We are connecting with leaders in Ontario’s engineering community to talk about the future of engineering. This week I met with Joseph Wabegij, Coordinator of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure (CICI). The CICI is a new collaborative research hub within the Faculty of Engineering that lends its focus to the challenges faced by Indigenous communities in Canada. What follows is a Q&A style conversation about this exciting new initiative. 

Q: What is the CICI and what are you trying to achieve? 

The Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure is a hub that aims to address infrastructure challenges and opportunities in Indigenous communities throughout Canada. One of the key areas that we are focusing on is engineering solutions that have a greater focus on being sustainable. There are a lot of different institutions that have created centres, but with short-term or immediate solutions for their research. The greater opportunity is to partner with communities and focus on long-term thinking in terms of sustainability. 

The other focus area of the Centre is collaboration and knowledge exchange with Indigenous communities. Historically when research happened with Indigenous peoples, researchers would do the research, but rarely ever incorporate the inherent knowledge from communities. Collaborating with communities helps researchers understand the challenges and opportunities in partnership with communities. 

The other aspect the Centre focuses on is youth engagement. Because we are an academic institution, we want to engage and inspire youth to pursue education and careers in STEM fields. We also try to get younger students more engaged in our activities, like our outreach programs, so that they’re aware of the possibilities and opportunities that STEM careers can provide. We’d love to see them grow into individuals who use STEM to make a positive impact on society one day.

Q: Tell me about the research projects that are currently conducted at CICI? 

One research project that was developed because of the current pandemic was our wastewater testing initiative. Professor Robert Delatolla led the development of testing with First Nations communities that assisted in the early detection of COVID-19 in wastewater. It has actually been a strong gauge for communities to detect the virus earlier than the local Public health teams in these remote areas. Being able to communicate an early warning to the community has helped mitigate further spread of the virus. 

There is another research project spearheaded by Professor Colin Rennie, that aims to address energy needs and challenges in First Nations communities in Ontario. We are in partnership with diesel dependent communities like Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nations and are currently doing field tests to measure water flow and levels of rivers For communities that rely on diesel energy systems, this hydrokinetic-specific research project analyzes regions to understand the hydro-potential of specific waterways adjacent to diesel-dependent communities. What that entails is measuring the potential of the river to see if hydrokinetic energy is a viable option. This testing will help researchers and communities understand the flow and velocity of the water to determine if the river is deep enough or has the flow needed to provide sufficient energy to the community.  

Q:  How do these projects create an impact in the community?

From a sustainability perspective, many of these rural and remote communities rely heavily on greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting diesel-generated electricity. This technology uses the natural environment to harness energy, it could be a long-term solution that addresses the energy needs of the community. 

For the wastewater project, the specific research design enables communities to test for significant viruses or drug use in communities. We are seeing this technology being used to detect opioids that are tied to the larger challenges communities are facing. By measuring these factors, communities can put short and long-term strategies in place based on that type of information gathered through the wastewater. This new way of measuring data allows for more informed decision making that ultimately addresses the needs of communities. 

Q: Why did you choose to get involved with the Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure? 

The primary reason I pursued civil engineering is to personally help address the challenges related to water and housing. When I first started working internationally, I wanted to understand how the rest of the world delivers water, wastewater, roads, and facilities in challenging environments. This international work included delivering projects in the Sahara Desert all the way up to the Arctic Circle, and I’ve brought that experience back here to work with First Nations infrastructure.  I then realized that there was a need to integrate the work that was done by academic researchers into the communities that needed it the most, and I felt like I could help bridge that gap. 

Q: Why is it important for engineers to address the challenges faced by Indigenous communities? 

Engineering is about problem solving and creativity. Indigenous communities are still battling systemic health, racial and social inequalities, which have been magnified during the pandemic. As engineers, we can help by merging STEM research with Indigenous knowledge to improve the well-being of people living in remote communities.

The University of Ottawa sits on the traditional territory of the Algonquin Nation and that’s important because of the universal responsibility for truth and reconciliation. We want to develop strong relationships with First Nations, Inuit Métis communities, and other partners, so that through our research, we can work toward reconciliation teachings and build engagement with communities. 

The Faculty of Engineering is well-positioned to help address the infrastructure challenges of Indigenous communities because we possess some amazing research experience and expertise in drinking water systems, wastewater treatment, sustainable and durable structures, climate change, flood medication, permafrost engineering and energy systems. This expertise allows us to find solutions that align with communities’ objectives for greater sustainability. 

Q: How can the industry or other research centres contribute to the CICI’s mission? 

We’re always excited about opportunities to collaborate with partners on projects that are aligned with the Centre’s mission. It’s also something that works toward the greater aspect of reconciliation. The more partners that join these research opportunities, the more we can work with communities and achieve a greater potential for positive change. 

We are always looking for industry and stakeholders to partner with on these projects providing there is alignment with the mission of the Centre. More importantly, we are looking for partners that want to tackle the challenges and opportunities that would be significant in making that positive impact with Indigenous communities. We also love receiving project proposals from partners and stakeholders that want to get involved with the work that we do. 

For more information about the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure, please visit this website

National Engineering Month is Ontario’s engineering event of the year. 

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