Harvesting Knowledge
Monitoring Berries in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region
by Jane Percy, WBEA

In 2010, the Elders of Fort McKay, a Cree, Dené, and Métis community near Athabasca Oil Sands operations, approached the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA). The Elders had observed changes in the quantity and quality of blueberries and cranberries growing on their traditional lands. In response, WBEA began a dialogue, facilitated by the Fort McKay Sustainability Department and anthropologist, Janelle Baker, with interested community members. The Fort McKay Berry Focus Group was then born.


Celina Harpe, Fort McKay Berry Focus Group member, harvests cranberries at Moose Lake.

2015 is the fifth year that the group has collaborated with WBEA to monitor berries. A new video, filmed in September 2015, looks at the project from several perspectives and underscores the importance of berries to the Fort McKay Elders. View our new WBEA – Fort McKay Berry Focus Group video here.

The Berry Focus Group integrates both traditional environmental knowledge and western scientific techniques. The project follows current methodological and ethical standards in cultural anthropology and western science, while still respecting the Fort McKay community’s beliefs.

The Elders have chosen five regional berry patches to monitor: Target Road, Firebag, Forest Health Plot JP104, Pat Shott’s Island, and Moose Lake. These berry patches all range in distance from oil sands operations, with the patches farther afield being preferred as food sources.

Map of Athabasca Oil Sands Region and monitored berry patches.

Anthropologist, Janelle Baker, takes field notes during a WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group field trip.

During the monthly spring, summer, and fall field trips to the berry patches, the Elders contribute their Traditional Environmental Knowledge on:

  • the state of the berry plants, flowers, and fruit
  • the timing and abundance of berry production
  • the effects of weather on the berries
  • other culturally determined indicators of plant quality
  • their recollections of berry picking in the past

As requested by the Elders, WBEA contributes the western science component to the project, including:

  • passive air pollution monitoring
  • meteorology monitoring
  • berry analysis for health promoting constituents
  • berry analysis for trace elements



James Grandjambe is a founding member of the WBEA-Fort McKay Berry Focus Group.

An important component of the project is the continuous validation of the knowledge gained each year from the Elders. This knowledge includes notes, photographs, and video recordings made during the field trips. This, along with the western science findings, are presented and discussed with the group. The Berry Focus Group has agreed to the presentation of their findings at several scientific conferences, and representatives have sometimes attended to discuss their work and answer questions.


In 2014, we installed passive air pollution monitors
at five berry patches at the request of
the Berry Focus Group.

What have the 2014 project results revealed? In general, Fort McKay Berry Group’s Traditional Environmental Knowledge found that berries closer to the Fort McKay community are not as healthy as those in Moose Lake, a region farther away from industrial sources. The western science component tends to support this!

Air Pollution at Berry Patches

In the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, sulphur dioxide is emitted almost exclusively from industrial upgrader stacks. Monthly average concentrations at the blueberry sites ranged from 0.2 to 1.9 parts per billion. Concentrations were lower at Moose Lake than at the other four sites, which are closer to industrial operations.

SO2 graph.

Sources of nitrogen dioxide in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region include upgrader stacks, exhaust from mine fleets, in situ generator stacks, and non-industry sources. Monthly average concentrations at the blueberry sites ranged from 0.2 to 2.4 parts per billion. Similar to the sulphur dioxide data, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide were lower at Moose Lake than at the other four sites that are closer to industrial operations.

NO2 graph.

Celina Harpe, a member of the Berry Focus Group, harvests blueberries for testing from one of the group’s monitored berry patches.

The sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide concentrations measured are within the range of concentrations measured by WBEA at our forest health plots located across the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Western science indicates that these pollutant concentrations were not high enough to cause direct injury to the blueberry and cranberry plants.

Air at the sites was also monitored for levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These substances are emitted from both industrial sources and natural sources, such as trees. Looking at the industrial VOCs only, passive sampling indicated that oil sands contributions were highest at Pat Shott’s Island and JP104 and lowest at Moose Lake.

VOCs graph.

Health Promoting Components in Blueberries

The group harvested blueberries at the patches and WBEA had them analyzed for health-promoting components, including phenolics, chlorogenic acid, and proanthocyanidins. What did these analyses reveal?

Phenolics are a class of plant compound found in fruit that are known to have antioxidant, health-promoting benefits. The blueberries from the Target Road site had a significantly lower phenolic content, while the highest phenolic content was found in blueberries from Moose Lake.

Phenolics graph.

WBEA Executive Director, Dr. Kevin Percy, weighs cranberries harvested at a monitored berry patch in preparation for lab analysis.

Chlorogenic acid is a natural chemical compound found in some plants. Known for lowering blood pressure, it’s also an additive in some food products. Chlorogenic acid content was much higher in blueberries from Moose Lake and in commercially produced blueberries than in blueberries from Pat Shott’s Island, Firebag, and Target Road.

Chlorogenic acid graph

Often linked to reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, proanthocyanidins are the main polyphenols in red wine. Proanthocyanidin concentrations were highest in berries from Moose Lake, and lowest in the commercial blueberries tested.

Proanthocyanidins graph.

Howard Lacorde (left) and Kevin Percy (right) discuss passive air monitoring and meteorological equipment at one of five monitored berry patches.

We also analyzed the berries for trace elements emitted from industrial upgrading and mining operations, which are often found in naturally exposed land surfaces. These analyses are almost complete, and the results will be shared when available.

Weather at the Berry Patches

In 2014, the group measured temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and rainfall at each site. We accomplished this with solar-powered, tripod-mounted sensors.

A summary of hourly weather data for June through August 2014 indicated that average monthly temperature was highest at Pat Shott’s Island and lowest at Moose Lake. Temperatures at Target Road, Firebag, and JP104 were similar.

Average monthly temperature graph.

Total rainfall amount from June to August of 2014 was highest at Target Road and lowest at Moose Lake.

Total rainfall graph

Evolution of the project has seen some snow monitoring and the addition of leaf wetness monitoring, a measure of fog and dew deposition to the plants, added at the suggestion of the Elders.

This joint, multi-year project demonstrates the parallels between the Elders’ observations and those of western science.

We aim to combine the strengths of both Traditional Environmental Knowledge and western science to better understand what influence oil sands operations may have on berry health in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region.

WBEA’s Aboriginal members have expressed interest in forming additional Traditional Environmental Knowledge groups. These groups would monitor environmental indicators of importance to their respective communities. Participants would decide upon and guide the work, with WBEA participation. In the fall of 2015, WBEA’s new Traditional Knowledge Committee convened a meeting with other interested Aboriginal members to investigate the possibility of extending this program to other communities.

Wood Buffalo
Environmental Association

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