Indigenous monitors on site for flood mitigation work at Edmonton water treatment plants

Wednesday, September 6th, 2023 8:59am


Image Caption

At left: Jed Johns, manager of government and Indigenous relations with EPCOR. At right: Enoch Cree Nation Councillor Rocky Morin led EPCOR in ceremony in 2021 before a ground disturbance occurred ahead of rehabilitation work near one of the reservoirs at the Rossdale Water Treatment Plant.


“We haven’t had any problems with when we find (artifacts). Everything comes to a stop. Then we do our work to it. And the archaeologist does his work. And then they start up again. They’re really good about that,” — Alfred L’Hirondelle, president of Region 4 of the Métis Nation of Alberta
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Edmonton City Council’s Utility Committee members heard from EPCOR Sept. 5 regarding the measures the local utility company is taking to safeguard Edmonton and the region’s drinking water supply from high-risk flood events.

The flood mitigation project is designed to protect the critical infrastructure of the Rossdale and E.L. Smith water treatment plants, which are located in Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River valley, an area rich in Indigenous history.

The installation of flood barriers and flood gates and other related work is to begin in 2024, to be completed in three years.

E.L. Smith is located on former reserve lands of the Enoch Cree Nation. Archaeological finds have been made there. The Rossdale land contains an Indigenous traditional burial ground along with a Fort Edmonton cemetery.

“There’s always something we have to be concerned about with Rossdale,” said Papaschase First Nation Chief Calvin Bruneau.

Bruneau was on site as part of EPCOR’s Indigenous monitoring program in 2016 when human remains were found as the company was undertaking redesign work. Excavation work was immediately suspended.

“It was kind of disturbing, because two of them were children,” he said. “The other disturbing part was that these were just fragments of human remains, not the full skeleton. You wonder where is the rest of this little baby?”

EPCOR notified Indigenous nations of the findings. Later that same year, EPCOR, the affected Indigenous nations and groups with historical ties to the area participated in a reinterment ceremony.

“That’s always the issue (in Rossdale). Where else are there human remains on the property, right?” asked Bruneau.

Other remains have been found on the grounds during the years, including in 2001. Those remains, along with remains found during the 1960s and 1970s, were re-interred in a ceremony in 2005.

In 2013, EPCOR implemented an Indigenous monitoring program.

“Whenever we're going to stick a shovel in the ground or start ground disturbance or really any excavations at Rossdale, we invite the 30-plus nations (to monitor),” said Jed Johns, who’s been manager of government and Indigenous relations with EPCOR for just over four years.

“Right now, really, there's no requirement for Indigenous monitors (under Alberta’s Historical Resources Act). We employ that because that's what the nations have asked for and it's really the best standard at this time,” he said.

Papaschase was involved at the start of the monitoring program and Bruneau says that while there were “some challenges” at that time, “now we’ve gone through this process and this drill where we know what needs to be done” when artifacts and human remains are found.

EPCOR’s consultation office advises the nations or communities about pending ground disturbance and about half of those contacted usually respond. As these are active industrial sites, safety must be taken into consideration, says Johns, so two to four Indigenous monitors are chosen.

Indigenous monitors can be Elders, knowledge holders, environmental monitors or those with archeological experience.

Johns adds that monitors are “on rotation” to allow for different perspectives as the Cree, Dene, Blackfoot and Métis all have histories at the sites.

Alfred L’Hirondelle, president of Region 4 of the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA), was onsite at Rossdale on Aug. 31 as EPCOR began work on a transformer replacement project. He says he expects to be at the site off and on during September “if there’s going to be any ground disturbance.”

The transformer replacement project is not part of the flood mitigation program.

According to Johns, the transformer replacement is close to the Indigenous burial site so the work will be monitored throughout. He adds that excavation will be undertaken by hand instead of mechanical because of the sensitivity to the area.

L’Hirondelle and the MNA have only been part of EPCOR’s monitoring program for the past two years. L’Hirondelle says he has a personal interest in Métis history and he contacted EPCOR and Edmonton to get involved in the consultation process.

He has monitored at both E.L. Smith and Rossdale and says it’s been buffalo bones, primarily, that have been found.

L’Hirondelle also notes an old encampment was discovered at the E.L. Smith site.

“We haven’t had any problems with when we find (artifacts). Everything comes to a stop. Then we do our work to it. And the archaeologist does his work. And then they start up again. They’re really good about that,” said L’Hirondelle.

In figures provided by EPCOR, 23 representatives from 16 Indigenous nations or communities participated as monitors during “utility locate” work (to identify where utilities are located underground) done at Rossdale in February and March 2022.

In 2021 and 2022, representatives from 13 Indigenous nations or communities participated as monitors in test pit ground disturbance (November 2021) and utility locate work (February 2022) at E.L. Smith.

L’Hirondelle says he has no concerns about how human remains will be handled should any be found.

“(EPCOR is) quite open to working with us. They’ve set themselves up a really good program there. It works well. Seems to keep everybody informed. They’ve done a great job of getting things set up there,” he said.

Of the two sites, Johns says the most interest from Indigenous nations or communities is shown in work undertaken at Rossdale.

“I think that just is a testament to the familial, the cultural and the historical connections so many different nations have to Rossdale through so many different generations,” said Johns, who is a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation.

“We know that the entire site at Rossdale is sensitive and there's a potential to make finds” when flood mitigation work gets underway, he added. 

“We've committed to the nations that we'll stop work. We'll notify them and we'll work lockstep with the nations on what needs to take place. I think we're prepared to have those conversations with the nations if there’s any finds and be open and transparent about that,” said Johns.

Over the past two years, he points out, there have been three pipe ceremonies at Rossdale in preparation for the flood mitigation work.

ECPOR needs to have those conversations, says Bruneau, but they need to happen with the right representatives.

“I think they need to do a vetting process of who’s who. We know who Enoch is. We know who Maskwacis nations is. We know their representatives,” he said

However, Bruneau’s nation has been involved over the years in an ongoing dispute as to who is to be recognized as chief and council.

“Because somebody creates a society, the city automatically thinks it must be legit. Meanwhile, they haven’t looked at their background, their history,” said Bruneau.

He also has concerns with the involvement of the MNA.

Bruneau says he was recently at Rossdale where he came across a Métis man who was doing a ceremony. The man said he was given permission by the MNA.

L’Hirondelle says while he wasn’t in attendance at the ceremony noted by Bruneau, “it was probably my crew that was involved. Sometimes groups, if they’re going into new areas, they do ceremony.”

That doesn’t sit well with Bruneau.

“We’ve been here longer. Mostly those human remains that are found are First Nations,” he said. “There’s the underlying issues that need to be considered. (EPCOR) should be checking who’s who instead of allowing just anybody to come in there. It creates problems.” asked EPCOR for a list of the Indigenous nations that had participated in the consultation process. EPCOR started consulting on the flood mitigation project in 2021.

However, EPCOR directed to a general tally of the ways “Indigenous nations or communities” participated but did not specifically name any of them. EPCOR said that general information “is all we are able to share publicly at this time.”

Flood mitigation at the Rossdale and E.L. Smith water treatment plants will keep the plants operating in case of a major river flood event. EPCOR treats the water that goes to the First Nations of Enoch Cree, Alexander, Alexis Nakota Sioux and Paul, as well as Edmonton and 90 other surrounding communities. They service 1.3 million people.

“When we talk to the nations about water and the importance of water, we get those messages back about water is life, water is sacred,” said Johns. “We get that the nations understand how important it is that these water treatment plants keep operating and that they don't go down for even a couple of months if there was a catastrophic flood.”

However, he says, EPCOR also understands that they need to find that “balance on the impacts on the land itself. So there is a balance there that we're working with and the nations understand as well.”

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.