Courtesy of Anne Johnson

If Anne Johnson – assistant professor in the Department of Mining at Queen’s University – has a singular passion, it is encouraging attitudes of humility and openness to learning about different cultures, or “intercultural competence,” among the undergraduate and graduate mining engineers she helps prepare for work and life beyond university. Johnson – who has degrees in art history and computing science, a master’s in tertiary education with a specialization in teaching sustainability to mining engineering students, and a PhD in mining engineering – teaches a fourth-year sustainability course at the university, but says “cultural agility” is integrated into the program by talking about the social and environmental implications of mining in engineering courses. She spoke with CIM Magazine about why this particular set of skills is so important and how adding them to the resumes of aspiring engineers can benefit the projects they work on. 

CIM: How is intercultural competence relevant to the world of engineering?

Johnson: Intercultural competence is a suite of knowledge, attitudes and skills – the whole package – across the intellectual learning domain. As engineering educators, we’re very good at helping our students develop knowledge and skills, but we’re less familiar with helping students develop attitudes that will serve them throughout their careers. Some might believe that shaping attitudes has to do with one’s political leanings or religious values, but it’s much different than that. The mining engineering department is concerned about recognizing that there is difference among people in how they approach the same problem. We have to encourage students to hold off on judgment until they have heard and understood the perspectives of other people. 

CIM: Why is this an important skill to develop?

Johnson: It’s important now because engineering disciplines function less as silos. Civil engineers do some things that geological engineers do or mining engineers do or chemical engineers do. When we work with disciplines outside engineering, from development studies or geology, we can run into even more problems communicating. And then when we work with communities that are culturally different from our own, we have the potential to misunderstand each other. We sometimes don’t even have the same vocabulary, ascribing different meaning to the same words, and our value systems may not be the same. So we can work with great effort and good intentions but at cross-purposes if we don’t have intercultural competence.

CIM: How do these potential conflicts play out with Indigenous community partners?

Johnson: If I’m building a mine and I’ve done all my due diligence and I know my construction techniques are very good, I know my risk mitigation is very good, and statistically the likelihood of a tragedy occurring is infinitesimally low, I’m happy with that as an engineer. But the community where I’m trying to build this mine looks at the world very differently. They don’t look at the world through a lens of statistics; they look at an individual place. They need to have you understand how they look at that place and the harms you may be bringing. If you’re looking at the world in an intercultural way, you’ll understand that a statistical analysis is key to your work but that your partner will need the problem or project analyzed from a different perspective.

CIM: You juxtapose the idea of intercultural competence with a “mono-cultural mindset.” How can maintaining a mono-cultural mindset be detrimental to a mining project?

Johnson: We’ve seen this in the recent failures of certain pipeline projects to be approved. A mono-cultural mindset is when you only see and interpret the world through your own eyes. Those of us who have had the privilege of being trained in the sciences and technology have a lot of skills that have served the world very well. We’ve built infrastructure that has improved standards of living and eliminated disease, and we can be very confident in our approach. But it’s not the only approach. And we run into difficulties if we restrict our vision only to a scientific, statistically based, regulatory framework-based approach to potential harms and how others perceive those harms.

CIM: What role does trust play in getting these projects approved?

Johnson: There’s a lot of research that shows that trust is very important in how people perceive risk. Intercultural competence is critical in building trust because it’s hard to trust someone if you have the sense that they’re not making a genuine effort to hear your perspective. It’s something we can all, as humans, intuitively sense, and you can’t just use public relations to smooth it over. Social license is an ongoing process, a relationship, rather than a single permission.


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CIM: What you’re describing requires a shift in thinking. A lot of the broader public understanding about things like building pipelines is very transactional – “we have a plan and we’ll give you money, so what’s the problem?” Do you find that a lot of students also share that perspective?

Johnson: Mining is difficult because it does offer the ability for communities to really build their local economies in ways that are culturally affirming, including schools that support their young people and promote their language. But some communities might say “there isn’t a way for us to see this project as an appropriate fit for our culture.” And that’s something the industry has a hard time with. I’m working on a new pilot project to measure intercultural competence, including the ability to deal with difference, otherness, ambiguity, and I hope it will show us where mining students are in their abilities. We’re looking to add opportunities to the curriculum so students can see how their decisions are perceived and ensure they’re able to make adjustments that may be needed.

CIM: Can you give me an example of how intercultural competence has been woven into your curriculum?

Johnson: In our very first mining course, we always take our students to Timmins, where we take them to a reclamation site and introduce them to Indigenous elders. Martin Millen and Mary Boyden of the Anishanaabe Maamwaye Aki Kiigayewin Institute explain how Indigenous people see natural resources as spiritually important. Students learn about the water and the medicines that are extracted from plants in the area. They explain concerns that students might not recognize – like if there’s dust coming up from an open pit and it lands in the area where these medicines grow. Generally, we get a couple of students rolling their eyes at the idea that rocks have souls but most are very intrigued.

CIM: Do you have any exercises that are particularly effective?

Johnson: I work with my university’s Indigenous organization, which is called the Four Directions Centre, and I have long had an educator named Laura Marical come into my classes and provide something called cultural safety training – which was developed in the health care system to help doctors, nurses and other practitioners work more respectfully with their Indigenous patients. One of the activities we do is the KAIROS blanket exercise. The students are given small artifacts, and then they spread themselves out over blankets that represent North America at the time of European contact. I get in touch with my obnoxious European ancestors who arrived in the 1600s and I come in announcing my God given right to the land. As the exercise goes on, I isolate them, I take their children and I bring disease. Students begin by laughing – it’s a bit of dress-up and it’s entertaining – but very quickly, it becomes quite solemn. Part of the exercise involves reading the thoughts of people who were subjected to these harms, it uses names and it talks about families, and I think that’s really powerful. We make it about individuals, and I think that’s a key way into intercultural competence.

CIM: How can these interventions make for better engineers?

Johnson: Intercultural competence allows engineers to work better with each other and various stakeholders in order to draw out different ideas about potential solutions – whether it’s at home in a country that’s becoming more amazingly diverse or in different countries around the world. It opens eyes a little wider and gives you better situational awareness, which is the key argument for making it part of the engineer’s toolbox. It prepares you to accept input that you might not have thought of on your own. If there are better solutions, why on earth would we not want to be open to that? It’s clear that students know that mining has caused harm in the past but that it’s getting better and they want to be leaders and they want to be responsible. That gives me great hope.