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Close your eyes and imagine the images these words conjure up: Energy. Oil. Gas. Indigenous. Sustainability. Pipelines. Now open your eyes.
There’s plenty of ongoing debate around pipeline safety, and a lot riding on getting it right — for the industry, the environment and all who live off the land.
Knowing how pipeline projects work can be eye-opening. Understanding the regulations that govern the industry, the inherent risks and what is being done to mitigate those risks can be empowering. Fostering respect, for Mother Earth and for each other, can unify and uplift. Building capacity for meaningful employment within Indigenous communities can and will change lives.
Earlier this year, SAIT partnered with InnoTech Alberta — an applied research subsidiary of Alberta Innovates — to pilot an indigenized Pipeline Monitoring certificate program with three cohorts of 20 First Nations and Métis students from across western Canada.
Deanna Burgart (CET ’00), a pipeline engineer, was one of the consultants brought in to help incorporate Indigenous knowledge and world views into the course material, and to teach the program. She drew from research and her own Aboriginal roots to help make the program relevant to a more culturally diverse audience.
“Historically, engineering or any other kind of technical education has had little to no reference to Indigenous people,” explains Burgart. “For me, indigenization is about enhancing the curriculum so that Indigenous people can see themselves and their perspectives reflected in it.”
The intensive three-week, five-course program provided a high-level overview of pipeline operations, along with technical training for pipeline monitoring. Related Aboriginal treaty rights, relatable Indigenous perspectives, and case studies exploring Indigenous experiences were integral to the program’s curriculum.
Even small changes to existing course content have made a big difference in what students take away from their lessons. “So for example, instead of looking at the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill as a case study,” says Larry Gauthier, coordinator at SAIT’s Chinook Lodge Resource Centre and chair of the indigenization committee, “we started looking at an Indigenous community that had experienced a pipeline leak and the impact that event had on that community.”
Relevant material inspires meaningful engagement. As the students worked on a lab project, researching past pipeline spills, studying related articles to find the root causes, and reading the results of the regulator’s investigation, they grew comfortable finding information from different sources.
Engagement builds confidence. “We’re giving them the basis so when they do read the news they can question things for themselves,” says Burgart. “I saw a lot of students anxious to get back to their community and share what they learned.”
Skills development builds capacity. With their technical knowledge of pipeline operations, and familiarity with the traditional territories those pipelines traverse, Indigenous pipeline monitors can help improve pipeline safety by flagging potential issues before they manifest as a threat.
“The more Indigenous perspectives we have among more well-rounded we’re going to be as an industry,” says Burgart. “Our intent is to empower the students so they have the basis of understanding how pipeline projects work, what the regulatory process looks like, what opportunities are there to support either their Nation or their employer if they work in the industry.”
Alberta’s Indigenous population is the province’s fastest growing demographic, and historically the most under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “We need to address the historical gaps between Indigenous people in terms of employment and education levels,” says Gauthier. Increased capacity represents a positive return for Indigenous communities, the industry, and society at large.
There’s plenty of interest coming from the Indigenous community. Shauna-Lee Chai, a scientist involved with InnoTech Alberta’s funding of this pilot, received more than 200 applications for the 60 openings in the program. Successful applicants ranged in age from 23 to 63. Some had other post-secondary education. Some had work experience in oil and gas. Many came from remote First Nations reserves across British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. For several, it was their first time leaving their families to venture far from home. It wasn’t something they approached lightly.
Carmen Chambaud is one of the students. She’s from the Dene Tha’ First Nation at Meander River, Alberta, along the Upper Hay River. “My upbringing was out on the land so I have a lot of respect for it,” says Carmen, who has worked as a medic, a Nation certified safety officer (NCSO) and an environmental technician in the oil and gas industry.
She knows of a number of pipeline spills that have threatened the Hay River Basin during her lifetime. “It is affecting our waterways, our water tables. There are just a lot of impacts on our land.”
While she understands that industry plays a big part in the modern economy, Carmen sees a need for balance. “Respect needs to happen.”
She applied to the program with clear intent: “I’m looking to be the bridge between our Nation and industry. To find that mutual respect — that balance, and be a voice for the younger generation.”
Jennifer Wolfe travelled to SAIT from her home on the Muskowekwan First Nation northeast of Regina, Saskatchewan. With existing credentials and experience as an environmental monitor in the mining industry, the opportunity to learn about pipeline monitoring at SAIT caught her interest.
“I was hoping to get more knowledge about the pipeline industry and the processes that they go through, like how they handle environmental issues, especially going through traditional areas,” says Jennifer.
She was surprised at how regulated the industry is. “They’re pretty thorough. More thorough than I thought.” Now she wants to continue on to complete SAIT’s Pipeline Operations certificate.
Justin Mckinney made the trek from his home on the Swan Lake First Nation in southwest Manitoba with his uncle. He had experience as an environmental monitor in power line construction, but knew nothing about the oil and gas sector prior to applying to this program.
“The pipeline was coming through Manitoba,” says Justin. “I saw this as a perfect opportunity to get myself in the door.”
As participants in a pilot program, Justin and his classmates found themselves in the position of vetting some of the newly indigenized content. “We had lots of opportunity to help develop the curriculum and make it more indigenized.”
Most of the student-proposed changes had to do with the way things were being said or described. The instructors captured all the student feedback to consider while evolving and improving the indigenization process. The intent is to strike a balance where students can see their perspectives represented accurately alongside technical and industry perspectives.
“Our goal is to create a program where all learners can see themselves in terms of content and then benefit from it,” says Sarah Imran, Associate Dean of the MacPhail School of Energy. “We know from our industry partners that increasing Indigenous participation in the workforce is top of mind. We have the industry support and an industry mandate to increase participation.”
As a result of the work done to create the Pipeline Monitoring pilot program (funded by InnoTech Alberta), and thanks to additional funding from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Plains Midstream Canada, SAIT’s entire Pipeline Operations certificate program has now been indigenized. Many students who complete their workplace practicums or capstone projects in the pilot Pipeline Monitoring component will be eligible to apply for the remaining seven courses in the Pipeline Operations certificate program. They’ll finish with two valuable credentials.
“Pipelines can be a divisive subject, but I think all sides can get behind what we are doing,” says InnoTech Alberta’s Shauna-Lee Chai. “We are training Indigenous people so they can go back to their communities and take part in well-informed negotiations with industry.”
TEXT BY JULIE SENGL | PHOTO BY GEORGE WEBBER | ILLUSTRATION BY UNION ILLUSTRATION CO.