March 1, 2008
By Dennis Martel
To spend a day with Merv Dewasha, P. Eng. is to bear witness to the vast panorama of his life's journey. It's quickly evident that he has experienced much and taken a few risks along the way.
To spend a day with Merv Dewasha, P. Eng. is to bear witness to the vast panorama of his life’s journey. It’s quickly evident that he has experienced much and taken a few risks along the way.
Since 1971 when he graduated in civil engineering from Queen’s University, he has established himself as a leader in developing First Nations’ abilities to maintain and govern their own communities.
In the process he became president of the Canadian Aboriginal Science and Engineering Association, and in 1996, courtesy of the Chretien government, he took a side trip to Istanbul, Turkey where he participated in the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements.
Merv is an unassuming man but he commands attention. At any meeting, he can be found huddled in conversation with a group of people. Hardly remarkable, until one notices that the group will expand and contract but never disappear. People want to talk to Merv, and he is pleased to comply.
As a member of the Mohawk Nation who grew up on the Wahta reserve near Orillia in central Ontario, Merv has had to swim against the tide at times. In 1969 he became one of the first Aboriginal students to volunteer for Canada’s “Indian, Inuit Recruitment Development” program.
It was an exceptional decision for that time. In 1969, very few Canadian Aboriginal students had enrolled in post-secondary education. Leaving home for university was brave — but to aim for engineering’s iron ring seemed foolhardy. Yet Merv succeeded and became a Canadian rarity: a First Nation civil engineer.
Set for life himself, he soon realized that First Nations lacked the technical expertise necessary to provide engineering services within their own communities. He has since worked to encourage youth to attend college and university. He also pursues the government relentlessly to make them provide adequate funding for this to happen.
Serious challenges remain, but Merv has met with some success and he sees hope as Aboriginal youth become more educated. They are the answer for First Nations and they could provide Canada with the skilled workforce necessary to fill jobs abandoned by a population of aging baby boomers.
By 2003, needing a respite from the all-consuming world of Aboriginal politics, Merv joined the consulting engineering firm Neegan Burnside in Orangeville, Ontario as vice-president of Aboriginal business development. Today he is the company’s chief executive officer.
Merv knows instinctively that a skilled Aboriginal middle class could resolve many of the economic hardships plaguing their communities. So addressing the challenge of education remains his passion. By offering sound employment to qualified Aboriginal candidates, and by providing internships and mentoring, he believes he can create professionals who will be tomorrow’s leaders.
Long ago, First Nation leaders believed that attempting to straddle the European and First Nation worlds was foolish. However, Merv believes there are not two worlds — at least from an engineering perspective. He says, “Aboriginals in the Americas have been building things for millennia. I’m not straddling two worlds I’m just urging my people to assume their rightful place in the one they inhabit now.”
Dennis Martel is a consultant to First Nations and governments based in Toronto.