‘Braiding western science and Indigenous knowledge’: New environmental monitoring program launches

A new college program aims to combine Indigenous traditional knowledge and modern science to empower the next generation of environmental monitors in the oilsands.

Keyano College launched the program in October and its first group of 11 students are studying in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

Fort Chipewyan is a Cree, Dene and Métis community that’s located north of Fort McMurray.

The community’s Indigenous groups have long raised concerns about pollution from industry and low water levels from dams, pulp mills and oilsands projects.

Kevin Marten, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, is one of the program’s first students.

Kevin Marten, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, is one of the program’s first students.

He was on track for a career in the trades but the 36 year-old decided to take a detour when he got a chance to work as an assistant to an environmental monitor.

He loved going out on the land and to oilsands sites to test wells and surface water for contaminants.

“I jumped at it,” Marten said. “The people who do the testing feel passionate about it and that’s what I want. I want to be part of something.”

“Being another journeyman in a trade in the oilsands you go to work, you do your job and you leave. You can do that for the rest of your life, for 20 years, and not feel like you have something in your life to contribute.”

When Marten and other students complete the four-month certificate program, they can apply for jobs with contractors, industry and the government. Environmental monitors can working in a variety of industries testing air, water and soil. 

‘Without that tension the students don’t get any value’

Sithara Fernando, the program’s instructor, said Keyano College’s program is the only one in Canada that combines modern techniques and Indigenous traditional knowledge.

Fernando, a wildlife biologist, works with elders from the region’s Indigenous communities to teach the program.

Sithara Fernando is the program’s instructor at Keyano College. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Fernando acknowledges there’s a long standing tension between science that emphasizes formal systematic inquiry and Indigenous traditional knowledge that tends to rely on oral tradition, ceremonies and spirituality to find truth.

But Fernando said the clash of civilizations makes her students stronger.

“We are braiding western science and Indigenous knowledge together,” Fernando said. “And if you have ever braided your hair. You actually need to pull for the braid to be strong.”

“Without that tension the students don’t get any value. If I was to braid with only western science that’s going the braid will fall apart.”

Two classes will happen in Fort Chipewyan and twowilll be at Fort McMurray’s main Keyano campus this year. 

Connect with David Thurton, CBC’s Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

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