Polar Knowledge Canada: Looking into a New Nimble Federal Organization

A picture taken in 2014, which shows an overarching view of the CHARS building in Cambridge Bay. (Photo: CambridgeBayWeather)
According to President and CEO David Scott, Polar Knowledge Canada is going to be an important “coordinator, leverager, connector, and promoter” of knowledge.

According to President and CEO David Scott, Polar Knowledge Canada is going to be an important “coordinator, leverager, connector, and promoter” of knowledge.

Polar Knowledge Canada is primed to set Canada on the forefront of knowledge creation and compilation specifically in the Polar regions. This will involve creating, organizing and facilitating different types of knowledge, including Western Scientific and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge. Polar Knowledge Canada came into existence in June of 2015 with the merger of the Canadian Polar Commission and the Canadian High Arctic Research Station initiative at Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada. This new Nunavut-based federal organization is looking to further Canada’s leadership role in the Arctic region by improving economic opportunities, environmental responsibility and the quality of life in the North and Canada as a whole. This agency is focused on science and technology in both polar regions, although most of the effort is currently focused on the North.

Nimble with New Ideas

The purpose of this organization is to be a nimble knowledge creator, and as President and CEO David Scott mentioned in a recent interview with me, to ensure that there is a constant flow of new ideas and information. Their Cambridge Bay headquarters is designed to not only continually welcome local people and provide space for interaction, but also strives to ensure that visiting professors, educators, and even students-- from PhD level all the way down to elementary school-- have the opportunity to learn and share in this space.  The research campus will have room for 80 researchers, of whom 40 will be POLAR staff. This allows for the continual flow of knowledge and ideas that Dr. Scott continually emphasizes.

When POLAR is fully operational, they plan on staffing their Cambridge Bay location with up to 40 of their total staff of 50 people.  At the moment, nine months into the new organization, they staff 30 in Ottawa, and have 4 permanent local staff in their Northern location. The long-term plan will be achieved by permanent staffing in the Cambridge Bay location, as short-term staff in Ottawa complete their temporary assignments.  

Main Streams of Research

Through this constant flux of ideas and the molding of past information with present knowledge, POLAR has chosen four main areas for their scientific and technological research in their first 5 years. The areas of focus are: Renewable and alternative energy in the North; Baseline information for sustainability; Improving Northern infrastructure, and Predicting the impacts of changing ice, permafrost, and snow. These will be reassessed in 2019 and every five years thereafter. This constant renewal and reassessment of the situation, is one of the key decisions that will ideally allowed POLAR to constantly ensure their relevance in research; they are trying to establish that they will not become stale and stuck in their own research. Engaging with and listening to Northerners is an important key in how these streams are chosen.  

The research program is currently being phased in, and although it has been slightly slow to take off, with a major hiring process that started in December 2015,  Dr. Scott mentions that the corporate operational underpinnings have been put into place efficiently and with resounding success. The initial wave of new scientists, technicians and analysts will begin to arrive in Cambridge Bay over the summer.

A True Northern Agency

What Dr. Scott stressed time and again during our recent interview was the need to ensure a Northern perspective, but more importantly the need to ensure that what is happening in the north is happening through the mandate and information received from Northerners themselves.  This seems to be a new leaf for the Canadian government who has, historically speaking, often imposed a southern view on the north, not only in ideas, but in the spacial location of their organizations.  The fact that POLAR will have its headquarters in a relatively small Nunavut community of approximately 1800 people should not be ignored. This in itself is a statement of what the government is trying to accomplish, and with the eager and optimistic Dr. Scott at the helm, they may succeed. While most research stations in the polar regions are for researchers only, it has been a priority to ensure that there is room for the community in POLAR’s research facilities. At the moment, most scientific stations in the polar regions are remote from ordinary people, but as Mr. Scott wholeheartedly stated “we intend to change that.” There are plans for labs for school kids, a traditional knowledge sharing center, and an area for meetings and discussions.

Knowledge Creation

The true mandate of POLAR seems to be the accumulation and the creation of knowledge, specifically in the gaps of our current knowledge, and mobilizing that knowledge into action. They intended to create a “world class hub for science and technology research” in Canada’s Arctic.  Although Dr. Scott speaks to the fact that there are many places in the north where research has and is being done exceedingly well, both in Canada and abroad, there are still plenty of gaps in our understanding of the polar regions. Furthermore, the importance of growth in the future, and supporting the education to allow future generations of Northerners to become actively involved both in POLAR and other government and non-government positions has been flagged as key. Allowing another generation to flourish and pursue knowledge creation is fundamental in POLAR’s long-term goals.

New Government’s Influence

Dr. Scott was also enthused about the role of the new government’s position on “evidence-based decisions”, and he emphasized the role that Traditional Knowledge would play in the new organization. Saying that it was important to have people who, “know how things have been in that geography for a long time.”  POLAR is to be a way of cutting across not only disciplines, but to collect knowledge that has been learned in many different ways. With Prime Minister Trudeau’s attitude towards the importance of Canada’s role in the International World, including his recent push towards gaining a seat on the UN Security Council, it is clear that POLAR has a government which is looking to further Canada’s historically positive position in the world.

Polar Knowledge Canada will be an opportunity for the Government of Canada to prove that it is no longer the same Government who has imposed cultural and traditional values on diverse peoples. It is an example of an agency which will tap into both northern and southern knowledge, as well as creating  opportunities to connect with international partners. Canada has a dominant role to play in the Arctic, being the second largest Arctic nation, and through agencies such as POLAR, Canada has the opportunity to take a positive leadership role in promoting and shaping our future in the North. With this new nimble federal organization, hopefully Canada will further step into it’s own.