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Crystal Fraser earns PhD for local residential school history

Crystal Fraser defended her PhD on Sept. 20, earning a doctorate from University of Alberta. Nick Pearce / Northern News Service

There are no books on the history of the region’s residential schools, and only two on the entire country.

And Crystal Fraser — who became the first Gwichya Gwich'in to get a doctorate from University of Alberta after defending her thesis on the subject Sept. 20 — didn’t set out to write one. However, community guidance led her to study the subject for nine years, culminating in a deeply researched piece more than 500 pages long.

Her PhD is supported by roughly 75 interviews and archival research. The effort saw her travel the Beaufort Delta to collect firsthand accounts from the students, teachers and administrators of Grollier Hall and Stringer Hall.

Crystal Fraser defended her PhD on Sept. 20, earning a doctorate from University of Alberta.
Nick Pearce / Northern News Service

Academia was never a straight line for her. Fraser dropped out of high school in Grade 10 but returned to finish her diploma at Sir. John Franklin in Yellowknife while she was in her 20s. After that, she received a history degree from University of Alberta, followed by a Masters in the same subject from University of Victoria.

When she returned to University of Alberta for her PhD, she decided it was vital to include her community in the process.

“I understand that there are not a lot of Gwich’in people in academia, so I think the research really has to be community-driven,” she said.

After conversations with community members and more formal meetings, and hosting a radio program in Fort McPherson, the community came forward with an idea connected to Fraser's unique position of having a mother and grandmother who both attended residential schools.

She said she felt the inter-generational effects of that.

She is also Gwich’in and from Inuvik and was one of the only “academically-trained historians” from the nation, she said. For Fraser, all this guidance made her research possible, and set her on course to study Stringer Hall and Grollier Hall.

“The community shaped the entire project,” she said.

Fraser’s study starts with the opening of Grollier and Stringer in 1959, when students who previously attended residential schools in Aklavik were sent to Inuvik. It follows their history into the early 1980s.

“This residential schooling system in Inuvik just kind of exploded,” Fraser said about this time period. “This is really unique in Canadian history because as Grollier and Stringer were opening up and getting ramped up, and more children were being moved off the land, into residential schools, the same schools in Southern Canada were closing.”

“You have this scenario where your schools in the south are being exposed for what they are, which is basically highly oppressive colonial institutions. But they’re just getting geared up in the North.”

Her research included several archival sources, but what kept her inspired was the opportunity for Indigenous people to tell their own histories.

“We don’t see a lot of that in Canadian history,” Fraser said. “It’s mostly non-Indigenous academics who are providing analysis.”

For the project, Fraser placed emphasis on the lived experiences of students.

The “overwhelming message that said 'yes these institutions were terrible.' Bad things happened. Children died. But I want to share a small part of my experience at these schools, and I maybe want to tell you some of the ways I coped,” she said.

Through these interviews, she saw community members express strength through their personal experiences and organize their experiences into storytelling. These oral histories added critical thought and enriched the study beyond the archival elements.

Now, she plans to present her thesis to the community. After this, there may be a possibility to release it as a book alongside another volume detailing Fraser’s research into the Aklavik residential schools.

Another step she plans is transferring her research into other media.

That may involve condensing the thesis into a 20-page plain language brochure available in the community. Fraser said this may provide a more accessible route into her research, and be a valuable teaching resource both in the region and across the country.

“One of my main goals as an academic, and also as a northerner, is to get home as often as I can and consult with the community to determine what they think is important,” she said.