The stories of Wiikwemkoong First Nation Elders helped locate undocumented oil wells drilled on Manitoulin Island, Ont., in the 1860s and 1950s as the community led a remediation project to remove the legacy of industrial development from its land.
Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory #26 is the largest Anishnaabek community on the eastern peninsula of Manitoulin Island, between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Its 56,000 hectares of picturesque land is home to 8,000 band members whose leaders fought for decades to remove the pipes, structures and contamination left behind by oil and gas development.
This kind of impasse is not specific to this community but sadly is the reality for many First Nations communities across this country. In working toward a resolution, the Wiikwemkoong band members asked themselves how they wanted to be involved in the remediation of this project. Were they going to allow the government to come in and address the problem? Would the members stand on the sidelines while the oil and gas sector worked on the issue? Or would they ultimately roll up their sleeves and be the leaders on the project?
They decided the best path was to empower the community to control the project and train the necessary members to complete the work on the abandoned wells. The Wiikwemkoong leadership was clear about its goals and the direction it wanted to take to start this project in 2013.
Under the supervision of Patrick Fox as project manager and Jean Pitawanakwat as project coordinator, the Wiikwemkoong’s department of lands and resources launched the Medi Kaaning Orphan Well Abandonment and Site Restoration project. The name of the project makes its own statement: “medi” means oil and “kaaning” means land in their language.
Fox was trained as the project manager and was given the proper mentorship to lead the project.
Pitawanakwat initially started as an environmental technician but gained the necessary skills to increase her involvement and knowledge to become the project coordinator. Her understanding and skills proved to be a great asset in showing project funders and partners that it is possible to bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and technical expertise.
“Eastern Oilfield Services Ltd. and Premier Environmental contractors trained band members to work with H2S, oil rigs and environmental clean up,” Pitawanakwat says.
Training new skills brought new competencies into the community, highlighting the abilities of First Nations people in the oil and gas sector when a community is properly supported.
Support from Indian Oil and Gas Canada, a special regulating agency under Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada allowed the First Nation to move the orphan wells clean up through to completion.
“I’m really impressed with the growth this has delivered to [our community]—well work, prospecting, exploration and environmental clean up. They are now in demand by other companies,” Fox says. “It has been a bit of learning curve, but we surrounded ourselves with the best.”
Fox says his community now would like to help other First Nations that face similar land degradation and contamination challenges by providing training, resources and sharing information.
The Medi Kaaning Orphan Well Abandonment and Site Restoration project has not only built new capacity within the community but has turned its people toward the future rather having to battle with the past. But the project’s greatest achievement is restoring the Wiikmemkoong’s land back to its natural beauty.
“We get to use our land, water and air,” Pitawanakwat says.
Duke Peltier, Ogimaa (chief) of Wiikwemkoong Anishnaabek, will speak on the “Connections to the Environment” panel at the upcoming Indigenous Conference on Energy and Mining on June 14–15, 2017, in Calgary in conjunction with the Global Petroleum Show.
For more information on the community of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, please visit their website at wikwemikong.ca .