Resource development often conflicts with traditional land use and can be a source of frustration for many Aboriginal communities focused on protecting their traditional territories. In areas where oil and gas development is taking place, oil spills are not uncommon and many companies struggle to find local capacity to assist them in establishing both preventative and reactive planning to ensure such spills are kept under control and environmental clean-up plans are in place when disaster strikes.
The recent Plains Midstream oil spill in Northern Alberta—the largest since 1975—is an example of an unfortunate environmental disaster that has been heavily impacting the region of Little Buffalo and members of the Lubicon Lake Nation. Over 4.5 million litres of oil leaked into the Peace River and surrounding areas on April 29, 2011, affecting the natural environment and health of those living in this region. It has especially been a concern for members of the Lubicon Lake Nation, whose livelihood is interconnected with local ecology and is dependent on traditional ways of living. Traditional territory is sacred and is often used for hunting, trapping, and fishing.
Post-disaster, surveying immediate damage to a traditional territory is not the only concern for local communities—long-term effects can be detrimental to the region’s natural environment and, consequently, the health of community members. Initial clean-up, including hiring contractors and environmental professionals is only the first step. Constant monitoring is required to ensure that the health of the environment, its local wildlife, and public health and safety are maintained for years to come.
While such a disaster is devastating, it reinforces the importance of ensuring that Aboriginal communities have capacity at the local level to establish proactive environmental monitoring strategies and emergency response plans. In addition, in the midst of a disaster, with site access limited due to safety restrictions, local communities are required to do much of the immediate work themselves. Communities affected by resource development can request companies to invest in training initiatives that will allow them to better protect their traditional territory.
The value of having local individuals with the skills and knowledge required to address these immediate needs is increasingly important in disaster situations. The community’s ability to have the environmental capacity to assess a crisis situation allows them to immediately address the situation in a way that respects and maintains the traditional integrity of the land. Local communities have an appreciation and connection to traditional land and environmental training can enhance local capacity and develop the right procedures to handle these situations when they arise.
Although devastating, the Plains Midstream oil spill serves as a reminder that it is important to be proactive in protecting the environment. Resource development will not likely slow down in the near future and communities will continually be required to balance development with environmental management on or close to their traditional territories. Training and development to build general environmental capacity will strengthen the community’s voice and role in preventing and managing disasters.
Elders in the Little Buffalo region fear for the future of the land and how it will affect future generations, while youth have expressed an interest in getting involved in the clean-up efforts, as seen in a recent YouTube video by the Lubicon Lake Youth. By providing training to the current and upcoming generations in environmental monitoring, site assessments, and remediation methods, it is possible to ensure the future prosperity and sustainability of the land. Furthermore, the result for each community will be a skilled, locally trained workforce.
ECO Canada (Environmental Careers Organization) offers a series of employment-focused, community-based programs known as BEAHR Training Programs. They are designed for Aboriginal learners and are intended to prepare graduates for employment in the environmental field. BEAHR Training Programs allow communities to build and strengthen their local environmental capacity by providing the tools, skills, and resources to address environmental issues and concerns.
For more information on the programs currently offered, visit: www.eco.ca/beahr
YouTube video “Lubicon Lake Nation Youth Respond to PMC Oil Spill”– www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMUVp6OJPgI&feature=related
YouTube Video News – www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdq6UrPTLfU