Growing with Research: A reflection on chance encounters in northern Alberta’s Muskeg and Oil Sands

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This post introduces Tara Joly’s recently published Anthropologica article, “Growing (with) Muskeg: Oil Sands Reclamation and Healing in Northern Alberta.”

Friends and acquaintances outside of academia often ask me how I came to study oil sands reclamation, ways of knowing, and Indigenous rights in Alberta – which led to the publication of this recent open-access article, “Growing with Research: A reflection on chance encounters in northern Alberta’s Muskeg and Oil Sands,” based on my doctoral research. The story isn’t as exciting as they imagine. Research is often just a string of practical and chance encounters that lead you down a certain path of learning and care and growth (something I wish I had known going into academia, which would have quelled much anxiety!).

Whether you are a researcher or not, a critic of extractive industries or not, or are Indigenous or not, I hope you see how the messages in this article matter. One thing that I try to get across in my writing about reclamation is its relation to colonial legacies that many Canadians take for granted. Everything done on Indigenous land has some kind of relation to settler colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty – even science conducted for the purpose of healing landscapes. Histories of dispossession and environmental degradation perpetuate violence and traumas in the present. Power imbalances proliferate. Whose voices are heard and whose knowledge matters in landscape planning? Who gets to care for, tend to, and engage meaningfully with a landscape? What does caring for a landscape even look like, to different people? This article presents just one result of the chance encounters that led me to think deeply about these questions.

Promotional material from Syncrude Canada demonstrating some of the industry narratives surrounding oil sands reclamation (Syncrude 2015).

I entered graduate school in 2012 with a broad plan to work somewhere in the Canadian North, on issues relating to extractive industries and multiple ways of knowing the environment. A few internet searches later, from a drafty office cubicle in Aberdeen, I found and subsequently fell into a rabbit hole learning about reclamation of peatlands, known locally/colloquially as muskeg. On their websites and promotional material, oil sands companies stated that through reclamation research and technological advancements, they would “return the land” to “nature” (Syncrude 2015). With my passion for supporting Indigenous sovereignty in mind, I was surprised to see very little discussion in the media or academic literature about reclamation from Indigenous perspectives, relative to publications about scientific processes. So, I decided to dig deeper.

Three core research questions were born that guided my graduate work: How have people in northern Alberta engaged with and used muskeg and the greater landscape historically? How are wetlands talked about and used today by scientists, industry, and Indigenous peoples? And, in the context of oil sands extraction, how do various groups understand what constitutes the successful reclamation of muskeg?

The view of Syncrude’s upgrading plant from Gateway Hill reclamation area, August 2014. Photo by Tara Joly.

The rest of the story consists of a series of chance encounters with wonderful people with whom I was lucky to learn and grow. There are too many to thank: Kyle Harrietha, Peter Fortna, and Bill Loutitt for connecting me with the Métis community in Fort McMurray, Alberta in the first place; reclamation managers and peatland scientists associated with Suncor and various universities across Canada for letting me experience a bit of their summer field work; and the countless people with whom I discussed this topic, in big and small ways, for their contributions to an analytical framework that underpins all my writing – especially, Sara Loutitt.

The first time Sara and I met was at the Fort McMurray Métis Local 1935 (McMurray Métis) office in what was probably October 2013. I remember one of our early conversations when Sara had popped in to say hello to office staff, and I was watching the front desk for the receptionist on her break. Sara had learned of my interest in reclamation and muskeg, and excitedly started talking with me about the concept of “growing with” – a social and environmental process of becoming and healing – that underpins my recent article. From there, many adventures followed: visits with students in Conklin, canoe trips down the Athabasca River, berry picking, dog walks, boat rides (thanks to Ron Campbell), anthropology conferences in Vancouver and Cuba, and many good conversations and visits. I am forever grateful for all the kindness, generosity of spirit, and strength Sara has shown me and taught me – and for our friendship that has continues to grow over the years.

Sara Loutitt (right) and Tara Joly (left) after harvesting ratroot, August 2014. Photo by Ron Campbell.

One of the vignettes in this article is from a canoe trip Sara and I organized in summer 2014. We were lucky enough to harvest ratroot, a medicine used by Cree, Dene and Métis people, in the Athabasca Delta, with the help of Ron Campbell, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. The relevant moments of the day are relayed in the article, but I wish I included more. Our group of paddlers/harvesters sunk deep into the mud, falling backwards and becoming fully drenched as we freed the roots, laughing incessantly. By the end of our harvest, we were absolutely covered in mud, and a chorus of laughter rang out and stayed with us as we continued paddled down the river. That is another part of research I wish I understood earlier: it doesn’t always have to be so serious. Life doesn’t always have to be so serious.

Rick Mercer reminding us to be engaged, but with laughter.

When I devised the above research questions about muskeg and reclamation, I wish I knew that my writing addressing them would never feel like and indeed would never be finished. Being somewhat of a perfectionist, it took me time to understand, as a scholar, that any written piece is more like a snapshot in time, representative of a moment in thinking and learning and growing than of a final or ultimate form. Authors and researchers constantly carry questions and concepts with them and share them within their communities; concepts continue to grow in our minds and out in the world, even after being recorded on paper. Since writing this article and the thesis upon which it is based, in part, some companies in the oil sands region have started reclamation focus groups or advisory groups, which provide an opportunity for dialogue between reclamation practitioners trained in western science and Indigenous ways of knowing. These movements are positive, and I hope the trend continues, as more opportunities become available for Indigenous peoples to “grow with” muskeg on their own terms. And, of course, my own understandings of the topics in this article have grown, shifted, changed – and will continue to do so. I pass along this article to you as an offering of my learnings up until this point – and I look forward to seeing what else grows upon their ground.

Feature image: Sunset at Cree Creek in the Athabasca Delta, August 2014. Photo by Tara Joly.
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Dr. Tara Joly is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Northern British Columbia. She is an environmental anthropologist specializing in applied and community-based research with Indigenous peoples in northern Canada, and, more recently, studying gendered field safety in the social sciences. Prior to joining UNBC, Dr. Joly was a Research Director with Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, Inc., a social science research consulting firm based in Cochrane, Alberta. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, working with Dr. Clinton Westman. She received her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in 2017.

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