There is not even a hint of anger or bitterness in his voice as Brady Highway talks about the racism he encountered when he first started university.
But the sense of wonder is evident when the 36-year-old describes how different it was in the Renewable Resource Management program at University of Saskatchewan.
Highway grew up in the Cree community of Pelican Narrows in northeastern Saskatchewan and was in his early twenties when he attended university in Nova Scotia. At the time, the Mi'kmaq people of Burnt Church First Nation were asserting their right to catch and sell lobster, which escalated into a fierce, sometimes violent, confrontation with Nova Scotia fishermen, the RCMP and Ottawa.
“I remember all these students were on the fishermen’s side and even some of the professors,” he recalled. “This wasn’t my battle, but I do stick up for treaty rights, and the federal government was so heavy-handed towards the Mi’kmaq.
“And I’m hearing all these bigoted comments and thinking, ‘I can’t take listening to this every day. Maybe education isn’t for me.’”
Despite that, a decade later Highway decided to pursue his bachelor of science. He still marvels at the experience.
“One day I find myself in a class (Natural Resource Management and Indigenous Peoples) where all these same issues are coming up, but all of a sudden the lens had been changed,” he said.
“(Professor) David Natcher was talking about the duty to consult with First Nations peoples and the duty to accommodate before huge resource development projects go ahead. These were concepts that when I was younger, you would have said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if one day…’
“Now he’s saying, ‘This is how it’s going to be going forward.’ It was absolutely profound. It was just one of those really, really powerful moments when you realize, ‘Yeah, I’m in the right spot right now.’ It was pretty cool.”
There was also something deeper taking place—a recognition that ‘growing up in the bush’ brings a deep and different understanding of ecology than you get from textbooks and field studies.
“At first I was a little apprehensive about speaking up, first because I’m an Aboriginal and second because I’m an old bugger who is at least 10 years older than most in the class,” said Highway. “But I started taking a few chances, getting involved in the classroom conversation and talking about some of the lessons I learned growing up on the land.
“It might be things I learned as a kid while picking berries; Cree names for the seasons and what they mean; or what’s going on when an animal appears stressed. I’d pipe up and eventually was encouraged to share these teachings. I wasn’t expecting that,” he said.
“Professors were asking me to take an extra 30 minutes and expand on my presentation or lead a discussion on bear safety or fire behaviour.”
One could not ask for a better instructor on either of those topics. The grandson of a Hudson Bay guide, Highway lived in small remote communities with his father, a teacher. Summers were spent on the land, often in the company of his grandmother, who spoke only Cree. At age 18, he was hired by Parks Canada, given “a flashlight and a uniform” and responsibility for patrolling part of Yoho National Park.
“It was a dream job; I had my cowboy hat pulled down low and am sashaying through the mountains thinking, ‘I’ve pretty much got ‘er made’” he said. “Then one day I ran into a grizzly bear. It was about 14 feet away and already standing up on its hind legs.
“I took a couple of steps back, got down on one knee to look submissive, and when I looked up he was halfway up this moraine. He was so fast, he just exploded out of there. I was absolutely humbled by this animal.”
Highway would go on to fight wildfires across Saskatchewan—somewhere between 200 and 250—eventually leading crews of up to 20 people into situations where a single miscalculation could have deadly consequences. When you’re in an area that has been “saved” from forest fire and is filled with old, half-dead and tinder-dry trees waiting to go up in flames, you appreciate resource management in a very different way, he said. To this day, Highway can take in the health—and what’s called the ‘fuel load’—of a forest in a glance.
Since graduating in 2013, he has traded the bush for treeless Churchill, Manitoba, where he’s the Visitor Safety and Fire Operations Coordinator at Wapusk National Park—a.k.a. the guy who makes sure the polar bears don’t get you.
“Polar bears and wildfires,” he said with a laugh. “The two things in my life that scare the wits out of me, and I’ve ended up making my career of them.”
The park attracts visitors from around the world, but no one goes out on the hauntingly beautiful tundra without at least one armed bear monitor.
“Whatever you do could trigger some kind of behaviour in this bear, so you better watch what you do,” he said. “Even something so simple as shouldering your rifle could potentially set it off. When you’re at close range, it’s not a fun day.”
Highway has an unofficial job, too—an advocate for university education.
“When I go to my home community, I’m always telling young people to consider the sciences,” he says. “We need more protectors of the land—we need more Aboriginal engagement in resource management.”
He also makes a point of talking about his work, and how he uses his education, to the kids on the hockey team he coaches.
“There aren’t a lot of Aboriginal people in sciences and that’s a major gap in our system,” he said. “We need people from First Nations communities who have some of that life experience of working on the land. We need to get those people into programs where they can contribute to managing and protecting the land.”