Surrounded by local elders, Ontario farm boy, hunter-trapper-angler and biologist Phillippe Thomas stands in a party tent in a remote Northern community and turns another muskrat inside out.
They could be gathered in any one of 10 villages or hamlets in the oilsands region of Alberta, or upwards of 30 Northwest Territories communities he has brought his work to in the past three years, measuring contaminant levels in furbearing animals.
Organizations Thomas is associated with include Environment Canada’s Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program and the Strategic Partnership Initiative (SPI), the Slave Watershed Environmental Effects Program (SWEEP) run out of Dr. Paul Jones’ shop at the University of Saskatchewan and the Peace Athabasca Ecological Monitoring Program, to name a few.
The only member of a family who left the dairy farm to pursue another career, Thomas is aware that he knows not nearly enough to waltz into the Slave River watershed and do good science without help from the people who for generations have been harvesting the animals he is interested in.
“I just can’t stress enough the importance of including traditional knowledge in some of the science we do,” he said. “As scientists, we don’t know everything. This is where working with a lot of the elders, and putting yourself in their shoes and living their life has value. Traditional knowledge is a database of information allowing us to determine ‘how normal is normal?’ What constitutes a change?”
Thomas said he stays with families, not in motels, and eats traditional foods when he is in the field. He returned to his Ottawa base from his most recent trip North about three weeks ago and plans to be back in February.
He credits the University of Northern British Columbia, where he earned his graduate degree, for his inclusive worldview. He said First Nations have strong influence on the curriculum there, which requires students to take a qualitative science course that trains them how to talk about their research in plain language.
“Being inclusive, I think, makes for stronger science and more relevance trying to answer questions people care about,” Thomas said. “It’s fun to write papers and get published, but I think it’s really important, and to me it’s the most rewarding part, just being able to address some concerns that communities have on the wellbeing of the wildlife or the water that they drink. I think we can’t do that alone. We need to do it with the communities involved and committed.”
The research involves strong collaborations with the Alberta Trappers Association and various trappers throughout the province of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The work was mostly through the Peace Athabasca Ecological Monitoring program out of Fort Chipewyan, with the Dene and Cree nations. In his first three years on the ground, Thomas recruited resident trappers and hunters, training them to perform dissections and handle samples. Then he essentially hired them to do the groundwork, sourcing animals from their regular harvesting activities. Collecting thousands of samples alone would not have been feasible.
“Front and centre they’ve been my closest collaborators and I’ve been extremely lucky to partner with these guys.”
He also involved elders and young people in the science and said the benefits go both ways.
“Even doing dissections, and looking at simple things like the colour of the liver, and having some elders with you working alongside – who better to know than an elder who has been eating and trapping muskrats for 40-50 years, as opposed to a scientist who has been working with the animal for five? Talking with these guys, getting to know a little bit about where to look and what to look for and what species to work with, just by doing this consultation and getting them involved and answering some of my questions, I’ve generated a lot of interest with the communities. They start wanting to be involved.”
‘He fits right in’
Bruce Maclean, community-based monitoring research coordinator for the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, said seeing a federal scientist with a collaborative approach is a breath of fresh air in Fort Chipewyan.
“He’s fun to work with because he challenges the status quo within government, and certainly under Harper that was a rare breed,” Maclean said. “He kind of sacrificed personal job stability to actually succeed in making those connections with the First Nations.”
Maclean praised Thomas’ ability to cut through red tape and bring research funding into Aboriginal communities.
“It’s a very collaborative process and to me, that stands out. His relationship-building piece is generous,” Maclean continued. “He’s in the community; he’s meeting with elders, going out on the land, talking to students. He’s put in the time to create the trust and he’s also bringing capacity and employment to us. It’s a nice partnership. I’m a scientist and sometimes it’s our nature to be a little more reserved. We prefer data sets to people. Phil is a people person and he’d love nothing more than to sit around in a bush camp shooting the breeze with the elders, so he fits right in.”
Thomas said spending that time with young people is his favourite part of the job.
“I’m trying to encourage the youth to stay in school and encouraging them to also visit the labs here and getting them really involved in a hands-on approach,” he said. “I work with youth from eight years-old through to late teens. It’s funny, you learn a lot from youth too, just talking to them.”
In conversations over pizza that often stretch into the night, Thomas said he quizzes the teens and is always surprised to hear how few of them have been out on the land.
“I’m a hunter and I trap. If I were out there, I would always be out on the land,” he said. “A lot of these young guys, they really don’t, so it gives them an appreciation and sort of encourages them to reconnect with these roots, talk to an elder, follow some mentors out on the land and reconnect to where we all came from, I guess. It’s a great part of the job.”
Within acceptable guidelines
There is very little baseline data in the NWT on toxins in the animals Thomas is studying, including lynx, otters, muskrat and beaver, and virtually none in Alberta. He also has moose, bison and deer samples in the freezer, more than 8,500 samples from 1,700 animals in all. Thomas has the liver and muscles screened for contaminants including heavy metals and hydrocarbons, as he describes them, “contaminants that are not only generated by the oilsands industry but also by forest fires, the mining industry and so on.”
The first lab results have begun to roll in.
“In the oilsands you find, for sure, a (contaminant) signature in some of the mammals,” Thomas explained. “Mammals associated with water, semi-aquatic mink, otters, more so than others. I’d say levels are not above tissue residue guidelines, so to speak, when you can find them.”
He said mercury levels are comparable to, for example, a mink found near the Great Lakes.
“There have been a lot of studies on mink and the mink I’ve collected in the oilsands are equal if not slightly less contaminated than Ontario mink,” he said. “I think that just speaks to the higher population there (but) without a baseline, it’s hard to say.”
By definition, there is no sunset on Thomas’ work.
“This is where I’m saying, I’m committed for the long-run. What’s really important is not so much the tissue residue levels, but seeing if those levels are going up or down. Then you can provide mitigation strategies.”