After several years of life-saving and wellness-enhancing use by the community, Samson Cree Nation member Tina Northwest has been recognized for her hard work to see a walking trail along Highway 611 through Maskwacis completed.
Northwest, who was the project manager for the trail, was awarded Alberta TrailNet Society’s “Trail Tracker Award.” She is the second person to ever receive the honour.
Northwest was presented with a plaque and wooden sculpture to commemorate the occasion, near the trail head on Sept. 29. TrailNet representatives Linda Strong-Watson, executive director, and Christine Nelson, president, came for the presentation.
TrailNet’s board voted Northwest as the recipient of the award over a year ago, however, the presentation of the award was delayed due to COVID-19.
Northwest was selected for the award based on her “significant contribution of time and effort to improve and achieve the society’s mission and objectives especially on a specific trail,” according to a letter from TrailNet.
The letter further cited her vision and leadership in bringing together community efforts to create the trail.
“This was the first project of its kinds in that community and your work in engaging Samson Cree First Nation leaders and community members, gaining support and help from Alberta Transportation engineers, and on securing federal and provincial grants was an outstanding accomplishment that will benefit the community for many years.”
The 8.4 kilometers of enhanced trail starts east of Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, along Highway 611.
The initial trail, which was a graded and paved path along the highway, was completed in 2014 or 2015. An inauguration ceremony was held in October, 2015.
In 2017, the trail was paved with asphalt surfacing, making it more accessible and enjoyable for diverse users.
“We were concerned with the health and well-being of the community,” said Cindy Buffalo, who was a band administrator when the project first began.
“There had been fatalities on that road. We just didn’t want people hurt from traffic,” said Buffalo.
This was also before the speed limit was reduced on that highway, she says.
She added the Nation was also trying to encourage residents to be active and exercise.
A wellness survey completed by the band in 2010 found that mental health was a concern for many residents and that many walked to relieve stress. A safe, accessible, local trail was set as a high priority for the Nation.
“I’m really glad it all came together,” said Buffalo.
“I see a lot of people using the trail.”
Highway 611 used to be a criss-cross of wagon trails, with no clear path for pedestrians, and the community lost a lot of people, says those involved in the project.
It’s believed there have been no reported pedestrian deaths along the road since the trail was installed.
The trail has also been used for all kinds of community activities and initiatives since its completion.
Portions of the project were funded by Samson Cree Nation, as well as Alberta Transportation and other grants.
There is a parking area where the trail begins, and a sign east down the pathway. There are benches at each mile of the trail.
The total cost of the project isn’t known, however, it’s estimated to be around 1$ million.
It was originally hoped the trail would be 10 kilometres and come closer to the Battle River, all the way to the west edge of the Nation’s boundary.
“It would have been great to utilize traditional grounds right by the river,” said Northwest.
In 2012, Northwest was working on her doctorate when a colleague recognized she was very physically active and asked her to spearhead the project.
Although constructing a trail along that highway had been a discussion for at least 20 years, Northwest believes the timing was right when she came onto the project, as only a couple of months into her research, things started to fall into place.
It was at that beginning early stage when Alberta Transportation approached her about partnering with her to make the dream of a trail along Highway 611 a reality.
“This was the first trail Alberta Transporation assisted with building,” said Northwest.
Alberta Transportation provided environmental scientists, engineers and their expertise as in-kind donations throughout the project.
The trail was also completed in a relatively short time, for a project of this size, says Northwest.
“It was meant to be, at the time it was meant to happen.”
Now, the work she did on the trail is part of her dissertation “Colonialism and the ecological footprints of my relations.”
Northwest says building this trail was part of reconciliation, although the work began before that was even an acknowledged term.
“Before Truth and Reconciliation happened, before the national recognition process began, we were doing this work already,” she said.
“This was the first big project I worked on in my life,” said Northwest, who by all accounts took to project management quite naturally.
Northwest also credits her friend and volunteer on the project Laureen Omeasoo with helping to make the project a success.
Northwest is amazed at the ripple effect working on this project has had, not only in the community, but personally with her own family.
Her young children used to come with her to meetings and now her son is in his last year of chemical engineering and her daughter is studying environmental science and minoring in native studies.
“How does that manifest?” she said with a tone of wonder.
Northwest is also pleased the trail was completed before COVID-19 hit.
“This trail was very helpful to people through their quarantine, through isolation,” she said.
She added that the nature to be found all along the trail also helps people connect back to the land.
It’s full of life, which Northwest says “makes it even more special for us.”