Student-Led Workshops Engage First Nations Youth in Water Issues

By Elliott Corston-Pine and Luke Brennan, School of Engineering, University of Guelph

Respecting the spirit and life-giving force of water was a recurring theme in two workshops we planned in July, 2014 focusing on the importance of water quality through a culturally relevant and holistic lens.

In partnership with the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, the Saugeen First Nation and the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, the workshops engaged 10 youths aged 13 to 18 through presentations, guest speakers and interactive, hands-on activities. This project was also funded through RES'EAU-WaterNET and the NSERC Strategic Enhancement Initiative (SNEI) program.

The three-day events included one day in the First Nations communities, while the other two days were held in Walkerton. Though the Walkerton Clean Water Centre focuses on drinking water, we were also able to provide an overview and discussion on wastewater issues. Attendees were given a tour of the Centre, where they also were taken them through a series of water tests in the lab along with demonstrations of large equipment used for water treatment. An Environmental Health Officer and a water treatment operator, both from the communities, were also on hand to deliver interactive presentations as well as to answer questions. 

The teens were also tasked with designing a water filter on the first day of the workshop, and with money and materials leftover on day two, to build a water treatment plant to hold the water filter.  Though the youth were given a substantial budget for their designs (using Monopoly money), they quickly found out that materials were expensive, requiring them to cut corners to achieve their goals. 

Other activities included a traditional water ceremony, teachings on water from a community Elder, and a day during which the youths learned about the Walkerton water tragedy. 

Pre- and post-surveys were given to the participants, and the results indicate that the youth gained significant knowledge of drinking water and wastewater treatment processes, the importance of maintaining clean water and clean water distribution systems and the significance of the Walkerton tragedy.  Additionally, they gained valuable teamwork and laboratory skills, in a fun and engaging environment.

We learned a lot about what it takes to organize and deliver a learning event for First Nations youth, and look forward to improving their learning experience in the future. 

Click below to watch a video about the workshop.