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Calgary ‘Indigeneer’ shaping the future of Canadian Energy

President, Indigeneer Indigenous Engineering Inclusion Inc. Deanna Burgart at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering in Calgary, Alberta, December 6, 2019. Photograph for the Canadian Energy Centre

Deanna Burgart is somewhat of an anomaly: She’s an Indigenous woman, a pipeline expert, an engineer and an educator who is passionate about balancing respect for Mother Earth with sustainable energy practices. To get all that across succinctly to students, clients and colleagues, she came up with a unique, one-word description for herself: Indigeneer.

“I’m very much pro balance,” says Burgart, who worked in Calgary’s oil and gas industry for 20 years before becoming a full-time academic this fall. “I look at sustainability as a balance between people, planet and prosperity.”

Burgart was the first Indigenous engineer-in-residence at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering. Today, she’s teaching her special brand of Indigeneering to the next generation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous energy sector contributors as a faculty member and Teaching Chair focused on integrating Indigenous knowledge into engineering.

“I want to challenge anyone who’s making decisions that will impact land, air and water to really listen to the people who are stewards of the land,” she says. “And I want young Indigenous people to be part of those solutions.”

Burgart came to the energy sector in a roundabout way. At 19, she was a single, first-time mom working toward her high school diploma at a vocational school in Calgary. Once she met that challenge, she enrolled in a chemical engineering program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

“I looked through the binders from the Government of Alberta about career options, educational requirements and expected salaries,” she says, noting that she needed a career that would support her and her then 18-month-old son. “I chose the program with the shortest time in school, with the most demand and the highest salary. Then I prayed!”

So instead of following her passion for piano, drama and musical theatre, she embarked on a trail-blazing, industry-altering career in Alberta’s energy sector. She became an “Indigeneer.”

Burgart was adopted at five months old, during the “Sixties Scoop” that saw Indigenous children taken from their families by the government and put up for adoption by non-Indigenous families in non-Indigenous communities. She grew up with no knowledge of her heritage, albeit in a loving family. When she was 22, she learned she had Cree and Dene family on her birth mother’s side. That knowledge seemed to confirm something the young engineering technologist already knew.

“I was always motivated by that sustainability lens, which I believe Indigenous people have had for many, many generations and thousands of years,” she says. “I started to realize that a lot of the way I saw the world, which always made me the odd one out, was something that was very much in alignment with what I was learning about Indigenous world views.”

That sustainability perspective that Burgart had been cultivating centred around protecting the land on which she and her colleagues worked. She sharpened that focus as she pursued her undergraduate degree in engineering at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and simultaneously continued to learn more about her Indigenous connections.

“I developed a bit of a niche because I was really passionate about the environmental compliance and regulatory compliance pieces,” Burgart said. “It’s kind of unique, but I love reading 300-page directives and translating them to the field level.”

Burgart flourished in her career and decided, after 20 years of working for others, to strike out on her own. She worked as a consultant and speaker, delivering workshops about pipelines and reconciliation, and helping educational institutions “Indigenize” their engineering curriculums.

Burgart says she’s heartened by how many more industry players now have a clearer view of sustainability than when she first started working. “But I don’t think we’re there yet, where we put as much emphasis on preserving the land and keeping people safe as we do on profits.”

Speaking about the future, though, Burgart is nothing but positive.

“We have an incoming generation of students, and even young people who are in the industry now, who do place just as much value on sustainability (as on profits),” she says. “We have students who are going back to school and getting Master’s (degrees) in engineering and sustainability. I’m really excited and I’m learning from them, too.”

As an engineer, mother and grandmother, as well as teacher and mentor, Burgart knows it’s vital for society to transition to more sustainable forms of energy. But her message, naturally, is one of conciliation, not confrontation.

“It’s not about ‘either/or,’ ” she says. “It’s not fossil fuels versus renewables. We need to talk about an energy system that encompasses everyone: producers and consumers. We’re all part of the energy system, whether we work in oil and gas or drive a car. We’re coming to a time where no one can pass the buck and point the finger.”