“A Real Honour”:  Biological Sciences Alum Tom Sheldon References Work with Inuit across the Arctic

When Biological Sciences Honoured Alum Tom Sheldon (BSc ‘03, MSc ‘06) is asked what advice he would give to today’s Biological Science students, he pauses for a moment, then laughs. It’s not that he doesn’t take the question seriously. Sheldon just knows life has a way of throwing some unexpected curves, and where you end up is seldom where you thought. He also knows that being willing to risk failure is key to success.

“I think that learning how to learn, and more importantly, how to interact with others, is incredibly important. It’s more important than the grades you’ll get or your GPA, although some entry-level requirements to post-graduate programs might disagree. Oftentimes when you’re young you think you need to succeed at everything right away. You have real pressure to succeed. But, I think failure offers some of the most valuable learning opportunities.”

After University One, Sheldon decided to study Zoology (now Biological Sciences). He earned his BSc, then went on to pursue his MSc under the supervision of Dr. Nathan Lovejoy. Lovejoy was new to the Uof M community when Sheldon was an undergrad, and his laid back approach appealed to the young Science student.

“I liked his teaching style and the way he interacted with students. I took third year Biodiversity of Fishes with him. It was a great course. He had an easygoing style, in terms of lecturing, but you learned a lot as well. He was a professor that connected with his students outside of class too. It wasn’t just all about classes and papers and labs with him.”

Sheldon’s MSc thesis was on the ecology and evolution of freshwater fishes. He confesses that his prime motivation to do the degree was to travel the length and breadth of the country doing field work. He estimates he and his field assistant put almost 40,000 kilometres on their truck, traveling as they did through Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The project was a good fit for the outdoors-loving Sheldon.

Lovejoy left for the University of Toronto just as Sheldon was finishing his MSc. He decided to move to Kingston to complete writing his thesis while living with his girlfriend (now his wife). While looking for work, he was offered two jobs. He opted to take a position through the Environmental Sciences Group at the Royal Military College.

“It was looking at contamination in the marine and terrestrial environment at a former military radar site in northern Labrador, that’s about 300 km north of the northern-most community, which is Nain. I ended up managing that research program for that professor at the RMC. That’s when I started making regular trips to northern Labrador. It was back in 2006 that I made the first trip.”

Over the years, Sheldon spent increasingly longer periods of time in the north, making connections to the community and to the Nunatsiavut Government (the Inuit self-government of northern Labrador). A maternity leave replacement came up and Sheldon applied and got the job, based in Nain. As the Director of the Environment division, Sheldon’s one-year term eventually evolved into seven.

“We loved it in Nunatsiavut – both the landscape and the people. I’ve never met more generous people with their time, their knowledge and their willingness to open up their homes and families to us. Honestly, they’d give you the shirt off their back. There’s a real sense of community in Nain and on the north coast of Labrador that we gravitated to and we really loved.”

Within the Nunatsiavut Government, Sheldon began to widen his scope, working on initiatives beyond natural science work. This included environmental health work which involved starting a research centre out of Nain. They also established a community freezer and ran environmental health programs for youth in the community. Sheldon worked with the Nunatsiavut Government’s President’s office to develop a sustainable, climate-adapted and culturally appropriate multiplex prototype. He also co-founded a student program, which provided students with land-based educational experiences related to Artic Science, Inuit culture, northern tourism development and natural resource conservation in Torngat Mountains National Park.

“I think that’s the reality when you go work in the Arctic: you can have a job title, but there’s a very collaborative feeling to how work gets done. There’s fewer silos, I would say. There’s a lot of work in partnership, whether that’s within the Nunatsiavut government itself or with other partners like Inuit organizations across Inuit Nunangat (the homeland of Inuit across Canada), public governments or other stakeholders.”

Faced with the reality of aging parents and a family settled predominantly in the southern part of Canada, Sheldon and his wife ultimately decided to relocate to the Ottawa area. He is now Director of Policy Advancement with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representational organization for Inuit.

“The landscape has started changing significantly, especially over the last three years at the federal level. There’s now an Inuit-Crown declaration and associated partnership committee. It’s a permanent bilateral mechanism, where Inuit and federal government leadership at the most senior levels, including the Prime Minister, collaboratively work on priority areas of interest.

“It’s a real opportunity to work at the highest political levels within the Inuit and federal government systems. Seeing that relationship mature and supporting the evolution of that relationship and deliverables associated with joint priorities at a policy level is really motivating and an incredible opportunity. I play one small part in supporting senior level discussions and developing policy content associated with that evolving relationship to ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of Inuit across Canada. There’s a big shift happening – Inuit self-determination continues to grow. And, I have an opportunity to positively support the direction and pace of that shift which is a real honour.”

By Jo Davies

Careers in Science Panel and Roundtable
2020 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Awards

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 30, 2020
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 5:00 pm

The event is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to learn about careers in Science while honouring exceptional alumni and celebrating their achievements.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend.