Two smiling women bundled up in snow suits, dusky sky and still waters behind them.

Engage North's northern lights

All photos copyright Heidi Johnson.

As the first students to take part in the Engage North Fellowship Program at the University of Alberta, Stephanie Lettner, Heidi Johnson and Keita Hill were sent to Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a hamlet on the Eastern shore of Baffin Island for the summer of 2013. The three engineering students were put to work helping the municipal planners find energy efficiency and environmental management solutions.

Now back at the University of Alberta to complete their degrees, the three fellows continue to be involved in Engage North. We spoke with Stephanie and Heidi to find out more about their experience with Engage North.

What is the Engage North program all about?

SL: Engage North is about creating bridges between communities in northern and southern Canada. Northern communities choose projects to help with issues that they’ve identified and considered. Then, Engage North sends students who can fulfill those projects. We’re not going in and telling them what they need. It’s really based on respect for indigenous cultures and northern communities.

Being a fellow isn’t just a summer job, either. Once you’re back here, you’re giving presentations, doing interviews, sitting on the Engage North Student Chapter executive committee and helping train the next summer’s fellows. The expectations are high but it’s a rewarding job.

Old sign: Hamlet of Pangnirtung, NWT. Walking through workshed.

Tell us about the project you undertook for Pangnirtung.

SL: We took on an energy conservation project. The municipal government was thinking about changing to LED lights, so we did some calculations to see how much money they would save by switching. So we did a preliminary energy audit of the municipal buildings, including offices and garages, and then searched for an LED supplier. We ordered a trial run and before we left we were able to implement most of the lights. Everyone seemed really happy!

HJ: The Hamlet of Pangnirtung has a great desire to be leaders in sustainability in the North, so they were absolutely fabulous to work with! Their electricity is mostly generated by diesel generators, so it’s very expensive. It can range up to 56 cents per kWh, which is five times what we pay in Edmonton. But that makes the payback periods for energy efficiency projects much shorter. With the trial run we did, it should pay itself off in two years from savings on electricity.

What are the benefits?

SL: LEDs are an energy efficient alternative lighting technology. They are easy to install, have a longer lifespan, use half the energy of fluorescents and don’t contain mercury. That’s a big issue up North because they don’t really have a hazardous waste disposal system. Those fluorescent tubes just go right into the landfill—which is right by the water. Beyond that, in the winter, when you’re 40 km from the Arctic Circle, you don’t really get to see the sun. By switching to LED lights, they’re getting a brighter, more natural quality of light to get through those months.

Cyclist on the ice, mountain behind. Doing yoga in the sunlight, ice in the background.

What did you learn about sustainability by living and working in the North?

HJ: The issues facing sustainability in the North are so complex. The one thing that is really obvious, though, is how adaptable people are. Instead of just accepting things the way they are, there is a huge push to make things work. There is such a strong sense of community and they work together to make changes they feel are necessary. I really think we can learn from this adaptability and drive. Things have to change, but it's not always easy. It takes a whole community on board to make progress.

SL: Being up North and helping people make this shift—and seeing them recognize the value in it—that was really gratifying. You trigger new thought processes in people and then they say 'ok, this works, maybe we can be sustainable in other ways too.'

How can others get involved?

HJ: Being informed is always a good first step. One of Engage North's mandates is to be a source of knowledge to the campus community, sharing all that we have learned. Engage North’s new Student Chapter is well underway to becoming a fully operational student club and we're looking for new members. The Engage North Fellowship Program—what Stefanie, Keita and I piloted—will continue to send students from up North to work on all sorts of projects.

SL: The Fellowship Program is not just engineering work either. There will be three streams: engineering; healthcare; and social / cultural. If people want get involved with Engage North as fellows, I think it would be beneficial to join the student group first. Our goal is to make people more aware of the North, of the communities and cultures and the struggles that they face. They’re really interesting people and they’ve come a long way fighting for their culture and they have a lot to say.

Rocky mountains tower above mossy, boulder strewn meadow.

Know any UAlberta students, staff or faculty that should be featured in Faces of Sustainability? Send your suggestions to sustainability@ualberta.ca