Open Your Mind: An interview with MES student Jessica Lukawiecki

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Jessica Lukawiecki, a second-year Master in Environmental Studies (MES) student in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.

Lukawiecki has focused her graduate studies on leading a research project at the David Suzuki Foundation – in collaboration with the Council of Canadians and with advisors including the Assembly of First Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – to publish a report on First Nations drinking water in Ontario documenting the progress made on the federal government’s commitment to ending drinking water advisories across the country within five years.

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. I have just completed a research project titled Glass Half Empty with the David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians that investigates the state of First Nations drinking water in Ontario. The report measures some of the progress that has been made in lifting First Nations Drinking Water Advisories (DWAs) in Ontario, following the Liberal government commitment to end all First Nations DWAs across Canada within five years.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. I owe a lot of my early interest in environmentalism to my parents, and to a couple of teachers I had early on. In junior school, I started a club called “Animals in Nature.” We had five members and spent our recess picking up litter on school grounds and having bake sales to raise money for elephants in Africa. A lot of my friends still laugh at me for being quite a nerd in those days, but I’m proud of the work we did as very young activists.

I became involved with the David Suzuki Foundation as a result of one of my professors at York, Faisal Moola, who is also the Ontario director for the organization. When the course was done, Faisal invited me to volunteer with the organization, which later turned into a six-month contract for the completion of a report on First Nations Drinking Water in Ontario. I’ve gained incredibly valuable mentors at the David Suzuki Foundation since getting involved, including Rachel Plotkin and Alaya Boisvert. Their hard work and passion for tackling complex environmental issues continue to inspire me.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. Many First Nations continue to experience chronic water issues, even when their neighboring municipalities enjoy access to clean, safe and reliable drinking water. In Ontario alone, there were 81 DWAs in place in 44 First Nations as of November 2016. The province claims the highest number of First Nation DWAs in the country.

The current Liberal government made a campaign promise to resolve all long-term First Nations Drinking Water Advisories (DWAs) within five years, and at the David Suzuki Foundation, we wanted to monitor what progress has been made on this issue. Data were compiled from interviews, meetings, conferences, reports and media releases in order to assess some of the progress and challenges that First Nations experience in attaining clean and safe drinking water. I used this data to assess the likelihood of whether nine First Nations across Ontario with long-term DWAs would have their advisory lifted within the committed time frame. First Nations were selected using Health Canada’s list of DWAs and by reaching out to communities through their Tribal Councils, or by building on existing relationships.

Based on our assessment, only three First Nations that we assessed are on track or have had their DWA lifted (in ‘Communities Surveyed in Ontario’ diagram, this is depicted as ‘glass full’); in three First Nations, efforts are underway but there is continued uncertainty about whether the DWA will be lifted within the five-year commitment (glass half empty); and for three First Nations, unless current processes and procedures are reformed, it is unlikely the DWA will be lifted within the committed time frame (glass empty).

Based on our research, we also came up with a number of recommendations for addressing some of the major barriers to progress when it comes to resolving First Nations DWAs. These include working with First Nations to streamline and simplify the process for capital investments in water infrastructure; supporting First Nations-led approaches to drinking water that recognize the leadership of First Nations; and increasing federal transparency and reporting of budget spending and progress toward ending long-term DWAs in First Nations (among others – see full report for more).

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. The report is a unique collaboration with input from environmental and human rights organizations, First Nations government, the provincial government, the private sector and the media. It brings together many voices on the drinking water issue in Ontario, to paint a picture of the major challenges and barriers to progress that both First Nations and the government experience in the provision of clean, safe drinking water.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. The report provides advocacy on the issue of First Nations drinking water and strives to hold the federal government accountable to their promise of lifting all long-term DWAs on First Nations within five years. It provided an opportunity for many First Nation voices to be heard, both through the report itself and also through the press conference that was held in Ottawa upon release of the report. A number of First Nation chiefs and individuals travelled to Ottawa for the press conference to participate in a water ceremony on the Hill and to speak at the press conference, which was attended by a number of media outlets.

I hope that the 12 recommendations we have made will also provide some support to the work that is currently taking place to resolve long-term DWAs in First Nations across Canada.

The report received widespread media attention from the CBC, CTV, Global and the Globe and Mail, among others.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. It was very exciting to learn how much success First Nations-led approaches are having in addressing individual drinking water issues in Ontario. For instance, the Safe Water Project is an Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)-funded but First Nations-led approach to resolving drinking water issues for First Nations which functions by investing in people first. This means investing in the operations, management and training side of drinking water issues. The logic behind the project is that it is not enough to simply invest in infrastructure for First Nations, or to use a one size fits all approach. Projects need to be tailored to individual First Nations, and there must be people in place who know how to maintain water infrastructure in a way that is sustainable.

Since the project started, three of the four chronic DWAs in communities involved in the project have been lifted. The project was recently approved by INAC for expansion to a further 14 First Nations. We were thrilled to have representatives of the project join us in Ottawa in this month for the release of the report.

One of the highlights of the entire project was standing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in -15 C weather my coworkers and two First Nations women as we participated in a water ceremony. We held a press conference later that day for the release of the report, which was attended by a number of First Nations chiefs and individuals. Their stories brought the research to life, as they shared their own personal experiences with unsafe drinking water to the press.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. I think the hardest part of the research journey was getting started. As a new researcher, you really don’t feel like you have the authority to be interviewing First Nations, government officials and many other people who are already established in their field. It can be daunting making those first calls or going to those first meetings. My philosophy has become to take the jump and trust that your experiences so far will enable you to stand on your own two feet.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. Working on this paper has made me realize how much I enjoy project-based work in the environmental field. I hope to continue to develop my skills, especially as a quantitative researcher, so that I can eventually work in environmental policy and economics.

Jessica Lukawiecki on Parliament Hill on Feb. 9 for the press release of the report with the rest of the team from the David Suzuki Foundation

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Absolutely. As I have heard repeated many times, water is life – there is no part of life that is not touched by water. It is the most simple of truths. Every person needs clean water in order to live healthy, safe and fulfilling lives.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Definitely. With environmental research there is so much going on, it’s hard not to get pulled in too many different directions. Right now my focus is on water, but I’m also interested in environmental toxicity, climate change and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Q. Are you involved with teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. No – have you heard of anyone hiring???

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. As a new researcher, you feel like you’re not qualified to be doing the work that you’re doing – I’ve heard it referred to as the ‘imposter syndrome.’ My advice is to just pretend until you’re not pretending anymore. I’m not sure that I’ve hit that point yet, but I expect it’s coming soon.

Q. Why did you choose York to pursue your graduate studies?

A. York’s Master in Environmental Studies program allowed me the flexibility and freedoms to pursue my interests, wherever they took me. The program is truly interdisciplinary at its heart, and students are encouraged to seek out opportunities that might not be available at other schools – although admittedly, you have to be pretty committed and resilient to find these opportunities.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.

A. I grew up in Toronto, and most of my family and best friends are still here. I love the city, but I’m always eager to get outside – whether it’s going for a bike ride, getting away for the weekend or going on a trip. Active living and healthy eating are incredibly important to me. I believe that experiences are more important than things. I have strong environmental values and I believe that the natural world is intrinsically valuable in a way that cannot be quantified. We cannot fathom what we are losing when we degrade our natural spaces and wipe entire species from the globe. We cannot understand the future we are committing to when we allow problems like climate change to run rampant. I have heard that the environmental field is a losing battle, but it’s one that I am willing to fight regardless because at the end of the day I want to know that I was part of the resistance. I want to be able to say that I tried.

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. Just under a year now.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. Chelsea Handler’s documentary series on Netflix, Chelsea.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I love to read and write, enjoy spending time with family and friends, and am hoping to do more outdoor activities when it warms up, like hiking, sailing and camping.

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