In Search of the Toxic Berry Patch

Engagement

By Janelle Baker, McGill University §

In Memory of the late “Cibomb” Clement Auger

Cibomb. Photo by Janelle Baker.

Rattling down a dusty oil field road
in his little aqua truck
headlights on as company safety protocols mandate
Me, 8 months pregnant
nervously remembering
his accident last winter on the South Wabasca Lake ice
in which he lost sight in one eye
but I had been asking for weeks
to try and find the place with the sign
we visited years ago
the perfect camping spot
bushy jack pines
bright fine sand
thumb-sized iridescent blueberries
across from an oil and gas site
the bold white sign that told the grandchildren
these berries ARE NOT SAFE TO EAT

A few days earlier
Beth Ann kindly packed sandwiches
and set out to help me find the same berry patch from her Sandy Lake childhood
as we drove she told me that the young…

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Harvesting Ruins: The Im/Permanence of Work Camps and Reclaiming Colonized Landscapes in the Northern Alberta Oil Sands

Engagement

Janelle Marie Baker, Anthropology McGill University §

*All photos taken by Janelle Marie Baker

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Abandoned work camp in Bigstone Cree Nation territory.

My Nehiwayak (Cree) friends who have the patience and kindness to take me out to the “bush” or Canadian subarctic boreal forest often ask me to film and photograph their activities, but on this particular summer day I am careful to not photograph or videotape anyone. My hosts are harvesting from their territory as they do regularly, in good spirits, speaking SakawNehiwayak (northern/bush Cree), laughing, sharing, and remembering to bring something for people back home. We have along the usual snacks of bannock and tea and moose meat. They talk about people who have been here before and who have taken more than they should have, and others who came here early and got the really good items (like TVs, generators, kitchen pots, and leather couches). It’s almost…

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No Significant Impact? TED Style Talk at the Global Environments Summer Academy 2015

How do oil sands affect the surrounding environment? Is the area already useless, to start with? On a different note, as researchers, what can we do to go beyond being part of the process of extracting indigenous knowledge into dusty shelves of libraries?

Listen to Janelle respond to these questions and connect oil sands to indigenous knowledge in her talk about First Nations’ Treaty rights and land use in Canada’s oil sands region.

Our Northern Blind Spot

There is a tart and nutritious berry available to us from the nordic forests of Sweden. The lingonberry. You can walk into any Ikea and buy all sorts of products made from this small, dark, imported red fruit, such as sparkling water, jam, and drinking boxes. You can eat it with meat and when you drink it it can cure urinary tract ailments.

Photo by Janelle Marie Baker
Photo by Janelle Marie Baker

The irony is that the exact same berry grows wild in abundance in Canada. We call it the cranberry. Vaccinium vitis-idaea for the scientists. It’s circumpolar and circumboreal, but grows quite far south into  the Canadian provinces. We call it “mountain cranberry” were I grew up, since it grows on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

I have the fortune to work on a project with Fort McKay, a Cree, Dene and Metis community in northern Alberta where we monitor some of their traditional berry patches for effects from nearby oil sands operations. The cranberry is one of many species of edible and medicinal berries that grow in Fort McKay’s territory. Several of their berry patches have been lost to industrial development and others are no longer considered safe to harvest from due to potential contamination. However, there are remote berry patches that people travel long distances to with their friends and family in the late summer to fill their buckets. They bring cranberries back to their community and share them with the elderly and with people who have illnesses that cranberries can cure. The cranberries are eaten, frozen, canned, and made into juice.

Many Canadians pick berries but more eat farmed cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) from a can or plastic bag at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and some drink them mixed with copious amount sugar from a plastic jug, but why aren’t wild cranberries a part of Canadian cultural identity? Why don’t many people pick them and why can’t we readily buy products made from wild harvested Canadian cranberries?

Canadians are in denial. The majority of our population lives along the southern border. We dread winter and always pretend like the summer lasts longer than it does. We tell foreigners to only visit us in the summer months. Unlike our Scandinavian friends we do not self-identify as a northern people and we certainly don’t embrace the winter. We lack heated sidewalks, year-round outdoor cafes, skiing to work, and fashionable winter wear. The boreal forest and arctic are thought of as barren frontiers, with few people, only useful for natural resource extraction. The wild cranberry is a symbol of our northern blind spot.

As I listen to loons call and write this from Fort McKay’s fly-in northern reserve at Moose Lake, I can see that the boreal forest is a beautiful and bountiful place. Red cranberries blanket the forest floor. Monstrous fish are delicious when freshly caught and smoked. People have lived off of the land here for centuries and they continue to do so with respect and reciprocity. It’s time for all of us to appreciate and embrace the landscape that sustains us. Perhaps we can begin with a small red berry.