research

Fort McKay Elder holding blueberry flower Photo by Janelle Marie Baker

Fort McKay Elder with cranberry flower
Photo by Janelle Marie Baker

I am a PhD student in the Anthropology Department 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. My research is based in Bigstone Cree Nation, with the kind permission of the Chief and Council.

Objective
My core objective is to investigate Cree indicators for wild food contamination by exploring how traditional environmental knowledge and ethnoecological world views inform the concept of contamination. While several current research projects look at wild food use and contamination in Indigenous communities, in-depth studies that focus on culturally relevant indicators for wild food contamination are almost entirely lacking. My approach differs from simply locating and lab-testing foods that Cree people identify as being contaminated in two ways: first, by examining in-depth the ‘diagnostics’ and ‘etiologies’ implicit in Cree ecological knowledge of environmental contamination specifically and Cree criteria for food quality more generally; and second, by considering this ethnoecology from the standpoint of cultural theory on concepts of ‘pollution’ and ‘risk’, as well as political ecological understandings of the power relations to which indigenous knowledges are subject in public policy evaluation and management of pollutants. As expanding industrial development puts pressure on remote communities worldwide, indigenous knowledge about wild food contamination and accessibility to a secure and safe food supply are becoming increasingly relevant.

Background
Since the completion of my MA in 2005 I have been working as a consultant to First Nations in Alberta, supporting their traditional land use (TLU) and traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) assessments and studies and reviewing the TLU and TEK sections of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). The majority of my work is in response to the Federal Government’s legal “duty to consult” First Nations on the impact of natural resource extraction (largely oil and gas) on harvesting rights in First Nations’ traditional territories. A major component of this work has been field visits with Elders and other knowledge specialists to places in their traditional territories to record information relevant to protecting these places from direct or indirect impacts from industrial development. During these research and mapping exercises, a resounding concern voiced by local people is wild food contamination. Participants identify myriad indicators for ecological contamination, changes in plant and animal populations’ health, and climate change. When monitoring organizations and oil companies test for contaminants, their results often contradict or refute what local indigenous people are finding. Due to this difference in perspective, many indigenous people lack trust in the available scientific reports on local food contamination. The social reality and impacts of contamination as perceived and acted upon by local people are all too readily painted over in such a power dynamic.

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