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January 19, 2023

New learning when science includes collaboration: Project with the Clearwater River Dënë First Nation

CNL’s Science and Technology group includes dedicated teams of researchers who are playing an important role in studying the fate and transport of naturally occurring radioactive material in different Canadian environments, including regions associated with uranium mining development. It is part of the work that CNL executes to deliver on Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Federal Nuclear Science and Technology Work Plan.

Most recently, a research team has been focused on understanding the environmental behaviour of polonium-210 (Po-210) and lead-210 (Pb-210). These are naturally occurring radioisotopes associated with the uranium-238 decay series that exists at very low levels in the natural environment, including aquatic foodwebs and may be elevated in uranium ore and tailings produced by uranium mining and milling operations. During summer 2022, a team of CNL researchers travelled to northern Saskatchewan to conduct a large-scale sampling campaign aimed at understanding Po-210 and Pb-210’s fate, transport and biological uptake in Saskatchewan’s uranium-rich regions, including areas being explored for future mine sites. They did this work through in close partnership with the Clearwater River Dënë First Nation.

“This project’s sampling campaign included 13 aquatic systems located in Dënësułinë Treaty 8 Territory as well as two aquatic systems south of the region,” said Matt Bond, Environmental Biologist, CNL.  “Given that the work was taking place in their territory, we established a partnership with the Clearwater Dënë First Nation – giving us an opportunity to not only work in their community and traditional territory, but learn about Traditional Knowledge and how it can benefit field research.”

CNL’s collaboration with the Clearwater River Dënë First Nation was facilitated by Dënë Cheecham-Uhrich, a climate action researcher and community representative who supported the research team in engaging the community in the work and an understanding of the project. Community feedback drove the preparation of the sampling plan, and lake systems were chosen based in part on their traditional value. Beyond community engagement, the partnership included working with teachers from the local Clearwater River Dënë School and four students (aged 13-15) to assist in the week-long sampling campaign.

“Working with the students and staff grounded this research within the community, a connection which isn’t always made in field research” says Bond. “The collaboration also brought new energy to tasks that sometimes become repetitive for our team. It was really nice to see the students’ excitement in learning about sampling. We certainly appreciated the learning that came with interacting with the community.”

While in the field, the students collected notes on the surrounding environment, such as primary vegetation types, geology, animal habitat and colouration of the water, as well as conducted basic tests like pH and conductivity measurements on water samples. Samples were also collected – including surface water, groundwater, sediments, invertebrates and prey fish – and brought back to CNL’s Chalk River Laboratories for a variety of analyses.

At the end of the week, the group hosted a ‘community demonstration’ session, where sampling equipment was set up on Lac La Loche to demonstrate sampling techniques, addressing questions and also allowing the community to participate in the sampling collection process. “By the end of the week, the students were experts on the sampling equipment and how it is used, so they were keen to share their experiences with friends, family and community members,” said Stephanie Walsh, Research and Development Officer, CNL. “It was a really fulfilling experience for us – working with a community so invested in this research themselves and with such a powerful and meaningful connection to the land.”

From Paul Haynes, Teacher at Clearwater River Dënë School:

As a teacher in the north, I have had wonderful learning experiences with students in the outdoors.  That being said, as I watched the students engaging with Matt and Steph in the field, I began to realize how special the experience between them truly was.  The students gained hands-on work experience and scientific knowledge pertaining to the lands and waters of their treaty area. They gained an appreciation for the importance of combining “traditional” and “western” knowledge.  But, most importantly they developed a uniquely meaningful relationship with Matt and Steph that I am struggling to find words to describe.  I do know this much…later in the summer the students talked about how much they missed Matt and Steph…those words say it all.”

Dënë Cheecham-Uhrich, Climate Action Researcher and Clearwater River Dënë First Nation representative shared:

We Dënësųłinë have been living with our inherent land for 12,000 years and we depend on hunting, trapping, and gathering not only for food to support the local economy but also as the basis of our kinship to our Dënë culture and social identity. Some of the concerns we face as a community include the changes in the abundance and availability of our healthy traditional keystone food sources, our perceived reduction in weather predictions, the extreme rise and drop in water levels, and the safety of traveling in changing weather conditions in our cold climate with inadequate infrastructure. These concerns pose serious challenges to our human health and well-being. The collaboration with CNL and experience working cohesively with Matt and Steph are evident of how vital it is to connect our Indigenous-local science with interdisciplinary sciences to help confront our community challenges. This opportunity provided our young students with new and innovative approaches to explore and navigate diverse knowledge ways. They became inspired to combine their lived experiences with careers that strengthen our nation’s ecosystem services and functions. It helped give them voice, sense of purpose, self-empowerment, and confidence. We are proud and grateful to call CNL our research relatives and excited to continue practicing culturally appropriate, ethical, and equal science systems.

The data generated from the analyses will be provided to the Clearwater River Dënë community and final reports and publications will be translated into Dënë so that elders and all community members can understand the science behind the work.  This work was also made possible through a collaboration with the University of Ottawa’s Environmental Tracers and Contaminants Laboratory. In particular, a team that has also recently conducted research in the same region, providing valuable insight on the campaign.

Looking ahead to summer 2023, CNL researchers intend to return to the region for more sampling, with a focus on the collection of plankton and upper foodweb samples (i.e., top predator fish). CNL is also in consultation with various Indigenous communities in the Northeastern Athabasca Basin of Saskatchewan, working with Ya’ Thi Néné Lands and Resources, which represent Indigenous interests. These consultations come with hopes of collaborating to sample another region of Saskatchewan with active uranium mining, working towards a better understanding of the fate and transport of Po-210 and Pb-210 in aquatic ecosystems varying in geology, land cover and land-use.

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