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Connecting Youth, Science, Water, and Community

  • 7 min read

Connecting Youth, Science, Water, and Community

Water First Indigenous Schools Water Program and Environmental Water Program Work Together in Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation (SIFN).

By Adrianna Bilinski, Indigenous School Engagement Coordinator at Water First

What does Water First do exactly? I get this question a lot from my family and friends, so I am sure others would like to know as well. We have three main field departments: Drinking Water Internship Programs, Environmental Water Projects, and Indigenous Schools Water Programs (ISWP).

Internally, we are very intentional about deepening the interconnectedness of program areas. This makes our programs and our staff stronger and more connected – to each other and to our community partners. An example of this connectedness is our current work with the Innu Community of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation in Labrador:

In January 2020, ISWP visited Labrador to work with students at Sheshatshiu (Shé-ha-ji-u) Innu School. This was the first time Water First had worked in Labrador, and it was also my first trip as a program lead, so it was exciting for me.

We planned to study freshwater samples with the students from Lake Melville. However, since it was January, the water was frozen. This created another first for us as we went out on the ice and cut through it to get water samples from the frozen water body.

From using the auger to using a traditional Innu and Inuit ice pick method to open the ice, the activity was well received. The students were engaged throughout, and they had fun – even those who didn’t come prepared! Pictured here, I lent my winter coat and gloves to a student on the ice so he could participate.

Community needs are always at the forefront of our projects. The first visit to a community can really help our team better understand the needs of the community and their long-term vision regarding their waters.

In many ways, ISWP’s first trip to Labrador became the milestone that led to environmental water projects that are now, in 2022, deep-rooted in the community. When we returned in November 2021 to work with the school for the second time, a fish habitat restoration project and long-term climate change monitoring project with our Environmental Water Program team had begun with Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation. These projects are part of the effort to restore a fishing lodge on Park Lake (locally known as Iatuepakau) into a 100% Innu-owned-and-operated adventure tourism and education facility.

Some of the students remembered ISWP’s first visit to the school because of the experience of going out on the ice! But once they found out that through Water First, I was connected to the Park Lake project, some of the students asked to join extra workshops to learn more. Interest was high because the staff at Park Lake are all members of the Innu community, and the youth wanted to hear about the things they were doing with Water First.

The most exciting part of ISWP’s second visit to the community was being joined by two high school students who were part of the Park Lake project with our Environmental Water Program.

Throughout the summer, the two students had been training to become junior guides or interns. They were proud to show their younger peers some of the water sciences tools they had learned to use over the summer months.

We were so encouraged by this because the goal of our school programming is to inspire youth to take an interest in water science and get involved in available training, like these two young men.

The Indigenous Schools Water Program (ISWP) is designed to be flexible, which allows our workshops to connect and relate to the local geography, context and needs.

One way we do this is to invite guest speakers from the community to join: those that work in environmental or water-related fields, water treatment plant operators, fishermen, water walkers or respected community members that may be recommended by our collaborative community partners on the ground.

These guest speakers provide their experience and knowledge of the local community. We can then connect this to the watershed context that we teach the students. Often, they will teach the students and us about the observed changes in water levels or fish populations. Sometimes, they perform relevant cultural ceremonies. Any knowledge they share makes the learning more meaningful for the students and for us as instructors.

To strengthen the connection across our programs, we invite Interns or Alumni from other Water First programs to be our guest speakers at the school when possible. For example, in Sheshatshiu, our colleague Ryan Osman, the Environmental Water Project Lead, helped organize three different guest speakers involved in the Environmental Project so far: Napess Ashini, a knowledge keeper, Ian Rich, the local water treatment plant operator, and Seth Hurley, a Water First Intern.

Napass Ashini came to speak on the first day of programming. He brought important local Innu history and ways of knowing that helped frame the whole week of learning at the school.

Ian Rich spoke with two classes, and he brought testing tools used in the water treatment plant to measure the chlorine level in the tap water and turbidity levels. The students were able to run the tests themselves, and they had a lot of questions for Ian.

Seth spoke with three different groups of students throughout the week. Many of the students recognized him from around the community. Because of that familiarity, both Seth and the students felt at ease and eager to share and learn. He showed the students some technology that he had learned to use during Water First training on the fish habitat and climate change projects, and the students had an opportunity to use those tools themselves.

This strong connection between the Environmental Water Program and the ISWP workshops amplifies the meaningfulness of our work with communities. This is the type of local connection we are always striving for.

When youth can see members of their own community taking an interest and working for the health of the water, it inspires them.

We have seen it in the past, and it was very evident in Sheshatshiu this November. Holding on to this success, we press on to continually inspire young minds to pursue an interest in water science as it is so important to the world and, more importantly, their community!

To learn more about Water First’s Indigenous Schools Water Program, click here.

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