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Jobs of the Future: Environmental field technicians act as guardians of the land

Northern College launches environmental programming to train industry and First Nation field technicians
(LBS Environmental Consulting photo)

If Ontario's Far North opens up to development in the coming years, one of the more obscure but necessary jobs will be environmental field monitors.

Environmental monitoring basically involves studying the impact of human activities on the natural world.

On a mining project, a monitor, or field technician, can be out in the field collecting samples of plants, soil, water and air out to send back to labs for analysis. Monitors usually work for government ministries, resource companies and consulting firms.

Thunder Bay's Larissa Stevens, owner of LBS Environmental Consulting, knows the ins and outs of this ground-level job after spending a decade as a specialist in environmental consulting and Indigenous community engagement.

In her case, she's worked for Marten Falls First Nation as the community consultation coordinator on its Community Access Road project now under environmental assessment study in the area known as the Ring of Fire. 

Though university-educated, Stevens admits, more than once, she's recruited someone practically off the street and trained them on the fly in the exhausting and detail-oriented world of data collection fieldwork.

One individual caught onto the job fairly quickly.

"Completely no experience and by end of the week of the groundwater sampling, he was actually picking up my mistakes," said Stevens. "I was tired, starting to miss stuff in my notes, and it was the seventh day of 15-hour days." 

That trainee, she said, studied to become a water treatment plant operator and ended up running the water distribution system in his community, as well as getting into local politics.

"It gave him confidence that he has skills and he can learn, and it's not as hard as they make it sound."

The type of fieldwork can be wide-ranging for a monitor, she said. 

"They could be doing bird counts, putting out remote monitors for bats; they could be helping catch caribou, setting wildlife traps, drilling and sampling wells and surface water, fish sampling; the environment (side) is so broad it really depends on what your interest level is."

With the Marten Falls access road project, there were a variety of positions available for community members on the field team to be exposed to a bit of everything. 

It's the kind of thankless, hands-on, entry-level job that can provide a spark for someone to pursue a career in the resource industry or the environmental sciences.

"It does kinda open the door once you understand the science and how to do fieldwork," said Stevens.

Northern College intends to formalize that training after hearing the call from the resource industry.

The Timmins-based college is introducing a six-week Environmental and Field Monitor training program. Training gets underway in February at Lac Seul First Nation, near Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario.

With 10 seats to be filled, Christine Heavens, Northern's executive director of community business development, is hoping the program will especially appeal to women, particularly from remote First Nation communities. 

She describes this short training program as a "rapid entry" to fill a much-needed skills gap in the mining sector.

Northern has worked to fill the ranks in the mining industry for years with its successful driller's assistant program. But Heavens said in their conversations with the companies there was a clear need for people to do environmental field monitoring.

The companies shared what skills and competencies were required and from that the college was able to formulate a program.

Graduates of this program will work directly with the environmental teams of the mining companies.

Ultimately, Northern wants to help First Nation communities create their own homegrown workforce of environmental technicians known as "land guardians." These trained experts manage protected places, and animal and plant habitat; test water quality; and act as the eyes and ears in monitoring development on their community's traditional lands.

In the classroom and in the field, program participants will get well acquainted with industry best practices and standards.

There are courses on environmental monitoring and wildlife management, surface miner common core, data entry and reporting, along with an abundance of health and safety training, learning the intangibles of critical thinking skills and problem solving, plus a primer in Indigenous cultural awareness.

"We are fully expecting this will lead to full-time employment," said Heavens.

This short course is a precursor to a more fulsome one-year program Northern intends to roll out later this year, modelled after the environmental program offered at Keyano College in Alberta. 

Equally weighted instruction will be placed in both Western science and Indigenous-based traditional knowledge gathering, which is done through community interviews, observations and image-taking.

Heavens said the job prospects for these graduates will allow them to work on mining, forestry and power-line transmission projects.

Key to the program's success will be to bring Indigenous knowledge keepers aboard to provide input, instruction and enable the program to be customized to fit the needs of a particular region.

The combination of Western science and traditional knowledge in the training modules is "really important," added Stevens.

"With any plan or permit, you consult with First Nations. If the community can take care of that stuff on their own, that's funding they can keep and create positions internally."

Stevens finds many Indigenous people understand the importance of the monitor's role and are often pleased to participate. "A lot of the time they (First Nation members) know the land better than you do."

She stressed similar training programs have failed in the past because participants couldn't secure work once they received their certificates. Many projects at the environmental assessment stage only offer short-term employment for First Nation members. Full-time jobs only open up when construction gets underway. 

To thrive at the job, Stevens said, requires being outdoorsy, physically fit, with the ability to be a problem solver once you're out in the field.

"They don't necessarily have to know everything but if your (sampling) tube falls down a well, they have to find a stick to pull it out."

One also has to be willing to roam wherever the work is for a field program, for extended periods away from home, in rugged and bug-infested environments while putting in some sun-up to sun-down days.

It can also be mentally taxing sometimes on the community engagement side.

"You're always talking to people, trying to troubleshoot, trying to write. It can be a hard job and you have to be committed to it and the odd hours. It's not 9 to 5."

The biggest obstacle that hinders many Indigenous people from pursuing higher education spring-boarding off these entry-level positions is the lack of funding opportunities and encouragement, Stevens said.

"A lot of people aren't keen on getting student loans if they don't know they will have a job coming out at end of it. There's some work to be done to help fund (Indigenous) people into the industry."