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Retelling the Polar Bear Story: Human Responses to Polar Bear-Human Interactions in Churchill, Manitoba



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Polar bear-human interactions are increasing throughout the Canadian Arctic, pose a significant threat to both people and polar bears, and serve as catalysts for social conflict over how polar bears are studied and managed. Despite a relatively large body of scientific literature on polar bears there have been few studies on the human dimensions of polar bear-human interactions and conflicts. The purpose of this research was to examine the underlying assumptions and expectations that influence responses to polar bear-human interactions in Churchill, Manitoba. Data were collected using multiple social science methods including semi-structured interviews, talking circles, focus groups, and a problem solving workshop. This research investigated how understandings of polar bear-human interactions in Churchill, Manitoba are shaped by discourse. I found that study participants used discourses to create and impose boundaries that dictated where polar bears (and humans) were permitted and defined the possible ways humans and polar bears could interact. Understanding discursive boundaries and the processes by which they are produced provides insights into why stakeholders often hold divergent opinions over how people should interact with polar bears. This research also examined how local people and management agencies responded to a polar bear-inflicted human injury. My findings show that polar bear management agencies respond remarkably well to errors in procedure, but are often unable to address underlying systemic drivers of polar bear-human conflict. I also found that some community members had fatalistic attitudes towards polar bears, which may make them less likely to respond to educational efforts to reduce risk-taking behaviour around polar bears. Finally, this study documented local knowledge of polar bear behaviour during interactions, clarified perceptions and interpretations of polar bears, and examined the linkage between local experts’ knowledge, perceptions, and actions. I found that differences in perspectives on the predictability of polar bear behaviour and in interpretations of the nature of bears significantly influenced strategies for responding to bears. I also found that there is a need to develop richer models for understanding what motivates and influences human behaviours and responses towards bears. Overall, this disseration provides significant insights not only into how people understand polar bear-human interactions but also into how these understandings translate to specific on-the-ground practices.



polar bear-human interactions, Churchill Manitoba, human responses, polar bear-human conflicts, human dimensions, local knowledge, perceptions



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


School of Environment and Sustainability


Environment and Sustainability


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