Thunder Bay·Audio

Youth film projects to explore history of northwestern Ontario First Nation

In northwestern Ontario, a team of academics are taking previously gathered research about Lac Seul First Nation, and putting it back in the hands of community members, by working with young people on film projects.

Lac Seul project aims to rewrite the relationship between researchers, Indigenous communities

Lac Seul (Martha Troian)

It's not your typical research project. 

In northwestern Ontario, a team of academics are taking previously gathered research about the history of Lac Seul First Nation, and putting it back in the hands of community members, by working with young people on film projects.

By doing so, they hope to upend the typical power dynamics that come with academic research, and gain a sense of how researchers can do a better job of working with Indigenous communities. 

"So a key part of that is not ... going in with an agenda, this is what we're trying to extract from the community. Not us being the ones who are doing the interpretation," said Lana Ray, an assistant professor of Indigenous learning at Lakehead, and the newest member of the team working with Lac Seul. 

The grant for the project comes from a pot of federal funding that was earmarked for Indigenous research in response to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ray explained. The idea is to support "research as reconciliation."

Community was displaced by flooding

The original research with Lac Seul started several years ago with a project to gather information about the history of flooding in the community, dating back to a 1929 hydroelectric project. The flooding has had lasting effects on the First Nation, explained Martha Dowsley, an associate professor in the department of anthropology and department of geography and the environment at Lakehead. 

"Basically from the community's perspective, they were going around their seasonal activities in the spring, summer, and the water just started to rise on Lac Seul and by the time they got back to some of their camps, the land was, like, eight feet under water," she explained.

"Their traps, their rifles, all of their economically valuable tools were gone ... the whole landscape changed, and basically their entire economy was destroyed."   

Martha Dowsley (left) is an associate professor in the department of anthropology and department of geography and the environment at Lakehead and Lana Ray is an assistant professor of Indigenous learning at Lakehead. (Martha Dowsley and Lana Ray)

After collecting stories from the community, they wanted to find a way to return the information, Dowsley explained, and to "spread the knowledge more widely among all the community members." They also wanted to take the opportunity to bridge the gap between young people, and the elders who originally shared the stories. 

"And so we've engaged the youth to make films about the history and then to share those with the community," she said. 

Students lead the way

The youth are taking the lead, she said, telling the stories they want to tell in their own ways. While the academically gathered research is about the flood, some students have chosen to focus on other things, such as their own family history, and are doing their own supplemental research. 

"It's really fun to kind of turn in the role of researchers to the students," said Dowsley. "To kind of say, 'okay, we're just here to facilitate. Here's materials that we can offer you, images, interview transcripts that we collected in the past, and now you guys — what do you feel like doing with it?'"

That's important, said Ray, because too often outside researchers have been the one's to interpret Indigenous stories. 

When the student films are finished, they'll be shown in Lac Seul, Thunder Bay and at an academic conference.

The project is one of three at Lakehead to share about $140,000 in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Indigenous Research Capacity and Reconciliation grants. 

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