Nathalie's Co-op with Environment Canada

Last Chances and First Opportunities

After two previous co-op positions not directly applicable to my field of study, I was determined to find a placement that not only would allow me to apply my environmental science background, but specifically my interest in policy and management.

As luck would have it, Environment Canada had an eight month posting as an Environmental Assessment (EA) Assistant with the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS). From a prior course I knew the basics of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) 2012. After two weeks of uncertainty post-interview, I received the email that I’d got the job.

On my first day I sat in on a weekly meeting consisting of all the EA team members.

I understood nothing.

EPOD, ADM, RDG, MAMU, WISA, SMC, TMX…were they speaking another language? It certainly felt that way. I had my notebook opened and pen prepped to take notes. I’m positive my pen spent the entire meeting frozen over the page that would remain empty for the duration of the meeting.

I sat there, confused, and probably with a blank look on my face. Was this what the next eight months were going to be? Sitting in meetings without the faintest idea what was going on? The job description had suited my interests perfectly, but I now found myself lost and confused.

That same week I sat at my desk with copies of CEAA 2012 and the Species at Risk Act in hand, in addition to other documents regarding the CWS mandate and the federal assessment process, and began to read. And I read and I read. I don’t remember specifics from my first month, but it involved a lot of background reading. Slowly and noticeably, the project names and acronyms began to make sense. By the third week I was able to follow the gist of each meeting, and asked whenever a term was used that I was unfamiliar with.

It was a steep learning curve. I wasn’t fully comfortable with the language until two months in, and even now in my eighth month am consistently coming across new terms, policies, and processes that I need to research before continuing with my work.

I’ve created a tracking sheet for projects, templates for process issues, kept minutes for meetings, and, to my delight, have worked on three separate assessments undergoing the federal process; one of which I’m the CWS lead on.

As I described at the beginning of this post, my last two placements weren’t really applicable to my degree, more related to health science and marketing research. In all honesty, I was starting to get worried that I’d graduate and still have no clue about where I wanted to focus my efforts in terms of a career. This placement was the answer I’d been waiting for. I enjoy working in EA, and want to continue in this profession after graduating. Until I saw the job posting I would have never imagined that EA was my job of choice. Upon reflection, my position as an environmental assessment officer compiles my interest of ecology, policy and management, and data analysis, and I could not have asked for a better final co-op placement.

I’ll be open; EA isn’t for everyone. Even while studying the act as a student, in courses which barely scratch the surface of CEAA 2012, it’s clear that the process isn’t perfect. Recurring issues include difficulties prioritizing, tight timelines, a specific language to use, and getting caught up for months at a time on one comment that a federal body made at some point in the review process. There are professionals with the opposite opinion of yours that you need to work and communicate with, and there’s lots of pushback from individuals at many points in the process. You must be willing to work in conflict with individuals and groups, which is a trait not many people want with their job.

That being said, it’s what I want to continue doing. This is the only way for a project’s potential effects to be reviewed, and both my studies and this job have reinforced how crucial it is to use science-based evidence in decision making.

The two courses that really laid the groundwork for pushing me in the direction of EA was ENV/REM 321 “Ecological Economics”, and Rem 356 “Institutions in Sustainable Management”. These two courses provide the framework for Canadian economics and legislation with examples that focus on current environmental issues, such as carbon taxes and federal project assessments.  REM 321 made me realize that I had an interest in social science in addition to ecology, and REM 356 was the course that solidified my interest in management and legislation.

Working at CWS has also benefited my volunteering opportunities. Through a co-worker I became involved with a citizen science group called WildResearch, which bands and monitors local songbird populations. I had been looking for this type of volunteer activity for some time, and would not have found it had I not been working at CWS.

My final words: don’t panic. Don’t rush. In my sixth year of university I finally found what I want to do. I had been stressing over the fact that everyone around me seemed to know exactly what job they wanted, and had already had co-op or other job experience doing so. And now, in my last year at SFU, I can say the same.