A meeting of the minds: Research hub aims to solve challenges in remote First Nations.

Author:Ross, Ian
Position:Dryden-Sioux Lookout

The solutions to the myriad of socioeconomic problems faced daily by First Nations may come from the bright minds of academia.

The Town of Sioux Lookout wants to pool the collective brainpower at the University of Toronto and Lakehead University in setting up a research hub in northwestern Ontario.

"What we're trying to do is build a knowledge-based community," said Vicki Blanchard, the town's economic development director.

The University of Toronto's Reconciliation Through Engineering Initiative is setting up shop inside the Heritage Train Station in Sioux Lookout's downtown.

The group takes a collaborative approach to address engineering challenges faced by these communities.

It's an offshoot of the university's Centre of Global Engineering, a multidisciplinary institute that travels aboard to take on projects in food and nutrition, water and sanitation, health and shelter.

Blanchard said these researchers don't have to go far to find Third World conditions.

"We have them right next door." Sioux Lookout, a town of 5,500, is a regional supply, tribal administrative and health-care hub serving more than 30,000 people and roughly a third of all the isolated First Nation communities in Canada.

"They are the backbone of our economy," said Blanchard.

Many of these fly-in communities are off-grid, without a reliable supply of power, and are only accessible by land during the winter road season.

Resupplying these communities by air means it's difficult to deliver healthy and affordable food choices, which means chronic health problems among residents, stricken with diabetes and heart disease.

"We live and breathe this, but the more I reach out globally, the more I realize how little people know about this area," said Blanchard.

The fact that Sioux Lookout has a Friendship Accord with many isolated communities has drawn interest from these researchers.

Through collaborations with the University of Toronto, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and universities in Finland and Tel Aviv, Israel, Sioux Lookout has set up the Innovation Hub.

It's a research and innovation office inside the town's historic train station, sharing space with the economic development department.

Blanchard has also brought university researchers from Finland into the picture--to tap into their knowledge of biomass-heated villages--and academics from Israel, who have global expertise in safe drinking water technology, a problem that's overwhelmed many First Nation communities.


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