Practitioner works to bring engineering bounty to more First Nations communities

An Ontario engineer must overcome unique cultural challenges in a specialized kind of consulting work for projects under First Nations jurisdiction.

Kelvin Jamieson, P.Eng., co-founder of FHR Inc. on Christian Island, Ontario, is an elected councillor on the Beausoleil First Nation Chief and Council, one of more than 130 First Nations across Ontario.

FHR—its name derived from the fairness, honesty and responsibility tenets of project management officials—is an aboriginal-owned company located on Beausoleil First Nation. Its services to First Nations communities include project management, capital funding planning, construction management and design-build alternative, feasibility studies and advisory services on public works operation.

Co-owner is Keith Maracle, P.Eng., a member of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory located near Belleville, ON.

Over and above his frontline engineering work, however, Jamieson is especially concerned with delivering services to First Nations people in an appropriate and culturally sensitive manner. He is troubled by the generally poor quality of drinking water and related infrastructure in some First Nations lands, and he believes the profession can take a leading role in extending the benefits of technology to these sometimes overlooked and marginalized communities.

“Generally, First Nations clients are unaware of the professional organization, let alone the professional duties and responsibilities of practising engineers, both in private industry and the government roles,” Jamieson said in a recent interview with Engineering Dimensions.

Jamieson has a unique perspective on providing better engineering services to atypical clients. Not only is the First Nations engineering community relatively small, it is often required to act as ambassadors or translators to Aboriginal community leaders, many of whom have only recently learned English, and are more comfortable communicating in their native languages.

Jamieson, who graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton, ON and is of Chippewa descent, didn’t learn the native tongue as a child and is still trying to learn Cree and Ojibwe to help him deal with leaders in some remote communities in northern Ontario.

“The Elders still speak Cree and there’s a lot of weight given to the Elders’ opinions,” he says. “And if the Elders don’t feel right about a project, it doesn’t go forward.”

Jamieson, who began his engineering career with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, says it’s extremely important for engineers involved with First Nations projects to be culturally sensitive and fully attuned to local needs. This includes making sure there are enough indigenous workers on hand to staff infrastructure projects. With unemployment rates running high on many remote communities, it’s important that projects provide work opportunities for First Nations residents.

“It’s also important to note that not all First Nations are the same,” Jamieson notes. “They come from different linguistic groups, different treaty histories and different topographies in Ontario. With 133 First Nations in Ontario, this means a wide variety of backgrounds, and one should not always assume that what approach works well in one community works in another.”

MEETING LOCAL NEEDS

Engineers Canada, the national association for engineering regulators, echoes that sentiment. In its recent guideline on environmental stewardship, Engineers Canada says traditional and cultural values of First Nations are of vital importance in the assessment of impacts of certain projects. “Consultation processes need to be planned and executed to ensure these values are defined and understood by local and community stakeholders,” says the guideline. “These can be accounted for in the development of engineering solutions to minimize negative social impacts on tradition and culture.”

Providing engineering services to the Aboriginal communities in Ontario is enhanced by Jamieson’s FHR Inc. organization and by a few other Aboriginal-owned consulting firms. It’s become a specialized kind of consulting work aimed at overcoming contractual, design, building and maintenance challenges for projects under First Nations jurisdiction.

The work is aided by the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC), established in 1995 to provide expert technical advisory services to the First Nations of Ontario.

Another Aboriginal concern, First Nations Engineering Services Ltd. (FNESL), is a fully Aboriginal-owned engineering company based on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, in Ohsweken, ON.

Craig Baker, P.Eng., general manager of FNESL’s engineering department, is another First Nations engineer fully familiar with Jamieson’s efforts. “Kelvin [Jamieson] and I have often commented that we develop relationships with First Nations before they become clients,” Baker says. “This means a lot of our time is spent networking with First Nations and their representatives before there is an opportunity to undertake a project with them. We spend more time listening and explaining than is expected from clients such as municipalities. Our First Nations clients depend on us to provide the technical capacity that they may not currently have in-house, and as such we are often playing an advocate role for them with the various funding agencies.”

Jamieson says a typical approach at FHR Inc. involves developing a request for proposal (RFP) and selecting a design engineer, followed by scoping out the project and administering the RFP on the client’s behalf. “At that point, we will go through the design process with the consultant,” Jamieson says. “The client still has full responsibility for their design, but we try to step in and pick out the local nuances that a design consultant from elsewhere would not appreciate in the First Nations. It can be something simple like local content—How many workers do they have that can be part of the job, are there specialized businesses that can contribute to the project, or is there something about the lands themselves to be developed that the consultant is quite unaware of?”

He says it’s crucial for such consultants to consider factors not only from a technical standpoint but from cultural and traditional perspectives as well.

“We’re keen not to prescribe a one-size-fits-all design,” Jamieson adds. “We will do technical review of the design progress and we’ll tell the consultant that if we’re in a remote community, such as James Bay or northwestern Ontario, we don’t want to see a plant that works in Barrie or Sudbury, because we need something that recognizes key elements of the design, such as supply of critical items that may take two to three months to bring into the community.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

“It was a weird series of coincidental events that got me into First Nations work,” Jamieson says. “Up to the mid-1980s, infrastructure development on First Nations was very minimal. Back in 1984, there were two First Nations in Manitoba that invited MPs from South Africa to see their communities. And what they saw were Third World conditions, similar to the ghetto townships out there. It was a real embarrassment to Canadian government because South Africa was under sanction at the time for their Apartheid program. In the space of two to three years, the government began addressing water plants in the communities and then gave some attention to the schools.”

While there has been progress on that front, Jamieson still sees room for further education and leadership from the engineering community. He suggests outreach by PEO and other engineering groups to the Chiefs of Ontario organization to help spread the word about engineering regulation and how the profession can better serve Aboriginal communities. Jamieson is also encouraged by the recent efforts to bring more indigenous people into the engineering profession. This has been led by universities, such as Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, which provides a Native Access program for students of Aboriginal ancestry who require academic preparation for admission to a regular engineering program. Queen’s University in Kingston also has its Aboriginal Access to Engineering program to provide culturally relevant student support services to Aboriginal students enrolled in the faculty of engineering and applied science.

Jamieson is still bothered, however, by infrastructure deficiencies, as evidenced by the 48 drinking water advisories still in effect in 25 Ontario First Nations. He also cites Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems, 2009-2011, which estimates a $1.2 billion expenditure to bring Ontario First Nations’ water and wastewater plants up to current design standards—and that expenditure would still not address the dynamic growing populations of Indigenous communities.

Nonetheless, Jamieson remains optimistic that engineers can still make a difference. “The [First Nations] communities are much more aware of technical standards and their impact over time, and are much more engaged in the development process overall,” he says. “I have been told by clients that through my work, I am an ‘honest man,’ which I have replied that yes, I am a professional engineer.”

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