Feeding her passions and leading social change, Lucy Kootenay helps recognize Indigenous students and issues

Engineering graduate is having an impact on the physical and social environment

Matthew Menzies - 07 June 2019

(Edmonton) For someone who was reluctant to study engineering, Lucy Kootenay is certainly pleased that the winding educational path she followed led to a degree in environmental engineering.
Kootenay celebrated the completion of her degree on Wednesday. A founding member of the Indigenous Engineering Student Association and driven environmentalist, she is now applying her skills and social consciousness in the engineering profession, where she undoubtedly will effect great change.
Kootenay took an unconventional path toward her degree and the engineer's iron ring. She began her post-secondary career studying chemistry.
"I was just good at it in high school," she said, "and my dad was always on me, telling me to go into engineering, and I said no, I'll do what I want to do-except he was right."
After three years of studying chemistry, and then education, Kootenay said, "I had a crisis and I decided that I was going to apply for engineering. I ended up getting in.
"I broke it to my parents that I was starting a four-year degree all over again. I was like, 'I'm so sorry!'"
She has no regrets about the journey.
"I look back on the winding path that I took into engineering and I'm glad I took it because I think it's unrealistic for people to expect that we know what we want at the age of 18," she said. "My biggest piece of advice is don't feel like you need to know right away. Take a little bit of time and explore where you want to go, and you'll get there."
When Kootenay found environmental engineering, she knew it was where she wanted to be.
"Environmental engineering just screamed at me," she said. "It's just very easy to see the connections in environmental because the environment literally affects everyone, all of the time."
Growing up in Fort McMurray with a father employed in the oil sands, Kootenay had been conscious of environmental issues from a young age.
"But actually, when I moved away and got into the environmental engineering program, that's when I was like, OK, we need to find a solution that merges production with sustainability," she said. "That just plays back in my head."
She said that balancing production and sustainability is the responsibility of environmental engineers. For Kootenay, environmental engineering is "about having the Earth as a main priority and working to ensure that irreversible damage doesn't occur."
Throughout her course of study at the Faculty of Engineering, Kootenay was also at the forefront of supporting social change at the university.
As co-founder and first-ever president of the Indigenous Engineering Student Association, she worked with the group to bring awareness to, and educate people on, Indigenous issues within the faculty.
"We create a community for our Indigenous students and faculty to make space for Indigenous culture within the Faculty of Engineering," said Kootenay.
By creating a supportive community, Kootenay and her Indigenous Engineering Student Association cohorts sought to educate student and professional engineers on issues that face Indigenous people every day.
"What we were looking to do is start that education within the faculty itself, to braid it into it," she said. "So that when we have our graduating engineers that are going into the industry, they already have that subconscious mindset of respectful consultation and respecting the land. That is our mandate."
Kootenay says educating the Faculty of Engineering on Indigenous history and issues is important because so many engineering projects are either on Indigenous land or are affecting Indigenous people.
She's moving on from the group as her studies have ended, but is now looking to improve the world and her community by putting her environmental engineering degree into action at one of the world's largest engineering and construction companies, AECOM.
Kootenay doesn't know where her career path will lead. She says that what matters most is that her work supports and helps people and her community.
"My ideal work environment is one where I'm engaging with people and can see that the work I'm doing is making a visible difference in my community."
She proudly wears her iron ring at work. "For me it's a reminder to not get cocky; don't think you know more than you do," she said. "Don't think you're always right. I think that's the symbol of the ring. It's a sign of humility."