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Secwèpemc woman adept at kicking down doors

Dawn McGrath is used to solving problems

As the first Secwèpemc woman to work towards her doctorate in civil engineering, Dawn McGrath has been kicking down doors all her life.

Her journey in leadership and mentoring began when she was five years old. Both she and her brother were told they were being built for leadership.

“You look at us in our industries and then our education and our contributions back to our community at Canim Lake as Tsq’escen’ people,” she said. “We’ve definitely filled those big shoes.”

Her brother has his certification in environmental management with a registered professional forester designation, and McGrath is doing her PhD in civil engineering. “We definitely carried the inspiration of the way we lived right through to our work.”

McGrath grew up in a cabin without running water or power.

“You grow up packing water and using outhouses and relying on little propane lamps and wood stoves. Yeah, you definitely start to appreciate the infrastructure and the utilities and the systems around you.”

She recalls playing outside and walking along lake shores, watching creek falls growing up. “That was my passion,” she said. “I would be like ‘Go do that.’ We had a little trap line after school we would go check, so we understood our area and our land base and stuff. We enjoyed it, my brother and I.”

But the path that led her to go into civil engineering began with her dad’s contracting business, she said. The siblings started running the machinery, dump trucks and backhoes at quite a young age.

“It was a family business. Everybody pitched in,” she said. “And at the end of the day, when you can see what you built, there’s a reward to that. There’s a sense of accomplishment. There’s a sense of pride.”

McGrath is currently part of a cohort at UBC Okanagan working on their PhDs.

“We are the very first cohort doing a doctorate in civil engineering in Canada as Indigenous people. When you’re talking about kicking down those doorways and opening up opportunities for those who are coming behind us, you’re damn straight I’ll do that. Every day, all day long.”

As a female minority, going into a male-dominated industry was a challenge. What she learned by coming through the challenges, however, was that if you do the work, you earn the respect. “They become your biggest allies, your biggest supporters and they are your biggest mentors.

“Once there is understanding that you’re going to work alongside them and you’re there to do the work, you’re not there as a token statistic. All of a sudden, that tide shifts and you’re embraced, and it’s because of the work that we were able to do collectively within the region. You know, throughout my career you build your reputation, and don’t squander that.”

When asked if she thinks women need to grow a thicker skin to work in such an environment, McGrath said that first and foremost a person needs to look at the career, whether they are a man or a woman. Is it a good fit?

”Do you have the physical and mental ability to do the job the same as a counterpart? Because if you don’t, then don’t enter that industry,” she said. “You’re gonna have a really tough go and not only that, you’re putting other people’s safety and well-being at risk.”

She said it is not just about gender, but about capability and capacity, and that a lot of people forget that in the conversation.

“I’ve driven logging trucks, I’ve done power pole climbing for BC Hydro. I’ve worked on highway projects, done paving, worked in paving plants. You get all kinds of different personalities. Part of the resilience factor isn’t about whether you need a thicker skin or not, it’s can you adapt to different personalities that surround you, do you have that mental threshold?”

McGrath noted that not all men who show up on job sites are going to be hard on you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to expect the same output in production or work ethic.

Depending on the industry, she does not see it as being an issue of male- or female-dominated as much these days; it is more what is available and what is coming available and what school programming supports those gaps. Looking at trends and statistics, education, trades and technology and STEM professions are crying for people.

For jobs that require light physical work and heavy mental work, any person can show up who possesses good problem-solving and critical thinking skills and develop themselves in their career.

As long as an individual has the ability and willingness to work, and is paired with a good mentor who is willing to teach, they should succeed, she believes.

“I think the expectation has definitely shifted where you’re not so scrutinized.”

She added that “I’ve just been really fortunate. With my mentoring from my dad and our family business, and the way that we work together, inequality was not a factor in my mindset.”

Another area in which McGrath is seeing change is within government legislation and administrative processes, both of which are slower-moving tools and are not meant to keep up with industry, she said.

“And they certainly aren’t meant to adapt to emergency response timeframes. When we’re in the field doing real time response, those legislation changes from 2017 are just hitting the frontlines here last year.”

There is no fault to be found with those sitting at those tables, she said. They are getting fed the information from the frontlines and do know what the changes are that have to come forward. They understand about collaborative approaches and collective work engagements. They understand more of a land-based decision-making process.

“The antiquated industrial economic model is something of history that we’re gonna see go by the wayside. But the reality is we’ve got 50 to 60 years to catch up, and people are expecting that done in a two, three-year work plan,” said McGrath. “That’s not realistic.”

Part of the solution is taking a look at what the challenge has been, then adapting to it and reducing some of the burdens on decision making. Historically, Indigenous communities never had a seat at the table.

“As Indigenous communities, we are very fortunate to be sitting in a seat now where we can kind of direct and influence not only our own community response, but the region surrounding us as well, and advocate on behalf of municipalities and RCOs and regional districts and really take on a lot of that advocacy work from a place of knowing and being,” she said.

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Fiona Grisswell

About the Author: Fiona Grisswell

I graduated from the Writing and New Media Program at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George in 2004.
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