In Search of the Toxic Berry Patch


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


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.


Jokes about Aboriginal Women are not Jokes

The Canadian Government rejected the call for a National Inquiry into the estimated 582 missing Aboriginal women in Canada. How is this possible?

Photo by Janelle Marie Baker
Photo by Janelle Marie Baker

I will begin with a story: I was working for a First Nation in Alberta and staying with a family on the reserve. My co-worker and I had gone to a meeting with the local head of police to discuss the issue of racial profiling on highways. What I mean by this is that the police in the area had a habit of putting up a road block on the edge of the reserve but only stopping people who looked Aboriginal and letting white-looking people through. The police officer agreed that this was unacceptable and said to call him whenever we observed this happening. While we were at the meeting my co-worker had leant her truck to her daughter, who was 9-months pregnant, to run into town. We got a phone call. She was being held in a jail cell at the police station and we needed to come bail her out. The truck was also being held. It turns out that my friend’s daughter had been pulled over and didn’t know where the insurance was. Her mom had just paid the truck insurance, but had forgotten to put the slip in the glove compartment. We asked if the insurance company could confirm with the police that the truck was in fact insured. Nope. Apparently the daughter also had some unpaid speeding tickets and we had to come pay them before she would be let out. So we made the one-hour drive into town. On the way we worried my friend’s grandchild might be born in a jail cell. We arrived, paid the “bail” and were reunited with the silent but crying pregnant hostage. We had to wait until the following Monday before my friend could have her truck back. Aboriginal women are treated differently in Canada. I can promise you that in the same set of circumstances that there is NO WAY a women with white features who was obviously pregnant would have been jailed.

But wait a minute, Canadians aren’t racist, right? After all, Canada was the final stop for the underground railroad. We are multicultural! We love Indian buffets and sushi! But there is a shocking exception: The average Canadian is racist towards Aboriginal people. It’s our dirty little secret. The minute I tell someone at social gatherings that I work for First Nations, people have harsh, racist, ignorant comments, even though the majority of them have never even stepped onto a neighbouring reserve or know what treaty area they live in. “Do they ever pay you?” “None of them actually go on the land anymore do they?” “One time a drunk Indian…” Please, enough with the stupid urban legend about people cutting a hole in their house trailers to water their horses in the bath tub. You did not see this yourself so stop swearing it’s true to make yourself feel superior.

The absolute worst are the racist comments and “jokes” we hear on a regular basis from many Canadian men. We’ve all heard the horrible stories that men tell about working in a remote areas, near an Aboriginal community. This repulsive tradition started with the British taking “country wives,” continued with building of the Alaska highway and is upheld by oil workers today. They return from shifts to brag and tell disgusting stories about the Aboriginal women that they allegedly have used as sex objects. The stories are always dehumanizing and describe the women as somehow unattractive. Even a local musician told me recently that my moose call (that was much better than his by the way) “sounded like a fat, ugly squaw he f**ked once”. I know these are harsh words to repeat, but I’m doing it because I am making a call to put an end to this kind of “joking”. Another guy I know expressed his concern that a group of us were walking into an “Indian bar” and I said “great”. We sat down, he told us about recently getting engaged. A drink later he “joked” about grabbing himself one of the Blackfoot women sitting at the bar. It’s not cheating when she’s not human, right? People rarely flinch at these kinds of comments. In fact, they often snicker. What happens when it’s socially acceptable to make these kind of dehumanizing “jokes”? Some drunk guy staying in a northern work camp who has mental health issues goes out and rapes and kills an Aboriginal woman, because he has been socialized to think of her as a non-human. What about the mountie who investigates when this woman’s family reports their loved one missing? Well he was likely raised around this same kind of speech and mindset. He thinks, “she was probably bothering the men in the work camp and just went out and got drunk somewhere. No need to talk to the men in the camp. Oh wait, they just had a shift change and are gone anyway”.

The “Highway of Tears” is a stretch of road in northern BC that had at least 43 women go missing along it. How many of the women in the Robert Pickton murders were Aboriginal? Many of them. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has gathered information about 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Loretta Saunders, Inuit, pregnant, was recently murdered WHILE doing research on missing Aboriginal women in Canada. James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, called for a nationwide inquiry to no avail.

There are many changes that need to be made. First of all, let’s put an end to dehumanizing “joking”. Call people on it. It’s not funny. Another thing we need is a class that all Canadians take, say in high school, on the history and cultures of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The average Canadian just doesn’t know about Treaties, land claims, the diversity of cultures, residential schools, the reserve system, settlements, our history. Even a lot of school teachers are guilty. My own colleagues in anthropology who do research outside of Canada often have no idea whose territory they live on. I’ve heard a fellow student say that there are no Aboriginal people left where they grew up in Canada. A student in my cohort told me it was “a fallacy to believe that the potlatch is still intact”. One of my professors admitted to not knowing what “Metis” means. How is such extreme ignorance possible? The assimilation myth exists even amongst educated North Americans. It’s time to learn. To respect the very existence, diversity, ways of life, and resilience of the First Peoples of the land on which we live. Let’s have the conservative government take the first class on it. In the meantime, invite everyone you know to visit the Walking With our Sisters exhibit for a visual representation comprised of 1,726+ pairs of moccasin vamps (tops) created and donated by hundreds of caring and concerned individuals to draw attention to this injustice.

This blog was also posted on Pass it to the Left


On Being an Academ-Hick

Country mouse in the city? There’s no need to be ashamed of your rural upbringing.

MKTGIRL1I grew up on a subsistence farm in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies near Sundre, Alberta. That’s right, west of the 22, for the Albertans reading this. Cue the banjo music. Myron Thompson taught me high school science. You know, the former MP who resembles Boss Hog with his cowboy hat and infamous quote: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. Not so scientific there Myron. My family has a trapline and none of them have been to university. I often get asked how the heck I ended up as an academic.

In fact, friends and family discouraged me from going to university: “Them university types have no common sense and just become professional students”.

My former creative writing professor Birk Sproxton captured this sentiment well:

..that spring we moved the outhouse and Allen carved an inscription on the inside of the door: “This hole dug by” and then my name and university degrees. The English professor finally does something useful.

However, there are some benefits to being an Academ-Hick:

  1. You get the best of both worlds. World travel, live music, art shows, good books AND picking berries and going fishing? Perfect harmony.
  2. Being in the “field” isn’t really being in the field. If doing research means  being on the land, riding horses, harvesting food, building a fire, getting dirty, not having running water, and sleeping on the ground, then…that’s what Academ-Hicks grow up doing and still do for fun. Why do we anthropologists call research locations “the field” anyway? Where I go isn’t a field, it’s the boreal forest, home to a lot of lovely people. The only person I know who is going to the field to do research is my friend, Katie Strand, who is working with farmers in Saskatchewan. How cool is that? She’s going to the field.
  3. You know where good food comes from and how to get it. The locavore and canning trend in the hipster scene in the city is great, but it cracks me up. People walking around with mason jars, really now? Having music events about growing food in the city but not actually growing food? Silliness. My family doesn’t garden, hunt, and have chickens because it’s cool, they do it because that’s where their food comes from and always has. Academ-Hicks know how to garden, shovel manure and store food because those were their chores, not because they  attend weekend workshops on it. As an Academ-Hick  you have affordable (often free), healthy meals in the city and while doing research you know how to help people prepare meals instead of just sitting there taking notes or filming people while they prepare meals.
  4. You have manners. Not because Academ-Hicks are good people, but because it was beaten into them. When you grow up in a place where your parents know what you’ve done before you get home, you learn to be respectful. There’s just no swearing at strangers or being randomly rude. Academ-Hicks help elderly people without thinking about it. This transfers well to all places, but is especially important while doing research in other people’s homes and communities. Meanwhile, the university setting is always in need of a  good dose of manners.
  5. You can fix things. Fences, pull out porcupine quills, open a stuck choke, mend that hole in your pants, darn a sock, dig an outhouse hole. Self-reliance. Life is more affordable when you can do things yourself and  you can help other people fix things. Academ-Hicks can be useful and write about how other people do things, which is useful.
  6. You’re grateful. Really? I get money to sit on my butt and read about things that interest me!? Amazing! I can sleep in and don’t have to check the cows at 2 am and 30 below in February? So easy I feel guilty! When I started my MA and got paid to work as a TA and RA I thought I’d won the lottery. Being a grad student is a wonderful luxury. It’s an opportunity for you to contribute to the world. Academ-Hicks skip the entitlement generation.
  7. You find each other. Academ-Hicks just look at each other and know. There’s a glean in their eyes and next thing you know they’re sneaking out of some uptight event to go drink beer together. My Academ-Hick friends are hilarious, calm, respectful people who know how to live well and if anyone gets stressed, we just go out for a rip.

This blog was also posted on Huffington Post Canada.