Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Political Ecology
Sarah Hunt / Tłaliłila’ogwa, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation from the northern part of Vancouver Island, was raised locally on the Songhees Reservation in Lekwungen Territories. Hunt received his undergraduate degree from UVic and his doctorate from Simon Fraser University, before becoming a professor at UBC for five years. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Political Ecology at the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, a prestigious faculty position awarded to Canada’s best and brightest academics. Here she sits with The ring to discuss her research, coming home, and what it’s like to be a role model for the large number of Indigenous students who are changing the way universities operate across the country.
Q. In addition to being a teacher, you are also a UVic alumnus. What brought you back to the island?
A. Since completing my undergraduate studies at UVic, I have spent over two decades collaborating with the indigenous communities of Turtle Island. After working as a teacher at UBC for the past five years, I looked forward to returning home to the island so that I could work more closely with the island communities.
Q. What questions did you address in your research with Indigenous communities?
A. Most of my research has focused on various types of violence: systemic violence, interpersonal and gender-based violence, and environmental violence. This work has exposed the problems within Canada’s systems of law and governance, and the struggles we still have in trying to achieve justice for Indigenous peoples, be it issues of land titles, environmental decision, child protection or gender equality crisis. violence that has resulted in the murder of thousands of women and Two-Spirit people. Over the past several years I have kept this focus, but have deepened my engagement specifically with the Indigenous Nations of the Coast, so returning to UVic and the Island allows me to truly immerse myself in those coastal communities.
Q. Can you tell us more about your research chair?
A. In May, I started a professorship in environmental studies, as the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Political Ecology. These research chairs are awarded to academics who are carrying out innovative and potentially transformative work in their field. As an Indigenous woman, I feel particularly honored because very few CRCs in Canada have been awarded to Indigenous academics. Currently, Aboriginal people make up less than two percent of all CRCs in Canada.
In this new role, I will address justice issues from the perspective of the indigenous peoples of island nations — the Coast Salish, Nuu-Chah-Nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw. Our nations have always lived side by side and worked in relationship as they made decisions about our waters and lands, our fish and trees, and the well-being of our families.
Over the next five years, I will undertake collaborative research with people in island nations to take a closer look at how we understand justice from our culturally specific teachings and practices. In many of our teachings, we as coastal peoples understand that our lives are deeply intertwined with the well-being of the ocean, land, plants, fish, animals, and spirit world that exist on our territories.
We do not view them as resources or environments separate from us, but as living beings, or in some cases expressions of the same spirit that animates who we are as peoples. So the research that I am going to do will focus on these teachings in order to understand what it means to obtain justice for our people on our terms.
How does justice for our lands and waters relate to justice for the youth in our communities? How do we think about ending violence against women, when we understand that women’s lives are inseparable from our ancestral obligations to ocean life? These are big questions, and I am truly thrilled to have this opportunity to further immerse myself in the research that allows me to practice my culture, learn my language, and connect more deeply with people and places that I know. my ancestors have always known.
Q. How will you connect with Aboriginal students?
A. As an Indigenous teacher, I take my responsibility to Indigenous students very seriously. When I started my undergraduate studies at UVic in the 1990s, I only knew one Indigenous faculty member here: Lorna Williams from the Faculty of Education. Since then, the landscape of Indigenous faculty and students has changed dramatically. But universities can still be an intimidating place, and often a hostile place, for Indigenous students, community, and faculty. I try to make my classrooms places where Indigenous students are seen and heard, and where their realities are centered. I work closely with Indigenous graduate students to help them design graduate research that meets the needs of their own communities. I am also committed to supporting Indigenous student leadership and believe in the power of student resistance movements in transforming colonial institutions.
Q. What does it mean to be a role model?
A. Primarily, being a role model means leading by example. By this I mean that it is not enough for academics to talk about social change or write about justice issues – we have to put our bodies on the line and immerse ourselves in the struggles that concern our work.
For me that means coming forward and actively supporting community events related to struggles for land, as well as murdered and missing women and 2SQ people. It also means working in solidarity with struggles for racial justice, like Black Lives Matter, as well as housing justice, harm reduction and many other pressing issues of inequality that our communities face. I come to this job as an activist first, and then an academic, and I want to show young people that you don’t have to give up your activism or your culture to succeed in your studies. It is not easy, but it is possible, to devote yourself entirely to a job like this.
Q. What do you hope your research will lead to?
A. On a personal level, I hope that this coastal justice research will allow me to learn my Kwak’wala language and spend time in the Kwakwaka’wakw territories where my ancestors have always cultivated a sense of themselves by knowing intimately the ocean, shores and lands that support who we are as a people.
On a broader level, I hope to create space for us to change the way justice is spoken for indigenous peoples, both within our own communities and in environmental movements, conversations about climate change. , water governance and land rights. I hope that the research will reveal tools and resources for coastal peoples to deepen our expressions of self-determination both in daily life and in the governance of our territories, and to take important steps to create a more just future for our next generations. Ultimately, I hope to reduce the violence indigenous peoples face, by engaging in the resurgence of coastal philosophies and practices of justice with each other, our waters and lands, our neighbors and our parents.