How an Alberta research team is working with Indigenous communities to reclaim their land

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A group of researchers is providing hands-on experience for indigenous community members to teach them how to monitor oil and gas companies’ restoration efforts on their traditional lands.

NAIT’s Boreal Research Center, based in Peace River, teaches communities about forest ecology, seed identification and peatland restoration, all with the goal of reclaiming their land.

“The initial activities…were to train community members to be what we call stewards, to understand how land reclamation works, to be able to talk to the industries working in their region to see if they are doing a good job,” said Jean-Marie Sobze, manager of plant and seed technology at the Center for Boreal Research.

After a summer of unprecedented wildfires in Canada that burned more than 18 million hectares, efforts toward reforestation are more important than ever, Sobze said.

“The forest itself is very important… we know the role it plays in regulating our climate,” Sobze said.

“If we don’t have people committed to restoring this forest, over time we’re going to lose more and more forest, which will impact our climate.”

So far, the team has worked with First Nations and Métis communities in Alberta and British Columbia.

The team takes a hands-on approach, with the classroom being the community’s backyard.

Woman holding a blade, sorting seeds.  Seed containers are placed in the foreground.
Debbie Apsassin of Blueberry River First Nation sorting seeds at the NAIT Boreal Research Center in Peace River, Alberta. (Submitted by Bess Legault)

“I work with Mother Nature, so that’s what I love is… doing this type of work and just getting to know the land that I’m from,” said Jerrilynn Apsassin, who completed the program of Blueberry River First training. Northern British Columbia Nation

“A lot of the work is basically about healing the land.”

The program was launched in Blueberry River First Nation in collaboration with Grandmothers Greenhouse, a community-initiated eco-friendly startup.

“It was really nice to see this combination of Western science and traditional knowledge come together and really reinforce the knowledge held by both, because we’re kind of speaking the same language from different places,” said Bess Legault, Executive Director of Grandmothers Greenhouse. .

Industry Monitoring

The NAIT program trains members of indigenous communities to be able to monitor oil and gas projects in their area, to ensure that the land returns to its original state.

As oil and gas companies begin remediating land near Blueberry River First Nation, Apsassin says it’s important that someone from his community is there to monitor the work being done.

“What we do is work with industry leaders, meet with them, and then they will work side by side through the process of healing the land,” JerriLynn Apsassin said.

A woman with glasses wearing a black baseball cap and a woman wearing a gray sweatshirt and glasses smiling, posing in front of a row of trees.
Jenna Apsassin and her sister JerriLynn Apsassin on Blueberry River First Nation lands as part of NAIT’s Boreal Research Center program, learning about seeds and forest restoration. (Submitted by Jenna Apsassin)

Jenna Apsassin, sister of JerriLynn, remembers when the course took them into the field, to see how the oil and gas industry affects their community.

“We were walking in the bush and sure enough there’s a tiny little factory there that’s totally closed… it’s right there,” said Jenna Apsassin.

“It needs to go back to its original state if they’re done with this.”

Provincial Seed Zones

In 2010, the Alberta provincial government changed the remediation guidelines that oil and gas companies must follow, requiring them to conduct a more comprehensive cleanup of sites.

Sobze says sanitation can be more complicated if the province has clear rules on which seeds can be planted in which region.

“In Alberta we have what we call seed zones…these are just ecological zones that the province has developed to prevent people (from moving) seeds from one seed zone to another,” said Sobze, which he says restricts how corrective action can be taken.

He says it’s important for indigenous people to monitor restoration efforts because they know their traditional lands best.

A group of people looking at three pieces of brown paper covered with alder cones.
Ryan O’Neil of NAIT’s Peace River Boreal Research Center showing alder cones to residents of Blueberry River First Nation, British Columbia. (Submitted by Bess Legault)

JerriLynn Apsassin says British Columbia also has seed zones and it’s important they are there to ensure their land is returned to its natural state.

“As humans, over time we have caused damage and I am happy to know that I can make a difference to our land by returning it to its natural state before it was disturbed,” said Apsassin.

For her sister Jenna Apsassin, getting involved with the NAIT program means creating a better future for generations to come.

“I want to learn, I want to be involved and if this is something my community starts doing, I want to make sure I’m a part of it and learn from it… that way it will also help the future generations,” said Jenna Apsassin.

NAIT’s Peace River-based boreal research project will receive $696,404 in funding from the province’s Ministry of Technology and Innovation. Last month, the province announced a $3.6 million fund for post-secondary research driving innovation and technology.

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