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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

The Daughter of a Trailblazer Finds Her Own Path

Nina Larsson has created a renewable energy company, helped launch an indigenous youth collective and is working towards improving early childhood development in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Written by John Thompson, Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Nina Larsson stands near the front holding her baby, then two weeks old, at the Indigenous Circumpolar Women's Gathering she helped organize in November 2014.Photo Courtesy Nina Larsson

Nina Larsson, 31, grew up near the French Alps, but her trailblazing mother never let her forget her ties to the Gwich’in in the faraway Beaufort Delta of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

“My mother always shared her Gwich’in values, so we were able to learn that even though we were not here,” Larsson says. “The work ethic, this sense of community, this sense of responsibility and connection to our nation was already there, we just didn’t know that it was. We were just Gwich’in on another continent.”

Larsson’s mother, Shirley Firth, had grown up in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, before becoming a renowned cross-country skier. She and her twin sister, Sharon, both raced for Canada’s cross-country ski team for an unprecedented 17 years and competed in four Olympic Games. While traveling the world, Shirley fell in love with a Swede, and the two settled in France.

Eventually, a yearning to reconnect with the family’s Gwich’in side led Larsson’s parents and two sisters to all relocate to Yellowknife in 2005, and she followed in 2008. Since that time she’s been busy. Among her accomplishments are starting a company that helps residents switch from heating their homes with home fuel oil to cleaner-burning wood pellets, helping to found the Dene Nahjo indigenous youth collective, and working to improve the territorial government’s early childhood development programs.

We spoke with Larsson as part of our series that focuses on emerging leaders in the region.

Arctic Deeply: What do you work on these days?

Larsson: I’m currently the senior adviser, early childhood development for the Department of Health with the Government of the Northwest Territories. We are very focused on implementing the Right From the Start framework, which improves children’s outcomes in the Northwest Territories.

I’m also focused on two other initiatives that are dear to my heart. In 2008 I created Energy North Corporation, which is focused on offering training around renewable energies and sustainable ways of heating communities and homes. It offers training and products, like pellet and biomass boilers, and is committed to increase the understanding around biomass systems in the North and support the communities and installers to implement that by installing and using biomass.

Arctic Deeply: Are those boilers community-sized or are they intended for houses?

Larsson: Both.

Arctic Deeply: And the idea is to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels?

Larsson: Absolutely. Our vision is to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, to create employment opportunities, promote education and develop skills, and promote innovative solutions to increase the use of renewable energies. So far, we’ve installed 76 boilers. Through the company, I’ve trained 21 installers who are all based outside of Yellowknife and live in all five regions that are mainly indigenous. Since 2008, I have had the privilege to travel to Northern British Columbia and Yukon Territory to focus on the education piece and promotion and awareness around renewable energy. I was able to train around 200 people on biomass, specifically. I have two other partners who now look after the day-to-day activities and work with installers, do the training etc., but I’m still involved in the vision for the company.

My third focus is with Dene Nahjo, an indigenous collective established in 2013. I’m one of the founding members. We have many skills that go into the collective and we have different leads for projects.The first major activity that I led was the Indigenous Circumpolar Women’s Gathering in November 2014. It brought together around 100 women from the circumpolar world who are leading work in their communities. The goal was to create a network of indigenous women. We wanted to create a safe space where we can address some of the barriers and some of the opportunities, be really honest and grow together. It was a really interesting and busy week. We’ve all stayed connected.

Arctic Deeply: When you and your colleagues founded Dene Nahjo, what was the need that you were hoping to fulfill?

Larsson: The vision of land, language and culture is what guides us. It’s about creating those connections. We also focus on leadership, not only in elected leaders but leaders in the community who are leading the work every day around specific issues. We wanted to support those who are already doing the work and make sure they’re connected with others who are doing similar work.

Another piece is cultural revitalization. We all have a need to find and connect with our culture. For those of us who live in bigger centers and don’t have the privilege of being connected to our lands or to our elders, it’s important to be able to create those connections outside of our home territories and still be able to pursue initiatives around learning our language, learning how to tan hides, connecting with our peers, finding different aspects around the arts, and afterwards focus on policy. We also try to focus on emerging leaders.

Arctic Deeply: What do you think some of the most pressing issues are for the North?

Larsson: There are three areas on which I am focused. First is early childhood development. The second one is sustainable energy, offering ways and opportunities to become self-reliant around energy consumption. The third one is leadership and having indigenous leaders create solutions to some of the major policy and major issues that we have in the North.

Arctic Deeply: Are there specific people that have been especially inspiring to you?

Larsson: Yes, ultimately people in our nations and surrounding nations are the ones that are inspiring. Our people are resilient, hard working, and always focused on creating a better future and ensuring that the culture is strong and that children are able to have that opportunity. Because nothing can be done with just one person doing the work. It’s the community work that is important.

I can share some names of brilliant indigenous women who I’m happy to call peers or who are mentoring us through this journey. Some of them in Nunavut would be Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Sandra Inutiq, Rosemarie Kuptana, Karen Kabloona. Locally, of course, it would be Bertha Rabesca Zoe, Nellie Cournoyea, Bertha Francis, Stephanie Poole, Dr. Wilson, Mary Simon, I’m sure I’m forgetting somebody …

In the Yukon you have others like Shadelle Chambers, Angela Code, Amanda Buffalo, Diane Strand … There are a lot of indigenous women who are doing a lot of brilliant work in the North right now, and being among peers who are dedicated to their communities and their cultures and their focus is really good.

Arctic Deeply: What would you like to see the Arctic look like 10 years from now? What would you like to see changed or, what would be your ideal vision for it?

Larsson: The vision for the Arctic would be to have the innovative solutions that come out of the North be appreciated. We have such a unique landscape, so we would like to have that recognized and have people connect with us so we can share some of the knowledge around the many initiatives that we’re leading here.

Of course, we want climate change somewhat addressed in 10 years or having a way to work together to protect the environment. Another thing would be, and this is something that Dene Nahjo is working towards, to have a large center to house social and cultural innovation in the north. And of course, addressing education is important, too.

Arctic Deeply: What kind of leadership do you think it will take to get there?

Larsson: It’s some of the work that we’re doing by being connected and focused. Bit by bit, we are changing policies and tackling specific issues. Number one of course is that connection to the culture, that sense of identity and worth and confidence which ultimately will lead you to the next stage of leadership. It will lead people to work on a specific issue in their community, their nation, with their people. It’s also important to connect at the broader level, not just at a territory level, and ensure that we’re also connected in what’s happening in the other circumpolar regions.


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