For as much as living off the land and being kind to Mother Nature ring true with the Cree spiritually, ever since the intrusion of the modern world, most communities have sent their garbage to landfills without contemplating other options.

Though the community of Wemindji has managed to set up an award-winning recycling-incineration program, with other communities looking to follow suit, other alternatives to landfills have yet been considered.

That was until students in the French transition class (Grade 7) at the Willie J. Happyjack Memorial High School in Waswanipi and teacher Christine Branchaud teamed up with the nonprofit group, Elephant Thoughts, to start something special.

Though Elephant Thoughts – which promotes high standards of education worldwide – has been running science programs for both elementary and high-school students throughout the nine Cree communities as well as other Aboriginal communities across Canada for years, the project in Waswanipi was the first of its kind.

“Instead of doing individual science-fair projects, Branchaud wanted to do a group project and recycling seemed the perfect fit,” said Michael Paulin of Elephant Thoughts.

Last December, Branchaud showed the 12- and 13-year-old students in her class that the blue boxes that they saw around the school could be used for more than just garbage. At the time, her students had absolutely no concept of the words: reduce, reuse, recycle.

“Christine thought it would be great if we could do a project and begin recycling in class and hopefully then with the secondary students and it sort of steam-rolled from there,” said Paulin.

For encouragement the students were allowed class time to do the sorting. Branchaud’s students not only began to recycle within the classroom but they began bringing in recyclable materials from home.

When Branchaud went out to do her grocery shopping on the weekends in either Chapais or Chibougamau, she would take the recyclables with her and deposit them in the bins in either town.

As the project began to take off, students encouraged their families to sort their waste materials so that they could be recycled through the school. In turn, this brazen bunch of adolescents became teachers to their parents.

“This is a powerful message because parents should know better and proba-

bly do know better. Then they see young people come out and do something like this. You can’t say anything bad about a kid who wants to reduce, reuse and recycle,” said Paulin.

The project eventually became so popular that at one point Branchaud ran out of truck space so the Band Council pitched in and transported the recyclable goods to a facility.

“The school board is now pushing through a recycling initiative for next year and I believe it is for all nine communities,” said Paulin.

Constantly bouncing ideas off Elephant Thoughts, Branchaud wants to branch out and set up a small composting system in the fall that could be used for her spring planting.

Through the non-profit group, she is also looking into the possibility that the girls in the Cree culture class might be interested in sewing Cree-themed canvas bags for the community members to use instead of plastic shopping bags. This would keep plastic bags out of the community’s landfills.

Since many of the community’s Gookgums participate in the sewing aspect of the Cree culture class, this intergenerational approach to conservation may be an innovative way to integrate more community members into waste-reduction programs.

“If those students didn’t have that particular teacher, they would not be recycling today,” said Paulin, who is impressed by one teacher’s ability to bring respect for the earth back into a Cree environment through the community’s youth.

For information on Elephant Thoughts:

Wemindji sets their recycling standards even higher

Though it won the prestigious Phenix award from the Quebec government in 2007 for its innovative recycling program, the community of Wemindji will be taking its recycling initiative even further next month with the opening of the first-ever Cree eco-centre.

For the time being only the platform for the new building has been completed. But with construction underway, the structure is expected to be complete within a few weeks. New containers have been ordered for four different kinds of waste other than the usual plastic, glass, metals and paper that get picked up in regular recycling.

The new eco-centre will have the capacity to recycle everything from construction waste to scrap metals to bulky items, such as tires, old appliances and car bodies.

“It will be set up like a transfer station for the dumpsite. Whenever a container is full, a transporter from the south will come and pick it up and transfer it to the dumpsite,” said Wemindji Environmental Administer Johnny Mark.

An added bonus to Wemindji’s recycling efforts is that it has resulted in new job creation. The community now has three fulltime employees working at the incinerator yard, two others are working through a youth employment initiative and Mark is looking to hire a fulltime recycling coordinator or manager to keep things running smoothly.

At the moment there is even talk of hiring an extra weekend employee to keep the eco-centre running outside of business hours should community members wish to deposit their waste at that time.

You too can be earth friendly!

Recycling is not the only way to preserve the environment as Embassy of the Cree Nation Executive Director Bill Namagoose proved with one innovative idea that reduced his energy consumption at home.

Fifteen years ago, Namagoose took a good look at the types of solar heating blankets used for swimming pools and the hot water generated by a garden hose sitting out in the sun and decided to set up his own homemade, passive solar water heater.

“I got some black plastic pipes and connected them to the incoming cold water. I placed the plastic pipes on my roof and then I connected the other end to my hot water tank,” said Namagoose.

With the heat generated on his roof, Namagoose is able to save money on heating hot water from April to October with the system he built for only $80.

The system consists of 200 feet of black poly pipes and is able to hold about eight gallons of water at a time. With hot water coming in from his southeast-facing roof, his hot water tank hardly needs to do any work during the warmer months. Since setting up the system, he has only had to replace it once.

Namagoose also said that he swears by low-flow showerheads in his home as they only consume about 25% of the water normally used in a regular shower. “The water is mixed with air and steam. Those types of showerheads are available everywhere now for about $ 15 or less,” said Namagoose.