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Combining ECCC science and Indigenous Knowledge to improve lives in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta

The story of ECCC wildlife toxicologist Phil Thomas

How can Environment and Climate Change Canada’s scientific expertise work in conjunction with traditional Indigenous Knowledge to help improve lives in remote communities?

ECCC wildlife toxicologist Phil Thomas knows firsthand about this crucial partnership.

Thanks to funding from ECCC, the Oil Sands Monitoring Program, and in-kind contributions from his partners and the Indigenous communities he works with, Thomas examines the impacts of industrial contaminants on the environment - specifically the health of local wildlife. On-the-ground knowledge and active involvement of Indigenous people is essential to the success of his work.

Several times a year, Thomas travels to northern Alberta to collect and dissect animals and to analyze the potential impact of contaminants on the environment and on wildlife health. While in Alberta, Thomas immerses himself in the community, working closely with the local Indigenous population who rely on healthy wildlife for food and to make a living.

 “Wildlife health is intrinsically connected to society and to people’s health…the people that consume the wildlife and live off the land,” says Thomas.

On his most recent trip, Thomas travelled with ECCC videographers to document his journey and his work with the Mikisew Cree First Nation. An upcoming video series will allow viewers to gain a deeper understanding of Thomas’ work with the community.

Given the importance of wildlife to the local population, Thomas says the Indigenous knowledge of the communities helps guide the work of the ECCC monitoring program. This includes learning the best place to find animals and on which animals he should concentrate his efforts.

“By spending time in the community… elders, community members, and youth can share information on what they’re seeing and why this work matters to them,” says Thomas. “Indigenous Knowledge really guides what we work on and how we do things.”

Thomas notes that the Indigenous community in Fort Chipewyan has been in the area for thousands of years and is very familiar with recent changes in local wildlife populations. Members of the Indigenous population not only provide essential on-the-ground knowledge in designing the wildlife monitoring program, but are also heavily involved in animal collection, dissection and follow-up work in science labs outside of their community, including at the National Wildlife Research Centre (NWRC) in Ottawa.

Thomas says the participatory approach goes a long way to breaking down barriers of mistrust.

“We share knowledge. They teach us skills in trapping muskrats and we teach them skills in dissecting muskrats for trace contaminant analyses. It’s a really great exchange opportunity.”

Thomas believes it is particularly important to ensure Indigenous youth are included in the program. He says involving youth fosters an environment where traditional knowledge can be passed down from elders to youth.

“Getting youth out of their basements and onto the land where they can get in touch with where they came from [is important]. Being able to talk with the elder fosters a sense of curiosity...and at the same time hopefully motivates them to pursue more education,” says Thomas.

He says many youth have approached him with an interest in pursuing further education in science.

“They see that if you’re a scientist you’re not just working in a big city, wearing a lab coat and never going outside,” says Thomas. “They can’t believe you can get paid to go out and fish.”

The videos stress Thomas’ belief in the power of collaboration.

“I want to make sure [the community] feels the work that we do is relevant, that the knowledge they share is important, because it helps address some of the concerns they have. They get good information and we get a stronger program. [Our goal] is producing science and data that are really important for the community, to produce data that they care about.”

The Phil Thomas video series trailer is now available online here. One video will be released every day during the week of October 1st to 5th. For more information: Canada-Alberta oil sands environmental monitoring  

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