Building bridges between Indigenous communities and industry

How a group of researchers at uOttawa’s Faculty of Engineering is partnering with Indigenous communities to address infrastructure needs
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Joseph Wabegijig, coordinator of the Faculty of Engineering’s Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure (CICI). Photo by Matt Stewart.
Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by the University of Ottawa Faculty of Engineering

Clean drinking water, reliable housing and sustainable infrastructure – just a few of the resources we have become accustomed to in our everyday lives. Within Indigenous communities across Canada, however, these assets are not always a given.

A 2016 report by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships found there was a $30-billion infrastructure gap in First Nations communities. While governments have committed money to address the problem in the years since, a significant deficit remains.

Addressing this gap will take more than just money, it requires the right advisors and partnerships.

That’s why the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure (CICI) was founded. The Centre – part of the Faculty of Engineering – unites a wide range of engineering professors, researchers and graduate students at the university. The goal is to study and develop solutions for a variety of issues and opportunities within Indigenous communities including: housing, airport upgrades, Arctic road building projects, COVID-19 wastewater monitoring and hydroelectric projects. Since its inception, the Centre has worked on projects in the eastern provinces and Nunavut, and is currently discussing projects in western Canada.

“The Centre started out of conversations I had with our dean about boil water advisories in Indigenous communities and the need for better water treatment solutions that work in smaller communities,” said Colin Rennie, the Centre's director and chair of the civil engineering department at uOttawa. “We discovered professors within the faculty were already working on that problem, so we sought ways to take their ideas and connect them with broader communities.”

Building a lasting relationship

Whether it’s undertaking studies or running tests, CICI’s primary aim is to put research into action. This is why, to take its work to the next level, the Centre is providing an opportunity for industry partners to play a stronger role in problem solving with community and academia. It is looking for organizations with the right skills, products and mindset to participate in improving Indigenous community infrastructure.

“We collaborate with communities in determining and working towards achieving their sustainable development goals, with an aim to meet local needs, advance reconciliation and develop resilient infrastructure,” said Joseph Wabegijig, the Centre’s coordinator. “As the Centre is a place of collaboration and knowledge sharing, we foster an ecosystem of opportunity for communities to partner with industry leaders and academia.”

For instance, a clean water project is currently moving forward in collaboration with a business that is taking the work done by the Centre’s researchers and building upon it to help communities in northern Ontario. The Centre remains attached to the project, providing guidance to the company in its collaborations with First Nations communities and assisting the team in preparing the technology to meet clean drinking water challenges both locally and globally.

In another case, a company is working with CICI and First Nations communities to help address energy needs in remote areas through renewable energy solutions.

While these partnerships are a main pillar for CICI, the Centre’s efforts do more than just bring communities together, solve infrastructure challenges and reduce carbon emissions, said Wabegijig. It also engages Indigenous youth to encourage them to pursue a career in STEM and build capacity within their communities for further improvement – helping to achieve “economic reconciliation” by improving community health and well-being.

“We’re excited to be a catalyst for businesses that want to be champions in the space of Indigenous reconciliation,” added Wabegijig. “We can play a substantial role in creating a stronger relationship within these areas, utilizing infrastructure as an innovation bridge to partner with Indigenous and business communities.” 

To find out more information on the Faculty of Engineering’s Centre for Indigenous Community Infrastructure (CICI) or how your business can become a partner in the community, visit engineering.uottawa.ca/centre-indigenous-community-infrastructure.