Porcupine (00:00): Engineering professor Kerry Black says that engineers working with First Nations need to focus on building relationships, not just buildings. She’s passionate that her profession has some fundamental changes to make if they’re going to be a part of reconciliation.
Porcupine: How do porcupines hug? Very carefully. And such as the story of reconciliation, at least so far. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare. I’m Michael Miltenberger. This is Porcupine.
Porcupine (00:42): We’re here today to talk to an amazing woman. You’re going to love this conversation because we’re talking about something unexpected: engineers and engineering. And what do those two things have to do with reconciliation? You wouldn’t normally put those two things in a sentence together, engineering and reconciliation, and that’s why we’re talking to Kerry Black. And we’re so excited to do that. Kerry is an assistant professor and the Schulich Research Chair in Integrated Knowledge, Engineering and Sustainable Communities…And keep waiting, the title’s not done yet…in the Centre for Environmental Engineering, Research and Education in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Calgary. Welcome Professor Black.
Kerry Black: Thank you so much. And it’s actually…I’m a Canada Research Chair now. I’ve been upgraded and promoted.
Tell us about your journey.
Porcupine: Oh, good. So before you explain what that big, long title actually means, what we were hoping you could do is, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you come from, I don’t know, were you born into a science family? Just a little bit about your background before we get into your profession and what you’re trying to do there.
Kerry Black (1:46): Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Southern Ontario and I am the daughter of a third generation Canadian and a first-generation. My mother came over in the late 1950s from Italy. So, I’m the daughter of an immigrant family. And I grew up… my mother is a teacher and my father worked for the public service. So, we grew up in a loving home but not a huge exposure to engineering, I would say exposure to construction. You know, most of my family on my mother’s side is in construction, not altogether surprising given that they’re Italian, little stereotypical there. But growing up, I excelled in the math and the logic-based subjects where there was, you know, a structure to it and it had an outcome and all of that made sense to me, but I never really knew what engineering was and so my journey to engineering is not a glamorous one at all. I went to a university fair. I had the marks in my class, and I met a male engineer from a very large reputable engineering university. And I asked them about their top program, and he told me that I should reconsider my options.
Porcupine: Because you…?
Kerry Black: I have no idea why actually.
Porcupine: My first thought is because you’re a woman.
Kerry Black: Yeah. It was pretty much…there was really no other way to go with that one, I think. And my parents had no idea what engineering was. I had no idea what engineering was, but my high school physics prof said, it’s something you might want to consider. And when I started digging into it at that time, I thought, ‘well, if I’ve got the marks, I’ll just apply to the best programs I can find and go from there.’ And so when I went up to their program and he said, ‘well, you might want to reconsider.’ I said, ‘well, I just want to know, you know, what the program is like and what kind of typically…what the entrance level marks would be,’ which I knew already, but I just wanted someone to say it. He was their student ambassador and he refused to tell me anything about the program and said that I should reconsider one of the engineering programs that might have a lower bar for admissions.
Kerry Black (04:10): So that, and for no other reason, honestly, you know…It sounds ridiculous to say this, but that was, I would say the motivating factor for me. That’s just the kind of person I was. As soon as you told me that there was something that second guessed me, I was like, well, I’m going to go do it. So, I went over to their competing school and I asked them about their talk program. They told me what it was. They were so nice, very open; shared a lot about their experiences. And then I just applied to both programs. And when I got into both, I chose the other one. I chose the one that doesn’t have the student ambassador who refused to speak to me about the program. So that is my glamorous reason for entering the engineering profession.
People who don’t fit the mold still experience barriers in engineering.
Porcupine (04:53): So could I just ask you a quick follow-up question before we drift away on that one, is have you found that attitude fairly pervasive? The student ambassador approach that tried to discourage you once you got into the profession?
Kerry Black (05:08): That attitude has not been uncommon because I don’t fit and never have. And that’s…I think part of the reason that I’m here talking to you both today, is I have never fit into the mold that has been set or cast for engineers. And so, yes, I think that it is still pervasive, especially if you don’t fit the mold, but it has shifted. So that was 2000, 2001. So, it’s 20 years later. I’d love to say that things have shifted and changed, but I speak regularly to students who talk about the barriers that they’re still facing not just as female engineers, but we have a lot of…now we have a lot more because of you know, our programs wanting to diversify. We have a lot of more Indigenous students entering engineering. And by a lot, I mean, that sounds like a huge percentage, but it’s still a very, very, very low number. But that attitude still exists for sure. If you don’t fit the mold that they expect of you it can be difficult.
What does it mean to be a Canada Research Chair?
Porcupine (06:08): So the cream must be rising to the top. Cause you said…as Merrell-Ann was reading your impressive bio that you got promoted and you were going to come back to that. So, you’re now a Canada chair. So, could you just tell us what that all means to the folks out there sitting around their kitchen tables, listening?
Kerry Black (06:28): Yeah. When I came over to the University of Calgary, they gave me a Schulich Research Chair, which was a faculty-based research chair. But the idea was to apply to a Canada Research Chair position. So, Canada Research Chairs is a program funded by the federal government that is meant to attract and retain two different streams. So those who have research promise, and the potential to really contribute to the research realm and that’s considered a Tier 2 chair. And then there’s a Tier 1 chair for those who have been doing research for 20-30 years and have established themselves as leaders. So, I successfully applied to a Canada Research Chair, Tier 2. And you know, five years ago, I’d never would have thought that I’d be able to have an academic position doing what it is that I do, because it doesn’t fit into the engineering mold.
But now I have a Canada Research Chair funded through a technical lens of the natural sciences and engineering research council, but it is very inherently non-technical in its approach. So, the program is…the Canada Research Chair program is like a highly reputable research investment that goes to an individual but allows you to pursue your research in a really meaningful way and with the recognition of a federal, a national level program.
What prompted you to start working with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous communities?
Porcupine: So, we’re going to ask you in a moment about that specific research, but could we just step back for a second, because I know you do work with Indigenous communities. Our paths have crossed many times. We’ve worked together on the water file. That’s how I know you. But where did you first start to be interested in working with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous communities? Do you remember what it was that prompted you to choose that particular path?
Kerry Black (08:15): Yeah, I think it was one of those moments in your life where things just come together in the way that they were maybe meant to. Growing up my mother was a huge…is a huge influence on me and always encouraging, you know, thinking outside the box, reading, educating yourselves, getting, understanding different perspectives, being open-minded. So that’s part of it. That’s the part that opens your brain from a young age to not being narrow. And I think that’s key because then if you start off on the right foot of openness, you know, these moments come sooner in life. When you realize that you have a larger purpose than maybe you once thought. The other piece is growing up I was exposed to different cultures and backgrounds and diversities, but in particular, at a young age, my aunt married my uncle Ray who we call Running Bear.
And he is Ojibwe, grew up on the French River. And, you know, just from a young age, being exposed to the way in which he sees the world and talks about the world and how he grew up and his use of stories and language. So, for me, that was, you know, again, one of those pieces. But I would say the moment for me was my last year of engineering. I left engineering for a year because I hated it very much. And after that, when I came back, I realized that I could really make a difference in this program, but I needed to find my voice through it. And one of the programs that I did, I went over to Cambodia and Southeast Asia. While I was there, it was, you know, one of those life-changing moments that’s very typical for someone who goes abroad and sees the way the world actually is.
But I came back and there was just a moment of realization of, you know, I don’t need to go abroad to help people or to feel like I can solve solutions because it turns out we’ve got the same if not worse issues in our own country.
Struggling to find a clear path to helping people through engineering:
Porcupine: So why did you hate engineering, your schooling so much?
Kerry Black: I didn’t see the way for it to help. I saw it as…I didn’t see myself in it and I need a purpose in an activity. I can’t just do something to do it, or I can’t just advance technology to advance technology. I needed to see the people part of it. And I wanted to be a doctor because to me that was the way to fix problems. But I had a really awesome female engineering mentor who was the chair of the civil engineering program when I decided to come back into engineering. And she said so long as you’re a doctor you’ll only ever solve the problems once they’ve already happened. But as an engineer, you can stop them from happening in the first place. And to this day, probably the best…one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve gotten and something that pushed me through, that carried me through. And that’s when I realized I wanted to do something more, but I still couldn’t find that path in engineering. It is not easy to find a clear path of helping people in engineering, despite the fact that that’s exactly what the profession is set up for. The profession is there to protect public health, to provide solutions to people, but the training and the programs don’t connect you directly to the people that you’re supposed to be helping. It wasn’t until my master’s that I saw an opportunity. But I was still the… I was still someone with a different thought process around it. I was still not thinking about it from the technical perspective. I was thinking about it from this other lens. And that still wasn’t, I would say, normal as an engineer.
How to reconcile the linear processes of engineering with the circular and holistic worldview of Indigenous communities:
Porcupine (12:06): So could I ask you a reconciliation question? Engineering’s a practical, linear science-based profession and focused on solutions, often bricks and mortar, and you…how do you make that approach work in your dealings with Indigenous communities and governments and their focus on traditional knowledge, a worldview that is much more circular and holistic, focused on land, water, animals. How do you reconcile that so that you can do the good work that’s necessary on a collaborative basis?
Kerry Black (12:42): Yeah, I would say a big part of my approach now is I don’t, and this is where it deviates, I don’t really think traditional engineering is the solution to any of these problems. If there’s anybody who has a stronger track record of living with, and in harmony with nature and the environment, it’s not necessarily my ancestors. It’s Indigenous Peoples who are, you know, fundamentally have all of this knowledge and ways of being and ways of knowing. So, we don’t really necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to be better listeners. So, I think having that approach in engineering…I mean, 10 years ago, when I started diving into, you know, the water issues and the approach was: well, we need to give them better technology, right? We need to give our First Nations or Indigenous communities better access to water treatment technologies.
Kerry Black (13:34): Well, it’s hard to say that’s a solution when non-Indigenous communities across Canada have no problem turning on the tap and getting clean, safe, drinking water. So, for me, and the history of water treatment, it’s not really a very difficult activity to clean water and make it safe. What it requires is that you actually have all these different approaches that support it in the end, but it’s not the technology. That’s the problem. It’s the implementation of the technology, the process that you took to get to that technology, and then it’s the follow-up afterwards. So, I think for me, the approach to the re-engineering that’s happening is not a re-engineering of the design or the innovation on the technology. So, re-engineering of the process. In that, if as engineers, we are better listeners. If as engineers, we are better at understanding the context that we’re working within, then we can achieve solutions that actually affect change at the community level, that provide opportunities for training and building capacity, that recognize the value of the Indigenous knowledge that’s being brought to the table. And that recognized the importance of self-determination and rights in the same process of our typical engineering ways of solving things.
How engineering can work with Indigenous communities:
Porcupine: So, Kerry, can you give us an example? Can you break it down and show us, from a situation you’ve either been involved in or one you know about, kind of what the typical process would be like, and then what you’re trying to figure out? Like, what would it look like under the type of work you’re doing?
Kerry Black: Yeah, sure. I think, you know, the typical engineering approach…you know, the average trained engineer has…I would say 90% of engineers have zero experience working with and for Indigenous Peoples. So, the average process is very disconnected from the reality that exists on the ground at the community level. The typical process will involve somebody taking a pretty standard engineering, you know, one size fits all treatment plan design.
Kerry Black (15:40): If we’re talking about water treatment, for example, they will implement it. They might work with the community just so that they can get access to funding to plop that water treatment plant down and move on. And there might be one consultation where they’ve, you know, given opportunity for community to come in and listen in about this great water treatment plant that they’re building, but at no point, is there any real meaningful involvement of community, whether it’s leadership chief and council, or whether it’s just some of the more…on the technical level of the technicians, even the operator or whether it was at the community level. And so, it perpetuates the colonizer’s dream of disconnecting Indigenous Peoples from their ways of living and their ways of knowing. And it removes the sharing of information in the collaborative approach.
Kerry Black (16:31): What we try to do is throw that out the window, and it’s very community by community because every community has a different historical relationship that they’ve had with the federal government. They’ve got a different relationship that they’ve had with non-Indigenous neighbors or colleagues. They’ve got a different context. They may, you know, depending on where we’re looking in this country, there’s been different opportunities placed over time. So, every community is in a little bit of a different place, but largely speaking, they’ve all been forcibly disconnected from a lot of these processes and not encouraged to be meaningful, active participants and not recognized for the value that they bring. So, in these processes, we really try and foster a community-based solution. And there’s some good examples somewhere when you actually involve meaningfully the community, you’re going to arrive at solutions that will last longer, they’re more sustainable in that sense, but they also will inevitably cost less when you actually involve the community.
Kerry Black (17:29): And in a community-based participatory approach, the solutions you yield are more appropriate for the community. They’re more meaningful. And they tend to save money in the long term, and there’s a plan in place and there’s thinking around it, and everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone can impart their sharing wisdom and knowledge around it.
And it’s also about using engineering as a way to allow that reconnection to begin.
A lot of times we’ll utilize, you know, community engagement sessions where Elders are present and we’re talking about water, but we’re talking about it through the lens of a knowledge keeper, who’s using language. So we’re encouraging a reconnection to language we’re developing, you know, maps, visual maps that allow…where Elders are able to say, well, this is historically where we got our water from…and all of a sudden everyone in the room is gaining way more knowledge than just some solution that an engineer wanted to put into it.
It becomes…it fosters that reconnection, which is, I think, you know…my responsibility as an engineer is to help undo the harm that, you know, colonial practices have encouraged and as my profession has actually sustained. You know, the engineering profession hasn’t gone against the grain of that. They’ve actually…for the large part in the history of my profession, has actually done more harm than good with respect to our work with Indigenous Peoples. So, I feel that part of our responsibility is to foster that reconnection, to view yourself, not as the individual with a solution, but as a facilitator of that kind of connection.
How can we address boil water advisories and ensure Indigenous Peoples can all access safe drinking water?
Porcupine (19:11): If the Government of Canada told you, we like that non-traditional approach to engineering, we want you to take the lead on the file to get rid of these boiled water advisories and sort out this safe drinking water for Indigenous Peoples after all these years, what would be the first three things you would do if you were given that file to get this thing moving?
That’s a tough one, Michael.
Kerry Black (19:33): I think for me, it would be immediately about removing…is recognizing that the only people that should have decision-making autonomy and control over the process are those that are actually living and breathing it. So, there’s gotta be a mechanism, a governance mechanism, that puts the control back in Indigenous hands in First Nations Peoples’ hands. But I think for me, the step one is to recognize who actually has decision-making autonomy and power in this process. And is to shift that we invite Indigenous Peoples to the table, but we don’t recognize them as the true decision makers in the process.
Porcupine (20:17): I’ve just got to tell you a little anecdote about that because I just have such a strong feeling like that’s a very hard thing to shift. Not only because government sends a message often that they’re the decision makers, not First Nations. But I remember, and I won’t say which university it was, but I was in a university of an engineering faculty once and I saw it written on the lockers and some of the students were wearing t-shirts that had initials on it ERTW, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that, but I asked what is that? And its Engineers Rule the World and they’re all wearing it. And it was like the motto for the whole faculty. I can just see how that mentality, that approach…which in many respects has done wonderful things, but when you frame it, how you frame it, where it’s actually perpetuating a colonial agenda to separate people, and it’s struck me, it’d be a really hard thing to get folks to do, change their minds on that engineers. Yeah.
Kerry Black (21:14): I mean, it’s hard because it’s also…and in the same way that a lot of, you know, non-Indigenous practices that perpetuate, tend to be rooted in a lot of this, what they view as history, which I think is laughable when you look at the history of Indigenous Peoples. It’s a blip, our history in comparison. But I think they’re rooted in this idea of what it is, you know, the traditions that exist in engineering and that’s something I fought even as an undergraduate. You know, the mascot for engineering was Lady Godiva, who is a naked woman riding on a horse. So, I think, you know, enough said on that, that pretty much tells you what the issue, some of the issues are. But there are, you know, a cohort of students who’ve tried to change that motto and you’ll see it a lot now with ESTW it’s Engineers Serve the World. And that really picked up momentum because there are a lot of really fantastic engineers who want to make a difference in the right way, but I’m not sure the system always encourages it. I think that there’s a lot of well-intentioned non-Indigenous people, but for me, good intentions are not sufficient. Because good intentions still perpetuate some of these colonial processes where you feel that you can help them, and you know better. And that you can find the right solutions when you enter the research or academic worlds. You’ve got to have a really narrow area of influence that you’re going to dive into. And you’re going to be the expert on that. And in my first academic job, I tried to start in that line of thinking, but it never fit because it’s not who I am.
Kerry Black (22:51): And when I came over to the University of Calgary in this research chair position, I said, this is what I’m going to do, but I’m never going to be able to answer ‘what are you the expert in?’ I really view myself as a facilitator of the process, of changing that process in which we engineer, decolonizing the process in which we engineer. There’s lots being done to decolonize our curriculum, to encourage our engineering students to learn more about this type of work. There’s less work being done on the research side, on the actual implementation of that. How do you actually decolonize a historical or traditional engineering process? While you’ve got to make space first.
So, going back to Michael’s question, you know, I’d love to be able to say that that’s easy. It’s not. It’s terrible. It requires relinquishing control, but it also requires, let’s be honest, it requires money. And that’s something that, I think, the funding piece is key. And I view that as an opportunity through research to channel more money directly to communities, because there is a lot of dollars available for research and it’s not being funneled to Indigenous communities and First Nations projects where they have a lot to contribute. It’s just not viewed in the traditional mindset of what research is. So, I think part of it is shifting the power. Part of it is finding new ways to fund and provide solutions which would be the, you know, the first two things I would do.
And the third thing I want to…Maybe the first thing I’d go back and say is to ask, you know, from a collective, what is the best approach to this? And I think that’s a difficult question too, because right now what we don’t realize is the system actually encourages that competition, it encourages that you…if you want to get that, you know, that solution, that funding, you’ve got to put yourself up against other First Nations or other Indigenous communities.
It’s not a healthy space right now to be collaborative. And that’s the problem of the way in which our policies have been enacted, and that’s the way it works in non-Indigenous community. So, we just assume that it should work in Indigenous communities.
Why do you think the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action don’t reference the role of engineering or science in Indigenous communities?
Porcupine (24:50): It’s amazing. When you think about some of the things that you’re saying, the TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, don’t specifically reference the role of infrastructure in your community or engineering or even science, really. And just wondering why do you think that is? Would you consider yeah…Like I would consider those things to be very impactful in the day-to-day lives of Indigenous communities, but yet there’s nothing referencing that.
Kerry Black (25:27): Yeah, I was I mean…I hate saying the sentence because it makes it seem like I’m disappointed in the TRC Calls to Action and I’m not. But I really would have liked an additional one or even when they mentioned there’s a call out to professional faculties, right, law and medicine, just throw in the word engineer because we forget the damage that engineering has done. I mean, half of my job is trying to foster trust not just between academics and community, but engineers and community. I never lead with I’m an engineer and it’s not because I’m embarrassed to be an engineer, but it’s because I know that for many communities that can be a non-starter because they don’t have the trust that you’re there for the right reasons or that you’re there to listen, or that you’re there to enable the solutions that they want. There’s a problem there. So, for me, it was a real…it was a huge disappointment not to see engineering called out directly because they have a huge role to play.
Kerry Black (26:28): And science in particular too, because it’s not viewed as a professional faculty, so to speak. But, you know, science faculties across the country are really struggling on the diversity piece. And when you think about the number of scientists who are doing sustainability research and climate change research and water-based research and all sorts of things that are rooted in the land and not…none of them are necessarily actively encouraged to incorporate, and I hate the word incorporate, but integrate meaningfully work with their Indigenous communities or partners, which should be like a [pre-requirement] for the job, should be that for every non-Indigenous scientist you have an Indigenous scientist. And by scientist, I mean, knowledge keeper, which is really to me, in and of the same. Because there’s so much value to be gained from the process, but it’s an uphill battle to encourage a system that has worked in one way for so long to now go, okay, let’s think outside the box, let’s recognize the value of the knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years versus what you learned in a textbook over five or six.
Carefully considering a leadership role and encouraging Indigenous engineering students:
Porcupine (27:37): So Merrell-Ann and I, in our endeavors, we deal with our favorite term, entrenched bureaucracies and systems that are very, very hard to move. As you’ve been talking about.
I just wanted to ask a specific question again about your recent promotion, which I’d like to congratulate you on, will that promotion and the position it gives you in the vantage point…Will that allow you to influence or rollout or advance your non-traditional approach to engineering along the lines that we’ve just been talking about during the course of this interview?
Kerry Black (28:14): Absolutely. Actually, with the support of the university leadership and the fact that the Canada Research Chair program was willing to think outside the box. You know, I’m not gonna lie. I had some concerns about, you know, taking this role because it was meant to have a strong connection with Indigenous communities and as a non-Indigenous person, I’ve got a lot of, you know, second thoughts about whether I should be taking on a role that is meant to be working with and for Indigenous Peoples, but I’m not Indigenous and not wanting to take a spot away from someone else. I had a lot of good conversations with my Indigenous colleagues and friends who encouraged me. And I think recognizing that if I didn’t take on this role and try to shift it and mold it, that somebody else would take on the role and not shift and mold it and not think outside the box.
Kerry Black (29:07): So I view it as…The Canada Research Chair and, you know, I’m in Alberta so I can say this terminology, as a bit of a pipeline of fostering some change and encouraging more Indigenous scholars into the program. And ideally to replace me with more Indigenous faculty. I think the Canada Research Chair program is one that isn’t as prescriptive as traditional funding or granting agencies. And those traditional granting agencies do struggle with thinking about this. You know, most people still do it in a really tokenistic way. Like, ‘Oh, you should really work with Indigenous communities,’ but it’s not…it’s a footnote, or it’s an extra paragraph at the end of their manuscript. It’s not a meaningful change in the process. So the Canada Research Chair program enables me to shift the way in which I want to do it, which means I can encourage more community-based approaches by actually providing funding to community-based researchers who have a small stipend to help, you know, foster a research project in the community, that helped be the funnel from the community to the university and vice versa to ensure that that collaboration is constant and sustained.
Kerry Black (30:20): It’s a way for me to encourage more Indigenous scholars into the program. So right now, I have two First Nations master’s students, which for me in engineering is huge. You know, it takes a little bit of a different approach, but in terms of encouraging individuals to come forward, a lot of our Indigenous students, if they have gone through undergrad, some of them have had some pretty negative experiences going through their undergraduate. I think back to when I did my undergraduate and I had some negative experiences and I’m a white female. So, I can’t imagine if you throw extra layers of diversity onto that. So, I talked to a lot and encouraged them. But a lot of them need time to think about whether or not this is actually the right career path, because they’re, you know, they’re concerned about the experience they just had or they altogether leave the profession, which is very common.
Kerry Black (31:12): I mean, the stats, I think for women is that a quarter of them leave the profession within the first five years. That may have changed, maybe it’s 10 years now, but it’s still a huge portion of female engineers that leave. So, I can that…the stats of…the small number that we start with of Indigenous students versus what’s left a few years down the line. And then to think about that from a graduate perspective, my hope is that this program allows me to foster space at the community level. So, it’s enabling the community to be more active in the research process. That would be the first goal.
The second goal is actually to enable more space within the faculty and the curriculum and the research process for Indigenous Peoples. And then the third is just as important, is to shift and to push against my non-Indigenous colleagues who sometimes are doing things for not great reasons. And I think it’s important to call them out. And then sometimes they’re doing things where they think it’s the right intention, but they’re off base. And I think you hear a lot about in academia in terms of who your allies are. I don’t love the term ally because it’s very passive, right? It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to stand up to somebody and it’s uncommon as an assistant professor or someone who’s trying to get tenure to speak up. But one of the things that I did say when I started was if I think that it’s wrong and I think that it’s unfair, or I think that it’s, you know, something that is unfair from my perspective of working with, and for Indigenous Peoples, that I’m going to say it. There’s not a lot of people that do think that way. There’s full tenured professors who are still scared to sort of ruffle the feathers. And you have to be willing in the space, to ruffle the feathers. You have to be willing to put yourself on the line and say, if this is not something that you’re going to do or stand up for, then I’m not going to be part of it. And if you’re unwilling to do that I mean, how are you going to affect real meaningful change? So that’s my hope with the Research Chair. And I think it does encourage that.
Do you see other engineers asking, ‘what I can do?’
Porcupine (33:12): One of the things we’re trying to show is that every Canadian in kind of every walk of life can ask themselves, basically the question you just asked…that you are dealing with asking yourself as ‘what can I do in my slice of the pie, whatever my job is, whatever my, my role is.’ And so, yeah, and it does take courage. I agree, but it starts with just asking the question, you know, what can I do? And so, I’m wondering when you think of the engineering profession at large, do you see them asking those questions about what they can do, or do you feel like we’ve got still a really long way to go?
Kerry Black (33:50): I do see the questions. So, part of that is that, you know, the engineering profession has shifted. There’s been a notable shift, I would say in the past five-ish…especially the past five years. There’s a lot more people at the decision-making table who are more aware of the realities that exist in the world. And so, I do think that people are asking the question. Engineers Canada has shifted their accreditation process, for example. So, it used to be that you were really…a program was accredited based on its very technical components. Now there’s 12 attributes. And I would say eight of them are non-technical. Eight of them are about understanding the context, the social environmental conditions. It’s about lifelong learning and encouraging change. So, you know, that part has shifted from the highest levels. They have a committee that implements or is trying to implement, you know, decolonizing and Indigenizing engineering curriculum. And there’s representatives from across Canada who are talking about: okay, how do we actually do this within our universities, within engineering? I think actually there’s a disconnect at the professional level. When you actually leave academics and go into the real world, there’s nothing requiring you to work towards reconciliation.
Porcupine (35:04): I don’t even think my profession included lots of professions. It’s not just you folks, right? They don’t think what’s the connection between what I do with my profession and the legacy of colonialism. They just wouldn’t make those connections. Like as a historical fact, wouldn’t make the connection and then certainly wouldn’t necessarily say, ‘what can my profession do to advance reconciliation at the professional level?’ Let alone me personally, in my choices.
Right. I think it’s not an… when I was in law school, I asked why our property law course didn’t include Indigenous title, anything to do with Indigenous land rights and, or even… and they said, well, it has nothing to do with property law. And I just was…there was just no connection that Indigenous Peoples had any property. Yeah. Like it was just nothing, there was no land rights, et cetera. So, you can see we’ve come a long way, but it’s not just your profession.
A lot of students don’t get Indigenous issues. They came out of an education system that didn’t teach them Indigenous history.
Kerry Black (36:02): Yeah, absolutely. It’s probably all non-Indigenous Canadians for the most part. I mean, one of the things I think is key is sometimes, you know, especially for our students, you drowned them in this information. They don’t get it. They don’t really, because a lot of them have come out of an education system that didn’t teach them about Indigenous history. So, for a lot of students, it’s still relatively new. They still don’t really understand how recent residential schools, they don’t really fully understand what the Sixties Scoop is. They have an inability to connect their perspective and their experience to their worldview. And therefore, then go, ‘Oh, wait, somebody else might have a different perspective or worldview.’ And what does that mean? One of the things I try and teach them in an engineering course that is more technical, is I forced them to try and think about what is a technical problem, but to think about it from a different perspective. What does one technical decision around water potentially lead to at an individual level, community level? What does that mean to you as a human being, and to try and get them to say, you know, this is one way of thinking about it. It’s your way of thinking about it, but that’s been largely informed by your experience and your perspective. We do an exercise where they have to reflect on their relationship with water, which sounds really touchy feely for engineers. And then I try and share confidentially or anonymously some of the perspectives and they’re blown away when they hear that there’s people within their own classroom who grew up without having access to safe, clean drinking water. They’re just, yeah, they’re completely blown away by that. And it goes, okay, well, I’m actually…it starts to trigger a process in their brain of questioning and it’s not until you actually encourage that questioning of, okay, why do I think that way?
Kerry Black (37:52): And also now that I know, I think why I might think that way, what are other ways of thinking about it? And it’s not until you start that process and in a student’s brain, in mind, that you can hope that five years from that they developed that further. You’ve got to start somewhere. You know, arguably the last year of engineering is probably a later time to do that, but hey, it needs to start somewhere to encourage it. I think if you don’t encourage them to question their role in their process as engineers as early as possible in their undergraduate career, then it will be very difficult to try and create individuals who want to affect change in a meaningful way.
Many of us can leave our water on for six days and no one will care. But there are Indigenous communities nearby all of us that are on boil water advisories.
Porcupine (38:25): So, Kerry, can I ask you a question about two solitudes that I have in my mind. One, solitude is folks at the community level with dirt under their nails, calluses, scar tissue, getting things done on the ground, the best way they can. And then you have the folks in universities, academics in their ivory towers as it’s sometimes perceived, observing the world and suggesting how things should be done in that real world. And how do you bridge that difference? So that in fact they’re seen on…we don’t like the word allies, but there’s value to the collaborative approach with those two different positions and realities.
Kerry Black (39:11): Yeah. I think, you know, one of the things that it reminds me of is a conversation I had with a student where throughout the semester, they had to collect different artifacts of how they understood material. And at the end, they realized that that material they were most connected to was the material that they had a personal connection to, that they had a personal lived experience with. And that was the take home, was that you’re more likely to do something when it’s something that you feel impacts you or affects you. And I think that, you know, strengthening that connection, that connection responsibility. I mean, I try to teach my three-year-old and six-year-old that they have a responsibility in this world, but that’s a tricky piece. I think there’s a lot of people in those ivory towers who actually think that they’re doing some pretty meaningful, great work. But the reality is, and this goes for me too, it doesn’t matter how woke that I think that I am, at the end of the day, I can turn on the shower in my bathroom and I could leave it running for the next six days and nobody will care. Like not a single person will care in this world. No one come to my door and go, ‘Hey, you might want to turn off the water in your room.’ No one will go, ‘wow, that’s ridiculous that you can have running water for six days.’ Litres and litres and litres and litres down the drain. Meanwhile, I don’t have to go far…I really don’t have to go far from where I am right now to find individuals who are on, you know…in our First Nations communities, who are on individual wells, for example, who can’t drink the water because it’s on a boil water advisory, but nobody knows about it because it’s not reported on a large scale. So, until we can foster that connection and responsibility, it’s difficult. I struggle with how you actually…how do you make people care? And how do you make them really understand?
Kerry Black (40:53): Not a lot of people know anything about Indigenous culture to begin with. And I would say most of those people that are in the ivory towers have come out of an education system that definitely didn’t teach them about it, but it’s hard to get people to change as Merrell-Ann said. And it’s hard to get people to care when it doesn’t impact them. So maybe we do a little. What was that show where it’s… Undercover Boss, where you actually have to go and actually live and experience it. And that’s something that I think a lot of chiefs have said over the years, like Chief Moonias says, you know, ‘I’d welcome you Prime Minister to come to my community and just live it for a week, just a little bit for one week, see how you feel about what’s going on.
Kerry Black (41:37): And that’s, you know, sounds simplistic, but, that’s just with respect to water. But you can’t…none of these non-Indigenous people will ever be able to live the experience that has been forced on our Indigenous Peoples for hundreds of years. And that’s not something that they can ever truly understand. So, educating, and you can tell them to, you know, read as many books as you want, but how does it affect change? That is the part where I struggle and still hope that by changing this new generation…and that’s always my approach in engineering too actually, was why don’t we just wait for all of those old guys to retire and then we’ll change the world. And I still joke about that with some students who come forth and say they don’t, you know, don’t see themselves in this profession or they’re worried about how they can actually affect meaningful change. Well, you know, it’ll be easier once we get rid of some of the people who are perpetuating these colonial pieces. And that’s a terrible answer to your question, Michael, but it’s my real answer because I am concerned at times about how we actually get to the change part.
Porcupine (42:44): Just, it’s also interesting now that I’m 70, I used to have that same attitude too, that you want to…we’ll just wait till the old folks get the heck out of the road. And the young guys will take over. And now I look in the mirror, I am them, I’m an old guy and trying to justify the things that we did or didn’t do, and there’s more coming and they have to be changed along the way so that they evolve and are not just stuck in the status quo, which doesn’t work anymore.
We need to encourage people to stand up and point out when things are unjust and unfair.
Kerry Black (43:18): I say that to some students too, because I also think I’m getting tired of being the only person who is willing to sort of put their neck out and say that, you know, this is not okay. And here’s why it’s not okay. And if that’s a problem with you, by all means, I do think there’s leverage and saying, by all means, if this is a problem for you, please, I encourage you to fire me really. I do. I’d like to see where this goes because there’s more leverage now than there used to be. And I do try and tell students that, because I’ve never been the person who’s going to wait for the old people to retire at all. That’s not me. You really have to be loud. You have to be willing to say, ‘this is not okay.’ We need to change this, you know, and I’ve already had many of those experiences and not just in an academic setting, in the private and public sector, where I’ve pulled someone aside and said, ‘listen, this is not…this does not work for me.
Kerry Black (44:04): And here’s why, and here’s why it doesn’t work for me easily.’ It has to do with, you know, these reasons. And why it’s unjust and why it’s unfair. And I have a problem with it. And if you don’t have a problem with it, then we’re going to have a problem. So, I do agree that you can’t just wait for people to move on and hope that the system changes because those people right now are training and educating the minds of the future. We all need to be frankly stronger allies. Like if you consider yourself an ally, you need to shift into the advocate role. You need to shift into a vocal space to assert that. Because it’s only in that space where you’re going to encourage more allies to come forth. You know, allies can sometimes be a more passive expression, but we need a lot of those people too, just as much as we need someone who’s willing to speak up and say this isn’t right. And I’m going to make space for the people that it’s affecting to actually speak.
Porcupine (44:45): So, what do you say to young women or Indigenous Peoples to consider? Do you say to them to consider engineering the profession?
Kerry Black (44:58): I sure do. But I tell them, I usually share my story, which I think is helpful. It’s helpful for people to know. I never viewed myself as an engineer. I had no idea what it was on day one of my classes. I’m not sure I still know what it is. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good that I don’t really know what engineering is supposed to be because there’s leverage. And I tell people that whatever you think it is, who cares, do whatever you want with it. Engineering is a way to open doors. It’s a way to affect change in a whole multitude of different ways. It doesn’t mean that you’re just going to be a consultant. You can go into the public service, you can go into law, you can go into medicine after, but you’ll always have a basis of engineering as a bit of more of an applied or critical analysis piece. I think there’s space for you to say what you think engineering should be, and what it might be and what it could be. And that’s where I think there’s…I see people gravitate towards that. Those are the people that, you know, might not be considering engineering or might be concerned about whether or not it’s the right option. And I think that’s, you know, particularly key for when we talk to Indigenous girls and boys at young ages. You know, there’s a whole list of other barriers that get it…that come into play with this, but it’s about allowing them to see that potential to be who they want to be within this profession. And to tell them that there’s space to be exactly what you want to be in engineering.
Porcupine (46:30): So just our last question then:
Can you explain what reconciliation means to you through your engineering or other lens?
Kerry Black (46:39): Yeah. reconciliation for me within an engineering space…And then I’ll say maybe personally, but, you know, from a professional’s perspective, I think is the responsibility that we have to foster a path back to Indigenous communities that allows for meaningful collaboration, but allows first and foremost Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous individuals and communities to assert themselves and that Indigenous knowledge to come forth in a really meaningful way. I think reconciliation for me as an engineer is about…is helping to undo some of the harms that we’ve inflicted. It’s about building a path and walking that path together. But it’s really about allowing space for Indigenous Peoples to say what it is that they want and need, and then creating space and facilitating that space, even if it means… always when it means putting yourself aside. You’re a conduit in many ways as an engineer, not the sole, you know… the one with all of the solutions. You are that facilitator for Indigenous communities or Indigenous Peoples, I guess is one way that I think about the role of engineering. Which is different than the idea that it’s the be all, end all solution, rather it’s a process. Engineering and re-engineering, it is a way in which we can change the process. And by that we can enhance the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples and the right to self-determination and the reconnection to the land and their ways of knowing and doing.
Cake or pie?
Porcupine (48:25): So, cake or pie?
Kerry Black (48:30): Ice cream?
Porcupine (48:40): Could have predicted that day.
Kerry Black: I don’t fit into the molds very well.
Porcupine: It’s been great talking to you. It’s fascinating to listen to you, and you’ve got such great ideas. I really look forward to seeing the research that comes out of your Canada Research Chair work and the stuff you’re able to fund. Can people go and look on your…will they eventually be able to see on your website or somewhere some of the results of the work you’ve been participating in or being able to fund? Is that how they track it down?
Kerry Black (49:15): Yeah, absolutely. I have a website that’s currently being developed and we’re bringing on First Nations community researchers, a youth component and the Indigenous Advisory Research Committee that can help steer and guide some of the research work. A lot of them may not be, you know, something that you can read because a big part of what I do is to respect the right of Indigenous communities to do with that information as they want. So, some of it will be available for sure. But on the web, on my research website is where I try and, and I will be trying to foster a bit of that conversation.
Porcupine (49:48): I just think there’s a great opportunity to explain to people what it is, what it looks like, what you’re doing, you know, to actually…yeah. Practical kind of examples of the difference that it makes. Cause I do agree. It will. It’ll…it’s amazing work. You’re doing it. I really will love to follow it over time to see what would happen. So, thank you.
Porcupine (50:05): So thank you very much, Professor. It’s been very interesting and helpful chatting with you and I’m sure someday our paths will cross.
Kerry Black (50:13): I hope so. One day when we’re all allowed to sit around and have a cup of tea again in the same space, we’ll continue this conversation. I really appreciate the space to share.
Porcupine (50:24): Thank you.