Reflections on the Labrador Research Forum 2019
Issued: Mon, 17 Jun 2019 16:40:00 BST
In this post I will reflect on my experience at the Labrador Research Forum, a “biennial forum dedicated to sharing knowledge, experience, and innovations about work happening in Labrador”. The forum is multidisciplinary, and was held in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the Upper Lake Melville area, Labrador, Canada on May 1-3, 2019.
Labrador is the mainland portion of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a diverse region, geographically and demographically. The topography ranges from the boreal forest, to the spectacular Mealy Mountains, and tundra in the north. Labrador is also the homelands of the Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Inuit, NunatuKavut Inuit, and inhabited by settlers as well. My maternal family is from Nunatsiavut, the northern Inuit region of Labrador, and my main motivator for doing research has been to understand, and help find solutions for, social issues being experienced by my community. Because of this, I was very excited to meet, in person, researchers and community members whose work I admire greatly.
View of Mista-Shipu/Grand River from the Birch Island Boardwalk in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Canada. Photo by Jessica Penney.
The Labrador Research Forum (LRF) was one of the most unique academic events I’ve attended, mainly due to the way it incorporated the wider community. Organisers prioritised Indigenous researchers, perspectives, and ways of being. For example, registration was free for community members, which helped widen participation. Further, the forum was an intergenerational space, with children, youth and elders present and contributing in a meaningful way. Pre-conference activities also included cultural workshops such as sealskin sewing, partridge plucking, and Innu-aimun and Inuttitut (Innu and Inuit language) lessons.
Photo of a sealskin flower brooch I made during a workshop led by Inez Shiwak. Photo by Jessica Penney.
One of my favourite sessions at the forum was a plenary panel titled, ‘Youth Perspectives & Suggestions for Labrador Research’. The panel included speakers Abigail Poole, Michelle Saunders and Jennelle Doyle, and was moderated by Matthew Pike. All four are young Indigenous researchers. They spoke about their experiences in academia, the importance of community-based research, and recommended involving youth in all levels of research. Seeing fellow young people speak eloquently and passionately about research was an uplifting and hopeful experience. One of my favourite sessions at the forum was a plenary panel titled, ‘Youth Perspectives & Suggestions for Labrador Research’. The panel included speakers Abigail Poole, Michelle Saunders and Jennelle Doyle, and was moderated by Matthew Pike. All four are young Indigenous researchers. They spoke about their experiences in academia, the importance of community-based research, and recommended involving youth in all levels of research. Seeing fellow young people speak eloquently and passionately about research was an uplifting and hopeful experience.
Another incredible session was a book launch with Innu Elder Dr. Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue, a renowned environmental activist who has travelled internationally to raise awareness of her fight against industrial harms to her community (e.g. low-level flying, bomb testing, and hydroelectric projects on Innu land). In the session, she shared her motivations for writing her memoir, titled 'Kitinikiau Inuusi: I Keep the Land Alive', with Dr. Elizabeth Yeoman. It was a humbling experience to learn from a woman who has tirelessly advocated for Innu culture and ways of life for decades.
‘Decolonisation’ is a concept that is receiving a lot of attention in academia – both in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere – and was present in the discourse at the Labrador Research Forum as well. The concept refers to deconstructing the privileging of Western ideologies, and re-centring other non-Western ways of knowing, being, and doing. You can read more about indigenization, decolonization, and reconciliation here.
The Keynote speech at the forum was delivered by Unangax scholar Dr. Eve Tuck, whose seminal work ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor’ (with Dr. K. Wayne Yang) I admire greatly. It asserts that treating decolonisation as a metaphor in settler-colonial societies “makes possibly a set of evasions, or ‘settler moves to innocence’, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity” (Tuck and Yang, 2012 p. 1).
Dr. Tuck’s keynote, titled ‘Research on Our Own Terms’, focused on reimagining ethics in research taking place in Indigenous communities. Importantly, she reminded us that research isn’t always necessary, and highlighted some examples in which research may not be essential (e.g. if the researcher already knows that they want to research to say/do), and times when it may be needed (e.g. making generational knowledge available to other generations). My favourite quote from her talk was, “Sometimes, you don’t need research, you just need a billboard”. You can find a Twitter thread of her speech here.
Based on my reading of Tuck and Yang’s work and other decolonial scholars, I’m hesitant to label any academic conference ‘decolonial’; however, I think the LRF did an admirable job of decentering traditional academic worldviews and incorporating Indigeneity by providing space for Indigenous community members, students, and scholars to represent ourselves.
I think organisers of events looking to create change within the research field can look towards events like the LRF for ways to disrupt the stuffy, hierarchical conference model that we often criticize. Some of my favourite takeaways for creating a positive learning and sharing environment included:
• Cultural activities that allow for authentic knowledge exchange.
• Making space for intergenerational interactions – we learn immensely from children, youth, and elders.
• Prioritising the community in which the event takes place. This can be done by using local caterers, making time for Indigenous craftspeople to sell their wares to attendees, having events in different parts of the community to distribute resources, and making use of different community spaces (e.g. community centres, arts spaces) instead of conference halls.
Attending the LRF was a fantastic opportunity that allowed me to think creatively about my work and its impact. It inspired me to re-imagine a future for academia that values Indigenous perspectives and efforts in research, positioning reciprocity and accountability at the forefront.
Penashue, T.E. 2019. Kitinikiau Inuusi: I Keep the Land Alive. University of Manitoba Press.
Tuck, E., and K. W. Yang, 2012, Decolonization is not a metaphor: Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, v. 1.
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Jessica Penney is a Nunatsiavut Inuk PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are in the intersections of Inuit health and colonialism(s).