When the mine VP called me directly asking if he could move a piece of equipment across a piece of reclamation area, I asked him why they needed to do that. They needed to move that equipment, and I got to make that call.
Day-hikes to Waterton, canoe excursions, bikes through the coolies and overnight backpacking trips are ways that Matthew Alexander (Matt) escapes the city and immerses himself in nature. "I have five siblings, so we'll normally get into some shenanigans on the weekend," he jokes. As a lover of sport, adventure and the outdoors, Matt has always found ways to escape the classroom. He enjoyed swimming on his local swim team even before university and worked for five years on a relative's ranch. As a fifth-year agricultural studies student, Matt continues to explore opportunities outside of the classroom. He swam on the Pronghorn’s Swim team for four years and explored work-integrated learning through co-op.
Matt landed his position with Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) independently but chose to do it as a self-initiated co-op. The co-op office gives students both added support and formal distinction on their degrees. "I worked with CNRL’s reclamation team on various projects, including reclaiming portions of the mine and helping with hiring summer students," Matt explained, "it was a great experience." Throughout his co-op, Matt worked on both the Horizon and Albian oil sands mining projects. As a Reclamation Soils Monitor, his duties revolved around ensuring that the environment will return to its original value one day after mining is complete. He explained that according to government regulations, "land must return to a greater or equal ecological value to the deserved land. If you deserve a forest, you must return it to a forest of greater or equal value."
For Matt, one of the hardest parts of the job was making tough decisions, although he gained confidence quickly. "Before a mine can go into an area, they have to clear subsoil and topsoil. We salvage the topsoil with the plant propagule seeds and plant trees on top of that," he explained, adding that along with saving valuable, plant-rich soil, the team kept saline soil from contaminating surrounding areas. "Bulldozers would come in and scrape the ground into windrows and then the excavators would move it," he added. His team used equipment to test the ground's stability and how far down they should dig to save valuable topsoil. He reflects, "I had to answer questions like 'can we move this soil here? Can we move this snow? Would this contaminate another plant?' Anytime you put snow anywhere, you pick up some saline soil, which can kill plants underneath it, so we really needed to push and move it off of the land." Throughout his work term, Matt's team salvaged 150 hectares of permanent reclamation and planted new greenery. Although Matt stayed away from heavy machinery himself, he toured some of the equipment, climbing up on the seats and experiencing the operator's perspective. Matt reflects, "It was a huge responsibility and it was awesome being a university student and having that much trust."
During his position, Matt had authority over essential decisions. Contractors want to work quickly and the company must balance efficiency and affordability with safety and environmental concerns. "I needed to balance those interests, within the bounds of what was still acceptable," he explained. When deciding how best to repair the land, he notes, "It's a new science. People don't realize that reclamation as a science has only been around for the last forty-odd years. We're only now beginning to see some final landscapes completed years ago. So we can see what worked, what needs improvement and the overall results of past reclamation work. For example, say we thought these trees would do well and planted lots, thirty years later we might find they've grown so much they've become weeds." One unexpected part of his co-op was the experiments. “We trialed a forestry concept, where we mound the soil and use a bulldozer to windrow, which is not common. I planted cranberries on a reclaimed area and found that their root propagules survived and were extremely viable. There are so many studies that we could perform out there,” he notes. Matt's most memorable moment was when he was woken by a phone call on the weekend from the mine supervisor, asking permission to move machinery across a reclaimed area to fix a piece of monitoring equipment. "When the mine VP called me directly asking if he could move a piece of equipment across a piece of reclamation area, I asked him why they needed to do that. They needed to move that equipment and I got to make that call. Usually, I talked to his subordinate, so the experience was very empowering."
Working in a transitioning field, Matt answered some difficult questions on the energy industry. "It’s not that I’m against renewable energies. It’s that there are issues with them that need to be solved before mining will be obsolete,” he explained. “Oil is easy to transport. Batteries are not. I can fill up my car in five minutes. A car battery might take an hour to charge.” While renewable energy sources are on the rise, products still made using fossil fuels range from motor vehicles, plastics and home-heating to hospital equipment. Matt notes, “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t believe in the climate crisis. Most of the people I work with see oil and gas as a way to power through the next few years as we move towards renewables. As we’ve realized we are in a climate crisis, there are so many innovations. There are cars with more and more battery power than the ones before. Oil and gas are not going to be forever, but it is part of the journey to renewable energy, not completely separate.”
When asked what his favourite part of his co-op was, Matt answered, "definitely not the mosquitos. But I like being outside, so being paid to work outside was like the icing on the cake. Working with a great group of people makes it fun too. Wading through mud up past your gumboots, you need a friend to joke with, or the day can get long fast."
When asked to describe himself, Matt responds, “I’m a hard worker, easy-going and eager to impress. Not much irritates me. I get along well with just about everyone. Regardless of how antagonizing a personality is, I try to find a way to work with that person as best I can.” On that note, Matt urges other students to put their best foot forward and “never let an opportunity escape by burning bridges. Don’t leave any job with a bad reputation because you never know how the connections you build will impact your future.” For those considering the easy path, Matt expresses, “A situation might not be for you, but you can still gain something from it and use it for your professional advancement.”
In terms of his overall university experience, Matt answers honestly. “Most of my university experience was through the lens of a student-athlete as I swam for four years before completing my first co-op.” Coming from a smaller town, the U of L felt big. But after going to larger universities for swimming, Matt came back and it feels much smaller. “Here you can really know your professors, which is a huge advantage. The U of L is an excellent undergraduate university. It opens your mind to new ideas and gets you to see different perspectives, even if you disagree with them. Fine arts and social science classes aren’t always for me, but I’ve realized there is value in them. Value in taking classes outside of your program,” he remarked.
As for his co-op experience, Matt has built an impressive resume and gained new perspectives, “I gained a ton of experience with the reclamation team. Co-op gave me opportunities that I otherwise would never have been able to receive.” When students hear co-op, they often think of office buildings or stuffy cubicles. This is a common misconception. Just ask Matt! For Matt, co-op was out in nature, completing meaningful work directly related to his field.