Incorporating traditional knowledge into an engineering framework to strengthen infrastructure and guard against climate change effects
Climate change is creeping into the lives of First Nations community members in Canada, weakening infrastructure and changing the way these communities operate. Yes, all communities in Canada are dealing with climate change, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Is there something that can help First Nations communities, in particular, prepare for extreme weather and its effects?
Recently, there has been a surge of interest from Canadian First Nations groups in the PIEVC Protocol (PIEVC stands for the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee). As I wrote in my recent blog about the Protocol, I’ve spent the past decade working on this multi-step process, which can help municipalities predict weather changes, identify risks to infrastructure, and become more resilient.
Through my decade of work with First Nations in Ontario, I’ve noticed a serious need for a PIEVC-style protocol in these communities. Many of these communities are working with a skeleton infrastructure—especially in northern Canada—which makes the need for a robust tool even more pressing. Plus, the original PIEVC Protocol is relatively complex, and it relies on some data that may not exist in First Nations communities. We needed to streamline it to make it simpler.
A temporary floating intake in Moose Factory First Nation. In Moose Factory, Guy Felio and the rest of the team studied the water and wastewater system.
First Nations communities are often smaller than the municipalities that have used the PIEVC Protocol in the past. So, we wanted to see how we could make the Protocol more applicable for First Nations groups—especially since they have the advantages of traditional knowledge and infrastructure data that they collect every three years. Since the current PIEVC Protocol doesn’t deal with asset management, we decided to add an asset management module to the tool as well.
In partnership with the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC) and Engineers Canada, we developed something new and more comprehensive—the First Nations PIEVC/Asset Management Toolkit. Now, several First Nations communities outside Ontario want to apply it to address their own climate change challenges. Here’s how we developed it.
Before I started adapting the Protocol, I knew that the traditional knowledge of First Nations communities would be essential in the process. This knowledge helps to fill the data gaps. _q_tweetable:Before I started adapting the Protocol, I knew that the traditional knowledge of First Nations communities would be essential in the process._q_Remote communities in northern Canada are rarely situated close to weather stations—so you don’t have these observational posts to collect weather data. You need that type of information to make climate change projections, so that’s where traditional knowledge comes in.
Interestingly, with First Nations communities, we begin with traditional knowledge and then validate those observations with data. In other municipalities, it’s usually the opposite—we start with the data, and then confirm those numbers with the operators.
This traditional knowledge has been passed down for generations, and it’s based on living on the land. First Nations communities have better insights about nature, climate, and changes in climate than most city dwellers. For example, members of First Nations groups see that their hunting grounds are moving. Or their medicinal plants are not available in the area where they used to be. When you apply that traditional knowledge to the PIEVC framework, it results in a more robust tool.
Adapting the protocol
When I looked at adapting the Protocol to First Nations, I turned to Elmer Lickers, a senior staff member of OFNTSC—the nonprofit organization created by the Chiefs of Ontario that provides technical assistance to about 130 Ontario First Nations. Elmer has been passionate about bringing sound asset management and long-term infrastructure solutions to First Nations, and OFNTSC applied for funding to the governments of Canada (Indigenous Affairs) and Ontario (through the Ontario Centre of Climate Impacts and Adaptation Resources—OCCIAR).
We received the funding, and we used the PIEVC Protocol with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, applying it to their water and wastewater system. As we went through the process, we learned about elements that could be modified, refined, and made applicable to First Nations. At that point, we decided to develop a toolkit specifically for First Nations. So, we adapted the PIEVC Protocol, and incorporated concepts of asset management—where strategies can help a community sustain roads, bridges, sewer lines, water treatment facilities, and other parts of its infrastructure.
A damaged water intake structure in Moose Factory First Nation. The water intake was damaged by ice.
Testing a toolkit
We needed to test that toolkit. We received further support from the government of Canada and brought the toolkit to two other First Nation communities—the Moose Cree First Nation of Moose Factory and the Oneida Nation of the Thames. In Moose Factory, we studied the water and wastewater system, and with the Oneida Nation, we looked at housing.
The toolkit’s future
Now that we’ve finished the toolkit, we’re training First Nations communities on how to use it. There’s a lot of interest. Communities want to know how it can be applicable to their context.
OFNTSC has applied for a grant to replicate that training in Ontario 10 times, as they want all First Nations groups in the province to be aware of the toolkit. And like I mentioned above, there is growing interest in other parts of the country to use the toolkit. This will give numerous communities the ability to anticipate climate change impacts and plan for serious risks to their infrastructure. Disasters won’t be as devastating.
On top of that, the inclusion of traditional knowledge in an engineering framework has led to broader community involvement and a unique partnership—and I’m proud to be a part of it.
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