Traditional Knowledge

One of the long-held core values of the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association is recognition of and respect for Traditional Knowledge (TK).WBEA has enjoyed longstanding relationships with Indigenous communities in the RMWB. Since 1997, WBEA has undertaken various traditional knowledge projects in the region, and many communities are now interested in formally partnering with WBEA on other community driven projects.

To help coordinate these partnerships, WBEA established a Traditional Knowledge Committee to help develop and oversee long-term, traditional knowledge based, community monitoring programs.

Fort McKay Berry Focus Group

The Fort McKay Berry Focus Group has been collaborating with WBEA since the fall of 2010 as a part of WBEA’s Terrestrial Environmental Effects Monitoring (TEEM) program. Through a series of workshops and meetings, the Fort McKay Berry Group has designed a community-based project to share their traditional knowledge and concerns about local berry populations so as to inform the “twinning” of scientific monitoring of the berry patches.


In 2010, WBEA was approached by members of the Fort McKay First Nation with concerns about observed changes in the quantity and quality of blueberries and cranberries growing on their traditional lands. In response, WBEA staff began a dialogue, facilitated by the Fort McKay Sustainability Department, with several interested community members. In late 2010, the joint WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group was established. Initially the group met to share observations about regional berry patches, traditional berry uses and berry harvesting. The early meetings gave WBEA staff the opportunity to listen and learn from Elders, well before any field work was planned. These meetings then proceeded to include discussions about visits to both preferred and non-preferred regional berry patches. Some berry patches, close to the community of Fort McKay, were considered unacceptable (non-preferred) as a food source, due to the proximity of oil sands operations, while other patches, farther afield, were considered acceptable (preferred), or clean, as they were distant from the oil sands development.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge/Berry Monitoring Project Factsheet (including project design, key findings, etc.)

Figure 1. James Grandjambe is a member of the WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group

James Grandjambe is a member of the WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group

A key component to the success of the Project has been the guidance of Janelle Baker, Little Seed Consulting, Inc., an environmental anthropologist and social scientist, who designed the Project according to current methodological and ethical standards in the discipline of cultural anthropology. The Project was designed by Janelle and WBEA staff (twinning of scientific methods) to be driven by and respectful of the Fort McKay community members and to be carried out in a fashion that was sensitive to their etiologies and epistemologies.

In early 2012, planning for the first summer of field work began. The Berry Focus Group identified four berry patches of interest. Visits were made during the growing season to observe the quantity and condition of plants, flowers and fruit. Berried were harvested for personal use. With the Group’s permission, notes, photographs and video recordings were made during the field trips. All data, notes and images were shared with and presented to the Group at annual verification meetings.

During the winter of 2012-2013, the Group discussed the outcomes of the previous field season and requested that passive air pollution monitors be placed at the berry patches to monitor ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide at each site. Group members accompanied WBEA technical staff to set up the passive monitors and to collect and change the air pollution passive filters, on a monthly basis, throughout the spring and summer. In addition, the Group asked that blueberries at each site be harvested and sent for analysis of a range of trace metals and food quality indicators. This was done and the results were shared with the Group at a verification meeting in early 2014.

Figure 2. Passive air pollution monitors were installed at five berry patches, at the request of the Berry Focus Group, in 2014.

Passive air pollution monitors were installed at five berry patches, at the request of the Berry Focus Group, in 2014.

In 2014, the group requested that meteorological stations be installed at the berry patches in order to collect data on the microclimates at each site. In accordance, with the Group’s wishes solar-powered, continuous weather stations that record rainfall frequency/amount, temperature and wind speed/direction were installed and operated from May through August. As blueberries are a key understory species on the WBEA forest health network of 25 regional plots, a fifth berry patch at one of these plots was added to the network in 2014, as well.

The Group has agreed to the presentation of findings at several scientific conferences and have sometimes representatives accompany Janelle to help present the findings and answer questions.

Two recent conferences that Berry Focus Group members have participated in and presented at are:

– The Joint Society of Ethnobiology’s 37th of Economic Botany’s 55th was “The Energy of People, Places and Life” and was held from May 11-16, 2014, in Cherokee, North Carolina, USA. The title of the paper was “Tasting and Testing: Addressing Aboriginal Concepts of Berry Contamination in Alberta’s Oil Sands Region.” Clara Bouchier co-presented with Janelle Baker and answered questions at the end of the session.

– The 14th International Congress of Ethnobiology June 1-7, 2014, in Bhutan. The conference theme was “One Earth for All: Regenerating Biocultural Ecosystem Resilience.” Janelle Baker was funded by the Darrell Posey Doctoral Fellowship to attend the Congress and the Student Pre Congress. Janelle was involved in several panels regarding her doctoral research and also presented a short film based on footage and interviews from WBEA- Fort McKay Berry Focus Group field trips.

Summer 2014 field work included changing out passive air monitoring filters monthly and visiting berry patches to monitor them according to Fort McKay TEK. At the end of the field season enough berries were harvested from each of the patches to send for laboratory analysis of health-promoting constituents, nutrients and trace metals.

Figure 3. Howard Lacorde (left) and Kevin Percy (right) discuss the passive air monitoring and meteorological equipment at one of five monitored Berry Focus Group berry patches.

Howard Lacorde (left) and Kevin Percy (right) discuss the passive air monitoring and meteorological equipment at one of five monitored Berry Focus Group berry patches.

New TK Projects

During the course of discussions about WBEA’s monitoring work with groups throughout the region, interest in forming other TK groups has been expressed. These groups would operate in other communities and their focus might be on plants other than blueberries. The groups would decide upon and guide the work, with WBEA participation. In the fall of 2014, WBEA convened a meeting of interested members to talk about a Traditional Knowledge (TK) committee to steward such studies. At the March 2015 Board meeting, a TK committee was established by the membership.

Social Science Methods
Janelle Baker and WBEA have ensured that the following standard social science methods have been employed in the WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group Project:

Community-Based Research – This research method is a requirement for working with the community of Fort McKay and is crucial for project success in First Nations communities in Canada. It means that the research design is open and directed by the community members to ensure that it is culturally sensitive and relevant. In the context of this project, the Fort McKay Sustainability Department assigned a Focus Group of specialists to this project. The Focus Group in general guides the process through meetings, and the Focus Group also elected two team members to make logistical and final decisions for the research team regarding project design.

Informed Consent – In order to meet Fort McKay requirements and professional ethical standards in social science research, informed consent must be given before recording or sharing any information that is gathered during the research. Informed consent means that the participants are informed about exactly what the project is and how the information that they provide will be used. Research participants ultimately own the information that they provide and can withdraw from the research or revoke the recorded information they have provided at any time.

Figure 4. Celina Harpe, a member of the WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group since 2010, with blueberries harvested for testing at one of the group’s monitored berry patches.

Celina Harpe, a member of the WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group since 2010, with blueberries harvested for testing at one of the group’s monitored berry patches.

Participant Observation – Participant observation is the method that defines the field of cultural anthropology. It means that the researcher spends time with the research participants and ‘does what they do.’ In the case of this project, it means spending time with the research group, picking berries, helping with project logistics, learning the languages, and getting to know the Focus Group Members.

Informal Interviews – While in the field, it is often helpful to ask questions about how and why people ‘do what they do.’ For example regarding berry contamination, it is useful to ask what berries were considered to be contaminated and why. Information interviews are ad hoc, held in the field, and open-ended.

Information Recording – Whenever consent is provided and the situation is appropriate, activities and interviews are recorded with a “flip” video camera, digital camera and GPS handheld device.

Verification – An important component of community-based fieldwork and informed consent (see above) is to confirm with the participants that the reporting and conclusions are accurate. For this project, a verification meeting is held following the previous year’s work where the project results are presented to the Focus Group and Fort McKay Sustainability Department. At this time, the Focus Group Members will be provided with copies of the field notes and all recorded materials.