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.