If you are ever looking for freshwater lakes to canoe, fish, swim, or just plain admire, then Canada is your spot. Estimated at around three million, Canada is host to more lakes than every other country in the world combined. So, it may come as a surprise that many First Nations communities located in Canada’s North face serious water security issues, largely as a result of insufficient waste and drinking water treatment facilities. The CREATE H2O program is trying to change that. Funded by the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the H2O program aims to help address water and sanitation security issues on First Nations reserves.
I joined the H2O program in the fall of 2013 for; 1) the opportunity to do unique research in Northern Manitoba, 2) see first-hand some of the water security issues facing First Nations, and 3) experience the rich culture and history of these communities. While all three of these expectations have been met and exceeded over the course of my tenure in the program, the most rewarding experience of all has been something that was not even on my radar when joining H2O – the opportunity for science outreach and education – and the outcome has been inspiring! Before I delve too deep into my experiences in the Northern Manitoban community of Norway House Cree Nation, let me step back and explain a little bit about how I got there.
I first got my feet wet in outreach through involvement in the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program, a registered charity foundation whose goal is to “Increase the number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students graduating from science and engineering programs in Canada.” In May of 2014 and 2015, as one of a number of science leaders in our faculty, we hosted a group of grade 11 and 12 students for one week in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba. The visiting students were exposed to university-level research through hands-on experiments. From learning about basic water quality parameters and instruments for their measurement, to setting up and interpreting an earthworm soil avoidance assay, to extracting fish otoliths and analyzing them for metals using an ICP-MS/MS, the Kirkness program provides these students with the unique opportunity to be exposed to the world of research at a perfect time in their educational career. The benefit of this program for these youth cannot be overstated!
By chance, both in 2014 and 2015, a number of students in our group were from Norway House Cree Nation (NHCN), the same community that I was about to commence research in through the CREATE H2O program. What happened next you can probably guess? We made arrangements for two Kirkness students, Chadwin and Hunter, to join us during our field sampling in July 2015. We spent the day sampling the wastewater treatment facility and surrounding surface waters. Chadwin and Hunter helped deploy passive samplers, sample water, and take water quality measurements. It was a great experience for them to learn about the water treatment system in their home community of NHCN, all the while reinforcing the skills and knowledge they gained from the Kirkness program. Hunter is entering his senior year of high school and Chadwin has been accepted to the University of Manitoba beginning Fall 2015 and has enrolled in the Department of Environment and Geography. Both of them very impressive young students in their own right! Our hope is to continue this valuable outreach with the larger community by holding a public forum to present our research. Keeping the community members and leaders informed is a crucial part of doing research on their land and studying our most precious resource, H2O.
Jonathan Challis is a graduate student in the Chemistry Department at the University of Manitoba