How an Alberta research team is working with Indigenous communities to reclaim land

A group of researchers are giving hands-on experience to members of Indigenous communities to teach them how to monitor remediation efforts of oil and gas companies on their traditional lands. 

NAIT’s Centre for Boreal Research based out of Peace River teaches communities about forest ecology, seed identification, and peatland restoration — all as a way to reclaim their lands.

“The initial activities … were to train the community members to be what we call the guardians, to understand how land reclamation works, to be able to talk to industry working in their area to see if they’re doing a good job,” said Jean-Marie Sobze, manager of plant and seed technology at the Centre for Boreal Research.

After a summer of unprecedented wildfires in Canada that saw more than 18 million hectares burned, the push for reforestation is more important than ever, said Sobze.

“The forest itself is very important … we know the role that the forest plays in regulating our climate,” said Sobze. 

“If we don’t have people who are committed to restore this forest, over time, we’re just going to lose more and more forests, which will have an impact on our climate.”

So far, the team has worked with First Nations and Métis communities in Alberta and British Columbia. 

The team takes a hands-on approach, with the classroom being the community’s own backyard. 

Debbie Apsassin from Blueberry River First Nation sorting through seeds at NAIT’s Centre for Boreal Research in Peace River, Alta. (Submitted by Bess Legault)

“I get to work with Mother Nature, so that’s what I love about it, it’s … doing this type of work and just getting to know the territory where I come from,” said Jerrilynn Apsassin, who took the training program in Blueberry River First Nation in northern B.C.

“A lot of the work is gear[ed] towards basically healing the land.”

The program was launched in Blueberry River First Nation in collaboration with Grandmothers Greenhouse, an ecological startup launched by the community. 

“It was really nice to see that combination of Western science and traditional knowledge coming together and really reinforcing the knowledge that’s held by both because we’re kind of speaking the same language from different places,” said Bess Legault, general manager for Grandmothers Greenhouse.

Monitoring industry 

The NAIT program trains Indigenous community members to be able to monitor oil and gas projects in their region, to ensure that the lands are returned to their original state. 

As oil and gas companies start the work of remediating the land near Blueberry River First Nation,  Apsassin says it’s important that someone from her community is there to monitor the work being done. 

“What we’re doing is we’re working with industry leaders, meeting up with them and then they’re going to be basically working side-by-side throughout the process of healing the land,” said JerriLynn Apsassin.

A woman with glasses wearing a black baseball hat, and a woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and glasses both smiling, posing in front of a row of trees.
Jenna Apsassin and her sister JerriLynn Apsassin out on the land of Blueberry River First Nation as part of the NAIT Centre for Boreal Research program, learning about seeds and forest reclamation. (Submitted by Jenna Apsassin)

Jenna Apsassin, sister of JerriLynn, recalls when the course took them out on the land, to see how the oil and gas industry affects their community.

“We were walking through the bush and sure enough there is a little tiny plant site there that is totally shut down … it’s just sitting there,” said Jenna Apsassin. 

“It needs to go back to its original state if they’re done with it.”

Provincial seed zones 

In 2010, the Alberta provincial government changed remediation guidelines that oil and gas companies have to follow, requiring them to do a more comprehensive cleanup of sites. 

Sobze says remediation can be more complicated if the province has clear rules around what seeds can be planted in what region. 

“In Alberta, we have what we call seed zones … [they] are just ecological zones that the province develop[ed] to restrict people [from moving] seeds from one seed zone to another,” said Sobze, which he says restricts how remediation can be done. 

He says it’s important that Indigenous people monitor remediation efforts, because they best know their traditional lands. 

A group of people looking at three pieces of brown paper with alder cones on it.
Ryan O’Neil from NAIT’s Centre for Boreal Research in Peace River showing alder cones to people from Blueberry River First Nation, B.C. (Submitted by Bess Legault )

JerriLynn Apsassin says that B.C. also has seed zones, and says that it’s important she’s there to see that her territory is brought back to its natural state. 

“As humans, over time we’ve done some damage and I’m happy to know that I can make a difference in our territory by bringing it back to its natural state before it was disturbed,” said Apsassin. 

For her sister Jenna Apsassin, getting involved in the NAIT program means they are creating a better future for generations to come. 

“I want to learn, I want to get involved and if this is something that my community is going to start doing, I want to make sure I’m part of it and learn from it … that way will help future generations as well,” said Jenna Apsassin. 

The Boreal Research Project at NAIT based in Peace River will receive $696,404 of funding from the province’s Ministry of Technology and Innovation. Last month the province announced a $3.6-million fund for post–secondary research driving innovation and technology. 

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