March 13, 2018

Researcher builds respectful partnerships with Indigenous people

Vet Med prof Susan Kutz leads students in work in Nunavut and Northwest Territories
Dr. Susan Kutz of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, centre, with two Inuit men while doing Arctic Susan Kutz

Dr. Susan Kutz is more herself when she’s among the Inuit and Dene of Canada’s far North.

“I find that I laugh a lot more when I’m up there, and I just get back to the basics and what’s important in life,” she says. “They’re closer to nature and not so much caught up with materialistic things.”

A professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kutz was recognized as a Peak Scholar by the University of Calgary in 2017. The annual honour is given to academics who have made an impact outside the university in everything from innovation to community engagement.

Kutz has worked since 1994 with Indigenous people to not only promote research into wildlife health in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but also to help communities whose own health depends on traditional sources of food and income such as muskox and caribou.

Susan Kutz, left, looks at the skeleton of a muskox on Victoria Island. With her is Josh Sullivan.

Susan Kutz

Animals experiencing problems

At a time of pronounced Arctic warming, some muskox herds have declined more than 65 per cent, with the animals experiencing problems ranging from impaired immune systems to the spread of parasites and deadly bacteria, she says. “Some caribou herds have gone down from 500,000 animals to about 10,000,” says Kutz.

She has spent nearly 25 years building respectful partnerships with Indigenous communities, who have a generations-old knowledge of wildlife. “They have a far closer connection to the animals and the land, and they hunt and butcher their own meat,” she says.

With associate professor Dr. Sylvia Checkley of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kutz is a co-supervisor of Matilde Tomaselli, a PhD student from Italy who recently released a study that lists the Indigenous Arctic community of Iqaluktutiaq (Cambridge Bay) as a co-author. “I never imagined before coming to Calgary that I would be able to do such amazing things, and part of it is definitely because Susan is very capable as a researcher and very capable also on a community level,” says Tomaselli.

Such research is shared with Indigenous people so they can make their own decisions, says Kutz. “There is a long history of researchers going north, taking what they want and coming back south, and communities not only weren’t acknowledged, they did not even know what the researchers found.”

A musk ox during the summer on the tundra on Victoria Island.

Susan Kutz

Preliminary talks with Stoney Nakoda   

For 11 years, Kutz has also led teams of veterinary students to work with Dene in the Sahtu settlement region of the Northwest Territories, providing everything from treatment of dogs to school outreach programs that allow Indigenous children to learn about veterinary medicine as a potential career.

“I think she’s the most patient and non-judgmental person I’ve ever met,” says Marcella St. Louis, a fourth-year veterinary medicine student who recently returned from a three-week trip to the Sahtu. “She did a great job prepping us about the Dene culture before we even went up there.”

The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is currently in preliminary talks with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation west of Calgary. “We hope to build a partnership where our students can have meaningful interactions with them to learn about First Nations culture, history and relationships with animals, and at the same time, we can provide animal health services,” says Kutz.

Susan Kutz on Victoria Island sampling for slugs and snails, which are the hosts for lungworms.

Susan Kutz

The University of Calgary unveiled its Indigenous Strategy, ii' taa' poh' to' p, on Nov. 16, 2017. The strategy is the result of nearly two years of community dialogue and campus engagement, and involved the work of a number of people from the university, Indigenous communities and community stakeholders. Recommendations from the strategy are being implemented as we move forward with promise, hope and caring for the future.

As part of campus-wide efforts, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Indigenous Strategy is an initiative to be active participants in the reconciliation process between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. It builds on current programs and linkages with Indigenous communities in wildlife health, production animal health, equine and companion animal health, and ecosystem and public health. It incorporates recognition of, and respect for, Indigenous perspectives, culture and ways of knowing.

Susan Kutz in the Sahtu settlement region near Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories with a dog.

Susan Kutz