Community Outreach in the Boreal
How a Trained Scientist with Laboratory Experience is Building Relationships for Conservation
Over the last 10 years, your work has focused on both protecting nature and working with Indigenous communities—how do those two areas intersect for you?
In Canada, Indigenous people have the Constitutional right and responsibility to steward their lands and waters, but it’s so much deeper than that. Culture, food, health and wellbeing, way of life—all of it is tied to traditional territories. I’ve worked with Indigenous communities in Canada, from coast to coast, and in my experience, you don’t have to look very far within their teachings or wisdom to find conservation. It may not be referred to in those terms—“conserving nature”—but it’s there as a core value and as a basis for survival. These teachings place people within nature and as a part of it. Passing this on to youth is a really important focus for a lot of the communities I’ve worked with.
One of my favourite projects so far was working with the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, in northern Alberta to develop a guidebook of culturally important plants and animal species. I interviewed elders and knowledge-holders and went out on the land with them. The elders pointed out plants like ratroot, which grows in wet areas and is used as a medicine; and mooseberry, a low shrub with bright red berries that make delicious jam. It was really important to the Mikisew Cree to document this knowledge, so they could teach their youth but also share with outsiders their relationship with the land.
I’ve also worked with First Nations youth: Last year, I supported youth aged 14-16 from across Canada in building leadership skills around water. Getting to know these youth—their personalities, what they’re dealing with back home, and what they wish for in the future—and seeing their passion for helping their communities has been a highlight of my career so far.
Why are you excited about working with Nature United?
There are so many ways that Nature United is already working Indigenous communities, and I’m excited to help develop that work in Manitoba. I also believe in the way Nature United works: Our approach is respectful of Indigenous sovereignty, and we recognize that Nations have their own needs and interests and are at different stages of what they are trying to achieve. Ours isn’t a cookie-cutter approach; we build projects in a collaborative way, based on the mutual goals of Nature United and each community we work with.
There’s also a lot of excitement about the Boreal region because of the conservation opportunity, especially in Manitoba. I joined Nature United to support conservation that respects Indigenous rights and strengthens local economies. In some cases, this means supporting Nations in land-use planning, so they can engage with governments and industries about the future of their traditional territories. Many communities have limited resources, so it’s great to be able to offer support for Nations’ priorities.
How has your background influenced your work?
I studied biology in school and I loved it, especially the plant courses. My favourite classes were related to ethnobotany, or the study of the relationship between people and plants. As I embarked on graduate research in this area, it was exciting for me to link my studies back to my own ancestry—the valuable plant knowledge of my Metis culture. I interviewed my Granny and we did a field trip in Lebret, the small community in Saskatchewan where she’s from, so she could show me plants like cattails, the lower shoots of which is edible and the fluff can be used to help heal wounds; and hawthorn, which is a heart medicine. Combining my professional interests with my family history has only made me more passionate about working with knowledge-holders.
Who inspires you?
Definitely the champions—in every community I’ve worked in, there has always been at least one person who is doing 10 different things, wearing five different hats and working their butts off.
In the Misipawistik Cree Nation, that champion is Heidi Cook, who works hard to make sure her Nation’s values and rights are understood by governments, environmental groups and scientists, and who’s committed to working not out of anger but out of love for her land and her community. At the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, the champion is Shelley Denny, who ensures the Institute implements the two-eyed seeing approach (described by Elder Albert Marshall): She collects scientific information to better understand their traditional lands and waters in a way that is grounded in Miqmaq teachings.
These champions are leading efforts that contribute to the health and wellbeing of their communities and the lands and waters they are connected to.
What else do you balance with work?
Right now, my one-year-old and my four-year-old keep me very busy! As a family, we try to get outside as much as possible—tobogganing, skating, eventually we’ll start cross-country skiing. Last year, we went on our first family canoe trip in Nopiming Provincial Park, about 200 km northeast of Winnipeg. We had beautiful weather and the kids loved seeing otters, sleeping in the tent and eating marshmallows by the fire. We plan to do a trip every year, exploring different parts of the Boreal in Manitoba and Ontario.