Hélène Jetté

Hélène Jetté

Helene Jette portrait

Hélène Jetté

On August 13, 2002, Hélène Jetté died in Ottawa as a result of cancer. She was 48. Hélène showed little outward sign of her struggle and maintained her love of life, kind disposition and concern for others to the end. She leaves her daughter, Louise Demers, her husband, Larry Dyke, her family and many friends to mourn her passing.

In the small world of Canadian Quaternary Palynology, Hélène’s story is unique. Born in the village of St. Honoré, a country childhood was followed by studies at the University of Québec at Chicoutimi, where she earned a B.Sc. in biology in 1976. There she met Pierre Richard where he had been teaching the courses in general botany since 1971. Between 1973 and 1976 Dr. Richard remembers a quiet student working during the summers on marine organisms at the biology laboratory being developed by Denis Larrivée. In 1976 Dr. Richard accepted a post in the geography department at the University of Montréal and moved the palynology laboratory there. He was very surprised to receive a letter from Hélène, offering him her services.

Dr. Richard had nothing permanent to offer but that didn’t matter to Hélène. However, she ended up serving as pollen analyst in his laboratory from February 1977 to May 1984. Her work was remarkable for attention to detail and effectiveness in identifying pollen, spores, and other microfossils. Furthermore, she endeavoured to transfer these skills to a host of students embarking on graduate studies. During this period, Hélène undertook a Master’s degree and took time for the birth of her daughter in 1979. She wanted to establish the pollen species for northern grasses and sedges, research which would also support the doctoral work of Louise Savoie. Working on this degree was not enough to keep her busy. Excess energy was taken up with night courses in science education at the University of Québec at Montréal, learning German at the University of Montréal, and teaching science at the primary and secondary school level at St. Marcelline Villa School in Westmount. It was her awareness of the precarious nature of research funding that led Hélène to expand here capabilities in these ways.

In 1984 Hélène accepted a research assistant position in the paleoecology laboratory directed by Robert Mott at the Geological Survey of Canada. Hélène worked at the GSC until 1995, the year the paleoecology group was practically eliminated in the face of massive federal budgetary cuts. During her time at the GSC, Hélène was active in a variety of palynological and paleoecological studies. Supporting Dr. Mott’s and Dr. Thane Anderson’s work, she aided sampling of lake bottom sediments in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and New York State. In 1987 she helped to organize the 12th INQUA congress in Ottawa and in 1988 presented, with Dr. Mott, an analysis of problems with dating sediments at Chance Harbour Lake at the 6th AQQUA conference in Rimouski. Her Master’s thesis, “Postglacial Palynostratigraphy of the Lake Harriman Region (southern Gaspé Peninsula)”, was completed by 1991 and published in Géographie physique et Quaternaire. She already had two other publications in collaboration with Anne de Vernal and Robert Mott.

The growing interest of the Terrain Sciences Division of the GSC in climate change led Hélène to become active in the paleoecologic component of the Paleoclimate Model Intercomparison Project (PMIP) for 6,000 years BP. This activity culminated in a special volume of GpQ in 1995, which she coordinated and edited. The volume described the paleogeography and paleoecology in Canada 6,000 years ago, with 15 contributing authors. It was the first contribution on this scale to PMIP and followed a workshop conducted by the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Climate Centre, and the GSC. In 1992, Hélène began a doctoral project at the University of Montréal on the postglacial vegetation and climate history of the Mackenzie Valley. She planned to apply transfer functions linking climate and pollen and evaluate the results in collaboration with Anne de Vernal and Joël Guiot, including an integration with diatom results. Field work during two summers and her residence requirements were completed, but the end of her employment with the GSC also ended her doctoral program. During these endeavours, she also ensured the progress of other projects by supplying pollen analyses to many colleagues, enabling publication of several articles after her termination. Her compilations of pollen data also contributed to PMIP and the early stages of the Climate System History and Dynamics project, organized by Richard Peltier with Konrad Gajewski and Pierre Richard among the collaborators. Her primary role in the compilation of the first paleovegetation map of Canada for 6,000 years ago was essential for this project.

Hélène’s last few years at the GSC were marked by outstanding scientific activity. Hélène played a leading role in fostering pan-Canadian cooperation among paleoecologists around the theme of Past Global Changes. But this coincided with a gradual loss of interest by management in paleoecology, despite increasing activity by the wider scientific community in reconstruction of the late Pleistocene and Holocene climate and the established capacity within the GSC to contribute to this objective. She continued to approach her work with openness and devotion but her research career was terminated, along with several others.

In 1995, Hélène was again hired by Natural Resources Canada but now in the Minerals and Metals Sector. In the Mineral and Metal Policy Branch she was responsible for coordinating provincial and federal mining policy for Québec. Being fluently bilingual, having a background in environmental science and the ability to organize and rigorously analyse issues not only won her this job but also made her the logical choice to prepare on the first “environmental assessments of policy” as required by then new government guidelines. It was these same qualities that resulted in her being enticed to work with the Sustainable Development Policy Integration Division. There she took on the challenge of coordinating the federal government’s response to the reports by a House Standing Committee on Streamlining Environmental Regulations for Mining. The trust and respect that she earned from federal and provincial departments, the minerals and metals industry and non-governmental organizations resulted in her being selected to coordinate a Mines Ministers Task Force to review federal – provincial – territorial environmental regulations affecting mining. For her work on this first national review of its type, Hélène and the federal team won Sector and Departmental awards and the first ever Clerk of the Privy Council’s Award for Policy Development.

By this time, Hélène had become the Deputy Director of the Division, the lead policy advisor in the Department on northern mining issues and the environmental assessment of mining projects and a well respected expert in cumulative effects assessment, regulatory reform and decision making processes based on sustainable development. She presented papers and expert advice at forums in both Canada and abroad.

Hélène went on to begin a major initiative looking at ways that governments could work more proactively in minerals and metals regions to facilitate good decision making on issues ranging from environmental assessments to business opportunities to building community capacities to ensure their sustainability when mines close. Her efforts continue to provide the basis of ongoing work in this area.

Hélène Jetté is an example of determination, courage and devotion. Everybody’s memories of her are fond ones. In Robert Mott’s laboratory, her potential as a research scientist became obvious. Despite her career in palynology being cut short, it lasted close to twenty years. She has left her mark and an important legacy. Remembering her kindness and thoughtfulness will support us in our own continuing lives.

Pierre Richard, Robert Mott, David Pasho, Larry Dyke, Roger McNeely


Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 25(2):4-6, 2002.