Building Relationships with Remote Communities

Building relationships with remote communities The hamlet of Pangnirtung, a community of about 1,400 people in Nunavut, is the centre of a new University of Alberta-based project called Engage North. Three engineering students are spending this summer working for the hamlet, addressing energy efficiency and drainage issue planning. (Photo courtesy Tyler Heal)

Edmonton—Three University of Alberta students will spend their summer in the far North as part of a new major initiative to work with northern and remote communities.

Called Engage North, the project begins this year by sending students to work in Pangnirtung, an Inuit community of about 1,400 in Nunavut. The students will work for the hamlet on drainage planning and energy efficiency issues, with support from engineering professionals who will serve as mentors to the students.

The students will be working in Pangnirtung from May 15 – Aug. 23.

A third-year mechanical engineering student, Heidi Johnson has been on rewarding co-op placements in southern Alberta. But she had hopes of working in the North—she imagined applying for co-op positions in industry or the resource sector. Instead, she is bound for Pangnirtung. She and environmental engineering student Stephanie Lettner will be working on an energy audit to help determine ways to improve energy efficiency and reduce costs.

“A large portion of the hamlet’s budget goes toward energy costs—heating and electricity. Because all of their power comes from diesel generators, any sort of efficiencies in heating or electricity will make a huge difference and pay off quickly because diesel is so expensive to begin with,” she said.

Johnson and Lettner will be looking at energy flow through the town, assessing the efficiency of appliances and fixtures and searching for areas of heat loss. They will be coming up with remedies wherever possible.

Energy Efficient

“All of their diesel is shipped up there once a year,” said Lettner, “so it really is a limited resource. We might be coming up with suggestions that are pretty straightforward, like changing from incandescent to LED lighting.”

Third-year civil engineering student Keita Hill will be investigating drainage issues in the hamlet. Pangnirtung is located on the shore of Pangnirtung Fjord, at the base of a mountainous region. In 2009, a flood caused by unusually rapid melting combined with rainfalls caused the collapse of two bridges that cross the Duval River.

And every spring, parts of the hamlet experience flooding, according to Pangnirtung’s senior administrative officer, Ron Mongeau.

Working with the Mongeau and his staff, Hill will gather information on drainage grades and help develop a flood prevention plan.

The three students are well aware that they are taking the first steps into what should become an enduring partnership that brings Canadians and different cultures together.

“The program seems to be well designed in that we are learning to bridge what will certainly be a cultural divide,” said Hill. “We are building things that are technically engineering projects, but we are also building a long-term community partnership.”

Engage North was established by mechanical engineering professors Sushanta Mitra and Larry Kostiuk with civil engineering graduate student Fraser Mah and fourth-year civil engineering student Tyler Heal. Mitra is the U of A lead on a five-year, $30-million collaboration with India to develop new technologies to ensure health, safety and sustainability for rural and remote communities in both countries.

Partnership is a must

Called IC-IMPACTS, the collaboration is an ideal way to address some of the country’s most vexing challenges. In Canada alone, for example, access to clean water is an enormous challenge, particularly in first nations and remote communities.

“We are working in partnerships with communities, and that is what I like about this initiative,” said Mitra. “Engage North goes beyond the well-tested path of doing research, particularly in the engineering domain. It will help us connect with communities.”

In its inaugural year, Engage North is taking baby steps. This year it is sending three engineering students on placements. In subsequent years it is going to include students from disciplines as diverse as public health and agriculture. It will also expand to include universities across Canada—some of which have already expressed interest.

Caylie Gnyra, a member of the Engage North organizing committee, emphasizes that Engage North and the students are in a partnership.

“We are at a point where it’s really important for the rest of the world to develop relationships with indigenous communities,” she said. “We have all of this technology about sustainability but we can probably lean a lot about sustainability from the people who are living in one of the harshest environments in the world.”

Doug Goss, chair of the U of A Board of Governors, says the university is already a powerhouse in northern research with internationally respected projects such as the Canadian Circumpolar Institute and the Circumpolar Library. Engage North, Goss says, adds an exciting new dimension to the university’s connection to northern and remote communities.

“When we talk about ‘Uplifting the whole people’ that doesn’t end in Alberta,” Goss said. “I continue to be astonished by the ties this university has all over the world and the differences we make.”

Northern community energized by relationship with U of A

A partnership between the University of Alberta and the northern community of Pangnirtung opens doors benefitting both communities, according to the hamlet’s top administrator.

Ron Mongeau, senior administrative officer for Pangnirtung, says connections between the community and the university can only have positive outcomes.

Municipal governance in northern communities is a relatively new exercise. Pangnirtung has been self-governing for just 41 years, and is the oldest municipal government in the North.

“But as is the case with most municipal governments, we are asked to do more every year with less funding,” said Mongeau. “This creates huge capacity issues within the municipality. Even though we are a large community, I don’t have a budget to hire a municipal engineer. I do not have full-time engineer on staff—we are lacking the kind of expertise that is generally available to southern municipalities.

“So the opportunity to develop a relationship with the University of Alberta, to look at some critical issues in our community and find ways to address them using the skills of these senior students who have access to large amounts of information and technology, and who have the support of knowledgeable advisors, is an amazing.”

Mongeau and the hamlet foreman talked about the kind of expertise that could be available to them, then made a list of areas they need help in urgently. The two priorities are developing a comprehensive drainage plan for the town and conducting an energy audit to cut down on energy costs, and use the savings on social programming.

“We have areas of the town that flood every year at runoff time,” Mongeau said. “Because we lack engineering expertise it has been difficult coming up with a comprehensive drainage plan. We’ve never been able to look at drainage holistically and come up with a two- or three-year plan that would cover the entire municipality.”

Mongeau says the North is changing rapidly and his community needs help to reach its full potential. Climate change is opening the North up to massive resource developments and Mongeau is looking far into the future when he talks about Engage North.

He’s hoping to explore renewable energy such as solar power, which would allow the town to keep its public swimming pool open two months longer every year; he would love to see the town harvest the constantly blowing winds for power generation and envisions a day when the active tides of Pangnirtung Fjord are also used to generate power.
“I am committed to moving this town down a greener path,” he said. “As climate change opens up the North we see more and more movement of goods and more people coming here to look at development, we will be better positioned to handle that. We are making connections, we are opening doors to vast amounts of information and support and making that connection between southern and northern Canada.”