Putting an Okanagan lens on the trauma of colonization on local Indigenous populations has led to national recognition for UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Jeannette Armstrong.
Dr. Armstrong admits she never planned on pursuing a life in academia. After graduating from university with her bachelor’s degree, she worked for local Indigenous organizations before coming to the realization that she could make the most change from inside the academy.
She returned to university, earning both her master’s and doctorate, and began teaching Indigenous Studies in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. After many years serving as an associate professor, while also writing, researching and being active in her community, Dr. Armstrong was recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada.
The Royal Society of Canada is a scholarly body founded in 1882 by John Campbell, the ninth Duke of Argyll. Its purpose is to promote Canadian research and recognize those who have made remarkable contributions in their respective fields.
What does this acknowledgement from the Royal Society of Canada mean to you?
To be honest, I’ve never been someone looking for recognition. I care deeply about my work and my focus has always been on how my research can help support the Syilx Okanagan Community. With that being said, I am honoured that my peers from across the country see the value in the work I do, and chose to elect me. I’m really looking forward to engaging with fellow scholars in the society. For those who don’t know a lot about the organization—it’s very active in addressing the most critical issues facing Canadians today, and I am incredibly excited to be a part of it.
The society only elects those who have made remarkable contributions in their fields. Can you discuss your area of research and how it came to be?
My research began organically—after university, I began working in my community alongside members who were not academics, but had so much knowledge in regards to what parts of our history were erased and what happened during those early years of colonization. I really wanted to try and identify what the legacy of this trauma was from an Okanagan perspective, and figure out what our people lost.
I was persistent—I just wouldn’t leave it alone. There was this huge gap between what non-Indigenous people knew about us, and what we knew about ourselves. I wanted to ensure our students were learning the true history, so that’s what really motivated me to return to university.
Aside from my own research, another motivation was that I wanted to attract Syilx and BC interior Salish graduate students to join me and research their own histories, cultures and languages. Developing these relationships is really what I’ve enjoyed most—working in collaboration to advance knowledge in our schooling and health systems, and bringing awareness to the legal history related to administration and management of our resources.
In addition to being a researcher and an associate professor of Indigenous Studies—you’re also the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy. How does this role fit in with your research?
It’s very intertwined. To give a bit of background, the chiefs of our seven reserves in the Okanagan Nation Alliance and UBCO signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Indigenous Knowledge Protocol Agreement in 2020—this, to me, was really the first of its kind in Canada. The agreement meant that anything classified as Okanagan or related to our history, knowledge or culture would be appropriate and truthful.
My role as the CRC acts as a bridge to ensure the MOU is being respected and implemented correctly in all disciplines, specifically when conducting research that is needed by our nation. It’s a commitment to reciprocity—we do our research and give it back so the community can benefit from it—this process for me is sacrosanct. If I do nothing else in my life, it’s this idea of giving back knowledge through research that I am most proud of.
The disturbing events of 2021, including the discovery of 215 buried children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, came as a shock to many Canadians. Why is it important we know the truth about Canada’s earlier years—and how is public education connected to reconciliation?
While I don’t speak for anyone who is a legacy of trauma, I think the public must understand the foundation of oppression our country was founded on. Not only colonization, but socially and legally, too. There’s a continuously strong position by Canada that Indigenous rights are something that can be manipulated to enhance their understanding of the wider society. Moving forward, we need to elect leaders who can resist this narrative and help educate the public on our legacy.
I look forward to contributing to a dialogue about how this can be accomplished with my new colleagues at the Royal Society of Canada. Reconciliation cannot be achieved without the public knowing and acknowledging the truth—no matter how uncomfortable it may be.