Indigenous Communities

A transformation in working with First Nations?

UofA students reflect on insights and assumptions from community-based research experience with Samson Cree First Nation


This is part 2 of a story on student experiences working with a First Nations client. Read part 1 here.

Fraser Mah is not sure if it’s simply a bias from his own experience, but the master of engineering student senses a transformation happening in the relationship First Nations have with Canada and settler society, he says. Fraser is witnessing this playing out in the openness of engineering firms and consulting companies.

He recently completed a six-month term at the Urban Systems Edmonton office along with his colleague, Travis Hnidan, who worked there over the last year. The master of engineering students from the University of Alberta spent time both in the office and in the community — immersing themselves with the Samson Cree First Nation while researching confidence in drinking water quality and quantity.

“It seems like there’s a lot of cool stuff happening,” Fraser reflects about his time with Urban Systems. “I heard about one of the guys from the Edmonton office going to a sweat. That kind of desire and intention to do things in a different way and more readily engage with the culture you’re going to be working for is very encouraging.”

The community-based research model the students implemented includes criteria that there must be a perceived benefit to the community from the research, and that a relationship is formed between the community and the researchers in deciding what the most valuable and relevant research questions are.

While not all engineers are in the position Fraser and Travis are currently in — relatively young and responsibility-free students who can spend a summer living in a First Nation community — they highlight the importance that engineers build a meaningful relationship with the communities they work with and develop a deep understanding of the community’s cultural values.

Fraser quickly points out that while this is important, there are assumptions at play in the notion of working with First Nations.

To say that an engineer must understand the historical and cultural context of working with First Nations also assumes that the engineer is not from a First Nation. This assumption should be challenged, he says,

Through the relationship they’ve fostered with the Samson Cree Nation, Fraser and Travis are considering a program to help train high school students on the reserve, to help the underfunded high school better meet its potential. This is one possible way that their relationship with the community could endure.

“I would like to see this relationship continue. I could see it easily extending into other research projects,” Travis says.

“I could also see it extend to a situation where Samson Cree Nation is in control of its own water resources, and the university can provide technical resources as needed in a supportive capacity,” he adds.

Both Fraser and Travis are grateful for the time they’ve spent working with Urban Systems staff, and for the input they received on their projects.

“It’s been great,” Travis says. “All the people we’ve been speaking with have been extremely supportive.”

The students send an open invitation to anyone who is interested in learning more about their research and experience. If you are interested in continuing the conversation , e-mail Travis Hnidman.

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