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PhD student defends thesis in Mi'gmaw language, a York first

PhD student defends thesis in Mi'gmaw language, a York first

While researching the historical rights of his First Nation’s community of Listuguj in the Gespe’gewa’gig district of the Mi’gmaw on the southwest shore of the Gaspé peninsula for his doctoral thesis, York PhD candidate Alfred Metallic came to believe there was something missing in what he was doing – an integral piece of a larger picture.

Not much had been written about that part of the Gaspé Peninsula and northern New Brunswick, the seventh district of the Mi’gmaw Grand Council, until Metallic turned his eye to it, but that didn’t explain the feeling he had.

Above: Alfred Metallic, centre, defending his dissertation

It wasn’t until after he had written his comprehensive exams and was back in his community that he realized what was missing was the Mi’gmaw language – its connection to the spirit of the people, their ways of life and the land – and the way stories are presented back to the people, his people. Metallic’s dissertation was his story, and he needed to tell it using the oral traditions of his people in the Mi’gmaw language of his community and district, to share the knowledge and learning he’d accumulated, but also to help preserve his native language, which is at risk of disappearing.

“Our language, it’s how we maintain our relations and how we understand where we come from. It gives you access to your place in the world,” says Metallic. In the Mi’gmaw language, the action comes first, then the person. It’s the opposite with the English language.

Above: From left, Anders Sandberg, supervisor, Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES); Ravi de Costa, dean's representative, FES; Diane Mitchell, master's of environmental studies Mi'gmaw student in FES; Deborah Barndt, committee member, FES; Alfred Metallic, PhD candidate, FES; Ian Martin, internal examiner of the Department of English at Glendon.

York environmental studies Professor Anders Sandberg, Metallic’s PhD supervisor, helped put the process in place with the support of Professor Barbara Rahder, dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) and FES Professors Robin Cavanagh, Mora Campbell, Stefan Kipfer and Peter Cole, among others. York became the first Canadian postsecondary institution to officially sanction the use of a language other than English or French in graduate work, and Metallic the first PhD candidate at York to defend his thesis in an Aboriginal language – it was written and spoken in the Mi’gmaw language.

“There’s a circle that needed to be expanded a bit by including others for a more holistic circle,” says Metallic. He says both Aboriginal and academic representatives needed to come together to form the circle. “That circle wouldn’t be complete until that story is defended in a way that includes all the knowledge-holders. We needed to expand the usual paradigm on how that knowledge is transferred and how that knowledge could be preserved. We needed to anchor it closer to where the people live, and that would give it added value.”

Left: Members of the Listuguj community join with members of the academic community at Alfred Metallic's PhD dissertation defence

It’s very hard to miscommunicate in the Mi’gmaw language, unlike English, he says. “One purpose of the circle is to reinstate the value of the relationships to make that circle tighter and stronger, so the people’s voices become clearer.”

And so in October, some 1,300 kilometres from Toronto, Metallic orally defended his dissertation in a ceremony that included a sweetgrass smudging, singing, a feast, a give away and the inclusion of the Aboriginal community as well as the academic one.

The external examiner Stephen Augustine, a Mi’gmaw and curator at the Museum of Civilization, was joined by Katherine Sorby, an elder from Listuguj; Keira Ladner, a Cree scholar and constitutional expert from the University of Manitoba; Leanne Simpson, an Nishnaabeg scholar from Trent University; Ian Martin, York internal examiner and language expert; Ravi de Costa, the dean’s representative and FES professor of Indigenous Peoples & Globalization; FES Professor Deborah Barndt; Sandberg and many members of the Mi’gmaw community.

Right: Community members, young and old, came to the dissertation defence

The community is still talking about it. “The idea was to strengthen the relationship between Aboriginals and the academic community,” says Metallic. “It is possible to co-exist, to have an environment where those different ways can co-exist without having to compete for voice.” For him the coming together of the people was just as important as the dissertation. “A lot of people at the table had an interest in how this would go.”

It is necessary, says Metallic, if bigger issues such as treaty rights and residential schools are to be resolved, that the First Nation’s more collaborative way of coming to an understanding be preserved. In addition, it is his belief that the Mi’gmaw need to tell a different story than the one of impact.

“Our history goes way back before the Europeans arrived.” There is a different story to tell and to do that “we have to trust our own people,” says Metallic. “Communities can work together; we can participate in these stories through the dissertation.”

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer. Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin