Meeting societal needs and enriching the profession by
welcoming indigenous engineers
Canada’s indigenous communities face a range of challenges – including access to water, housing and infrastructure – that can be tackled with engineering skills. To provide sustainable solutions, these diverse problems need to be approached with a deep understanding of each indigenous community and its specific needs, says Matthew Dunn, Indigenous Peoples Initiatives co-ordinator at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Engineering.
“Ideally, we would have indigenous engineers who are familiar with the communities engaged in a collaborative process,” he explains, adding that an example of a partnership with indigenous communities is a current water quality research project with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council in Saskatchewan.
Bringing together 11 First Nation communities, business and academic leaders, the project examines the environmental, social, cultural, economic and historical factors influencing local water stewardship, says Mr. Dunn. “It’s an opportunity to work together to find a solution that could become a model across the country.”
Engaging indigenous communities in engineering research and design projects is one avenue for the University of Saskatchewan to forge closer ties to the area’s First Nations and Métis populations, says Mr. Dunn. Other efforts include increasing access and support for indigenous students and making the institution as a whole more inclusive.
The objective to “bridge the engineering world and indigenous communities” was also the driving force for establishing the University of Manitoba’s Engineering Access Program (ENGAP) in 1985, says Randy Herrmann, the program’s director. “During that time, Manitoba Hydro was developing hydroelectric dams and related infrastructure that impacted indigenous communities,” he explains. “The idea was to hire an indigenous engineer who could relate to the indigenous communities, liaise with them and bring their perspectives to the project.”
At the time, indigenous people with engineering degrees were hard to find, says Mr. Herrmann. This prompted the university to identify and address barriers by creating ENGAP, a program from which 110 indigenous engineers have graduated to date. “We far outperform any other engineering institution in Canada in terms of indigenous representation,” he states.
Across Canada, the percentage of indigenous engineers remains disproportionately low. According to Engineers Canada’s 2016 Enrolment and Degrees Awarded Report, only about one per cent of students enrolled in accredited undergraduate engineering programs are indigenous. In comparison, the number of Canadians who identify as indigenous is 4.3 per cent, per Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey.
A recent report by Engineers Canada titled Indigenous Peoples’ Access to Post-Secondary Engineering Education Programs highlights steps for moving faculties of engineering toward greater inclusion, says Jamie Ricci, Engineers Canada’s practice lead, research.
Ms. Ricci, the author of the report, has found that a number of key challenges in recruiting and retaining indigenous students can be addressed by focusing on the transition from high school or work – and home life – to post-secondary education.
At this stage, many indigenous students, and especially those from remote regions, face significant barriers, says Mr. Dunn. Students applying to the engineering faculty are generally evaluated based on their performance in high school physics, math and chemistry, yet in the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District, for example, only one out of 30 secondary schools offers calculus 30, a prerequisite for entering engineering programs.
New pathways into engineering – such as a pre-engineering and science program at Northlands College in La Ronge and a program within the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Arts and Science – help to address barriers related to academic credits, says Mr. Dunn.
Ms. Ricci says that measures such as non-standard application systems, which look at the whole student rather than only grades, bridge programs and specialized orientation sessions have been found useful for supporting students’ transitions. The transition from home life to post-secondary education can be overwhelming for any student, regardless of their background, she adds. Many students find the support they need, but a better job could be done in understanding the unique needs of indigenous students and providing the appropriate support. “For example, connecting with someone who shares a student’s background provides social support that can make a difference. That’s why we recommend dedicated space for indigenous students to gather,” says Ms. Ricci.
Mr. Herrmann suggests that much can be learned from ENGAP, where student support is seen as a four-legged stool. “We offer academic, personal, social and financial support, and we know that many of our indigenous students need support in all four areas,” he says. “If any one of the legs doesn’t hold up, the stool becomes unbalanced.”
Mr. Herrmann says that while many indigenous students arrive with “less than satisfactory experiences with the Western education system, they are every inch as capable as their peers.” Just this year, one student – who had entered with lower than required Grade 12 math marks – graduated in the top three of his electrical engineering class.
And the impact of indigenous engineers is substantial: graduates return to their communities with valuable skills that allow them to become effective leaders, says Mr. Herrmann. “We have examples of our graduates becoming chiefs and elected officials and working closely with tribal councils and communities.”
Mr. Dunn, a mechanical engineer and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, says that indigenous engineers can serve as role models and inspire the next generation and that they also contribute their unique views to the profession. “Providing greater access [to engineering] goes beyond offering indigenous people an opportunity to become engineers – it helps to enrich the profession by increasing diversity and by contributing indigenous value systems and ways of knowing.”
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