Building Climate Change Adaptation Capacity of First Nations in Far Northern Ontario Through Knowledge Exchange and Collaboration

From 2019-2022, Up North on Climate at Laurentian University, Grand Council Treaty 3, and the Tribal Councils of Mushkegowuk, Matawa, Nokiiwin, Shibogama, and Keewaytinook Okimakanak worked collaboratively and shared knowledge to build climate change adaptation capacity within the Councils and their 63 member communities in northern Ontario. The goal was and is to build a strong foundation of capacity for action against climate change impacts such as drought, ecosystem shifts; flooding; food security; health; infrastructure; transportation; and wildfire in the Councils which could be passed on to communities through community workshops. A key element in the process was mentoring part time “Climate Change Specialists” designated by each Council and supported by the Natural Resources Canada’s Building Regional Adaptation Capacity and Expertise (BRACE) Program. Climate change specialists were able to provide sustainable capacity and could be integrated with the other services provided by Councils. The collaboration continues today as the Partnership for Indigenous Climate Change Adaptation (PICCA). Results from this initiative include a substantial series of co-developed resources to support continued capacity building and to aid in community adaptation project planning. Additionally, an online Knowledge Exchange Network, ACClimateNOW, is hosted on Facebook as a social learning and discussion platform for members working in northern First Nations seeking to learn from each other. Unfortunately, capacity building in individual communities has been severely hindered by COVID-19 constraints. Capacity building with climate change specialists in communities will be the focus of next steps.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Indigenous Peoples have been adapting to environmental change for thousands of years. Generations of living with the land and sharing stories, experiences, and observations have culminated in great breadth and depth of local Indigenous Knowledge often referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). TEK can reveal environmental changes observed during a person’s lifetime or through several generations. Many Elders in northern Ontario have expressed concern about the unprecedented rapidity and often harmful changes they have observed in the land, weather, and wildlife during their lifetimes. TEK can be braided with western science in Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall’s collaborative Two Eyed Seeing approach embraced by Up North on Climate since 2017.

Immediately before this project began, between 2016 and 2018, Up North on Climate wrote 24 Impact Assessment and Vulnerability reports for communities based on the knowledge gathered in interviews with Elders and community members. The interviews were conducted by a member of the community and all engaged in this community knowledge gathering were paid for their contribution. The reports were confidential to each community. These reports and interviews enabled understanding of the impacts, vulnerabilities and risks in the region for the current project. There was widespread identification of warmer winters, often experienced as rainfall on frozen ground causing flooding; shifting ecosystems affecting traditional locations of medicinal and food plants, as well as wildlife migration patterns; more frequent droughts; more frequent and intense rainstorms causing flooding; and more frequent wildfires during a longer fire season. Historic data from local weather stations and projections from Canadian Climate Data and Scenarios reiterated the impacts First Nations have been observing for decades. These impacts have downstream effects on First Nations’ food security, health and well-being (including cultural health), and reliable and safe infrastructure and transportation routes during both winter over ice and in summer when water levels can be very low.

For additional climate information, look at the Resources section of this example (below).

Identifying Actions

Planning Phase: From January to May 2019 Laurentian University undertook a scoping study to confirm that the methodology of Up North on Climate collaboration with five northern Tribal Councils and Grand Council Treaty #3 was supported by the Councils and members of their communities. As well as confirming the project was supported and feasible, consultation confirmed that building the adaptation planning capacity of part time “climate change specialists” in the Councils was a reasonable strategy for establishing sustainable adaptation expertise internally within First Nations. It was also agreed that a Coordinating Panel made up of a senior staff person from each Council would be briefed and make recommendations about the process and progress of the project.

Support for the project in the planning phase arose from relationships with First Nations established through a self-funded year of attending meetings and visiting First Nation communities, as well as a call for a Climate Change Impact Study for the North by Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day in 2015. Additionally, in 2016-2018, Ontario provided funding for engaging First Nations in Ontario in a Climate Change Impact and Adaptation Study. During that study the Up North on Climate adaptation group was established, made many visits to communities, and wrote 24 confidential Impact and Vulnerability reports for northern communities. Each report included a community specific climate impact, risk, and adaptation matrix for impacts such as drought, ecosystem shifts, wildfire, flooding, food security, human health, infrastructure, travel, and winter roads. Finally, a three day Up North on Climate Conference in Thunder Bay in 2018 was attended by over 150 participants from 50 First Nations and Indigenous organizations.


Creating the project team identified in the scoping study, including a project-funded climate change specialist, was very well received and has been productive. This is because the climate change specialist was chosen by the Council, can participate in co-creating adaptation resources and facilitating discussion of impacts and adaptation options in communities, and can act as a climate resource person for their Council. COVID-19 constraints have ruled out facilitating community meetings, but an excellent suite of co-created resources have resulted from interactive, weekly, online virtual meetings. Guiding the climate change specialists in using those resources has prepared them well for post COVID-19 adaptation meetings in communities and braiding community knowledge and western science when selecting each community’s top adaptation priorities. The immediate implementation of the project’s interactive Knowledge Network with frequent informative climate-related posts complemented the virtual meetings, as did the comprehensive Up North on Climate website.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Each of the Councils have valued the work and role of their climate change specialist to the extent of retaining them on staff after BRACE funding ended in March 2022. The climate change specialists continue to be engaged as PICCA representatives in regular Zoom meetings hosted by Up North on Climate to discuss adaptation options and relevant climate impacts. The climate change specialists also continue to participate in the ACClimateNOW Knowledge Network.

The limiting factor in the outcomes has been, and continues to be, the COVID-19 imposed restriction on travel and visits by the climate change specialists, accompanied when necessary, by an Up North on Climate representative, to facilitate community adaptation planning meetings. The community engagement phase of the project is the key part of next steps and will require an evaluation protocol that needs to be developed. Funding will also be required.

Next Steps

Next steps will be for the climate change specialists to visit communities to facilitate adaptation discussions and meetings. Communication among the climate change specialists about their experiences will be important and Up North on Climate will support those conversations as a PICCA activity for as long as they are able. Adjustments to the individual needs of different communities facing changing impacts and looking for different locally appropriate adaptation options can be anticipated. Up North on Climate hopes to be available to continue teamwork, such as providing sources of information about adaptation options and developing community-specific adaptation graphic and digital resources. Another ongoing next step is to continue developing the PICCA GeoHub, a one stop hub hosting multiple sources of co-developed and publicly available climate information needed by northern First Nations for climate adaptation planning.


Link to Full Case Study

Additional Resources:

Additional Climate Information:

Using climate change projections enables better adaptation decisions. To learn how to choose, access, and understand climate data, visit ’s Learning Zone.

Visit and click “Explore by Variable” for future climate projections related to temperature and precipitation, which can be used to inform adaptation planning.