May 21, 2019 6:41 pm
Updated: May 21, 2019 8:19 pm

Alberta institute wants to share Indigenous solutions to handling wildfires

WATCH ABOVE: For residents in Fort McMurray and Slave Lake, the images coming out of the High Level region are all too familiar. Tom Vernon takes a look at how lessons learned from those disasters are being put to use this time.


Wildfires have been around Alberta as long as time. Fire management has been here that long as well. Yet the president and co-founder of the Rockies Institute in Canmore, in continuing a project that melds traditional Indigenous teachings with today’s wildfire problems, says we’re not learning from the past.

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Laura Shay has a couple of examples that she strongly believes can help prevent other incidents like we’ve seen in Fort McMurray, Slave Lake and now near High Level. Her goal is to train today’s community members to collect those stories from elders and then share the info on their terms with scientific professionals to find ways to handle the problem differently that uses Indigenous teachings.

READ MORE: High Level wildfire grows to nearly 80,000 hectares

For instance, “dead fall,” where a tree has collapsed in the forest and could be left there causing a fire hazard.

“You can go in and use that dead fall and honour that dead fall, you don’t just clear it away,” she told Global News. “If you were going to take an Indigenous perspective on that you might take that, build something with it that was traditional, you may sing traditional songs as you’re doing it, but there’s ways of engaging with the environment that are different than maybe the western perspective on fire management.”

Watch below: Officials update the wildfire situation near High Level Tuesday morning 

The Rockies Institute is also learning prescribed, deliberately set burns have been done for ages. It’s something she said she has learned from the Gathering Voices Society in Vancouver.

“They’re using Indigenous knowledge in their method of burning smaller burns at different times of the year, which having really interesting impact. Australia has about a 20-year history of doing this that we hope to be able to bring that sort of methodology to Canada.”

READ MORE: Alberta fire season 2019: Latest status of wildfires, bans and restrictions

Shay received a grant from Natural Resources Canada on Tuesday worth $500,000 as part of a climate change study initiative.

“It’s probably not going to impact this year’s fire season but we certainly hope that it brings people together in a way that has the urgency that it is required to so that we can get this information into people’s hands that need it, so that new policies and new partnerships are created as we move forward in the years.

“There is knowledge for as far back as we have records, and more. So if we tap into the Indigenous knowledge and work with Indigenous peoples on how they were working on the land, and working with fire, that’s what we need to do.”

Watch below: Fire officials say they’ve learned lessons from the Fort McMurray wildfire and applied them to the High Level wildfire, including the fire fight plan, evacuation and coordination. Tom Vernon explains.

Shay said the institute will modernize Indigenous teachings to be shared with today’s audiences.

“It’s storytelling, it’s narrative. We’re using the participatory video method to try to encourage these stories to come out and also to be shared in ways where you can’t always sit down with elders.”

Minister Amarjeet Sohi made the announcement at the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce Offices.

“We need to explore options where we work with local communities to empower them, tapping into the local knowledge and how we actually fight (wildfires) and come up with initiatives that allow us to reduce that impact of climate change but also find sustainable long term solutions to the changing climate.”

Two other grants were awarded totaling $2.1 million. The Kapawe’no First Nation in Narrows Point near Grouard is designing a renewable heating system to get off use of their diesel generators.

The Nu Ch’anie Society in Cold Lake is also getting $110,000 for jobs training in the forestry industry.

BELOW: An interactive map of the wildfires currently burning in Alberta

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