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Becoming an engineer - despite the odds


Norma Ramage, Calgary







Page 7

When pressed, Karen Decontie, P.Eng., admits it is sometimes difficult - and tiring - to be a role model.

Then she smiles and tells you that it is also important to her to tell other Native women about her work as a structural engineer, and to encourage them in pursuing their own career goals.

"It's very difficult for Native women," says the soft-spoken 27-year-old who works for Public Works Canada in Calgary. "I can give them encouragement and talk to them about some of the obstacles they will face."

Although she downplays the obstacles she herself faced, Decontie says her decision to become an engineer met with opposition not only from non-Natives but also from some of her own people on the Algonquin Reserve at Maniwaki, Que.

"When I decided to go to university to study engineering, the people at home asked me why I was doing it. They told me we didn't need engineers on the reserve and that I could never come back home to work.."

As she talks about the problems she faced, her voice remains quiet and composed. But it's not difficult to sense the strength and determination that helped her achieve success in a profession that isn't always easy for any woman, let alone a Native one.

"I think I always wanted to build things," she says. "I remember when I was six I told my Mom I wanted to be an architect."

She believes her interest in building things was a natural outgrowth of a family tradition of working in construction.

"My father and my uncles all worked in construction and in high steel work. And when I was growing up, I remember my Dad telling me that all the barns and warehouses on the reserve were built by my grandfather. And you know, no matter how much snow we got, none of those buildings ever collapsed."

Decontie knows the educational odds are stacked against Native women.

"I don't know what the figures are for Maniwaki, but someone told me not too long ago that one three per cent of women on reserves in Saskatchewan ever graduate from high school. I was shocked.

"I think it's harder for Native women than it is for Native men. One of the reasons is that in the past we had a culture imposed on us which discriminated against women and which encouraged Native men to discriminate against women."

However, she credits much of her own success to a very important woman, her mother, a qualified teacher and the first principal of the reserve school.

"My Mom has respect, she's the head of our home. She's a very independent woman who went to university and who told me I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough."

Her father, who owns his own construction business, also encouraged her to study engineering.

"I'm pretty stubborn," she said, her sudden smile lighting her face, "and usually when people put obstacles in my way that just makes me more determined. But my

Mom and Dad know the other side of me, the side that sometimes wants to give up. That's when they would get stubborn and ask me why I wanted to throw away all my hard work."

And it was hard work. It started when Decontie was 13 and she realized that to improve her chances of reaching university, she would have to finish high school in Ottawa, 140 kilometres away. For three years, she lived with her two brothers and "even riding a bus to school was a major culture shock for someone who had always walked."

She also came face-to-face with prejudice.

"The woman who ran my boarding house told me she usually didn't take Native girls as boarders because she thought they all got pregnant when they came to the city." She pauses and adds without inflection, "She made an exception for me."

Teachers and counsellors at her Ottawa high school "doubted" she would ever make it to university, she says.

"Then I got my marks back and they were right up there."

At the end of her first year in Ottawa she made the school's honor roll. Despite her high marks and her determination to succeed, she says now that it wasn't always easy.

"I thought about quiing. Once I even packed my suitcase and got on the bus to go home. But then I asked myself what I was going back to, and the answer was 'not much'."

When she graduated from high school with an 88.8 average, she still wasn't sure whether she wanted to be an engineer or an architect. She chose the former because "I was more into the math than the creative aspects, I think I made the right decision because I like building things. It's more concrete."

She applied to the University of Toronto, Queen's and McGill. All three accepted her, but she chose McGill because it was closer to home.

She remembers her days there with fondness, although she admits with a smile that "I was pretty centered on work." A year after she graduated, 14 women were gunned down at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

"I was shocked. When I was at McGill, the atmosphere was open and receptive to women." Nor did she encounter any professional or academic prejudice because she was a Native.

"Maybe it's because Montreal is such a cosmopolitan city, and because there were so many foreign students at the university from so many different cultures, I was never made to think about being a woman or being a Native."

Things were different when it came to summer jobs, as counsellors in government Native assistance programs tried to pressure her into accepting clerical jobs.

"I told them no way. I wanted to be an engineer and I wanted to do engineering work in the summer. I just went out and found my own jobs."

One such job with Public Works Canada led to her first position after graduation, working with the department in Hull, Quebec. Contacts made there resulted in a transfer to Calgary, to be dedicated to the Canadian Parks Service.

As a structural engineer, Decontie has built bridges on Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail and is now working on similar trail bridges in the mountain national parks. She also consults on structural work on a variety of Parks Canada buildings in Western Canada.

Sh s currently completing her master's degree in structural engineering at the University of Calgary "because I would like to stay in the technical field and because to design large structures today, you need a Master's degree."

She also spends more and more time acting as spokeswoman and role model for Native people. Her involvement started more by accident than from any plan on her part. People would call her up and ask her to speak to a group, and before long she was making presentations as far away as Newfoundland.

"That was last year when I was the keynote speaker at the Women in Science and Engineering Conference in Grand Falls/Windsor. That was a real honor."

When she participated in a recent career fair at a reserve near Hobbema, Alta., Ms. Decontie says "It was a very positive experience for me."

When the kids complained about the number of years of school it took to be an engineer, she told them, "in today's world, a high school education isn't going to get you the things you want out of life."

Talking to other Native people is a two-way street for Decontie. "When you grow up in a place like Maniwaki where your family has lived for thousands of years, you need to re-generate yourself by going back to those roots. I can't come home all the time, but I can re-charge myself by talking to Native people here. I need that support."

Once she completes her master's degree, it will be time for a hard look at where her career is going. Eventually she would like to move to Quebec, closer to Maniwaki.

"I have a piece of land on the reserve and I would like to have a home there. But I know I can't do that in the immediate future." She shrugs and adds, "That's OK, I have the career I want. I can adapt to living anywhere. I've had a lot of practise at adapting."

(Republished with permission of The PEGG, the monthly publication of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists & Geophysicists of Alberta).