With a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering Science, Rodney Guest is well-educated by most measures. As Suncor’s Director of Closure Environmental Integrity, he’s also an accomplished scientist with many years of experience working on water issues, including over a decade in the oil sands.

Even so, Rodney’s numerous interactions with members of Indigenous communities living near the Athabasca River have been an education in what those rivers mean to them. The things they’ve learned are invaluable for Rodney and his team as they work to ensure Suncor is managing water safely and sustainably. And sometimes the key to understanding is pretty simple. 

“It really is listening to the things that they talk about that are important when it comes to the water,” he says. “It might be smell, it might be taste, it might be the location where they get the water from. So, you sit and you listen to their stories, their knowledge.” 

Rodney recalls the first time he visited the region in 2011 as part of monitoring work for the Athabasca River. He and a colleague travelled to Fort Chipewyan to speak with the community. He remembers how concerned they were about the potential effects of the oil sands industry on the water. 

Rodney has heard similar concerns over the years from his time working on drinking water systems for many of the Indigenous communities across Alberta. He notes most North Americans simply turn on the tap and trust that the water that streams out is safe. Communities that have lost trust in their water supply don’t feel the same way. 

“For communities that have oral traditions, these stories continue on and on and are passed down from generation to generation. So, the road to regaining trust in the water supply can be a long one.” 

He points to the cultural significance the Athabasca watershed has for the region’s Indigenous people as well. For example, he recalls community members saying how people used to know how to find safe water as they wandered the land. Such cultural knowledge is passed down from Elders to the next generations. 

Rodney also acknowledges the spiritual importance that water holds for community members and the idea that the health of the river and the landscape are connected. While Western scientists tend to separate the technical from the spiritual, he’s learned that Indigenous people make no distinction. 

“For Indigenous communities, there are no boundaries between these aspects of the water: for them, it’s the lifeblood of the earth.” 

Rodney reflects on these and other things he’s learned as an employee of Suncor. The company values water as a precious natural resource and recognizes it’s an essential part of its operations and, therefore, strives to reduce the effects on the rivers. 

These efforts include minimizing the withdrawal of fresh water, reusing and recycling water, and storing it safely. They also extend to safely returning treated water to the Athabasca River, a necessary step toward closing and reclaiming a mine. And for Rodney, making sure this work is done right has become a personal mission. 

“In sharing my personal water journey story with community members, I’ve found we do have shared values around water. We care about the water. We also have a responsibility and accountability,” he says. “And while it might not be the same in a spiritual way, as a professional, I’m personally invested in the work I do to make sure the water is safe to return to the environment.”

Rodney’s relationships with Indigenous communities shows how working alongside Indigenous Peoples can deepen our understanding of their values and culture, and advance reconciliation. This story can be found in the 2022 edition of Pathways magazine. Visit our Pathways magazine page to read more.