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Putting the North into Northern Research

Everyone agrees that indigenous people should be more involved in Arctic research. However, there are still few indigenous researchers. Erin Freeland Ballantyne, a founder and the dean of the Dechinta Bush University in Yellowknife, N.T., is trying to change that.

Written by Julia Rosen Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

Like many researchers, Erin Freeland Ballantyne had a set of questions she wanted to investigate during her PhD. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford – the first from northern Canada – Freeland Ballantyne planned to study the role played by climate change in negotiations over oil and gas developments in the Canadian Arctic. She headed to Fort Good Hope, 800km (500 miles) northwest of her hometown of Yellowknife, to find some answers.

But she soon found that the issues on her agenda weren’t the ones that mattered most to locals. The residents of Fort Good Hope were more worried about how the combined forces of climate change and development would affect the health and future of their community – and the environment on which it depends.

The experience struck Freeland Ballantyne, a northerner of non-indigenous ancestry, as an example of how northern perspectives are often marginalized in academia. Northern people know which questions researchers should ask about the changing Arctic, but their voices often go unheard, in part, because of the systemic barriers they face in accessing post-secondary education.

The experience led Freeland Ballantyne to found Dechinta, a research and educational institute set in the remote wilds of the Northwest Territories. Dechinta’s courses are accredited by McGill University and the universities of Alberta and British Columbia, and include a minor in indigenous governance and native studies. Freeland Ballantyne hopes Dechinta will one day become the first degree-granting institution in the Canadian North.

She spoke with Arctic Deeply about how Dechinta can help northern people take the lead in Arctic research and governance.

Arctic Deeply: How did your PhD experience change your perspective on the relationship between researchers and indigenous people?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: It really reminded me of a critical lesson that I had been taught as a child, which is that when you are in the presence of an elder, you are there to listen. They have things to teach you and they are going share stories that you need to hear. In academia, you are trained to investigate and to ask questions. But there needs to be space for building relationships and building trust.

In my PhD, there were so many situations where I knew nothing. And because of that, I was able to see things in a different way and be reminded of a more respectful way to learn. With community research, you have to relax and recognize that those things take time.

Arctic Deeply: You have said before that there is a lot of science embedded in traditional knowledge. Can you explain what you mean?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: Colonization has done a really good job of teaching settlers and non-indigenous people that indigenous people don’t have systems of knowledge and governance and science, when the opposite is actually true. There’s a really deep history of science and experimentation and innovation. I use the example of making a sealskin kayak – that’s a scientific process, everything from the chemistry of how to work with the hides and dry them properly to how to build a boat that’s engineered to cut through big waves and not be cut by the ice.

We use a lot of very negative language to describe indigenous history. We grow up learning to talk about it as primitive or backward. The root of it is that our systems of education and teaching are still incredibly racist at their core. There are still ways we think about indigenous people that are really ingrained and that people don’t question.

Arctic Deeply: Given that rich well of knowledge, why do you think more indigenous people haven’t become involved in research in the Canadian Arctic?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: There’s very little encouragement for them and us non-indigenous northerners to do so. The barriers to entry are that, generally, research and academic institutions are incredibly colonial, racist spaces. If you happen to make it in there, it’s an inhospitable environment for indigenous students.

For example, there’s been a lot of interesting research showing the burden that’s put on indigenous students. They are often the lone indigenous student in an indigenous studies course taught by a white professor. They are constantly put on the spot because they happen to be the token indigenous student.

And the systemic barriers – once people are in the academy – are also huge. You have to be really far away from family, and often, you can’t afford to bring all of your children with you. The ways that research and academic institutions are organized are not responsive to indigenous and northern realities.

Arctic Deeply: How does Dechinta differ from traditional higher education?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: The primary thing that’s different about Dechinta is that it was purpose-designed. We sat down with hundreds of young people and elders and people who had dropped out of school and people who had completed degrees down south and we said, “OK, what are the barriers to succeeding in post-secondary and what does the ideal northern, indigenous post-secondary look like?” And then we designed the program based on those ideals.

A fundamental thing at Dechinta is that it’s family-inclusive. Whether you have one kid or four kids or no kids, it’s the same price to come because we provide child care. We provide awesome outdoor kid-led de-schooling that’s rooted in culture and practice. There’s a lot of intergenerational learning happening and you are out on the land. We also have a rich faculty of incredible indigenous professors, which is really exciting because most people have never had an indigenous teacher.

We hear from our faculty that Dechinta is the safest space they’ve ever taught in. We keep the cohorts really small and make sure that students have really good support. You can’t spend a whole class talking about the history of colonization and residential schools, and not have ongoing support and discussion about it – the students are survivors of residential schools, or intergenerational survivors.

Arctic Deeply: Dechinta offers land-based education in the Canadian Arctic. Can you explain what that is?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: Land-based education, for us, means that 99 percent of the learning happens outside. You are physically carrying out processes and practices that have within them the lessons that we are trying to teach, that link to the literature and the readings that we’re doing. For example, in our governance course, we hunt moose, and then we work on tanning the hides and making things from them.

It’s a process of leadership training. How do you make decisions, how do you decide where to go, what elders do you speak to or have with you, and how do you know where the moose will be? There’s a lot of ecological, biological and environmental knowledge – and there’s also a lot of political knowledge, in terms of making decisions.

Every one of these processes has really specific lessons that can be drawn out of it and that help build the foundation of what self-determination looks like. Governance is not just sitting in a building and debating a law. What does governance look like in my day-to-day life?

Arctic Deeply: How do you think Arctic research will change if people like your students start to take the lead?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: I think there’ll be a total revolution in Arctic research if indigenous and northern people start to take the lead. They have a drive and passion because they live here and die here. They ask the critical questions because they have a depth of knowledge that people from the south – who have lots of passion and commitment – don’t necessarily have the experience to ask. But that voice, historically, has been glaringly absent.

Now, more and more of us are going out, earning PhDs and doing really transformative research. Then we’re coming back and pushing to create space in the community for research, and saying that the northern voice is critical. Northern voices should be leading northern policy and research, and can do so in good partnership with the south and other partners.

Without these voices, we are going to miss the most essential questions.

Arctic Deeply: Can you give an example of a project your students have done?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: At the end of the every semester, students go back and they can do research projects in their communities. We had two young men from the Tlicho region, Mason Mantla and George Bailey, who were interested in the challenges around sexual health and domestic violence. They created video workshops in their communities, doing research and creating conversations.

That was six years ago. Now, Mason is the community lead for the Tlicho Research Institute, and he continues to partner with other researchers to produce films, interventions and research about sexual health and domestic violence. They are presenting their methodology at international conferences and supporting other indigenous communities to use it.

Our alumni have received a lot of recognition for the work that they’re doing. Our politicians and people see that land-based education works to transform people to achieve goals that before they didn’t think were possible.

Arctic Deeply: What is your vision for the future of the Arctic in which the people who live there play a bigger role?

Erin Freeland Ballantyne: Our mission at Dechinta is for sustainable, self-determining, healthy northern communities. We want thriving communities where Arctic innovation and sustainability lead the rest of the world.

For us, it starts with the transformation of post-secondary education. Our vision is a network of land-based university programs, nation to nation to nation, all across the north in Canada and beyond, forming a circumpolar Arctic network of land-based learning where indigenous knowledge is at the forefront of knowledge creation and research. From that stems indigenous Arctic innovation.

Connect with Erin Freeland Ballantyne by following her on twitter @lovedrfreeland and with Dechinta on twitter @dechintau.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top image: Erin Freeland Ballantyne (left), dean of land-based education, research and innovation at Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning, and Daniel Te’selie (right) during the Dechinta Indigenous Boreal Guardians Program in Shuta’Gotine/Kaska Dena Territory. (Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning/Josh Barichello)

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