Keepers of the Athabasca host sustainability conference

Keepers of the Athabasca host sustainability conference
The NWT's traveling garden guru Lone Sorensen presents on northern agriculture techniques on the opening day of the We Are The Land conference. Eventually, Keepers of the Athabasca hope to bring a similar conference to the NWT.Carrielynn Victor.

An environmental organization based out of northern Alberta is working to ensure indigenous groups don’t get left behind as the “solar revolution” and local harvesting movements expand into the province.

To keep communities in the loop, Keepers of the Athabasca – a collective dedicated to protecting the Athabasca Delta ecosystem – hosted the We Are The Land: Energy and Food Sustainability Conference in Edmonton on June 1 to 2.

“We’ve done so many events on water, on tar sands mining, on all of that and it’s almost like people are zoned out to it,” said Jesse Cardinal, one of the conference coordinators. “We’re creating new conversations, which cover our current issues of the solar energy and food security, but also talking about outstanding issues that haven’t gone away that are linked.”

Misconceptions about the North and its ability to harness solar power for energy and food production are rampant, Cardinal said, but through the conference and additional information campaigns, the Keepers hope to change that attitude.

Harnessing the power of the sun

“What we want to do with the conference is make sure that First Nation and Métis people have the same opportunities as everybody else when it comes to the solar revolution,” Cardinal said. “We’ve been working on energy solutions for about five years now, going into communities and telling them about the issues. We also thought as a board that, if we’re telling people about the harms of oil, coal and diesel (in energy production), what are we telling them to use instead?”

Not one to stand in the way of environmentally sustainable progress, the group turned to the burgeoning solar power market as their answer.

“In the past year alone, there has been a huge, dramatic shift to solar energy,” Cardinal said. “It has become more accessible to learn about with online education, and more accessible to buy because there’s more solar manufacturers.”

With interest by the freshly ushered-in NDP towards increasing Alberta’s energy efficiency, Cardinal hopes that new provincial policies will serve to drive that market further, creating a new, green economic niche for indigenous entrepreneurs.

“We want Aboriginal communities to not only be a consumer of (solar power), but to be a business owner, a manufacturer, an energy provider,” she said. “We want to make sure that they have equal opportunities as this revolution unfolds.”

Getting growing in the North

At the same time, the Keepers want to highlight food insecurity, a problem that impacts many remote areas. Again, rather than just pointing out the problems, they hope to offer real solutions.

“There was a report by the United Nations that said it’s not even enough to buy organic, we need to start growing our own food,” Cardinal said. “We’re introducing this conversation to communities that aren’t doing any kind of community gardening and providing support for the ones that are.”

Traditional harvesting methods, the use of food to improve health, food preservation and proper growing techniques for the climate were all touched on during the conference.

“A hundred years ago, growing your own food was just a way of life,” Cardinal said. “With all of the demands on water and all of the natural resources being depleted, we need to go back to locally providing our own food and eating in season.”

A lineup of almost 30 guest presenters, including the NWT’s own traveling gardener and Northern Journal columnist Lone Sorensen, discussed topics related to food security and sustainable energy. Keynote speakers included Chief Gordon Planes of T’Sou-ke Nation, director of the Lands Advisory Board for the BC region; Carrielyn Victor, a Xémontélót artist and traditional plant practitioner; and Dr. James Makokis, a northern Albertan family physician from Saddle Lake Cree Nation, who integrates traditional Cree medicines into his practice.

The first evening of the event closed with a concert and a book launch for A Line in the Tar Sands, a collection of essays about the impacts of the oil industry. The show featured Fawn Wood, Dallas Waskahat and Drezus among others and raised funds for the Athabasca Chipewyan and the Beaver Cree First Nations. Cardinal said it was also included in the program to encourage youth attendance.

In the future, Keepers of the Athabasca hope to bring a similar gathering to the NWT, to encourage the push for agriculture in the far North.

For a full list of speakers and to learn more about the We Are The Land conference, head to

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