An award-winning collaboration highlights UNBC’s role in bringing First Nations and industry together.
Video: Brian Wolf, junior lands director of the Prophet River First Nation discusses the success of the recent research collaboration with UNBC, Encana Corporation, and EDI Environmental Dynamics, and what's at stake for his community south of Fort Nelson, BC.
Can an energy company seeking to drill gas wells collaborate with a First Nation eager to preserve its land and culture?
Watching the news lately, you might think not, but a recent partnership involving the University of Northern British Columbia is demonstrating that industrial development can stimulate environmental sustainability and the preservation of traditional knowledge.
In 2007, Encana wanted to build an all-season road to connect gas lines in the Peace River region of northern BC. “Our ultimate goal is to drill wells and create supporting infrastructure,” says Angela White, the surface land representative for Encana who worked on the project.
The road was on Fort Nelson and Prophet River First Nations (PRFN) land. “When we found out both Nations were interested in cataloging plant life in the area we wanted to help. We view the First Nations we work with as key stakeholders. This means appreciating what is important to them.”
Map indicating the border of the Prophet River Consultation Area in the oil and natural gas-rich Peace River region of northern BC. Download the high-resolution image.
As part of her investigation, White consulted with Brian Wolf, junior lands director of the Prophet River First Nation. “We need to pass on our traditional knowledge to the younger generation before it’s too late,” says Wolf, who was part of a presentation on the project for undergraduate biology students at UNBC recently. “In the last decade, we’ve lost half of our Elders and knowledge-holders, so there is a real sense of urgency.”
White, in discussion with Wolf and Cathy MacKay, senior biologist and managing partner at biological consulting firm Environmental Dynamics Inc (EDI) and a UNBC graduate, concluded that the project needed to be much broader in scope than a single road. “We realized that, in order to do a thorough job, we needed to collect all of the ecological knowledge in the area,” says White. “At that point, we chose to involve UNBC. The University was absolutely essential to the process. UNBC had no agenda other than to collect — and protect — the knowledge of the First Nations. This gave the process a lot of credibility.”
Encana surface land representative Angela White learns about the medicinal uses of the indigenous plant ratroot from Elders of the Prophet River First Nation. Download the high-resolution image.
“In a partnership like this, UNBC can make all parties comfortable simply by virtue of the ethical manner by which we research,” says Jane Young, a professor of Ecosystem Science and Management at UNBC who was the lead researcher. “We created a submission to the UNBC Research Ethics Board and PRFN Chief and Council that was approved by both parties. This submission included a Traditional Knowledge Protocol, signed by all four partners, with objectives, guiding principles, deliverables and benefits, as well as a guarantee of confidentiality and ownership of knowledge. It was a guide to carrying out research responsibly and respectfully and it set the tone for the entire project.”
Clockwise from left) Brian Wolf, Jane Young, Sam Barnes, and Cathy MacKay discuss the award-winning research collaboration with a classroom of UNBC students. Download the high-resolution image.
The Fort Nelson First Nation later withdrew to conduct its own study, after which the partners, with financial support from the Science and Community Environmental Knowledge Fund, enlisted the aid of Elders, other knowledge-holders, and PRFN youth.
They collected the knowledge about plants and ecological life—from the blueberries they harvest to the medicinal ratroot—that are a cornerstone of cultural life in the community. The group also produced a community booklet, Communicating Traditional Knowledge: Prophet River First Nation, and a “Spatial Data Decision-Making Tool,” (SDDT) which the community can use to aid the referral process for future industrial development.
Dr. Jane Young with her students at UNBC's Prince George campus. Download the high-resolution image.
The partnership was recently honoured with the Collaborative Research Award at the Northern British Columbia Business and Technology Awards. (From Left) UNBC research officer Harold Hume, EDI President Bob Redden, Jane Young, Sam Barnes, Angela White, and Brian Wolf. Download the high-resolution image.
“They’ll be able to quickly refer to the SDDT to locate the areas that have important sites and say, ‘this isn’t the best place to build a road, but over here it’s okay,’ which makes the process much smoother,” says Dr. Young. “All of the traditional ecological knowledge from the study is in the system, and it can also predict areas that may be important in the future.”
The study also presented numerous opportunities for teaching and research for Prophet River youth and students at UNBC. Recent UNBC graduate Sam Barnes worked as an undergraduate research assistant on the project. “I was so impressed when working with the Elders at how friendly and forthcoming they were,” says Barnes, who accepted a position with EDI soon after graduation.
“It was exciting to go from the classroom right out into the field. I came to UNBC for the small class sizes, but left with a deep appreciation for unique undergraduate research opportunities like this.”
An Encana crew builds an all-season road near Fort Nelson, BC. (Copyright © Encana Corporation. All rights reserved.) Download the high-resolution image.
Brian Wolf says this is just the beginning. “We want to continue working with UNBC, EDI, and Encana to catalogue regions that are only accessible by horseback and add locations such as grave sites and hunting lodges,” says Wolf. “I’m also very interested in reclaiming industrially developed land with traditional plants to keep foreign invasive species at bay. We made a big step forward with UNBC, EDI, and Encana and I want to keep moving forward.”
White adds, “this collaboration is a perfect testament to the fact that, when building the foundations for a prosperous future, the most important development is done on your relationships.”