Eco reserve in the making

Hundreds of people have been displaced from the Lake St. Martin reserve since this spring because of flooding, and now the reserve must be relocated permanently. In light of all of the community’s struggles, U of M researchers believe a more sustainable reserve could be built.

Myrle Ballard, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba, is researching Anishinaabe knowledge systems (AKS) and tracing environmental policies and legislation to see how man-made alterations to the ecosystem have impacted First Nations people negatively.

“I’m incorporating [ . . . ] how [the recent evacuation] has impacted First Nations as well,” said Ballard.

The Lake St. Martin community is currently negotiating with the government between two possible permanent locations, and Ballard was recently named the negotiator for her community.

“This means I will work directly with the leadership and people toward what our new community is going to look like,” said Ballard. “Everything is going to be sustainable. It’s going to be a green community.”

Ballard explained that the research is important to her because she is Anishinaabe.

“I grew up in the community and I know the changes that have taken place over the course of my lifetime,” she said. “I’ve seen recently the devastation on the land and the people itself.”

Ballard said the fact that she speaks Anishinaabe is very important to her research, which proves the language has a direct impact on AKS.

Shirley Thompson, assistant professor at the Natural Resources Institute and Ballard’s supervisor, explained that Ballard’s research is examining what the Lake St. Martin community was like before the control structure, a dam built to control the amount of water flowing into the lake, and the flooding started in the 1960s.
Thompson said Ballard found that it was “a very prosperous community,” adding that the control structure ruined some of the fishing and agriculture aspects of the area.

Thompson explained the control structure had a negative impact on the First Nations community because it resulted in the ongoing flooding of houses as well as changing sandy beaches to swampy areas and agricultural lands into bulrushes.

Thompson said that her and Ballard’s research is also looking at different energy sources for the new reserve, such as geothermal, district heating, passive solar energy and biomass.

“Renewable energies, particularly biomass, are very good at using local resources to benefit local people and provide local jobs,” said Thompson.

Even though no location has been decided on, Thompson said that “involvement in the design stage of the new reserve allows renewable energies and fuel efficiencies to be incorporated into the design, which provides cost savings.”
Thompson said the new development of Lake St. Martin needs to influence other reserves in the province.

Thompson said that First Nations communities are faced with challenging issues such as a lack of job opportunities, unhealthy housing, unsafe drinking water and limited infrastructure because of their remote location.

“But renewable energy will provide community economic development,” she said.
Digvir Jayas, the vice-president (research) for the U of M, said the research is “very exciting” and “very timely.”

“If any of the reserves, not only in Manitoba, but around the world wanted to look at relocation as a possibility, then some of the research done by this team could be used in assessing those situations,” said Jayas.

Jayas explained that this type of understanding could be applied to other research projects in any other community, not just reserves.

“I think this is an example of the kind of research the University of Manitoba does that will benefit the citizens of Manitoba, Canada and the globe.”