and assessments that can be used by those who influence and make policy. “My hope is that ArcticNet will be an example of how you can prepare for important changes that are coming in the future,” says Fortier, “and apply the same approach to finding solutions for what will happen farther in the south.” He envisions a pan-Canadian research institute that will continue to study Arctic change and provide solutions that will lead toward sustainable development.
Although Fortier’s work covers serious issues, he finds it incredibly enjoyable, and much of that pleasure comes from training and working alongside the next generation of Arctic researchers. “They become your sons and daughters to some extent,” he says, adding that he’s looking forward to the day they step into leadership roles in Arctic research and begin using CHARS and the John G. Diefenbaker. “They have a way of doing their research that is highly integrated and collaborative. They bring with them the idea of designing their research projects with the goal of answering some societal question or need, and they understand the need to connect with Inuit partners and integrate the people in the North with their research. This is how we will make a difference.”