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Saturday , 25 September 2021

Saddle Lake Cree Nation member Brielle Thorsen earns $30K engineering scholarship

The winner of this year’s Order of the White Rose scholarship has connections to the Lakeland region.

Brielle Thorsen is a member of Saddle Lake Cree Nation who grew up in Cochrane, Alberta and is now studying for her Master’s of Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University in Ontario.

The Order of the White Rose is a $30,000 scholarship awarded each year to a female engineering student, in tribute to the 14 women who were killed in the massacre at École Polytechnique Montréal on Dec. 6, 1989. Selection is based on academics, technical achievements, and non-technical achievements.

Thorsen said she’s incredibly grateful to have received the scholarship because it provides a level of financial stability she didn’t expect and didn’t have before.

“It’s really nice to know that when I go to bed at night, that I don’t have to be worrying about all these other things,” said Thorsen.

Thorsen was the first ever Canadian to be elected to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, something which she says continues to be one of the things she is most proud of to date.

“It was a really amazing two years of being able to–at the time–travel around Turtle Island and gather with other indigenous people in STEM. It was just a society I was really proud to be a part of,” said Thorsen.

She said she’s proud of the work done while she was there, but also the efforts to branch the society in to Canada and expand the network of indigenous people who are interested in, studying, or working in STEM fields.

“We just had our third national conference here in Canada. I went to the first one in Calgary, back in 2017 and it was a great conference, but there wasn’t that many of us there. And then flash forward to our gathering at the University of Saskatchewan this past spring, there’s over 100 of us there. So it was really great to just see how much we’ve grown our collective group here in Canada and the connections that we’re making,” said Thorsen.

Energy Sovereignty for Remote Communities

Academically, Thorsen is currently focusing her studies on energy systems in remote indigenous communities which are not connected to the North American electrical grid.

“Many times that there’s no road access, other than in the winter months to these communities. So a lot of these communities are using diesel generators to produce all or almost if not all, of their electricity.

“This diesel is being either trucked in on ice roads or flown in, during the other months of the year. So it’s very carbon intensive, just to get the diesel to the communities. And then we’re not necessarily using the most energy efficient systems and sustainable systems,” said Thorsen.

She said she’s looking at what kind of solutions can work for these remote communities, including capturing the waste heat from the generators and renewable energy sources.

“What I’m interested in is how can we move towards energy sovereignty, where indigenous communities are owning and operating and maintaining their own energy systems,” said Thorsen.

She said the solution is likely a combination of improved technologies, integrating renewable energy sources, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings, especially homes which are the main users of electricity in these communities.

“My dream is to be able to do this work across Turtle Island and just work with communities one on one. A lot of times community energy plans have been completed…So now that we have a picture of what our energy systems are in communities and how we’re using it, how do we go forward? And how can we ensure that we have sustainable energy for generations to come? So that’s something that I’m really hoping to continue to work on, as I enter into my early career,” said Thorsen.

Racism and Reconciliation

Thorsen became a voice for reconciliation in her community at Queen’s after someone targeted the indigenous and LGBTQ+ residence and stole the Métis and pride flags which were displayed, and replaced them with a letter filled with hate speech.

She said she was at a national gathering for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society when it happened.

“So it was just such a juxtaposition of where I was in this positive space with indigenous people doing great work, and feeling like we were making progress. And then what was happening at home with someone trying to say to our people, and our brothers and sisters, that this isn’t a place that’s safe for you. And that’s when I realized I really needed to start standing up at Queens.

“I’m white presenting, so I’m not faced with a lot of the racism that my brothers and sisters are exposed to. And I realized that I need to use my position of privilege to talk about this and to demand changes upon our student body, because it’s not acceptable that this occurred,” said Thorsen.

She said the experience showed her that there’s a gap between what policies say and what the lived experience is of students, and that it highlights holes in the system like the need for cultural sensitivity training and a proper understanding of Canadian history which includes the indigenous experience and the legacy of colonialism.

Despite the obstacles, Thorsen has faced, she said she absolutely still encourages indigenous women to get in to STEM.

“We need to have conversations about these realities. It is a beautiful field, and there’s beautiful people working in it. And so many amazing indigenous people work here. So I welcome you with open arms, and I really hope that you would consider to come into STEM, because it’s a great place to be,” said Thorsen.

About Meredith Kerr

Meredith Kerr moved to St. Paul for a career in journalism and morning radio in 2014 expecting to stay for six months to a year. Since then, she has put down roots in the form of a husband, a mortgage, two babies, and a poorly behaved dog. She continues to work as a reporter until such time as she finishes her book and becomes fabulously wealthy from the royalties. Meredith also serves as a member at large on the St. Paul Library Board and volunteers as a Beaver leader for the 1st St. Paul Scout Group.