Remote communities have always faced unique challenges that people in Canada’s urban south mostly take for granted. In the absence of grid connection in some communities, it’s not always as simple as flipping a switch to turn on the lights, or running hot shower, or tossing a head of lettuce into a shopping cart.

Now add to that COVID-19. Serving as a wakeup call, the pandemic underscores the vulnerabilities of living in remote areas and points to the need for greater self-reliance in energy, water, and food.

A good starting point to tackle these issues is to build understanding. So a new collaboration between B.C.’s Simon Fraser University (SFU) and Ontario’s University of Waterloo launched a groundbreaking study this January to qualitatively and quantitatively evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on remote Canadian communities.

“Specifically, we’re studying how the pandemic has accelerated the need for clean energy, water and food sovereignty in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” says Sami Khan, Assistant Professor, School of Sustainable Energy Engineering, SFU.

Khan and the other principal researchers—Waterloo’s Dr. Xiaoyu Wu in collaboration with Dr. Yildiz Atasoy and Dr. Zafar Adeel—decided to add some firepower for conducting the study’s secondary and primary research. So Khan connected with ICTC’s WIL Digital Regional Coordinator for Western Canada, Cheryl Serpanchy, to arrange for the hiring of a student.

“We advertised the position, got a lot of applicants, and selected a student with a unique background in chemistry and art history,” he says.

In January, SFU onboarded Megan Mezera. Her dual degree in Art History and Chemistry made her ideally suited for the work, which combines the disciplines of science and humanities.

“One of the interesting preliminary findings is that sustainable energy technologies, such as solar and wind, despite finding success in suburban environments, don’t necessarily translate to remote communities,” Mezera says.

“Not only do they have to ensure ease of operation and maintenance, but they need acceptance from the communities. As a result, these technologies must be evaluated through a perspective of community acceptance and take a whole-systems approach for remote communities.”

Mezera’s strong performance to date in her role has already earned her an internship extension till the end of April, with the possibility of another extension running into the summer.

“Megan has been doing secondary research mostly, so a lot of data collection. It’s uncharted territory when it comes to evaluating the impact of a global pandemic, but governments have databases with relevant information,” Khan notes. “At the same time, she is evaluating clean energy technologies and considering how to give each type a COVID-19 ranking based on ease of adoption, the speed at which it can be deployed, and suitability for specific communities.”

The next phase of the study is collecting firsthand information through direct interviews with members in remote communities and compiling that with other collected data. Khan encouraged Megan to take advantage of the WIL Digital Artificial Intelligence course included within the WIL program. Megan has already found some of the learnings from this course useful during her internship to sort and analyze complex datasets.

Additionally, Megan has been learning how to create vector graphics and scientific illustrations digitally. Some examples of these visuals include creating a map of Canada, highlighting remote communities where solar power has been implemented and flowsheets to show the supply chain of goods to remote communities.

What has been particularly empowering for Mezera is the principal researchers’ approach to this project. Khan has stepped back and let the students facilitate important discussions that lead to a synthesis of opinions.

“[The students] have done a very good job of that,” Khan says. “They’ve come up with an agenda and are working towards a conclusion with the end goal of actually publishing this research. They have taken phenomenal ownership of the project and lead the show in our meetings!”


WIL Digital provides employers a 75 percent wage subsidy, up to $7,500 dollar, and now includes five in-demand micro-learning specializations to further help employers up their technology game. Learn more about ICTC’s WIL Digital here.

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