Tending to the Earth

Marsha Smoke’s Moccasin Trails: at the intersection of industry and environment

Marsha Smoke is on the move. Her business keeps her travelling across Turtle Island, meeting with clients, connecting with First Nations communities and visiting family at every opportunity. Between stops at Starbucks (“I got hooked while I was in the States – no Timmies down there!”), she takes work calls through the car stereo from behind the wheel.

As she drives, the earth under her tires is always top of mind. It’s the impetus behind Moccasin Trails Access Matting Solutions, the Alderville-based business where Marsha Smoke is CEO and president.

Moccasin Trails provides access mats: large-scale wooden platforms built to hold heavy machinery like cranes and excavators, which are used in construction and infrastructure projects. Like the machinery they’re built to hold, the mats are massive: they’re 12 inches thick, and a single sheet can be 8 feet by 20 feet. The mats are used in a variety of environments: rugged, uneven ground and tender muskeg on the Canadian Shield or rich farmland in Southern Ontario.

Soil compaction from heavy machinery traffic affects soil health – plants, and even trees depend on well-aerated soil in order to access water, nutrients and oxygen. Deep soil compaction, affecting the subsoil more than a foot below ground, is permanent damage that can’t be undone.

Because of these concerns, Marsha says these mats are becoming a more and more common part of large-scale projects, required by governments, environmental watchdogs or private landowners who have an interest in tending the land long after the job is done.

Tending to the land over the long term is what motivates Marsha Smoke, too. An Anishinaabekwe and member of Alderville First Nation, she knows some might see her as an unlikely business partner for big resource extraction projects.

“There’s just so much controversy with Indigenous people and pipelines. It was difficult for me to make the decision to get into this business,” she says. “What changed all that was the fact that the mats were protecting the environment. We have to protect the land.”

The company’s name, Moccasin Trails, comes from a story Marsha learned from her elders about the history of the grass dance, which is often performed by young men at powwows. The dance represents a time when Anishinaabeg moved around on the land according to the seasons, whether they were fishing in the summer or working in the sugar bush in the late winter. The grass dancers, those young men, would travel ahead of the rest of the community, to find the area where the people were going to settle next and use their moccasins to carefully flatten out the grasses and the plants on the land, to prepare it for setting up camp.

“They would leave and move on to the next place, and those grasses always came back up to their natural state. We want Moccasin Trails to do what those grass dancers do.”

Her culture informs not just the why of her business, but the how, too.

The business is very much a family business, one that’s guided by their Anishinaabeg culture and their elders, especially Marsha’s 96-year-old father. Her youngest brother and sister were raised in traditions and share their wisdom in the work that Moccasin Trails does. Another brother is retired from a career at Hydro One and has enormous expertise to share. Marsha’s kids are grown adults now and all play a role in the company.

“We’ve got all of these family members who are just there whenever we need someone to jump in and do something,” she says. “We’re a First Nations company, and we’re a traditional family that looks after each other and takes care of each other, and we follow our traditional teachings.”

Though Moccasin Trails has an office, meetings with clients often happen in Marsha’s father’s living room. The family’s patriarch, Don Smoke, is Alderville First Nation’s sole living Second World War veteran. He welcomes corporate representatives from Enbridge and Imperial Oil as he would a neighbour, watching and listening from his La-Z-Boy while business deals are worked through.

Recently some business associates came to meet with Marsha from B.C. and Alberta. She took them first to meet her dad and share a traditional meal prepared by her youngest sister, then out on the land for a tour of the community, before getting down to business.

“It’s different for these clients because they get to experience our culture and they get to meet people that are not necessarily sitting around that boardroom table,” Marsha explains. “We’re professionals, but we also do our best to make people feel comfortable.”

A quick search online for industrial matting solutions brings up ads and sales pitches from companies that offer similar services, but not one of them mentions any environmental benefits from using the mats. It’s yet another difference clients will encounter at Moccasin Trails, where the entire raison d’être is to protect the earth and the life it supports.

Marsha has a photo of a job site she once worked on, taken a year after the mats were removed, leaving flattened, bleached grasses. The following year, this photo shows grasses flourishing in their natural state. “Seeing that is the best part of the job,” she says.

The satisfaction of Marsha’s work comes not in the moment, not in the paycheque, but in a healthy, thriving future.

For herself and her family, Marsha envisions moving on: retirement, and a flourishing family business that carries a strong legacy. There too, she sees the environment as the central element.

“We are in a place where we can look to the future and see our roles in the fight against climate change and in making a difference protecting Mother Earth. That’s what I want to see Moccasin Trails continue to do, so that it carries on long after I’m doing something else.”

Story by:
Meghan Sheffield

[Summer 2022 departments]