Welcome Naomi! ABSI Connect's new facilitator

We are thrilled to announce the appointment of Naomi Mahaffy as the new Facilitator of Alberta Social Innovation (ABSI) Connect. Naomi will guide, lead, inspire, deepen and grow the next phase of this Alberta-wide social innovation initiative. 


Following the close of the second cohort of Fellows — including Aleeya Velji (Edmonton), Annand Ollivierre (Edmonton), Tori D'Avella (Calgary), and Melissa Herman (Treaty 8 — the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo) — ABSI Connect shifted into our 3rd iteration as a collaborative experiment addressing the question: “How can we do better at solving complex social and environmental problems in our province?”

From 2015-2017, SiG National served as the backbone administrator of ABSI Connect, facilitated by Kelsey Spitz, then Senior Associate at SiG. With the sunset of the SiG National initiative in December 2017, the backbone administration formally shifted to Mount Royal University Institute for Community Prosperity and the community fuelling ABSI Connect collectively envisioned a role for a full-time, Alberta-based facilitator to guide the next iteration of ABSI Connect. 

"I am so deeply thrilled that Naomi will joining the ABSI journey to guide, facilitate and energize this ongoing experiment and our vision to collectively strive to address social and environmental problems at their root - stopping them from existing in the first place. It's been an honour to walk this journey with a community and alliance of cross-sector organizations and individuals. I believe deeply in this initiative, this movement, and the tenacious and holistic work of the Fellows to date. What I learned from the Fellows and the social innovation ecosystem in Alberta left a beautiful, indelible impact on how I approach social and environment change" 
— Kelsey Spitz-Dietrich, alumni facilitator. 



Naomi is a connector, communicator, and inquisitive learner with deep ties to Edmonton, Calgary, and Fort McMurray. Born and raised in Edmonton, and now living in Fort McMurray, she has been engaged in local environmental and social initiatives from a young age.

After completing her graduate studies at McMaster University and spending a few years in Ontario (where she taught undergraduate courses, managed social media for a UN sanitation campaign, and coordinated volunteers for a local environmental organization), Naomi returned to Alberta in 2014. In her four years at the Calgary-based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST), Naomi advised and worked along-side partner organizations in Cambodia and Ethiopia. She developed education and training materials, and she supported the teams she partnered with to create effective programs and develop their competencies as trainers. Always excited to bridge disciplines and cultures, Naomi also facilitated opportunities for organizations and individuals to learn from one another’s work.

Naomi spends her free time in Fort McMurray tinkering with her hydroponic vegetable garden, hiking, volunteering, and trying at least one new thing per month.

As part of Naomi’s stewardship of ABSI Connect, she will…

  • Support and enhance the existing strengths of, and momentum around, social innovation in Alberta.
  • Amplify and help connect the voices of the people, social impact organizations, businesses,  government, philanthropy, and academia that are tackling complex challenges in Alberta. 
  • Foster an enabling environment for a culture of innovation where Albertan social impact initiatives have the capacity to ignite, test and implement innovative solutions together.
  • Position Alberta as a social impact leader in Canada and abroad.

Naomi will work principally out of Fort McMurray.  She will be travelling the province extensively over the coming weeks and months, meeting and engaging with people in many communities. 

Please join us in welcoming Naomi to her new role! 

You may reach out to her at naomi@absiconnect.ca

With thanks,

The ABSI Connect Hiring Committee

Aleeya Velji, Annand Ollivierre, Jill Andres, Kelsey Spitz-Dietrich and James Stauch

Alberta Social Innovation (ABSI) Connect is a collaborative experiment crafted in response to cross-sector provincial interest in social innovation. Started in 2015, ABSI Connect strengthens, connects and accelerates social innovation in the province by addressing the question: “How can we do better at solving complex social and environmental problems in our province?” In pursuit of the answer, ABSI Connect seeks to bridge and amplify social, economic and ecological impact initiatives that are (a) successfully shifting the status quo in Alberta and (b) transforming how we develop solutions to our province’s most complex challenges.

To catch-up on ABSI Connect's Journey to date check-out: 

Tools and findings, including the original 2016 report

The evolution (ABSI Blog post) 

Integrating social innovation into organizations (ABSI Blog post) 

The Critical Role of Traditional Knowledge in Social Innovation (SSIR article) 

Integrating Social Innovation into Organizations

By Tori D'Avella

In my time as an ABSI Connect fellow, I went around Calgary asking a broad question: What can organizations — for profit and nonprofit — do to integrate, support and practice social innovation? I spoke with organizations interested in, but struggling to do this and others who successfully integrate social innovation in the bedrock of their organization. This post reflects and honours their learning (and mine) about what it takes for an organization to embrace and integrate social innovation. 

Sit with the WHY.

Why does your organization care about social innovation? Why does your organization want to integrate social innovation? 

Does it want to use it as an approach? Turn the mission on its head? Use social innovation as a craft or lens for a certain challenge? Start something socially innovative? Affect policy? Work in the system in a new way with more partners? Get more funding? (Yes, that last one is provocative, but the reality is that some organizations do feel pressure to incorporate new trends into their grant applications).

So often, we start with how (even this article is about how). The question of how limits us. By asking how, “we risk overvaluing what is practical and doable and postpone the questions of larger purpose and collective well being” (Block, 2003, pp. 2). Instead, I invite you to ask: why? 

Why invites discovery over speculation — discovery of our own assumptions underlying our thinking, doing and decisions. Opening ourselves to this type of discovery creates an opportunity for challenging assumptions and decisions. These assumptions and decisions are part of the status quo, part of the way things are. To recognize ourselves and our organizations as part of the status quo gives us the freedom to identify and act on change that matters. 

It is not always easy to understand why, but it is always revealing. A simple, powerful exercise for discussion here could be the “Five Whys,” which can deepen understanding of intention and biases when approaching something new. It can also help uncover root cause and the symptoms surrounding it. Five Whys comes out of design thinking, from Sakichi Toyoda, who encouraged discovery over speculation (Ohno, 1978). 

Common Language

How we talk about social innovation was an important theme from our Phase 1 Fellows. As a Phase 2 Fellow, I can’t say I saw much more convergence around a definition of social innovation in Alberta, but I did notice people and organizations acknowledging that it is important to understand what each other mean when they say social innovation. 

In the Phase 1 Report, the Fellows suggested that organizations assess where their actions fit along a continuum and identify whether they want to stay where they are or shift.

 H/T Cheryl Rose

H/T Cheryl Rose

Paying attention to language, scope and practice in this way is formative. Individuals define terms like innovation in completely different ways. One may be talking about transformative change, another might be talking about invention and so on and so forth. When we discuss the differences and move towards developing common language, we bind, shape and define what we are trying to achieve.

Developing collective meaning of the language we use is a scoping and defining discussion. Similar to the concept that knowledge is power, the understanding of language holds power. Language has different history and different meaning to different people. Language can exclude and include people. So, we can foster inclusion and ownership when we develop common language and meaning of that language. 

It’s so much more than semantics — establishing collective meaning around the words we use directly impacts the process of change. The stories we tell about our work influence our actions; in other words, shared meaning not only reflects collective action, it generates it. 

Need more inspiration on language? Check out alumna Northern Fellow Melissa Herman’s work below on social innovation and the Dënesųłiné and Cree languages. 

 Developed by Melissa Herman
horégodhé hołé 2.jpg

Leadership and Management: Both are Required

In management writing, it sometimes feels like leadership and management are either/or. Back in 1977, Abraham Zaleznik, a scholar in organization psychodynamics, wrote on the difference between managers and leaders; managers being focused on process, stability and control and leaders being much more like artists. Similarly, Kotter, a management scholar widely known for his eight-step change management model, describes management as functions of planning, controlling and putting systems and structures in place, while leadership is about setting direction, inspiration, motivating and aligning people, anticipating and managing change (1990). 

In my conversations, I heard that, for social innovation to thrive in an organization, both leadership and management are required. Further, in my experience, management and leadership for social innovation require certain style and tactics that enable organizations to embrace social innovation practically and culturally. Leadership creates the cultural conditions for social innovation behaviour to thrive and management creates the time, space and practical integration of social innovation into existing processes.

Every organization I spoke with explained, “We were able to do it because of good leadership.” High-level, “big L” leadership in an organization needs to be informed about and advocate for social innovation to legitimize efforts around it. Yet leadership is more than just function; leaders also role-model to others how to lead and how to engage in social innovation. What does that look like? It looks empathetic. It is servant leadership. It is facilitative and cultivates shared responsibility and co-creation. 

Reflecting on the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania published a seminal article on system leadership (Senge et al, 2015). System leadership cultivates collective leadership, which reflects a fundamental shift in thinking from leaders as heroic individuals to leaders as responsible for each individual in their team or organization being empowered to be a leader in their own right (ibid). This does not mean that everyone is a specific archetype of a leader; it is acknowledgement that there are many types of leaders at every point in the system. Systems leadership makes space for and values all types of leadership — and collective leadership.

So, what do system leaders do, exactly? First, they see the system as a whole, their organization’s part in it and their individual part in it (Senge et al, 2015). This is a fundamental start to systems change, as it shifts from looking at symptoms of a problem to the challenge as a whole. They reflect and question their own biases and are open to hearing and acting differently through understanding an other’s reality. Last but not least, a system leader focuses on co-creating the future rather than reactive problem solving, similar to the approaches of Appreciative Inquiry.

Systems leadership allows social innovation to flourish by moving away from the stuckness and polarization that often characterizes the challenges that call for social innovation in the first place. Systems leadership creates collective dialogue, meaning and action, which fosters the ownership that allows many people to act and create systems changes, whether the system is an organization or a society. 

I didn’t hear, “We were able to do it because of good management.” Yet, as I dug into the comments on leadership, I also heard that management can hold and protect the space in an organization to allow for social innovation. Management in organizations is vital to keeping things lean, on time, on budget. Managers have the capacity to introduce change and run interference to allow for that change to happen, giving people time, space and permission to treat the change as centre-of-the-desk work, rather than a special project. This was an important learning from Phase 1 Fellows; social innovation needs to be more than a special project for it to flourish in Alberta and to affect real change on social, environmental and economic challenges that we face.  

The management of social innovation can incentivize practices that help social innovation succeed in the day-to-day. For example, as Fellows, we’ve learned that reflection practices are a vital part of this journey. So, our reflections are integrated into our invoicing process. Our invoices tallied up our time and work, reporting on the actions we took, and the “so what” of those actions - Why does it matter? What impact does it have? What did we learn from it? 

Invoicing might not be the answer for other organizations, but when we couple the things we have to do with a novel practice of how they are done, we are in a sense, innovating. This might be boring or mundane innovation in comparison to shifting systems, but a systems shift requires a series of small, consistent change in practice at many levels of the system. 

Engagement and Experimentation

Very few organizations talked about engagement, but those who did were very enthusiastic about it. They spoke of engaging as many people as possible to dip a toe into social innovation processes or tools to work on existing challenges that their organizations face. Often innovation or social innovation is limited to a small group of people focused on it, who then hold the great task of sharing it with the broader organization. While this is a practical approach for many organizations, there is a great risk in creating a silo of the privileged innovation folks and unintended power dynamic of who holds the knowledge and understands the language, as previously discussed. Those types of power dynamics work against collective meaning and leadership, which by this point, you’ve worked hard to establish, because individuals must feel ownership to act and create change. 

Share social innovation efforts early, often and in engaging ways that allow anyone in the organization to experience it. For example: if you have a specific space for this work (as a growing number of organizations do), keep it open and inviting for informal conversations. If you’re using lab processes, try a “networking lab”, where people go through a lab process in a day or a half day on an issue they are facing to build capacity for — or simply to experience — innovation processes. Host a lunch and learn, but be sure to show more than tell, meaning: allow people to have an experience, rather than just sit and listen to a presentation. Back to collective meaning and collective leadership, these types of experiences help everyone grasp the change that the organization is trying to make and contribute to it in their own way. 

Don’t even know where to begin? Get a Fellow!

Yes, I acknowledge my bias in saying this. That said, we have found that there is value (to the system and to organizations) in having a dedicated individual go through the process of emergent discovery and design on a key topic or challenge. It allows and empowers a person to listen deeply, fall in love with the problem, and have insights that might not otherwise be possible in their day-to-day. ABSI is currently looking towards Phase 3 and seeking new hosts for Fellows. Contact us if you’d like to explore this opportunity. 

When we think about social innovation, we’re often focused on the change we want to see in the world, the outcome. The reality of social innovation is that it requires a series of changes, some mundane innovation in management, things we don’t think of a innovation at all, and some that we do. For the system to change, the organizations within it must change. Perhaps the change in organizations, the tweaks in processes and practices, the cultural and mindset shifts that are required to integrate social innovation in organizations, are also social innovation itself.


Block, P. (2003). The Answer to How Is Yes. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Kotter, J. P. (1990). “What leaders really do.” Harvard Business Review.

Ohno, T. (1978). Toyota production system: Beyond large-scale production. NY: Productivity Press.

Senge, P., Hamilton, H. & Kania, J. (2015). "The Dawn of Systems Leadership." Stanford Social Innovation Review

Zaleznik, A. (2004). "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" Harvard Business Review

From the Bush to the Airwaves: CFWE Radio Hosts ABSI

When I was young, I used to admire disc jockeys and their ability to send their voices above hills and over tree tops. I don’t think they realized the isolation they countered in Treaty 8 territory. For some people in rural communities, listening to the radio not only provides a peek into urban areas but is also a form of social interaction. Radio Bingo for example, gives rural community members a chance to ‘win some big bucks’. And calling the request line to ‘dedicate a song to an aunties’ ex-boyfriend’s brother from down the road’ gives people a sense of inclusion and, even more importantly, a voice.

 Dry meat bandit.

Dry meat bandit.


That being said, I was excited to reflect on a year of being a Northern Fellow on 91.1 the Bridge.  For a half an hour, my friend and mentor, Russell Thomas and I explored my path on a segment called Impact Radio. It was then that he told me I was the first ever guest to return for a second interview. With cameras rolling and microphones live in the studio, we caught up with each other. And there we were, sending stories of resiliency and traditional lifestyles over hills and treetops —doing our best to counter the isolation sometimes felt by Indigenous innovators in rural communities by their echoing voices.


I feel like every time Russell and I connect the most profound things happen. For example, the time spent with him on Impact Radio resulted in him connecting me with CFWE, a provincial Aboriginally-owned and operated radio station. Within days, I was sharing stories about a gathering at Little Big Lake, outside Janvier, Alberta, sending them back over the water and to the shores where they originated. Who would have thought that our meat drying, tee pee creepin, medicine gathering adventures would make it full circle!


CFWE is the kind of platform ABSI Connect was waiting for. This partnership provides access to a province wide and pan-aboriginal audience in which we can make a call out to innovators; who are the innovators making a difference in your community?! How are they making a difference and where can we connect to make a more collective impact?! I can’t wait to be the first guest to return for a third time to see where Russell and my connection take us next.

By Melissa Herman

Foraging in the Social Innovation Ecosystem

In my early years at Volunteer Alberta (I’ve been here for over 5 years now), I spent part of my time presenting on volunteerism statistics. I would speak to nonprofit sector leaders about the volunteerism rates by age and demographic and the reasons why people volunteer and why they don’t. The whole purpose was to provide people with information that challenges assumptions and inspires new actions. After one of these presentations, in a smaller rural community, a couple of participants approached me, thanked me and then proceeded to let me know that as valuable as the presentation was, they did not see how the information applied to their experience or how it was going to help them. These community members were worried because it had become increasingly difficult to engage their neighbours, especially in volunteer opportunities. From their perspective, youth and young families were not volunteering, traditional institutions were losing funding, the volunteer base in the community was aging, and no matter what strategies these community members applied, nothing changed. I empathized with their challenges, but,  at the time, I did not have anything of value to offer them that would make a difference.


I returned to the office confused and concerned. I was confused as to why we were presenting information to communities that seemed to make no difference in reality and I was concerned that communities were asking for something that I did not have.  It was at that moment  that I started on a journey to explore and unearth the root causes of volunteerism and engagement challenges facing rural communities.  This has lead me down a number of paths and shaped a lot of my work over the years -- and it continues  to shape me.


One of the things I’ve learned is that there are limiting mindsets/paradigms/ways of thinking that pull the levers of what is possible in community. They are often hidden from our view, in the back of our minds and hearts,  yet  inform us all at the same time. It is often called ‘the status quo,’ but is more accurately the operating assumptions we don’t think to challenge; the established way that doesn’t have to be the only way. Where communities are stuck or struggling, our operating assumptions are often an unchallenged stumbling block to change.  I’ve learned that there are effective approaches to disrupt and disconnect from our set  mindsets and that transforming  community with new perspectives and mindsets can make all  the difference.


I am excited to be joining ABSI Connect as the first Journeyman Partner. I am privileged to be embarking on an adventure to surface, advance and grow the Alberta social innovation ecosystem by bringing in the perspective of rural Alberta. I will be connecting with community and organizational leaders from Alberta’s diverse communities who are challenging, reshaping and transforming their communities. There are leaders throughout Alberta who are champions for mindsets and actions that are renewing and transforming communities. By illuminating the ways Albertans are addressing the complex challenges faced by rural communities, I hope to uncover unique patterns and approaches to amplify, expand our collective perspective on social innovation in the province and intentionally connect leaders across the province.

I look forward to meeting you!


By Annand Ollivierre

The ABSI Evolution

ABSI Connect emerged as an experiment to explore and discover the pulse of social innovation in Alberta. In Phase One, the Fellows determined some of the patterns and pathways that exist in the province from our two largest cities. There’s a series of resources you are welcome to check-out, use, and adapt that capture this pulse.

Since Phase One, Melissa, our Northern Fellow, has joined. She has expanded our understanding of what innovation can look like by weaving in the story of indigenous innovation in Northern Alberta.

ABSI’s sense of the social innovation ecosystem is growing into the North and now creeping into rural Alberta with the addition of Annand, our Journeyman Partner with Volunteer Alberta. Annand is supporting our collective story by testing out a new partnership model that goes beyond Fellows to connect with champions within Albertan organizations.

What is happening now? 

I like to think that the expanding scope and support for ABSI Connect is a signal of systems readiness. During the last year, we explored and learned by intentionally putting social innovation in the middle of our desks to help cultivate a culture in Alberta that actively nurtures social innovation for systems change.  

We were like frogs jumping from one lily pad to the next, discovering deep roots to a common purpose of social innovation: to collectively strive to address social and environmental problems at their root - stopping them from existing in the first place.

Each lily pad taught us a lesson. Each lily pad added a meaningful insight to our understanding of Albertan social innovation. As we make our way around the pond, we have started to see and sense the pulse of the system around us.

The collection of lily pads is a constantly growing and a powerful signal of a thriving social innovation ecosystem, yet we continue to  feel disconnect. How we are connected, and how we are nurturing each other, remains largely under the surface.

Some social innovators are focused on learning and developing tools that support innovation, while others are focused on taking a systems approach, combining tools with organizational culture change to support sustainable spaces for social impact. And all are tackling various complex challenges or the intersections between challenges: poverty, racism, climate change and so on.

So what is happening here? We have a shared opportunity as a province to continue to adapt how we pursue transformational outcomes and impact together. We are already doing it and we have a legacy of leading the way. We have so many of the elements in place needed to shift the systems creating our problems in the first place. But, we must continue to be open to changing the status quo of how we go about doing it: with whom, why, and in what way.

Whatever we do, we must do it together

   Map put together by SiG National inspired by ABSI Connect’s ecosystem snapshot

Map put together by SiG National inspired by ABSI Connect’s ecosystem snapshot

What I do know is that we have the readiness and a willingness to try in Alberta. We see so many examples of social innovation thriving in Alberta. Just look at this emerging map.  

We are ready to dive into the water and see the whole beauty and complexity of our change work and collectively enrich it above and beyond what we can do alone.  

Readiness or Preparedness

With that readiness to dive in, we need to also be prepared to see the patterns that make us uncomfortable, but are critical to getting to our shared vision. For me, I am seeing such patterns are around leadership and power. In the last few months, I have discovered that a critical factor for advancing on our change work is related to leadership and the awareness of power within our current structures.

Systems change is ultimately about shifting and transforming how relationships of power welcome, empower or disenfranchise those who pursue or desire change. Imagine how these relationships determine who speaks for whom, who gets to have their voice heard and who doesn’t. These relationships can amplify voices or invoke silence. We are aware of the importance of shifting these relationships, yet this is often where we get stuck - trying to figure out how to effectively navigate for the impacts we seek  when these relationships are some of the most entrenched of our mainstream culture.

Social innovation lab processes are a space to explore this deep challenge and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so as a lab steward for the Edmonton Shift Lab. I do not have the answer for what it takes to move systems, but what I have learned is that we may need to creatively subvert our own positions to create meaningful and diverse collaborations that recognize and challenge assumed structures of power, take a systems approach, and balance field building with ecosystem thinking to find out how to move into a new normal.

So where do we need to go next? 

From our ongoing exploration, it is now evident that Alberta has shown us a sense of systems readiness. How might we combine all that exists in Alberta to spark meaningful systemic change? How do we bridge to action, co-creating a robust, visible, and active Albertan ecosystem to build sustainable capacity for future systems change? Does it require a sustained space or team for the continued development of social innovation in the province? Or are organizations willing to support this work in creative new ways?

Riddled with all these questions, what I do think I know is that “until more ways are found to get deep into mainstream institutions and to integrate community deep into social innovation, ecosystems for systems change will not thrive” (K Spitz. SiG Paper). And this is ultimately our task in Alberta. ABSI Connect is committing itself to stewarding answers to these questions as the next evolution of this ABSI experiment.

So again: What do you think? 

How might we create deeper connections for social innovation to thrive in Alberta? 

This is where we call on Albertans to help us move towards action to support us in figuring this out.

By Aleeya Velji





From Moose Hunting to Moosehide

There is something about hunting with my uncle that makes me feel safe and protected. And no, it’s not because he is carrying a rifle. I think the determination in his eyes reminds me of how important it is for him to provide for my aunty, little cousins, and whomever else may need a meal. Or maybe it is the way he beams with pride when something familiar in the scenery sparks a memory about my grandpa, stories he can’t help but tell. Or maybe it is because despite his artillery and warrior-like stance, he still needs the delicate touch of my aunty and I to cut the meat just right so that it dries in the smoke to perfection.  Whatever it is, it reminds me that I deserve to feel safe.

This year’s theme for Alberta’s Family Violence Prevention month (November) is Reach Out. Speak Out. A call to action to end family violence and support survivors. This aligns perfectly with the time of year because indigenous men are already mobilized -- as the moose hunting season is winding down, it is the best time to shift men's efforts. The Moosehide Campaign is  a new movement for men to use and join on their journey to end violence against women. It will not be easy because a once matriarchal way of life has been turned upside down as one of many impacts made by residential schools.

From moose hunting to moosehide

There is something about moose calling with the rising sun and crisp fall air that makes going to bed the night before feel like Christmas. The smallest chance of seeing moose around the bend provides enough hope to keep your eyes peeled for hours. Even when the sun is at the highest point of the day and the tip of the gas gauge is dipping below empty, you still believe there is time to get what you came for. Knowing there is a small chance to lay eyes on your prize is all the hope you need to carry on. Rallying ambitious providers and protectors is where the Moose Hide Campaign comes in.

The Moosehide Campaign involves men at a grassroots level and has proven successful in other areas of the country so ABSI Connect, the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre and Waypoints (formally the Family Crisis Society) wanted to nurture its growth here in Fort McMurray. There isn’t an Indigenous man in northern Alberta who doesn’t appreciate a conversation about moose hunting. After all, when you are silently hunting moose for hours on end, there is a lot left unsaid and the Moosehide Campaign gives the men a safe place to share their thoughts and feelings. To make the connection between moose hunting and taking a stand against violence towards Indigenous women, we explore the many reasons of why moose hunting is so essential to us as Indigenous people in the first place.  

More and more, conversations are taking place about violence against women, the quality of life of Indigenous women in the region and the country, and barriers for survivors because of the Moosehide Campaign. The passion in the eyes of the men involved is easy to see. Having a safe place to talk about something so difficult is important because everyone who has experienced violence needs to feel safe in order to be honest.

Having Waypoints at the table removes any barriers of accessibility to counseling services. Having healthy men who were once perpetrators and/or survivors  of family violence at the table puts at ease any sense of shame or judgment that anyone might have. We hope to continuing to foster this environment with the tools of the Moosehide Campaign. A couple years ago I bought a large piece of moosehide for my failed attempt to make moccasins that is going to be made into the centres first batch of moosehide squares for everyone involved to proudly wear. Proof that everything happens for a reason.   

What began as Paul Lecerte and his daughter, Raven, hoping to spark a discussion about missing and murdered Indigenous women has turned into a national campaign. There are many Indigenous men trying to protect and provide for their families. Individually, they are accomplishing small feats and with organization and support, deep and meaningful impacts will be made.

The rate of abuse for Indigenous women is three time the national average. And now more than ever Indigenous social innovation is needed to reach men at a grassroots level here in Fort McMurray. The stress of May 3rd wildfire has resulted in a spike in domestic abuse in the region and the communities, Indigenous and non, are calling for men to stand up and speak out about the violence being committed. The Moose Hide Campaign can act as that hope that keeps you looking around the bend for a moose with tired eyes and together we will protect and provide.

By Melissa Herman


Where the Berries Still Grow

It is so easy to forget that there are old cabins along the shore of Cowpar Lake, south of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Often, and understandably, when people think of northern Alberta, they think of pollution and destruction. But that doesn’t mean when blueberry season comes around in the summer that the blueberry patches aren’t ripe with traditionally knowledgeable berry pickers. That doesn’t mean the Dene language isn’t used to tell stories around a fire, as meat cooks and potato skins burn. In fact, it happens all the time.

“Hello Melissa and Matt, I can't believe I get to introduce the two of you - two creative, committed change makers,” Al Etmanski wrote in an introductory e-mail. Al is the author of Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation, which I am using as a guide on my journey as Northern Fellow. Our discussion about the resilience of Indigenous people catalyzed the strength of our connection. His email introduction to Matt Hern, an open minded thinker and doer, and his friend Am Johal, the explorer type, was inspired by their upcoming trip to Fort McMurray.

Matt and Am are writing a book about ecology, decolonization, and global warming. Most of the time, I question the intention of anyone exploring these topics in Fort McMurray, but they were more interested in learning more about the parallels of how people are treated and how the territory is being treated. Besides, it's far too easy to write a book on the infamous oil sands. 

I invited them to visit Janvier, south of the city, where some of my family live. We almost hit two moose standing in the middle of the highway on the way there. I swerved to the shoulder of the highway to avoid them. Before I knew it, they were gone and I couldn’t help, but get out the car and run to the treeline like I was going to do something; pretty silly of me considering I don’t own a gun. I didn’t think I would see a moose this year because of the May 3rd wildfire, so the sighting gave me hope.

When we got to the reserve, I introduced Matt and Am to my uncle Dennis, an avid hunter, fluent Dene speaker and proud father of 3 boys and a girl. He took my aunty, his two youngest sons, Matt, Am and I from the reserve’s gravel road to the trail through the bush to Cowpar lake. My aunty and I bounced in the bed of the truck on the way there, frequently getting out to pick berries that looked too good to pass up and made the regular stop at a stream to drink the filtered muskeg water. Matt and Am looked impressed by the crisp and clean taste of the water. My uncle explained how the muskeg acts as a filter. I hoped between the scenery, the stories and the elements that the other side of the territory surrounding Fort McMurray would be seen.

I wanted to introduce a balanced story of a region many refer to as ‘Mordor’. Nine times out of ten the damage being done to the land by industry is all that is reported. Matt and Am’s visit gave us a chance to put a spotlight on the berry pickers, hunters, storytellers and the sometimes forgotten residents still living on the shores of Cowpar Lake in Treaty 8.

When we arrived at Cowpar Lake, my uncle began to cook steaks over the fire. We usually eat while we are here so that there is no rush to head back. Fish could be heard jumping and two pelicans floated on the lake, in their glory. An elder shuffled over from the cabin next door to join us around the fire. My aunty Diane laughed at the stories he told of his comical love life.

 Storm clouds rolled towards us as we were making an unspoken agreement of who would risk getting wet and sit in the back of the truck on the way home. My uncle gave the elder the food that wasn’t cooked to take home as he began his way back on the trail. We all gathered our things and made our way to the truck

“Am and I will jump in the back,” Matt offered. “You sure? It looks like it is going to rain,” said my aunty. “A little rain never hurt anyone,” he replied. As I sat in the back seat with two little ones falling asleep on me, my aunty said to my uncle, “I like those guys”.

Many people sit around that same campfire throughout the year. Usually, our thoughts and experiences stay in this area, inadvertently. Visitors like Matt and Am give us the privilege to share an untold perspective: one that promotes a healthy and organic conversation about land, people and industry. Quietly, traditional lifestyles are being lived in the bush. The tenacity to survive in environmental uncertainty is resulting in new ways of thinking. “Mixing the old with the new with a dash of surprise” as Al would say.  

Side Effects of a Level Social Playing Field

When it was time to evacuate with the rest of Fort McMurray, some of the city's homeless were shoulder to shoulder with volunteers. And when the last of the residents were on their way out of town, it was very hard to tell who was where on the social totem pole. That blindness seemed to run through the month's chains of events. I noticed the demeanor of some of the shelter’s past clients when they returned.

Tony, for example, was chronically homeless. Clean. Timid. Soft spoken. I know him from the ‘wet’ emergency shelter here in town, known as the Mat Program. It’s located in the basement of the Salvation Army and was only open during the winter. It has since unlocked it's doors because of the wildfire. Tony was a regular client there and had his ups and downs. It seems like the Wildfire changed all that. Since reentry he has been working, thanks to some strings pulled through the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre. He has been sober and glowing with pride lately. The disaster must have leveled the playing field for him. For a minute. Maybe something that happened during the evacuation sparked his idea to build. I was posted at the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre upon reenty and brought in my abalone shell and sweetgrass, so that I could pray before having my morning coffee. I left the sweetgrass by the front entrance so that anyone could smudge. 

"Can I pray with you?" Tony asked.

"Of course," I said. "That's what it's there for."

Trying to avoid eye contact and with a little smirk on his face, Tony slid the abalone shell towards him. 


He picked up the turkey feather with the beaded shaft, took off his hat, closed his eyes and began to fan the burning sweetgrass. It was almost like the healthy smoke was lifting a weight off of him. He cupped his hands over the shell, trapped smoke in his palms and washed it over his face. After a heavy breath he opened his eyes, and with the return of the smirk on his face, he put his hat back on.

“That is a nice feather,” he said confidently.

He is staying at a hotel free of charge because of the Wildfire. I knew his days there were numbered.

“Thanks,” I said. “Hey, I made some macaroni and tomato soup earlier. Do you want some?”

“Sure… but… it says ‘staff only’ on the door,” he said quietly. “Or else I would go into the kitchen and have two big bowls of soup.”

The soup kitchen wasn’t open yet. Neither was the Mat Program. Regardless, he looked better than ever.

“I got you,” I told him as I walked into the kitchen, only to find out that someone emptied the pot.

I quickly poured another can of tomato soup into the pot and dashed in some macaroni noodles.

“I am just warming it up,” I told him.

“No, it’s okay. Don’t go out of your way,” he said making his way to the door, still standing tall. I wasn’t going to chase him.

When the soup was done he was nowhere to be seen but I still filled the biggest bowl I could find with soup and left on the table where he would see it. Sure enough, he walked back in moments later.

“Your soup is on the table,” I said nonchalantly, pretending that I hadn’t noticed he left.

He sat down at the table, grinning childishly.

“Hey,” he said looking up at me. “You made this just for me?”

Everybody deserves a full belly after a long day’s work,” I replied.

He nodded his head proudly and brought a spoonful of soup to his lips.

“Yeah eh?” he said with a smirk.

I couldn’t help but wonder had happened during the evacuation that brought back his sense of confidence and hope. Was it because the Wildfire leveled the social playing field? Everyone in Fort McMurray was homeless for over a month. Was he treated with such a sense of camaraderie during this time that it revived him? Did this motivate him to give back to his community and in turn give him a strong sense of purpose and appreciation?

I feel like the Sweetgrass was there because he needed it. It was like his prayer officiated his dedication to staying on the right path. That’s why he confidently walked out with a full belly.  








By Melissa Herman

Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the client.