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University of Manitoba’s Wawatay Program hopes to inspire young Indigenous scientists

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A new program at the University of Manitoba will produce Indigenous scientists and allow Indigenous students to support health, environment, technology and industry in their communities.

The Wawatay Program will provide support for Indigenous students to take a science curriculum identical to non-Indigenous students while incorporating their traditions, knowledge, and values.

Its goal is to see Indigenous scientists doing research and working across the province.

“Indigenous students will be working with me directly as well as other scholars to build their portfolio. Research by the students can be turned into an undergraduate thesis or a graduate dissertation,” said Dennis Ballard, Wawatay Program Lead on Tuesday.

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“Students will be doing active research and collaboration with their communities. Any problems they have with their academia or personal life, they will be working with me to overcome it.”

Introduced through the Faculty of Science, the program connects Indigenous students to the industry and other possible avenues of employment beyond their education.

Ballard is working with Manitoba First Nations and Indigenous education authorities to identify students and communities who are willing to participate in the program and conduct research within the community.

“The research will be identified by the community to determine their needs whether it be water, soil, air quality, vegetation or fish,” said Ballard.

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“Students will be able to do research for the community in the community. The idea behind that is so they are able to maintain their family and community network.”

Ballard noted that moving to a large city is a big transition for many Indigenous students. Due to this, the program aims to create a close cohort with students living in the U of M residence or nearby the campus.

Wawatay is the Anishinaabe word for the Northern lights. Its name was given by U of M professor and Indigenous Scholar, Dr. Myrle Ballard, who also happens to be Ballard’s wife.

“Whenever I am up north I always look at the Northern lights and think of the past, present and how it connects to the future. It encompasses everything, our ancestors leading a path and being with us the entire time,” said Ballard.

The program is expected to be ready by the summer of 2021. Students will undergo a six-week orientation where they will be assessed for their knowledge of math, chemistry, physics and biology, and their computer skills.

The purpose of the orientation is to develop their leadership, emotional, diversity and entrepreneurial skills.

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Ballard hopes to recruit 10 students for next year’s program. Once students complete the program, they will be enrolled in the U of M’s Faculty of Science as full-term students.

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Nicole Wong is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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