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"We're not at all there to impose our own interpretation of the knowledge"

Calgary-based worker Ian MacNairn on challenges faced by the northern labour force

by Ian MacNairn

Bulkley Valley from Hudson Bay Mountain (photo: Heqs)
Bulkley Valley from Hudson Bay Mountain (photo: Heqs)
Location of Vanderhoof, British Columbia
Location of Vanderhoof, British Columbia

Ian MacNairn - Challenges Faced by the Northern Labour Force (Podcast/Interview Transcript)


Is there any local training with communities up north so that workers from the south of Canada don't have to commute as much? How is that reciprocity built? 


Ok, so about building capacity, most of the companies that we've been - so we're a company that does consultation and facilitation for development companies. So, development companies have a project, and they need to go through an environmental assessment, amongst other assessments, safety and engineering-wise and whatever, and so they contract an environmental consultant firm to help write all these environmental assessment reports and we're one of those kind of consultants. So, most of the companies that we've been contracted by for projects, whether it's oil or natural gas, or power transmission, so like building a power line, or other kinds of development, they usually offer the opportunity to First Nations to conduct the work themselves. 


And so what we will do is we'll go out and scope, we'll have a meeting with the First Nations to scope out the work, and what that means is we'll see whether they're interested in participating in the project at all, and sometimes Nations don't want to participate at all, and sometimes there's multiple Nations that are being engaged, and some want to participate, and some don't and some do at a certain level and some do at a different level in terms of the different kinds of work that they can participate in, so that's one of the differences. So, say, we won't consider the Nations that don't want to participate at all, because they just don't participate, but for those that do, they're given the opportunity to do traditional land use study, and the traditional land use study is what we focus on. 


And, there are options given to the Nation in terms of how to complete the study, and it's always community-directed, and the community always has ownership of the knowledge within the study. Anything that is shared with the facilitators or written in the report is owned solely by the Nation, and it is only to be released if and when the Nation wants it to be released. So, it's confidential entirely. [Our company] is under really strict confidential kind of framework, not being imposed by government or the development company, but by their own kind of ethics or business ethics, which is quite upstanding, but I also think it's necessary to guard the knowledge that's of the Nations, it's their medicine, it's their power. So, you can't just collect it and freely give it away, or sell it. So, they own it. 


The knowledge we collect is only for one-time use, and that means, say we're working on a specific pipeline that's for natural gas, or oil for a specific company, even if that company were to do another project in a similar area with the same community, they'd have to recollect the data, because the data that we collect for that one pipeline, can't be used for another pipeline, even if it's the same company, and in the same area. So, in that way we are safeguarding the Nations' knowledge. So then, when we go to the community to discuss what the traditional land use or TLU study will look like, they can complete it independently, which means they can do it all themselves, and they can submit it themselves to the company, or the regulatory, which is usually the National Energy Board, or a smaller one if it's not federal, or we can help them conduct the study, we can help them lead interviews, we can help them lead a mapping session, take elders out in the field. 


And, essentially we are conducting the study with their cooperation, and then we can help transcribe the interviews or we can transcribe them and we can write the report and edit it and then we submit it to the Nation for their review and approval, and we'll edit it and revise it until they deem that it's correct and accurate, and what they want, or it can be somewhere in between, where like maybe they want to do all the interviews and mapping sessions, but they want us to take people out in the field, in terms of logistics and transportation, or maybe they want to do the interviews but they want us to transcribe the interviews, or maybe they want us to write the report, or maybe they'll write the report, and we'll edit the report to make it look clean, or to make sure it looks in a format that can be accepted by the regulatory board, because what we do in our job, we're only - our role is as recorder and scribe. 


We're not at all there to impose our own interpretation of the knowledge, or to make sense of the knowledge, we're only there to record it, which is cool, because we try to collect as much verbatim, even if not verbatim, but from the community so that it can be done in their voice and that is the main goal of it, I can not as a facilitator write that this is significant or the loss of this berry or these plants is like a major loss, I can't make any claims, because despite having training in anthropology, I'm not a member of Nation and I'm not a knowledge-holder in the Nation, and it's not my role or area of expertise to make those kinds of claims. So we don't do that.  


We are there solely for knowledge translation so they can give us the knowledge and we can translate it into a document that can be submitted or they can share their knowledge and even if they've written it, we can help make sure it's translated enough that a regulatory board can understand it. The knowledge translation is difficult in a sense that First Nations are often not geared towards a really technical writing kind of culture, you know, where they're not really like traditionally business, technical, analytical writing in this like legalese kind of sense, and often they're still oral. A lot of the people we take out can't write or read, and that's not like a put-down or a judgment about them as people, that's their culture, they don't have a need for it. So, we're solely there to listen and record and to make something can be read by lawyers, or read by the regulatory board or by a project manager. 


You're there because of their leadership?


We meet with the chief and council usually, they decide for us to come, we don't go on our own volition. Like, usually we'll contact the chief and council, or the land resource council and say: "This is the project, we want to meet because the company's wanting to engage these communities, and you're one of them, and we want to talk about conducting a TLU, a traditional land use study or a traditional ecological knowledge study, so then we meet and things proceed, or say they, "No, we don't want to participate." Or maybe we don't even have a meeting they just say, No, we don't want to participate, but if they do it goes through this process of, "Let's build a budget, let's see how much support you want. Do you want to do this on your own as an independent. Do you want us to review it? Or do you want us to conduct it?" So it's only by permission and by request, even if it's - we're providing the idea in the first place - it's only through their acceptance and permission essentially. 


Can you speak on your displacement from Calgary, and the community, when you are commuting and working up north for days on end? 


So, the next question about displacement from my own home. To be honest, I don't feel much displacement when I go through the work. When I went to do the project up near Cold Lake, I definitely felt it and I think that was a function of being the first trip that I was out on, and I was gone for four or five nights and five days, so it was a long time to be away from Becca and the kids, and dogs, and not helping out at home, and I had just found out that I wasn't going to be going back to school even though that was my hope, so I was feeling a little bummed about that, bummed out, and so I wasn't really feeling super stoked about being in the job still, because it was my hope to be transitioning back to school. 


And then I think, third, it was a function that it was a horrible place to be staying, that was not good for morale, the commute troubled me physically, and with repercussions still. And the food was horrible, and with having Type 1 diabetes and celiac's disease, its was extremely difficult, so those factors, and the sleeping conditions were uncomfortable and cold and we were in a gravel pit, and it was dusty and there was a lot of drinking. So, in that sense I felt really displaced because I was so far removed from a physical and mental environment that I feel at home in that I felt displaced. 


On the other hand, on the trip to Smithers, alternately, the crew that I was working were so amicable, and they were cool guys and girls and so fun, and the elders were so engaged and had so much knowledge that they wanted to share, and everyone was full of energy, and the weather was good, and it was sunny, and the land was absolutely gorgeous, and being surrounded by mountains is very comforting to me, on a visual level, but also on some kind of a deeper level that I have yet to really make sense of, but I feel at home in. 


And at the end of two of the days, I went up to the glacier one day, and up to the summit of another mountain another day, so I felt just inherently at home, even though my wife and children and dogs weren't with me, and I was a thousand miles from home, the setting was very comforting, and the food was wonderful, they had the best Mexican restaurant I've ever been to in Smithers. It's really traditional Mexican food, it was weird. I went there three nights in a row. 


In that sense, I felt really comforted and excited and happy about the social environment I was in with the elders and crew, and the physical environment I was in terms of the land, and the weather, and the mountain setting, and the room that I was staying in was extremely comfortable and had a kitchenette, and so I was able to take care of myself nutritionally, and so, in that way it was quite amazing. 


Another example, though, in which I did feel some sense of displacement, but it wasn't a physical displacement like in Cold Lake, with the horrible truck commute, or the terrible food at Karen's Corner, just feeling like a really harsh setting, it was a trip that I went up in northern B.C., north of Vanderhoof, on one of the lakes up there. And just the cultural difference was really quite stark, and it wasn't negative in a sense, but it was so different in some ways that the displacement seemed quite evident, and it was that this community was really quite opposed to the project that was being proposed, and so they were quite defensive and aggressive about demonstrating that opposition, which is fine for a Nation, maybe it's good for a Nation to express so that they can stand their ground and have their opinion and wishes heard, but it came across in a social kind of displaced way that we weren't welcome in the community. 


We were tolerated being there for the duration of the meeting, but we weren't really invited, and so in that sense, even thought the physical setting, on the lake and the forests was extremely picturesque, there was a cultural difference and more so than just the cultural difference between the First Nation and us, who were coming in, was this idea that we were representing an idea or concept, and that was this project, even if as an individual I was not tied to the project at all, which I'm not and I was not, but being put into that group, and so that was interesting kind of sense of displacement I suppose.   


Why is it important to understand what's going on up North?


That's where most of the development is occurring in Canada now is north of there, I mean you have the Keystone XL pipeline, it's coming south, but there's this Northern Gateway pipeline proposed, going from near-Edmonton across northern Alberta and BC out to Prince Rupert, and other pipelines, whether they're natural gas or oil, populating the north, and for most people it's a sense of ignorance, in that it's out of sight, out of mind, maybe they don't get much stimulation outside of their own city, or county or region, maybe not even outside their own sector of the city, or neighbourhood. But being able to be up there and see it gives me an intimate awareness. But for people, ganging some knowledge and awareness of what's happening I think is necessary. 


It's extremely important, I think more than important, though, it's necessary because it has huge and extremely significant ramifications for our health as a people, and I don't mean that solely in an economic sense where these are projects that will be benefiting local Calgarians, or local Albertans, or local Canadians, but they're significant projects in which we're not really considering as a company, or as a regulatory board, and definitely as a province or a nation, or global community, what those effects are, and looking at these projects solely from a single standpoint, and that being financial gain or continued economic sense, which is a benefit for people for sure, but at the cost of what? And maybe if this project lasts maybe twenty years or thirty years, then what? 


A lot the communities suggest this seven generation kind of view, and they're looking at, what that means is, I'm not looking out for myself as maybe these projects are for their stakeholders currently. We need to please the stakeholders now and make profits in the very near term, and that means not twenty years or ten years down the road, that's like this year or in a couple years, but the First Nations are looking seven generations ahead. You know, what are not my children, not even my grandchildren, but my great-great-great-great grandchildren. I'm needing to ensure that the land is okay for them. 


And so I think it is important to consider and be aware and more knowledgeable of the north, and to take care of the north for those reasons, and it's not just to take care of these First Nations that live up in the North. Even though they're important in a cultural, in a language sense, in a human being, we need to look out for the bigger picture of all people, and pursuing a particular kind of economy that's based on not sustainable resources, and furthermore the product is not sustainable, and all the resources being employed and used to get that product out not only mars the physical landscape, but I think is a resulting in a huge and not necessarily, well probably not at all, positive impact on the collective human community, or human being, and to me what's frustrating about that is just the myopic near-sighted view, and people so caught up in their day-to-day lives or in these distractions of television or telecommunication, are needing to see what's right in front of them. 


The resulting loss of connection with the surrounding environment, even in a city-sense, but you know, having these impacts on a huge area that we call the north, I think discounts and even in a way, shames the thousands, if not tens of thousands of years of human history that have come before, that ha ve lived on that land, and for most people, even if you're of European descent, or Middle Eastern, or African, or Asian descent, that's where we come from as a people, and to turn away from that in our focus is a travesty. It's the way it is, but it's a little bit saddening, and if people were to see up in the north, the beauty is undeniable. As is the people that are up there. There's nothing less valuable just because it's out of sight. 


Furthermore, the huge expanse of forest, in terms of all its benefits with CO2 entrapment, or the huge mighty freshwater lakes and rivers, that's where a lot of our health just as an animal comes from, you know, not necessarily the north, but that environment, and I think to turn a blind eye to what's going on up there whether it's positive or negative comes at, first and foremost, our own detriment, including that of anything that we're connected to, which is everything. 

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