Indigeneity in Engineering

by Celia Hameury


Here’s something you probably don’t know about McGill engineering: of the 4500 engineering students at McGill, only 3 identify as indigenous. This corresponds to less than 0.1% of the McGill engineering student population, a shocking percentage considering that indigenous people make up 4.8% of the Canadian population, and should therefore count for more than 100 students in McGill engineering.

It was this startling fact that prompted U1 engineering student and member of the indigenous community, Isabelle Prévost-Aubin, to host McGill’s second panel on Indigeneity in STEM fields in collaboration with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, entitled “Indigeneity in Engineering”, a solidarity event. This panel, facilitated by Jonas Henderson, was held on Friday, March 1st and included three speakers. The speakers discussed the relationship between indigeneity and engineering as well as the measures universities and lower level educational institutions could take to encourage indigenous youth to pursue careers in STEM, and more specifically in engineering.

In a conversation with the Ledger, Isabelle described the relationship between indigeneity and engineering as conflicting. “They are two perspectives that are so different,” she explained. “[Being an indigenous student in engineering] feels a bit isolating, because you don’t really fit in the box that is engineering or in the sphere that is indigenous studies.”

On one hand, STEM has long been an important part of the indigenous community. Panel speaker Alex Gray explained indigenous people have a view of science which differs from that of the western world. For them, science is linked to their relationship with the land and resources. As a result, indigenous people have a different view of engineering as well. For them, engineering includes a frugal use and reuse of resources. It involves thinking many generations ahead, instead of focusing on the near future. As western science moves towards becoming more sustainable, indigenous engineering could therefore become a role model of sorts.

However, despite the deep-rooted link to engineering and science within indigenous communities, the relationship between modern engineering and their communities remains strained. In Canada’s constitution, the charter of rights and freedoms, introduced in 1982, includes section 35: the duty to consult. This provision requires companies wishing to exploit the resources on indigenous lands to consult the people who own the territory before they pursue their projects. Of course, consultation is a loose term, often misinterpreted, or even ignored entirely. Many projects, such as the construction of hydroelectric dams and pipelines, have been undertaken on indigenous lands without the consent of the people, causing harm to their communities, and as a result, indigenous people maintain a strained relationship with modern engineering firms. “A lot of these cases are just forgotten, not talked about, and it’s still happening today,” Isabelle told the Ledger.

It is precisely because of these clashes between engineering firms and indigenous communities that it is important to encourage indigenous youth to join engineering. It is imperative for indigenous communities to take control of projects on their territories and to bring their perspectives to engineering firms.

This is where the second topic of the panel came into play. Encouraging indigenous youth to pursue careers in STEM, and more specifically engineering, is not always easy. According to Jonas Hendersen, facilitator of the panel, and one of the three indigenous students in engineering at McGill, outreach is the key. “I know outreach really was for me what got me here. Had I not been told by people who are actually doing what I’m doing now how amazing it is I wouldn’t have done it, so I think it’s a small thing but I think it would make a big difference.” Making sure that indigenous students know about engineering and what can be done with it is the first step to convincing them to follow that path. Incorporating more indigenous ways into STEM and engineering would also allow indigenous children to see themselves in the field much more, making them more likely to have an interest in pursuing it.

But beyond simply encouraging students to join engineering, it is also important for universities, such as McGill, to foster safe, healthy environments for their indigenous students. Engineering is, after all, not the only department to suffer from a low number of indigenous students.

McGill’s primary resource for indigenous students is the First People’s House. “It’s a student support system. It’s a place to go for support whether its academic or personal,” Jonas Henderson told the Ledger. The First People’s House hosts events, such as inviting elders, and holds discussions on topics that are relevant to the indigenous community at McGill. They also hold meetings and campaigns to decolonize McGill, such as the Change-The-Name campaign, and push to hire more indigenous faculty members. But above all, the First People’s House offers a safe place for indigenous students to meet others and feel at home.”The mantra of the First People’s House is a home away from home. It’s the biggest asset that McGill has in terms of support for indigenous community,” Isabelle stated.

While support systems such as the First People’s House are significant steps towards inclusion, there remains resistance, and even racism, among the McGill student body towards indigenous students, some of which actively dissuade indigenous students from attending McGill. Improving the relationship between universities and indigenous students would no doubt encourage more indigenous students to attend university, thereby increasing the numbers in all faculties, including engineering.  When talking about the future of indigeneity in engineering, Isabelle had a positive outlook: “We are hoping, but also expecting things to change.” And one way to provoke change is to start talking about it.