Road to Congress: Linking urban and Aboriginal experiences

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on Patricia Wood, Chair of York’s Department of Geography, who is beginning a new project examining the social and substantive experiences of teenagers of the Tsuu T’ina nation in Alberta.

A few hundred years before the present-day city of Calgary existed, the Tsuu T’ina Nation occupied large areas of Alberta as part of the Blackfoot Confederacy group of First Nations people. The lives of people of the Tsuu T’ina Nation changed dramatically after 1877, following the signing of Treaty 7, when the nation was confined to a reserve of 70,000 acres on the outskirts of what would become a city of a million people.

Today, the landscape of Calgary and the Tsuu T’ina reserve are a striking contrast: “There is a buffalo paddock on the reserve,” says York Professor Patricia Wood (left), “but on at least two sides, the Tsuu T’ina are faced with houses that go right up to the road at the edge of their territory.”

Still, the two communities have lived side by side for over a century and have forged links in many areas.

“For example, for at least three generations, Tsuu T’ina children have been bused into schools in Calgary, even after schools were built on the reserve,” says Wood. “Parents see different opportunities for their offspring in some of the Calgary schools and encourage them to go there.”

Building from her earlier research with the Tsuu T’ina Nation, Wood has begun a pilot research project funded by a SSHRC Strategic Grant in Aboriginal Research with Jim Big Plume, Tsuu T’ina director of land claims and treaty research, and James Cullingham, Seneca@York professor and award-winning documentary filmmaker. The team will be examining the experiences of young Tsuu T’ina people who currently attend school in Calgary, as well as those of previous generations who attended Calgary schools many years ago.

“We want to know about their relationships with the city and with their fellow students,” says Wood. “For these kids from Tsuu T’ina, Calgary is very much a different landscape, even though it is visible from the reserve. Calgary is certainly a familiar place to them, but it’s not home. How do they understand their experiences there?

“Do they see themselves as ever living in Calgary? Do they feel they belong in that city? What is their comfort level there? These are some of the questions we will be asking.”

Wood continues to travel regularly to Alberta to develop the project. This summer, she and her colleagues will begin by finding a half-dozen Tsuu T’ina teenagers willing to document their experiences in Calgary schools, both verbally and on film.  “Our long-term goal is to help the kids make a documentary about their own experiences and those of previous generations who used to attend school in the city,” explains Wood.

Through the project, the researchers also hope to gain a better understanding of Native and non-Native relationships and of Natives’ relationship to cities.

“I think it’s really emblematic of York that it is interested in supporting interdisciplinary and community-based research like this,” says Wood.

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.