Mentor of Distinction, Power to Choose Aboriginal Mentor
Engineers are taught to expect the unexpected and to prepare for every possible outcome. Aerospace engineers plan for ways for pilots to safely land a plane in the event of mechanical failure. Structural engineers design sturdy buildings and bridges to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters. One thing Erin Harper, an environmentalist from northern Ontario, wasn’t expecting was an incident that would suddenly change her life, including her career trajectory.
I grew up outside my reserve in a small town called Nipigon and we truly lived the outdoor lifestyle – hunting, fishing, canoeing, camping. I would often go out with my dad and he was constantly teaching me about the boreal forest, so I would say my interest in the environment started when I was really young.
That interest eventually led Erin, 26, to environmental studies and upon graduation, to continue towards a degree in environmental engineering at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. She worked at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, doing creel surveys,taking fish samples for a study on the decline of brook trout on Lake Nipigon. She also worked closely with her mother doing administrative work for a local fire fighting base through the Ministry of Natural Resources.
“But then I had a serious diving accident,” she recalls. “I had to have back surgery and then take some time off school to recover.”
While she was recuperating, Erin weighed her professional options and made a surprising choice.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue with field work, so I decided to go into teaching,” she says. She went on to teach at a reserve in northern Ontario where her mother and grandmother were born. There, she was able to incorporate the outdoors in her curriculum, going for nature walks, bringing plants into the classroom and exploring environmental issues. But it wasn’t long before Erin grew restless.
“I loved teaching but felt it was time for a change of scenery, so I decided to move out to Calgary. My sister lives here.” Today, Erin, who is First Nations Ojibwa, is the Aboriginal Resource Teacher at École St. Martha School in the Calgary Catholic School District. St. Martha currently has 550 students enrolled from Kindergarten to Grade 9 – and 33 of them are Aboriginal.
“I am here to support Aboriginal students who may be struggling not only with academics, but with personal identity and social issues,” she says. “I also serve as a source of academic support for the teachers, which means working collaboratively for the best possible outcomes for our Aboriginal students.”
Erin’s position is new to the school, in conjunction with an Aboriginal Pride Program to increase student achievement and success.
“In general, the graduation rate is still far too low for Aboriginal students and we need to explore the underlying reason why there is such struggle from an academic perspective,” she says. “The Pride Program is designed to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues and to teach the kids about their culture as First Nations, Metis or Inuit people. It’s geared toward Aboriginal students but the awareness is created among the entire school.”
Erin has recently begun to blend her passion for teaching with her love of the environment by helping students explore education and career opportunities in the sciences.
“We have had Aboriginal mentors come in from APEGGA (Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta) and they have been talking to the kids about future opportunities,” she says. “We have some Grade 8 girls who are showing interest in the sciences. Having experienced professionals come in is really helping to open the girls’ eyes to their potentials. And they’re beginning to see that the courses they choose in high school need to be science-based so they can go on to post-secondary studies.”
Erin says that she is more than happy to help answer students’ questions about university and about what it’s like to work out in the field.
“I enjoy being able to give them real-life examples from my own background. That kind of knowledge really motivates them and helps them to see the possibilities in a clearer way.”
Erin also appreciates the impact that external mentors can have on impressionable students. She is looking forward to giving them more exposure to APEGGA and programs such as Operation Minerva, which pairs science-minded girls with professional women who are established in the field of science and technology.
“There are many different roads these kids could be taking right now. They’re struggling with all sorts of peer influences. Having women, especially Aboriginal women, speak about their personal successes is so valuable. It’s not only inspiring, it is giving our kids a reality check that the decisions they make today can affect their entire future.”