Dr. Rob Stewart, from Lakehead University, sat down for an interview to talk about his research and involvement with Biinjitiwabik Zaaging Anishnabek (Rocky Bay First Nation). The official funded partnership began three years ago as part of the First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program (FNECP). Conversations between the community and Lakehead University have been going on for four or five years now with conversations around community plans and the impacts of hydro dams. The relationship began because the Rocky Bay community was interested in knowing the health of the country food, the food they get from the land. The first phase of the research began with a community survey where they engaged with community members and took inventory of what types of food people were eating. The second phase is where the Lakehead team comes in to provide water, sediment, and fish samples from community lands to better understand the risk of food and water contamination. Recently, the local fisherman has started collecting fish for the community to test for contaminants and Lakehead’s role is to show the community how to do biopsies to obtain a sample from the fish. The samples are then brought back to the lab where they undergo testing for metals to provide a picture of the different contaminants and risks associated with different types of fish, not just the fish in sports guides and for non-indigenous communities.
COVID-19 struck the world by storm last March, and the Rocky Bay research was impacted as a result. Thankfully, there were small windows that allowed the team to go out on the land and collect samples throughout the summer and fall albeit with a few delays. There was a lot more angst than a normal research trip due to the protocols and the constant concern of researchers from Thunder Bay entering the community and hopping on a boat to conduct sampling. But with proper preparation, discussion and strong social distancing, sampling during the unconventional 2020 summer was a success.
Been working with Rocky Bay first nation for three years ago as part of a first nations environmental contaminants program. The community was interested in country food and using the food from their lands and wanted to know the health of it. They engaged in a community survey to look at what food people are eating and then we came in to help them in the second phase. We collect water samples, sediment samples, with particular relation to the hydro dams and areas the community was concerned with. Recently the local fisherman in the community has started collecting fish for the community. We’ve shown them how to do biopsies and then we will take the samples back to the lab and do metal testing from fish. They start to get a picture of different types of contaminants and risks with different types of fish, not just the fish that are in sports guides or for non-indigenous communities.
The team at Lakehead plans to be engaged with Rocky Bay First Nation moving into the future. The community as Dr. Stewart says, “is an amazing one”. They have a deep history that goes beyond commercial and subsistence fishing that includes working with governments and surrounding regional agencies to support environmental monitoring. The community is getting back into the history and developing relationships to work address environmental concerns. Lakehead isn’t the only university working with the community. There are others that are helping them to achieve adaptation to change as well as look at other contaminants and environmental issues in the area. Lakehead hopes to be part of that team where they can continue to collect data or move into other data collection or monitoring capacities the community wants to embark on. The direction of the future is letting the community show where they want to go with us and how we can best continue to support them.
The data that is sampled from water, sediments, and fish goes back to the community where they have used the results since the first year of collection. The results are presented in a way that the community is able to use, understand, and make decisions around. The data collected can be applied by the community to have their own understanding from their worldview of the management issues within the community and surrounding areas. The results haven’t revealed anything that people weren’t already aware of. The community wants to fish more, and the results have allowed people to be more conscious of where they fish, and also what species they are fishing and eating. Today, people eat a lot of walleye, but in the past the diet might have been whitefish or a range of fishes. There is a general increased awareness and concern within the community and people are asking questions with a long-term thinking lens with regards to contaminants. Questions such as “If there are contaminants now, what will that look like in the future and how will that impact our subsistence?” are being raised. The commercial fishermen also want to produce fish for people outside of the community and knowing the levels within the fish they’re selling is important. Overall, there is a positive impact from the increased general awareness and the desire to be engaged in fishing and protecting the fish in the community for the present and the future.
Remediation options are complicated. There are still lots of unknowns in the world of remediation. Fish consumption contaminants are cumulative and there are many ways that impact their distribution in the environment. In the 1990s is was thought that contaminants were from point-sources, but contaminants can come from atmospheric and lake-wide sources. There are areas where mercury cleanup has occurred, but the mercury levels continue to skyrocket as a result of atmospheric or watershed sources. Right now, the best approach is to continue to remediate known contaminated sites, but it is still unknown if these efforts will have a positive effect on fish consumption. Increasing awareness of fish consumption restrictions makes the community more concerned with development. Typically, there is little cumulative assessment when constructing a dam. There is a lack of assessment of how one dam impacts other dams from both the past and present. Contaminants accumulate within the environment and remediation takes climate change adaptation thinking where a “Jack of all trades” approach is needed to address everything, everywhere with the hopes that there are fewer contaminants entering the watershed. Increasing awareness and engaging with different communities is one of the ways to further our understanding of remediation and the impacts of legacy contaminants on a community.