Empowering community voices through Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Physical health is often connected to the health of our environment. A new project led by fourth-year UBC Forestry undergraduate student Alexandra Thomas highlights how Indigenous knowledge about the healing and nurturing properties of the land could help mitigate negative health effects from climate change-related events, such as extreme heat, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) – Canada’s poorest postal code.
“How can we be a healthy city if we don’t lift up every resident?” questions Alexandra, who is majoring in Forest Resources Management and minoring in Community and Aboriginal Forestry. “I hope other young people, especially young Indigenous students, who learn about this project will be inspired to follow their passions and realize their potential.”
Alexandra, who is of Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish descent – with lineages from the Tlowitsis and shíshálh First Nation – comes from a matriline of action-oriented women whose leadership skills and community involvement have been a fountain of inspiration.
“While my passion for the outdoors and natural resources comes from my mom, I also drew a lot of teachings from my grandmother and how she lived her life.”
Alexandra’s mother works as a manager with the Coastal Guardian Watchmen, monitoring their traditional territories on Vancouver Island near Campbell River, BC, where Alexandra and her mom grew up. As a child, Alexandra remembers visiting her grandmother’s bookstore in Campbell River and hearing stories about the many foster children she raised over several decades.
“My grandmother was the matriarch of the family,” Alexandra recalls. “I was her only biological grandchild, and grew up with my family and community looking to her for guidance.”
After moving to Vancouver, Alexandra was surprised to find many areas of the city with minimal tree cover and vegetation. News reports of hospitalizations, particularly among people living in the DTES, during the 2021 heat dome that baked BC with temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius, compelled Alexandra to take action and create the regreening project, which received funding from UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Fund.
Launched in September 2022, Alexandra’s Regreening Vancouver’s DTES to Combat Heat Island Effects project looks through a Traditional Ecological Knowledge lens to create a community coalition that gives voice to people living in the DTES. The project’s collaborative approach is designed to address the potential stumbling blocks of complex social dynamics and power structures found within the DTES community.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is living knowledge of the land and different ways of knowing passed down from one generation to the next, explains Alexandra. For example, the emotional and spiritual meaning and value of cedar trees to Indigenous Peoples is a longstanding part of Indigenous history and culture.
Together with project team members, Pablo Akira Beimler and Nadia Joe, Alexandra will engage with Indigenous nations, as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous community groups. The project team will
gather recommendations on how to manage and steward green spaces in the urban environment in a way that reflects the needs and traditions of local residents. The research team will also work with City of Vancouver staff on scoping and municipal bylaw considerations.
As the world heats up, green spaces can play an important role in cooling down the surface air temperature in the shade by around six to 13 degrees Celsius. Trees are also carbon absorbing machines, with a mature tree capturing an average of over 21 Kg of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere over the course of a year.
Indigenous partners from around the world will be engaged to better understand how connections to the land can promote the health and wellbeing of people and the planet.
“We know that small details, such as the presence of a strawberry plant in a community garden, can help address issues of food security, create inroads to connect to the land and incentivize gardeners,” notes Alexandra. “The sharing of insights like this by partners will inform the recommendations we put forward at the close of the project.”
Forestry and care for the community’s surrounding natural resources was a constant presence in Alexandra’s youth. As an undergraduate student, she has further developed her skills and awareness in traditional Indigenous ways of life, land management and stewardship.
“Something that’s often missing from climate and environmental sciences is the interconnection of people and the natural environment, which I am passionate about addressing in my work,” Alexandra says.