Three York U graduate students become prestigious Trudeau Scholars

York University graduate students Aytak Akbari-Dibavar, Gerard Kennedy and Jesse Thistle have been awarded the Trudeau Doctoral Scholarship, a prestigious distinction presented by the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation.

It is the first time since 2008 that a York graduate student has been chosen for the scholarship, which recognizes the most talented doctoral students in Canada and abroad studying in the humanities and social sciences.

They join York’s previous winner, Irvin Studin, law, 2008, in this established network of researchers and public figures, further highlighting the incredible success for the University in this year’s competition.

“I am so incredibly proud of Aytak, Gerard and Jesse on this achievement and what they will bring to this amazing community of fellows and mentors,” says Barbara Crow, dean and associate vice-president, Graduate. “Becoming a Trudeau Scholar is an absolutely remarkable achievement – very few students get to enjoy this moment. On behalf of York University and our graduate research community, I want to thank them for their continuing contributions to society.”

In addition to receiving a substantial allowance for research and travel, each scholar is paired with a distinguished Trudeau mentor selected by the foundation among the most eminent Canadian practitioners in all sectors of public life. The annual value is up to $60,000 per scholar (including an annual travel allowance of $20,000) for up to four years. Up to 15 scholarships are awarded annually.

Aytak Akbari-Dibavar, political science


Aytak Akbari-Dibavar

Akbari-Dibavar’s research will investigate the trans-generational transmission of political trauma in authoritarian states where public debate and discussion are impossible.

“My hypothesis is that survivors of state violence transmit their trauma to their children through private, familial mechanisms that cohere to produce a collective political identity in the subsequent generation which is traceable in their organizing and activism,” she notes.

This work will seek to understand how political uprisings – often seen as discrete events – are manifestations of a continuity in the historical experience of trauma.

“As an Iranian lawyer and political activist, while I was working in a human rights office in Iran, I encountered the fear, anger and grief of Iranians and the emotional impacts of enforced negation of their upheavals and loss,” she says. “One of the striking aspects for me was the enforced silence by the government with regard to the emotional dimension of political devastation.”

Her proposed thesis “Politics of Survival: Trans-generational Transmission of Political Trauma in Iran and Beyond” will seek to create an alternative historical archive that can lay the groundwork for a truth and reconciliation process in a future democratic Iran, in addition to countries where trauma and political oppression are ongoing. The archive would also include Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process with Indigenous and First Nations people.

In a volunteer capacity, Akbari-Dibavar has served as both a student success leader and peer advisor on campus, in addition to working with the York Centre for Refugee Studies. She also volunteers with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture and Violence (CCVT), helping refugees and survivors adapt to life in Canada.

Gerard Kennedy, law

Gerard Kennedy

Gerard Kennedy

Kennedy’s proposed thesis “Justice, Fairness, Efficiency?: The Effects of Canadian Civil Procedure Reform on Access to Justice and the Rule of Law” investigates strategies for improving the fairness and efficiency of Canada’s civil justice system.

“I have practiced civil litigation for nearly four years, and worked as a judicial law clerk before then. I saw first-hand how our civil justice system is in need of reform, both in my practice at a large law firm, and at pro bono law clinics where I have volunteered,” says Kennedy. “I had previously left The Hague and the international law world partially because I was so frustrated at its inefficiency and the slow pace of international justice. And here I was in Ontario feeling the same problem, dealing with persons who couldn’t resolve matters fairly or efficiently.”

In addition to bring able to visit remote parts of the country to witness access to justice issues first-hand, Kennedy is excited to be a part of the rich Trudeau community contributing to Canada’s well being.

Jesse Thistle, history

Jesse Thistle

Jesse Thistle

Thistle’s proposed thesis “Indigence, Invisibility, and Indifference: Métis Life in Road Allowance Communities on the Canadian Prairies” focuses on Indigenous narrative, memory, and storytelling as a way to rediscover history and identity. Centered on intergenerational trauma in Métis-Cree in the northern Great Plains, Thistle has built an oral history archive, a photo journal, and preserved community stories for posterity.

“My work on trauma is geared towards Indigenous community healing and moving forward; I do not study trauma for the spectacle of it, I want to understand trauma and help people recover identity and move forward in a good way, towards reconciliation,” he says.

“The goal of my research is to make Canadians aware of Métis road allowance history on the prairies in the 20th century. Most people I have talked to across the country do not even know what a road allowance community was, when they existed, and who lived on them. I want to change that. I want people to better understand this chapter in Métis history, to make people see the resilience of my people.”

The work is very personal for Thistle. Looking at his own family history dating back to after the Riel Resistances of 1869 and 1885, it is his hope to bring about greater understanding of impacts experienced by the Métis people to better inform how future generations can fight against, heal and overcome trauma.

Thistle says that winning the Trudeau opens many doors for him in terms of research support, travel and connecting with top scholars in the country – noting community as the true value of the award.

“In all, I guess I will keep doing what I am doing with my own Métis-Cree community and friends in Saskatchewan and Ontario, and I will keep writing my crazy stories and histories with my cat and wife Lucie by my side. And I know I will keep visiting and working with Randy, Nancy, and Jolene up at the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services (CASS). Those people work magic, truly. Go check them out. CASS helped make me into the person and scholar I am today – York is lucky to have such an Indigenous centre with such experts,” he says.

The Foundation

The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is an independent and non-partisan charity established in 2001 as a living memorial to the former prime minister by his family, friends, and colleagues. By granting doctoral scholarships, awarding fellowships, appointing mentors, and holding public events, the foundation encourages critical reflection and action in four areas important to Canadians: human rights and dignity, responsible citizenship, Canada’s role in the world, and people and their natural environment.

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