Last summer, a logging company cleared approximately 1,200 metres of an Indigenous ancestral trail in Bigstone Cree Nation territory, Treaty No. 8 region (northern Alberta), in spite of government regulations in place to protect land.
As an ancient archeological site, the trail should have been protected by the Alberta Historical Resource Act. A Historical Resource Impact Assessment should have been conducted to assess the site’s protected value.
The logging company, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., conducted a “desktop” assessment. But no one physically visited the area, and the assessment missed identifying the trail.
The trail is a valued cultural place, as the Bigstone Cree Nation Lands Department repeatedly informed Alberta-Pacific. Darren Decoine, the Bigstone Lands Department GIS technician, repeatedly requested detailed maps of the logging plans from Alberta-Pacific, but he says they were never provided. The company is supposed to provide shapefiles (maps in raw data form) that the First Nation can overlay with their own data about traditional land use to see if any sites might be damaged.
The trail, which travels from Chipewyan Lake to the Wabasca River is often called the Hudson’s Bay Trail in English (many trails get called HBC trails). But that name is a misnomer, and the original sakaw nehiyawewin (Northern Bush Cree) name for it is awatasooskenow. Elders say the trail, which became an important transportation route between Bigstone settlements, camps and the river, predates the arrival of HBC fur traders. In the 1900s, there was a trading post on the river and people would haul freight on the trail.
Northland Forest Products Ltd. is actively logging in Bigstone Cree Nation’s traditional territory, as the largest timber company contracted under Alberta-Pacific’s Forest Management Agreement area. Alberta-Pacific is the point of contact for the community and it assumes a large share of the forest management responsibility with government oversight.
In 1999, Alberta-Pacific funded and published a Bigstone Cree Nation land and occupancy study, and the trail is clearly marked on all base maps and in a specific section on traditional trails.
But in 2007, Bigstone Cree Nation erected large, clear signs that mark the trail at its intersection with the Alberta-Pacific logging road. The portion of the trail that has been recently logged is right behind one of the signs that read: “Husdon’s Bay Trail. Heavy equipment not permitted.” The logging company’s machinery operations would have had to drive off of the Alberta-Pacific logging road and around the sign to be able to log the trail.
In 2007, Bigstone Cree Nation environmental monitors, including Elder Helen Noskiye and some of her siblings, directed a traditional land use assessment for Shell Oil’s proposed oilsands operations in the area. I was part of the team that hiked and monitored the trail at that time. Over a couple of weeks, we recorded at least 20 adjoining cultural places. I am currently part of a team of scientists that continues to collaborate with members of Bigstone Cree Nation on food sovereignty and contamination research.
Noskiye’s stories became central to the research because the trail is on her trapline. She grew up in the area that the trail transects and regularly travelled the trail by horseback. The area is part of her ancestral territory and it is where she and her relatives have always collected food and medicine. Her family camps there every summer in memory of her parents. When Noskiye found a significant portion of the trail logged in September 2020, she described the experience as akin to having her “skin peeled.”
One of the reasons that traditional trails are revered in sakâwiyiniwak (Northern Bush Cree) life is that trails link people and places. This means that ancient, ceremonial, camping and harvesting sites are all joined by trails.People care for and tend to trails as they do berry and medicine patches, and seasonal fishing and hunting camps.
Now the camp where Noskiye grew up, along with a berry patch that she and a group of women actively tended to, has been destroyed. People from this area have a strong preference for, and their identity linked to, consuming traditional foods and speaking their language.
Need to consult
Indigenous cultural heritage sites are assigned the same level of protection as all other site types like burials, ceremonial sites and cabins as classified by Alberta Heritage Conservation and Protection. They are categorized as Historical Resource Value 4C.
The need for consultation with First Nations and Métis communities and traditional land-use assessment for any proposed development is backed up by the Government of Alberta’s consultation policies.
Laura Golebiowski, who works as an Aboriginal consultation adviser for the Alberta Historic Resources Management Branch, has been working with Bigstone Cree Nation to record and protect cultural sites.
She said: “Technically, there are punitive measures in the Historical Resources Act should a person contravene the act and damage, disturb or destroy historical resources. They can include a fine of not more than $50,000 or imprisonment (maximum one year), or both.”
But these measures have yet to be enacted over any First Nations cultural site. If a community wants to pursue charges under the Historical Resources Act, it has to contact the RCMP to begin the process. The Ministry of Alberta Culture, Multiculturalism, and Status of Women does not determine if an offence has occurred and whether or not charges should be laid.
Bigstone Cree Nation’s land is on the west side of the Athabasca River and on top of the Athabasca oilsands deposit. The community has repeatedly been left out of Alberta’s decision-making about natural resource extraction.
The lack of recourse for clear violations of the Heritage Act is a deep insult, especially as all leaders have been provided with clear calls to action for participating in the Truth and Reconciliation process.
Bigstone Cree Nation members continue to do the heavy lifting by monitoring company activities, and trying to protect treaty rights. They increasingly design and manage environmental research based on the Indigenous wisdom that they can trust.