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Conference for Diversity in Engineering explores Indigenous student experiences


The barriers for entry into engineering education are complex and structural for many Indigenous youth who are interested in engineering: insufficient high school prerequisites, sparse career options, financial limitations, ongoing colonial history, and lack of integration of Indigenous culture and perspectives in post-secondary environments. This climate has led to a situation where Indigenous students account for less than one per cent enrolment on average in engineering programs in Canada, compared to a 4.9 per cent makeup of Indigenous people in Canada’s total population.

Understanding and addressing this discrepancy were the key areas of focus at a recent panel discussion at this year’s Conference on Diversity in Engineering, which took place in Toronto on November 10, 2018. Four engineering students—Brielle Thorsen, Delaney Benoit, Dannielle Brewster, and Joel Grant—gathered to share their experiences of being Indigenous in the engineering faculties at Queen’s University, University of Saskatchewan, and McGill University.

Brielle Thorsen, a member of Saddle Lake Cree Nation, moderated the panel of her peers. Now in her third year of Applied Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University, Thorsen is the first American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Canadian National Student Representative. She opened the panel discussion with a blessing in her Cree language and later spoke about the cultural appropriation that she has witnessed while being an Indigenous student at Queen’s. “Many Indigenous languages and cultural practices have been severely impacted, and in many cases lost due to Residential Schools and other colonial acts,” she explained.

“There are definitely times that are appropriate to appreciate different cultures, and perhaps even adopt some of these practices; however, it’s important to understand that many cultural practices or ceremonies offered by the universities are there to reconnect Indigenous People with their communities’ ceremonies and history.”

The need for more cultural sensitivity and learning from non-Indigenous communities remains a reality at many higher education institutions. Joel Grant, who is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and pursuing a Masters’ Degree in Chemical Engineering at McGill University, described the current campaign to change the Redman name of McGill’s men’s varsity teams. “It has been all over the news in Montréal,” says Grant. “There are a lot of people who are misinformed. They might ask why we are trying to change this name because they don’t know the full history about the origin of this name—they think it is referring to the Scottish.” He explained that derogatory language toward Indigenous peoples is well documented and handed out clippings from racist references in yearbooks dating back to the 1950s.

While such examples indicate ongoing problems, there is also good work being done to support Indigenous students and address the barriers they face. Delaney Benoit is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq Community in Newfoundland and in her third year Civil Engineering student at Queen’s University. She described the way Queen’s stood out for her because it was one of the few institutions that included Indigenous outreach and support programs in engineering. In order to attract Indigenous students, institutions “need to make opportunities known and show that there is dedicated outreach for Indigenous students,” says Benoit. She notes that it is important to recognize that reserves and many communities are remote, and they don’t all have the ability to attend big university fairs. Benoit says that recruitment to remote areas needs to be presented in a welcoming fashion. “Showing up in-person is much more meaningful than sending a flyer,” she notes, “especially because many of our indigenous values are about relationship building, versus the nameless number that you become when you apply for university and are given a number.”

Dannielle Brewster, a member of Cross Lake Band of Indian and in her second year of Chemical Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, decided on chemical engineering because she wanted a challenge in her academic career and loved the problem-solving abilities she could develop. She spoke about sustainability and the need to integrate it into engineering directly. Eventually, she wants to contribute to the issue of water insecurity on reserve and remote northern communities, and she is working as an Indigenous Student Ambassador within the College of Engineering with the goal of retaining Indigenous engineering students.

“If you are a minority, you are asked to represent your people who are very diverse, and it is intimidating to speak on behalf of all of your community,” said Brewster. As the panel discussion ended, the audience of their peers, engineering students from across the country, gathered in conversation with the panelists and considered how to take some of the conference’s many exciting ideas on ways to engage with Indigenous students back to their own faculties.