North

High school dropout to PhD: Gwichyà Gwich'in woman graduates with doctorate

Crystal Fraser of Inuvik, N.W.T., can now put the title 'doctor' in front of her name, after successfully defending her PhD thesis recently.

'I've come to realize that Western academic institutions are not made for Indigenous people'

Crystal Fraser at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Fraser will be the first Gwichyà Gwich'in student to get a PhD at the university. (Candice Ward Photography)

Crystal Fraser will be the first Gwichyà Gwich'in student to get a PhD at the University of Alberta.

"Honestly, it feels a little bit overwhelming," said Fraser, who had dropped out of high school. Fraser, who is from Inuvik, will have the title of doctor in front of her name.

"I'm also incredibly proud of all the work that I've done." 

After nine years working on her Canadian history degree, Fraser successfully defended her 463-page thesis last week. The paper titled "By Strength, We Are Still Here" looked at the history of residential schools in the Inuvik, N.W.T., region. 

Fraser said there are a limited number of history books focusing on residential schools, especially those that were in the North. 

I honestly didn't even know about my own family's history of residential schooling until I started my graduate work. ​​​​- Crystal Fraser

"So I think this is still a very much needed topic," said Fraser.

She looked at student experiences at Grollier Hall and Stringer Hall from 1959 to 1996.

After consulting with Gwich'in elders, Fraser said she decided to do interviews with people with first-hand experiences.

"That way Indigenous people can have a part of telling their own histories for once," said Fraser. 

Fraser at her family's fish camp, Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik (Tree River), on the Mackenzie River. She says she learned about her family's residential schooling history during her graduate work. (Submitted by Megan Fraser)

Fraser says she's encountered some of her own family's history during her research. She discovered her grandmother went to residential school in Aklavik, and her grandmother's sister died while at the school. Fraser's own mother attended Grollier Hall.

"I honestly didn't even know about my own family's history of residential schooling until I started my graduate work." 

"Dr. Fraser has undertaken important research," said Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, scientific director at Hotıì ts'eeda, in a news release. Hotıì ts'eeda is an N.W.T.-based organization that supports research rooted in Indigenous knowledge.

Fraser at her family fish camp when she was about 8 years old. Fraser hopes to get her thesis published into a book, and get a teaching job at a university following graduation. (Submitted by Evelyn Debastien)

"[She's] a part of a growing cohort of Indigenous northerners with advanced academic degrees and a commitment to Indigenous resurgence." 

'Not made for Indigenous people'

Fraser said there are still barriers in the system for an Indigenous student.

"I've come to realize that Western academic institutions are not made for Indigenous people," said Fraser.

She added there are few Indigenous academics to mentor students, and there's prejudice "at the every day level."

But her message to her northern, Indigenous brothers and sisters attending or aspiring to attend universities is positive. 

"Universities are a tough place. Find your people, hang in there, and you got this."

Fraser says she's going to present her research to her community. After that, she hopes to get her thesis published into a book, and get a teaching job at a university to share her knowledge with others.

Based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally, produced by Rachel Zelniker

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