Edmonton, AB (June 21, 2022) – Pipeline construction may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of how to highlight National Indigenous History Month, but for Andrea Thomas, she lives and breathes the connection every day.
As an Indigenous Monitor for GeoVerra, Andrea works to protect First Nations’ traditional and cultural heritage sites for the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, specifically in the Jacko Lake area of British Columbia, known as Pípsell by the local communities.
Trans Mountain has agreements with First Nations along the pipeline corridor through their Indigenous Engagement Program to ensure construction follows the conditions to protect these sites. Andrea oversees this program in the Pípsell area for the Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation (SSN), a joint partnership between the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) and the Skeetchesten.
As a traditional meeting place and hunting grounds for the communities that make up the SSN, Pípsell is a highly sensitive cultural and historical area. In partnership with SSN, GeoVerra created an Indigenous Monitor role to support the survey and construction monitoring activities in the area.
Andrea was the unicorn that fit the bill. But let’s take a step back to learn more about Andrea and how she got here.
Unicorn in the Making
Andrea’s educational background and work experience has given her a unique combination of archaeology and ecology research, paired with knowledge of Indigenous traditional land use and cultural heritage assessments.
This included working with the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) and First Nations in northern BC on projects ranging from sustainable forest management to collecting and documenting traditional ecological and archaeological knowledge. Working with the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, she created resource manuals, guidebooks, and web-based databases and interactive maps to host traditional land use areas, sites, materials, resources, and wildlife.
In 2015, with her kids graduated and out of the nest, Andrea didn’t need to stay at home or be tied to a desk anymore, so she decided to go back to what she enjoyed – working on the land. As a community member of TteS, she took a seasonal role as an Archaeology Technician collecting field data and doing cultural heritage studies for the TteS Natural Resources Department.
To move out of seasonal work, Andrea then started with GeoVerra as a Survey Assistant, where she learned the ropes of the equipment and software and the overall pipeline survey and construction process. After two years, she was offered the Indigenous Monitoring role. Her diverse skill set including field work and technical expertise – like GIS mapping, database construction and surveying – along with her communications and project coordination expertise, made her the perfect fit.
Day in the Life
Andrea oversees and monitors all aspects of activity within the Pípsell area acting as SSN’s “eyes on the ground” to ensure their values and expectations regarding traditional land use, natural features, and cultural sites are considered. She also helps determine ways to mitigate environmental impact and performs regular sweeps for wildlife during construction, including active animal dens, nesting birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles in adherence with the Trans Mountain Environmental Protection Plans.
While she spends most of her day in the field ensuring pipeline construction activities do not disturb cultural features and environmental aspects – often walking 10 km or more – a big part of Andrea’s role is communication. She’s the primary liaison between the construction managers, foremen and crew in the field, as well as engineers, surveyors, and higher-level stakeholders. Everyone works together to create, review and fine-tune the construction plan upfront and then Andrea monitors the work to follow the plan.
Examples of the vast number of traditional and cultural features found in the Pípsell region are burial cairns, directional logs, and culturally modified trees (CMT), including those used for marriage, directions or for food. The methods she uses to protect identified features varies depending on the type and location, but generally involves buffering them within a 5-metre protective barrier using posts, rope, flags, and signage. Andrea is continuously checking on these barriers to repair them – whether from cattle, wildlife or humans – to ensure they aren’t disturbed.
In some cases, CMT must be curated by either relocating them outside the pipeline footprint or bringing them to community museums or schools. This is a detailed process that includes incorporating ceremonial aspects such as smudging of the tree and the new location by burning traditional medicinal plants. Because going out onto the land to see these historically significant features and artifacts is often inaccessible, relocation promotes education of the next generation and visitors to the area.
Teacher in the Field
As a self-described “teacher in the field,” Andrea paints a vivid picture of the historical activities in the Pípsell area. “The Secwépemc were very territorial with 17 individual bands making up the nation. Resources were so abundant that there wasn’t a need to go into another band’s territory. Pípsell is important because it’s where the communities touched each other and the line where they met was shared territory. This is where the bands engaged in trading and bartering and had political talks, such as trespassing and hunting. It also was an abundant hunting ground with elk migration, trout and medicinal plants.”
Extra precautions are being taken to preserve the significance of the Pípsell area, including boring 7 km of the pipeline underground and building access roads over established trails so as not to disturb the ground. “Pipsell is a huge archeological site with a high opportunity for ‘chance finds’,” says Andrea. “Because of my archeology background, when I worked as a Survey Assistant for GeoVerra, I couldn’t help but point out cultural features when I saw them.” The construction crews were grateful for her expertise as it enabled them to avoid potentially costly repercussions by getting proper permits and clearances to meet Provincial and Federal guidelines.
This natural desire to teach others about Indigenous ways has carried over into her new role. Andrea has already been presented with an opportunity to pass along her knowledge and understanding of the pipeline construction process and documentation to other Indigenous Monitors as they advance their careers.
“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave…
My ancestors didn’t choose to come here. This is our home. This is our land. There is nowhere we can go. This is where we’re from… so we protect, cultivate and teach the what the land has to offer and honour the privilege of these offerings everyday. … Qeltqiltes le7 sw7ec (I wish you well).” – Andrea Thomas, Indigenous Monitor, GeoVerra
Where to Learn More
We encourage everyone to take the opportunity to understand and appreciate Indigenous culture through online resources.