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Recognizing the healing power of research

The Rathlyn Fellowships are creating space for Indigenous graduate students to incorporate “story medicine”, collaborations with Elders, and traditional Indigenous knowledge into their research

Wahéhshon Whitebean, Karen Martin and Dane Malenfant

In academia, researchers are often encouraged to leave their personal histories behind so they can approach their research questions with as little bias as possible. 

But for many Indigenous researchers, especially those who are doing work in their home communities, this detached approach can be counterproductive. 

“I know there are researchers who like to believe they’re objective, but ultimately for me, it's story work. You're weaving together a lot of facts but you're telling a story,” says Wahéhshon Whitebean, a Wolf Clan member of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation at Kahnawà:ke.

Whitebean is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies and was a 2023 recipient of the Rathlyn Fellowship, awarded to Indigenous graduate students who are doing research on Indigenous Canada.

She is currently completing her dissertation on Indian Day Schools in Kahnawà:ke, which aimed to strip Indigenous children of their language and culture. “Indigenous children attended Day Schools in greater numbers than Residential Schools and we still know little about their experiences,” Whitebean explained in her master’s thesis on the topic.

Wahéhshon Whitebean

Wahéhshon Whitebean has also received a Vanier Scholarship and a Tomlinson Fellowship for her work on Indian Day Schools.

The core of Whitebean’s research has been sitting down with former Day School students in her community and listening to their stories, which many are telling for the first time.

Conscious that sharing memories can be re-traumatizing, Whitebean is careful not to steer those conversations. “They take it where they need to, where they want to, and the story that comes out is the one that they choose.”

Whitebean says there tends to be “a fascination with Indigenous suffering,” and she doesn’t want her work to reinforce that narrative. Instead, she emphasizes the resilience of her community and the many ways in which they have fought back.

“I hope people will see that we're not only resilient in terms of the pain and the trauma we endured, but also in the ways we overcame and the ways we're growing as a people,” says Whitebean.

Though Whitebean started school during the transition to community-led education in Kahnawà:ke, she attended two institutions that were still operating as Indian Day Schools on the record.

“This process was very healing for me, because I had to have a conversation with myself to say, I'm not that little girl in school anymore who was powerless, who was hurt. I'm a researcher now. I'm able to pull all this together and tell a story about who we are as a people and what Day Schools did to us.”

Whitebean says the Rathlyn Fellowship came at the right time, when she was feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of research, work and being a mom. “Getting the Rathlyn Fellowship reminded me of how much support I’d gotten up to that point and it was a way of saying: keep going, don't give up.”

Awarded by the Indigenous Studies Program, the Rathlyn Fellowships were established by businessman and philanthropist Roger Warren, LLD’21, and his late wife Mary Warren, who have created several fellowships across faculties at McGill.

“The donors of the Rathlyn Fellowship have my heartfelt gratitude," says Whitebean. "This award and many others like it gave me a fair shake in academia.”

Preserving culture through language

Karen Martin, BEd’20, one of the 2024 Rathlyn Fellows, also has a deeply personal connection to her work on language revitalization.

When she was two years old, Martin was displaced from her Mi’gmaw community through the Sixties Scoop and raised by French Canadian parents. Disconnected from her roots for most of her childhood, she lived and spoke like a French Canadian.

At the age of eight, she was reintroduced to her community of Gesgapegiag and began reconnecting with her language and culture.

“The Elders in the community, the teachers that spoke the language, took me under their wing,” says Martin. “I became so strongly connected to my community through the language that it really changed the trajectory of who I thought I was and who I was going to become.”

Now Martin is trying to make it easier for others to learn the language by developing a Mi’gmaw verb conjugation database as part of a master’s degree in Education and Society.

“If you cannot conjugate, you cannot speak Mi’gmaw. This is just as important if not more important than a dictionary,” says Martin, explaining that Mi’gmaw is a verb-based language.

Karen Martin's McGill graduation photo

Karen Martin completed McGill’s in-community Bachelor of Education program in Listuguj.

Building the database involved having each conjugation vetted by a committee of Elders who are first-language Mi’gmaw speakers. “It was through the sharing of remembrances, scenarios of use, and talking it out that the conjugations were put to the challenge and accepted through consensus,” Martin explains in her database guide.

Acknowledging that not everyone can learn directly from Elders, Martin hopes her database will increase access to Mi’gmaw language resources and help educators build lessons.

The Rathlyn Fellowship allowed Martin “to dedicate the time and care this project deserved,” but it also gave her the resources to organize a celebratory feast for the Elders who contributed to the project.

“It was nice to be able to do that for them and show them how grateful I was. But not only that, it showed that McGill recognizes the work they are doing. That even though they don't have degrees, they have so much knowledge that is essential to language revitalization,” says Martin.

Indigenous knowledge meets AI

Though conducting research far from his home in Saskatchewan, Métis student Dane Malenfant, BA’22, is bringing traditional Plains Indigenous knowledge to his work on artificial intelligence (AI).

Malenfant, who received a Rathlyn Fellowship in 2024 alongside Martin, is working in a McGill lab that focuses on the neuroscience of AI and is exploring whether it is possible to train AI to understand the principle of reciprocity.

“Reciprocity is a core aspect of Plains Indigenous culture, but it’s something you aren't really taught explicitly or in writing. It's something that you're expected to do,” says Malenfant, who was born in North Battleford (Treaty 6) and grew up in Regina (Treaty 4).

The idea for his project was inspired by traditional wooden effigies known as Manitokanac, which were used by Plains Indigenous peoples to store shared resources for long journeys.

“There's an expectation that you will give things you don't need, and that keeps the area replenished,” Malenfant says. “This is what I want AI to learn: that giving away something it doesn’t need will benefit it in the future.”

“If you don't explicitly create a structure that incentivizes the sharing concept, then AI will just maximize their individual rewards, even if it means they won’t be able to complete a task.”

Malenfant believes that building AI systems that are able to cooperate – both with other AI and humans – could be important in the future as AI becomes increasingly sophisticated and widespread.    

Dane Malenfant speaking at a conference

Dane Malenfant helped develop the Indigenous Pathfinders in AI program at Mila – Quebec AI Institute.

As a master’s student in Computer Science, Malenfant is in the minority. Less than 2% of people working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are Indigenous according to the Conference Board of Canada.

Malenfant has noticed that funding for Indigenous students tends to be restricted to the fields of healthcare, education and the arts, and is grateful that the Rathlyn Fellowship is open to all programs.

He says the fellowship has helped draw attention to his research and the underrepresentation of Indigenous perspectives in STEM – an issue he has been working to improve through his involvement with the IMPRESS program at McGill and the Indigenous Pathfinders in AI project at Mila – Quebec AI Institute.

Indigenous knowledge may not fit neatly into the scientific method, says Malenfant, but it can lead to “new solutions or at least new avenues for modern scientific ventures and inquiries.”

Research as medicine

Rethinking expectations around what academic research should look like has been part of McGill’s Truth and Reconciliation efforts.

In the 52 Calls to Action laid out by the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, the University was “encouraged to recognize explicitly alternate, unorthodox modes of knowledge translation and sharing.”

Professor Celeste Pedri-Spade, McGill’s Associate Provost (Indigenous Initiatives), explains why this rethinking is essential. “For far too long, Indigenous peoples, and their respective ways of knowing and being, have been reduced and misrepresented by non-Indigenous researchers employing theories and methods that do not align with our own intellectual traditions.”

“It is incredible and inspiring to see these Indigenous Rathlyn fellows approach their research in a manner that is personal and meaningful to them, but also expands our understanding of what research can and should do for our respective communities,” says Pedri-Spade.

Whitebean, for example, views research as “story medicine” that can create space for individuals and communities to heal.

“Ultimately, research involves a lot of introspection and self-reflection,” says Whitebean. “I learned a lot about myself and how I was impacted personally. Then it ripples from there right into the community, into the nation, and then even in the generations.”