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On the land at Coffee Creek

Angie Joseph-Rear has known about plants all her life. Growing up in the small village of Moosehide, outside Dawson City, the Tr'ondek Hwech'in elder spent a lot of time on the land.

Angie Joseph-Rear has known about plants all her life.

Growing up in the small village of Moosehide, outside Dawson City, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in elder spent a lot of time on the land.

She used to like sucking up the sap from peeled willow bark, and she knows how to fry up lamb’s quarter plants in butter.

She also knows which plants have medical uses. As a child, she learned to put chewed-up willow leaves on bee stings to reduce the swelling and take away the pain. Her mother taught her how to cover wounds in her mouth with a piece of spruce gum.

“I remember my mom used to wash the area, and she’d take the softer part of the gum,” she said. “And she swabbed some on there and put it over the open wound and it healed quickly.”

Joseph-Rear said she was lucky to have grown up in a small village, where she was able to learn so much about her natural environment.

And now, thanks to a new course offered by Yukon College, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Kaminak Gold Corporation, she’s been able to pass on some of her knowledge to other members of her First Nation.

This past summer, about a dozen students took part in a northern terrestrial restoration course offered to Tr’ondek Hwech’in citizens. The course was a chance for them to gain the skills they need to work as environmental monitors. It was also an opportunity to start gathering seeds for a native seed bank that could be used to reclaim disturbed land in the future.

And it was a chance for elders like Joseph-Rear to share their knowledge and make sure that future environmental monitors keep traditional land use in mind.

“I think it’s really important,” she said. “I think stories are very important to pass on, because some of us as we grew up, we never had that opportunity to know these things.”

The course was divided into two sections. The first was a 10-day field class during the spring, part of which was spent at Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s Nankak Cheolay culture campsite. There, the students learned to map sites using GPS technology, take soil and water samples, and identify plants.

Then in July, the students went out to Coffee Creek, the site of Kaminak’s proposed Coffee Gold mine. They learned about the native plants there from botanists and from Joseph-Rear and her sister, Elder Julia Morberg. They also collected native plant seeds and helped build a map of local species.

“It was amazing,” said Kim Joseph, one of the students. “Our whole traditional territory, there’s so many unique things in there. They opened our eyes to what we took for granted.”

Joseph is Joseph-Rear’s daughter, and she’d already learned about some local plants from her mother. She had a kidney stone a while back, for instance, and she said drinking tea made with dandelion leaves helped it pass.

But she said the course taught her some basic reclamation techniques, and the traditional knowledge kept her grounded.

“We are a part of the ecosystem. We’re not above or below it. We all rely on each other.”

Joseph works as an environmental monitor in Tombstone Territorial Park. She’s also completing a degree in anthropology from the University of Victoria. She said she wants to work for her First Nation, but she’s also interested in working for Kaminak.

“There’s a lot of open doors and open avenues with this kind of knowledge.”

She also likes the idea that Tr’ondek Hwech’in citizens could start up their own native seed bank and sell seeds to companies for reclamation down the road.

Shelagh Rowles, executive director of the Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining at Yukon College, said scientists and industry are starting to recognize the importance of native plants in reclamation.

“There’s a growing understanding of the importance of using native plant species and understanding which plants grow together and are cooperative with each other.”

A local seed bank would be useful, she said, because it’s difficult to find native seeds currently.

“Often you might get something that’s similar but just not quite the same.”

Rowles explained that native plants are important to local animal populations. If you change those species too much, she said, you risk affecting the wildlife in the area - for instance, you might attract moose but drive away caribou.

Still, this course wasn’t just about identifying plants.

Jody Beaumont, a traditional knowledge specialist with Tr’ondek Hwech’in, said one of the main goals of the course was to show students the kinds of jobs that a project like Coffee Gold might offer, beyond positions as camp attendants or equipment operators.

“People are being trained and being exposed to knowledge and different career opportunities that go way beyond this specific project,” she explained.

Beyond environmental monitoring skills, she said, the students learned other things that could help them with work at the mine - like how to live away from home for several days at a time.

“That can be really, really hard. That’s something you learn how to do.”

Rowles said the college is in preliminary discussions with other First Nations, including Selkirk, Nacho Nyak Dun, and Little Salmon Carmacks, about offering similar courses elsewhere. She said other mining companies are interested as well, including Selwyn Chihong, Alexco, Capstone, Western Copper and Gold and Golden Predator.

Of course, using native plants for reclamation doesn’t mean that mines won’t have any lasting impact.

“We’re never going to create what was there before,” Beaumont said. “That’s impossible.”

She said mining projects on traditional territories are never black and white. But she said First Nation citizens, including elders like Joseph-Rear, have to think about the future when they consider developments like Coffee Gold.

“Their number one concern is always the land,” she said. “It’s their responsibility to keep all of that intact and healthy. But it’s also their responsibility to provide a future for the grandkids.”

And Beaumont is impressed with how Kaminak seems to be planning its clean-up even before the mine is built. She says the company is working hard to build a positive relationship with the First Nation.

“For too long, the North was treated almost like a resource bank,” she said. “And it’s not. It’s actually a homeland. And long after the companies are here, the people will still be here.”

Contact Maura Forrest at