Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)
Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Responding to History

Transforming Thinking to Improve Indigenous/Settler Relations

By Kirsteen MacLeod

[Vanessa Sloan Morgan]

Relationships with land have always fascinated Queen’s Department of Geography and Planning PhD candidate Vanessa Sloan Morgan, who describes herself as “a sixth-generation white settler from unceded Coast Salish Territories in BC.”

Sloan Morgan grew up calling Vancouver Island home − while knowing that few Indigenous people in BC ever signed treaties to relinquish their lands. “When my family first arrived from Ireland, it partially displaced Snuneymuxw First Nation in what is now Nanaimo.” This displacement occurred despite the existence of one of BC’s few historic treaties, which encompassed the area.

The goal is to encourage responsible thought and thoughtful action with regards to Indigenous-settler and environmental relations.

Nowadays, Sloan Morgan delves into BC’s complex land issues with the Health, Environment, and Communities (HEC) Research Lab at Queen’s, which conducts leading-edge community-based participatory research. “Our work around sharing land and people’s relationships to land takes into consideration colonial processes in Canada, and seeing how these processes impact Indigenous-settler relations,” Sloan Morgan explains.

Sloan Morgan is working on a multi-year project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in partnership with Huu-ay-aht First Nations and Dr. Heather Castleden – Sloan Morgan’s PhD supervisor, Queen’s Canada Research Chair, and HEC Lab Director. The partnership-based project’s goal is to document the journey of Huu-ay-aht First Nations, signatories to the ground-breaking Maa-nulth Treaty, through negotiations and the first five years of implementation. This landmark modern treaty between five First Nations, British Columbia and Canada, replaced the Indian Act in 2011, and concerned territories never before ceded on Vancouver Island’s West Coast.

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Using a grassroots method of research engagement that is uniquely responsive, Sloan Morgan interviews people from all sides of the negotiating table, and works closely with Huu-ay-aht to ensure the resulting research is useful to them. The goal, she says, “is to provide solid information about what works and doesn’t for those implementing and contemplating modern treaties.”

In her overlapping PhD project, Sloan Morgan is exploring the idea of responsibility and how people interact with the land, and how that can be shaped by an awareness of colonial processes in Canada.[circle graphic]

In particular, she is asking negotiators how ideas of responsibility can be addressed broadly for people across BC. “Almost everyone is pointing to education,” Sloan Morgan says. “There’s a widespread lack of knowledge about past and present colonial relations, and about the modern treaty process, despite 18 years of negotiations leading up to the Maa-nulth Treaty.”

The history of Canada implies a shared relationship, she adds. “In my mind, you have responsibilities in a relationship. But if people are unaware of history, how do you start a conversation about responsibility? How can you talk when people don’t know that a conversation is needed?”

In response to this knowledge gap, Sloan Morgan is working with Huu-ay-aht to design educational materials that reflect what they think others – settlers, and people in general − need to know. This ambitious educational material seeks to encourage settler peoples to consider inequities created through colonialism. “What I’m really hoping is that an educational initiative will provide a way for people to engage critically with history if they want, and bring that to their everyday life, which will change actions and practice on the land.”

The goal is not to have all the answers, Sloan Morgan stresses. “It’s about starting to ask the questions. What does it mean to be on unceded territory? What are the implications? What if my family came there six years ago, six generations ago, six days ago? We may also look at the treaty implementation process itself, as it’s so complex, asking, ‘What is the Indian Act?’ or ‘Why are modern treaties relevant in BC?’”

For her part, Sloan Morgan has gone full circle, returning to Vancouver Island, where she grew up, to investigate questions she formulated years ago. Learning about colonial processes and relations between settlers and Indigenous peoples has transformed her personal sense of responsibility as a researcher, she says. “I see my role as wanting to support the communities I work with and do research that’s relevant to them, and to support their initiatives through community engagement.”

In future, she hopes her research will promote respectful relationships between people, and with the land. “The goal is to encourage responsible thought and thoughtful action with regards to Indigenous-settler and environmental relations,” Sloan Morgan confirms.

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Photos courtesy of Vanessa Sloan Morgan