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.  

Why Real Canadians Give their Awards Back

Stompin’ Tom Connors did it.

stc_blkwht_300dpiIn 1972 Stompin’ Tom refused to play at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) after learning that he was getting paid $2,500 for a two hour show, while Charlie Pride was being paid $35,000 to play just six songs. At the time Connors had won Junos three years in a row for top country singer and Charlie Pride had only received one American award. Connors told the CNE directors that they needed to book at least 60% Canadian acts (and pay them proportionately to American ones) before he would play for them.  The CNE was hiring 95% Canadian talent and paying them 5% of the budget.

Then came the Junos. In 1978 Stompin’ Tom Connors packed up his then six Juno awards and shipped them back to the awards committee. He did this because of the “Border Jumpers”. The Canadians who live in the US, work in the American scene, write about American places and culture, and are celebrated by the Canadian Junos Awards. It can be argued that the Junos invite the “Border Jumpers” back for more publicity. Publicity is not what Tom was after, as he canceled a year of shows after returning his award to prove that he hadn’t done it for record sales or self-promotion.

Tom got crankier with age. In 1993 he declined induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Well, that’s what you’ll read in the news. The truth is, he told them, “to stuff it up their asses”. Best of all, before Tom passed away in 2013 at the age of 77, he left instructions that the Junos were not welcome to celebrate his life at the next awards ceremony. Talk about planning ahead.

hwfnlogo2_25a274100d4bb4fd61808d86cc99ca45There is another Canadian who has given back an award because of border jumping: Aaron James Sorenson. Sorenson won the Alberta Media Production Industries Association Rosie Award for his 2004 film ” Hank Williams First Nation”. This film has Canadian (mostly First Nations) actors, content, music and was filmed in northern Alberta. It’s a great film. It even inspired a TV series on APTN. Why did Sorenson return his award? Because Canadian tax money, in the form of grants, is going to Hollywood productions. Meanwhile, a government-funded 22.8 million film studio is being built in Calgary to encourage American film production with the argument that enticing Hollywood film productions in Alberta will stimulate the economy. Sounds like the same rational that has enabled Canadian oil sands to be  mostly owned by Americans. According to Sorenson, what happens is that educated and talented Canadians “end up packing cables” for American filmmakers rather than making their own films.

Even Sorenson went to work in the American film industry. But when he came back to his home in Dixonville, Alberta, he was reminded that Canadians have really great stories to tell. “Taxpayers and politicians are being duped into thinking they are supporting Alberta culture when really what they are doing is giving a direct grant to Hollywood productions so that we can solidify our position as a backlot for a foreign country and never develop our own film culture. Shame on Calgary Economic Development and all who know better who are supporting and promoting this robbery of Alberta taxpayers and Alberta storytellers. Stop giving our arts money to Hollywood. Now.”

This reminds me of the Canadian pastime of naming famous Americans who are actually Canadians. Stompin’ Tom was onto the border jumping musicians. All of the best American comedians are actually Canadians. But what about Canadian landscapes? “Brokeback Mountain”, “Legends of the Fall”, and “Unforgiven” were all filmed in our backyard in Alberta, but the gorgeous landscape shots are presented as American places. What does this do to our own sense of place and home? Places and their names are important threads in cultural identity. Ask the First Nations who had all of their places renamed by colonizers. Canadians shouldn’t be embarrassed to use Canadian place names in their stories, songs, books, and films. Thanks to Stompin’ Tom we can all sing about Sudbury and Tillsonburg. Let’s call Kananaskis, Kananaskis in our films.

Sorenson has decided to do something about all of this. He is developing a Canadian content on-demand internet streaming website called Mooseflix. It will have some Canadian classics and will release new Canadian productions “that don’t stink!”. In the meantime I will continue to be entertained by “This Hour has 22 Minutes“, “Trailer Park Boys”, and Tim Hus please and thank-you very much.


Having been in the news, many people have been asking me how the Petrocultures conference went that was in Montreal February 6-7, 2014. Rather than repeating my random responses of: “it was unique in that it wasn’t just academics speaking” or “I was terrified to present but met lots of interesting people” or student protestors locked us out!,” I would rather just tell people to “read my new blog on it,” so I’ve written one.


Each talk from the conference is available online. I hope this blog helps you wade through and find the black nuggets that appeal to you. You know, the Texas tea.

      1. My biases: I am a Warren Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada so I was a (minor) part of the advisory committee and I know and like all of the people who worked hard to put the conference together. Criticizing a conference is like criticizing a university class: it’s easy to do when you are a participant and not the one doing the work. People always put in more time than you can imagine on planning these kinds of events and they deserve our gratitude. My other bias is that I am an Albertan who has spent years working for First Nations in the oil sands region. Although the conference theme was on petrocultures in all of Canada, there was an inevitable focus on Alberta’s oil sands. Useful insights were shared, but I wondered how many people have actually been to northern Alberta?
      2. I presented on the second day of the conference and the lineup was as follows: Philip D. Moeller (US Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner), Steven Guilbeault (co-founder of Équiterre), Ezra Levant, Tzeporah Berman, then me. What humble PhD student wouldn’t find that line-up intimidating?  So I stumbled through my speech on the good, the bad, and the ugly of traditional land use studies that are being used as consultation with First Nations in Alberta. I hope the wild west reference is obvious. Apart from the lawyer, Katherine Koostachin, and journalist, Trish Audette the other speakers at the conference didn’t really address the impacts of petroleum on Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Sadly Eriel Deranger from Athabasca Chipwyan First Nation was unable to attend, and I’m sure her presence would have shone at the conference.
      3. The Big Guns:  The more famous people were well spoken, polished and did what was expected of them. Ezra Levant waved his arms and insulted everyone, Tzeporah Berman was impassioned and compelling, and Petrocultures co-director Imre Szeman was articulate, brilliant and heuristic. Check the schedule for other heavy hitters that might interest you.
      4. Puke in my Mouth: Liz Hannah the Vice President of Communications at Cenovus Energy gave a half hour commercial on how SAGD is a clean technology and that it brings wealth to people who would otherwise be pathetic and lost. It reminded me of a Rick Mercer skit. It made me laugh, shake my head, and puke in my mouth a little. What bothered me the most, is that no one mentioned the ten-month and counting four sites where oil is seeping out of the ground from the CNRL Primrose in-situ project blow-outs near Cold Lake, Alberta. CNRL has now DRAINED 2/3 of a lake to attempt to resolve the problem. I worked with an Elder from Saddle Lake First Nation last summer who used to fish in that lake. This situation needs way more attention.
      5. Divest McGill and the student protests: I met a lot of the students involved in Divest McGill and perhaps some from the protest. They are a brave and brilliant bunch of students and I wish I was more like them when I was their age.  They were at the microphones asking the tough questions and revealed the weaknesses of people in positions of power. I call on them to keep learning and do more research about the issues that move them.
      6. Memorable and inspiring: Talks by Sheena Wilson, Ruth Beer, Jennifer Gabrys and Brenda Longfellow. These people all blew my hair back. Their projects were useful, fascinating, and precise. Do yourself a favour and spend some time with Longfellow’s Offshore Interactive Blog and keep an eye on Beer’s Trading Routes project. Also play the online interactive game and film Fort McMoney. I can’t get enough of it.
      7. Cultural night: Ending the first night of a conference with art, snacks, and booze is ideal. Each of the featured writers or artists are worth checking out. Warren Cariou told a story that will stay with me. My significant other, Tim Hus, sang his songs that chronicle the history of oil  and oil workers in Alberta.
      8. Open up the valves and let the pipelines flow: I made lots of new friends, the kind that make me smile and give me hope, and I got to spend time with two of the only four other social scientists I know of doing research in the oil sands region, Tara Joly and Hereward Longley. I’m so glad to have these hilarious and ingenious individuals as colleagues, future co-authors, collaborators, and co-conspirators. Please check out their work.

Welcome to my website

Art by Janelle Baker (a different Janelle Baker!) http://janellebaker.blogspot.ca
Art by a different Janelle Baker!

I am currently a PhD student and Vanier scholar in anthropology at McGill University. My supervisor is Dr. Colin Scott and my research is on Cree perspectives on wild food contamination in Alberta’s oil sands region. I am a member the multidiscplinary research program on Indigenous Stewardship of the Environment and Alternative Development (INSTEAD) and the The Centre for Society, Technology and Development (STANDD) at McGill University. I am also a Warren Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

I work as a traditional land use research consultant to First Nations and Metis and as an instructor in anthropology at Athabasca University. I currently manage a traditional environmental knowledge project for the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) where we partner with and support a group of Elders from Fort McKay to observe berry health and quality in their traditional territory that is impacted by oil sands development. I am also the student board member for the Society of Ethnobiology. You can sign up for the student listsev here: http://www.freelists.org/list/soe-students

I found the artwork above by just searching my name in google. What is amazing and bizarre is that the drawing looks JUST LIKE ME. I contacted the artist, with the same name as me (Janelle Baker), and I’m buying a print of the drawing – how could I not!?