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Collaboration in Forest Education in the NWT

The Government of the Northwest Territories (NWT) recognizes that the Aboriginal peoples of the NWT have acquired a vast store of traditional knowledge through their experiences of centuries of living in close harmony with the land. The Government recognizes that the aboriginal traditional knowledge is a valid and essential source of information about the natural environment and its resources, the use of natural resources, and the relationship of people to the land and to each other, and will incorporate traditional knowledge into government decisions and actions where appropriate. (GNWT Policy Directive 53.03)

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been given responsibility for the implementation of the Traditional Knowledge policy. Recently the Forest Management Division (FMD), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), embarked upon a series of activities designed to focus on the traditional knowledge of forest harvesting carried by the Dene of the region. The intention was to capture this information in video format and disseminate this information through the FMD website.

The Division contracted with a local film-maker to document the work and knowledge of Chipewyan elder Frederick Beaulieu as he carried out the ancient practice of birch sap syrup harvesting during the spring of 2005. At the same time, the Division learned that Mike Mitchell, a local high school teacher with a strong interest in outdoor education was instructing his students in this practise and throughout that process was engaging his students in a study of various science concepts. The Division supported the k’i tu school project by providing harvesting equipment; spiles, pails and a sap concentrator. In return FMD was given the opportunity to film the project and capture how this knowledge was being used. The synergism of these two projects resulted in the development of some new thinking in the Division towards the use and valuation of Traditional Knowledge in forest education.

Capturing these traditional activities on film format is not only essential for the affirmation of the value of this knowledge but is also crucial for fostering understanding and appreciation for the values northerners place on their forests. There is a need to go beyond valuing these resources strictly for fibre production. Extension of this knowledge to others through outdoor educational opportunities is one of the most rewarding outcomes of the outdoor educator’s craft, as Mike Mitchell, Teacher at Chief Sunrise Educational Centre describes in the following.

Making k’i tu in Hay River, NWT – birch syruping as education, as culture

Birch syrup making is tactile, tasty and trendy. Well, perhaps not yet trendy, but it ought to be, given everything it has going for it, educationally-speaking. In a couple of Hay River schools, though, it is certainly catching on.

Hay River is located in the taiga plains ecozone and, save for the ornamental Manitobas (acer negundo), is far beyond the pale of traditional maple syrup making country. Dene inhabitants of this land of the paper birch (betula papyifera), like other resourceful First Nation inhabitants of the northern taiga and boreal forests, have long exploited, instead, the sugary sap of the betulacae as a source of ‘spring’ water, natural remedy and sweetener; High School students in the area have been making it for the past two years.

The Hay River Birch Syrup experience began at Diamond Jenness Secondary School in April, 2003 with a very basic, backyard set-up. Grade 8 and 9 Outdoor Education classes tapped about 15 mature paper birch trees, within walking distance of the school, using pieces of 3/8” PVC pipe, empty milk and juice jugs and a modified 45-gallon drum woodstove. Raw sap, with approximately 1% sugar content, was hauled in 30-gallon jugs to the stove and boiled until brown in colour. The syrup’s final concentration was achieved on the teacher’s electric home range and ready when it was thickish, black and tasted like wintergreen married to molasses.

Proceedings from ForestEDWest II – Banff, Alberta – January 2006

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