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.

 

HOW WAS THE PETROCULTURES CONFERENCE?

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.

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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.