Indigenous Communities

Master’s students discover engineering solutions from community

What does engineering look like through the lens of Indigenous sovereign governance?


When Travis Hnidan first set foot on the Samson Cree First Nation, he admits he felt a bit uneasy. Not only was the University of Alberta water resources engineering student unaccustomed to seeing things like burned out houses left in the cityscape, or a number of feral dogs wandering around — he had never lived in a rural community before.

As a city-dweller, he was accustomed to finding security in the energetic bustle of people in a polished public space.

But during the summer that Travis and his colleague, Fraser Mah, spent living with the First Nation, the master of engineering students came to recognize a different set of values. They also developed a new understanding of what makes a solution most effective for a community — especially in the context of First Nations.

Engineering community value

When a community is in need of a better, more reliable supply of water, a usual engineering solution might be a regional pipeline. From an engineering perspective, a pipeline provides secure water from a large facility where there’s economy of scale and effective regulation.

But “in terms of indigenous sovereignty, that can be really problematic,” Fraser explains. “You’re becoming a customer — you’re not treating the water within the Nation and being able to develop regulations and skill sets within your Nation.

“The parallel would be if Canada started buying water from the United States, if you started thinking about it from a more genuine nation-to-nation perspective — which I think it needs to be with respect to how Canada interacts with First Nations.”

Travis and Fraser entered the program, which was co-sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Urban Systems, with a hunger to address their water engineering work from a community-based research perspective. But after camping in the backyard of a family in the Samson Cree First Nation for the summer, they learned more than ever before in their lives, Travis says.

“I was aware that people were opposed to shock chlorinating a well before — dumping a whole bunch of chlorine in so the whole system gets disinfected,” Fraser says.

“But I don’t think I ever appreciated it. People don’t like the taste, for example, (whereas I thought) you get used to that,” he says.

There is much deeper cultural context for the Cree Nation’s relationship with water, they learned.

“The first time we spoke with an Indigenous woman about water’s consciousness, I was a little bit resistant. I wanted to challenge her, and find out where this belief of water having a spirit as a conscious entity comes from and what that means,” Travis says.

Instead of challenging the idea, Travis reflected on it as he soaked in the experience of living on Samson Cree Nation land, immersed in the culture. He came to realize that the Western view of water has a relationship to many environmental problems.

“Because water isn’t a thing that needs to be respected, you can treat it however you want — you can use as much as you want. From an Indigenous perspective, or a perspective where water has a being or a consciousness, you wouldn’t do that to water,” he says.

Understanding water as sacred offers an antidote to contemporary environmental issues, he continues.

“It’s easy as a scientist to discount the validity of treating water as a conscious entity. But if we treat the earth as conscious, we don’t end up with these problems that we’re now trying to fix using engineering and technological solutions. We need to install water treatment plants now for safer consumption, but if water wasn’t polluted in the first place, that wouldn’t be necessary.”

Read Part Two here

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