A project conducted by researchers at Laval University in collaboration with First Nations along the St. Lawrence River is gearing up to meet with community members to hear firsthand about the effects of marine vessel activity on Kahnawake.
St. Lawrence Cultures & Nations is a project that officially launched in January but has been in the works for some time now. Roxane Lavoie, professor at the graduate school of land management and regional planning of Laval University and principal investigator for the project, explained that it is one of a few projects funded by Transport Canada as part of its Oceans Protection Plan.
Whereas other projects being funded focus on the biophysical effects of marine vessel activity, this one will unearth the socio-cultural effects in Indigenous communities located along the St. Lawrence River.
“So, how the evolution of varied vessel activity on the river had effects, good or bad, on Indigenous communities that live along the river, and how their relationship with the river kind of evolved through this development,” she explained.
The five nations with communities that are participating are the Kanien’kehá:ka, Abenaki, Huron-Wendat, Wolastoqiyik and Innu. And unlike the traditional Western way to conduct a research project in which the methodology for the project is determined ahead of time, one big part of this project will be collaborating altogether on establishing the methodology.
“Our first objective is to develop a methodology that really allows us to hear what people experienced and to be able to tell it in a way that’s meaningful, and that makes sense to them,” said Lavoie.
This hasn’t been the case for many past research projects, she said. “What has been done (in the past) is very often disappointing,” she continued. “Very often, the communities and the people who read the reports afterwards were very disappointed with how the effects on them were depicted.”
“At the end of the project, we want to know what are the effects of marine vessel activities on the connection to the land of the people,” noted Isabelle Rancourt, research coordinator for the project. “We’re not trying to know all of the social-cultural effects; that would be too much for the project, but specifically on connection to the land.”
They will begin to engage with community members in March by organizing talking circles and individual conversations about the community’s experience with the intensification of marine vessel activity on the river.
The working group that has been getting ready to launch the project over the past year includes members from each of the communities that will be participating. From Kahnawake, Indigenous researcher Morgan Phillips is part of the working group.
“What’s unique for Kahnawake is, of course, the Seaway,” she noted. “Two generations ago, everybody lived right on the river, and we’ve been disconnected from the river, and it’s just devastating.”
She expects the Seaway and the expropriation that preceded it will come up frequently in those discussions with Kahnawa’kehró:non.
Phillips is currently working on a contract with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake on ecological knowledge and land and river use, working on a variety of different initiatives. Her contract led her to join this project, something she said has been rewarding for her.
“What we’ve developed over the past year is a way of gathering stories, more qualitative, using an Indigenous framework, and about collaboration and learning from each other,” said Phillips.
“It’s been very exciting for me. I’ve never met any of these people, but we’ve been working together for a whole year, so it’s been really, really great and a big learning experience for me.”
She noted how Indigenous research is inherently collaborative, and she sees this project as a prime example of this. “What is special about these types of projects is it’s really about relationship building,” she said. “We’re friends now; we’re always going to be friends now.”
She said more avenues for collaboration within the community are being considered, such as working with the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center or developing school curriculum.
Youth engagement, elder engagement
Flexibility is an important concept for the project: being able to adapt based on the knowledge and suggestions brought by each community. And finding ways to involve youth and elders, too.
Two elders are part of the working group, including Laura Norton of Kahnawake. Lavoie said that working with the elders has been a very helpful experience.
“I think that when the youth know that they’re involved somehow into the meaning of the land, you get involved in learning about tangible aspects of your land and culture, and you get to know how the exploitation of the land impacted yourself and the other members of your family,” said Alexandre Dumais-Dubé, research coordinator for the project and Anishinabeg from Kitigan Zibi.
Therefore, he said he thought it was important to make sure youth engagement was a prominent aspect of the project.
They are still hammering out the details, but the project’s members would like to get youth from the five nations participating sharing their experiences with each other.
“We could videotape what they think about the actual results are and what they would like to share, their story, their point of view, or anything basically, with other communities. So it’s a way to get them involved and share between different nations,” said Dumais-Dubé.
They are also thinking about ways to share and exchange between the communities at the end of the project.
Understanding the past to plan for the future
“Projects that Indigenous researchers attach themselves to are projects that are meaningful and useful to the community,” said Phillips.
Beyond uncovering the socio-cultural effects of marine vessel activity on the St. Lawrence, the other objective is to find ways for the project and its outcomes to be of real use to the communities.
“Rather than doing something that is very academic and putting everything in a little box, we really wanted to value the actual knowledge, so that’s why we will be conducting knowledge sharing activities,” said Dumais-Dubé.
They have also set aside some of the budget to hire an Indigenous illustrator to help create a book that shares what they will learn.
“We want to have this story we learn told in a way that makes sense, and that also relates the way it was told to us,” explained Lavoie. “And so to have a little book that’s going to be interesting to share with anyone, so it’s not going to be like a scientific report.”
Lavoie noted that as the St. Lawrence has been freezing over less and less over the years, there is an interest in increasing commercial activity for longer during the year, which would spur more development.
“I think it’s really important to ask questions before we do that and to have a better perspective about mistakes and opportunities of the past and try to make the most out of the development that’s coming,” she said. “We hope that by understanding better the past, we can plan better in the future.”
When the community engagement begins in Kahnawake next month, the researchers are hoping to speak with people who identify with at least one of the following categories: women, elders, river and surrounding land users, or between the ages of 18 and 30.
Interested participants can contact Lavoie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 418- 656-2131 ext. 405899. The project can also be found on Facebook.
Savannah Stewart is a writer, editor and translator from Montreal currently reporting with The Eastern Door. She is the contributing editor for the arts for Cult MTL and her work has also appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Ricochet, Maisonneuve Magazine and The Rover. She tweets at @SavannahMTL.