Her doctorate complete, Crystal Fraser – originally from Inuvik – is setting out to amplify the voices of residential school survivors.
Dr Fraser is graduating from the University of Alberta. NWT research unit Hotıì ts’eeda says she is "the first-ever Gwichyà Gwich’in to earn a doctorate degree in history."
Fraser's work focuses on Indigenous northerners "confronting hierarchies of power" at day and residential schools in the Inuvik region between 1959 and 1982.
Her thesis is entitled T’aih k’ìighe’ tth’aih zhit dìidìch’ùh, or "By Strength, We Are Still Here."
Through her consulting business and, she hopes, as a professor, she now hopes to take that work to a broader audience. She is already working on projects designed to connect the public with the voices of survivors.
Conducting 75 oral interviews for her thesis, Fraser reconstructed parts of residential schooling's complex history in the Beaufort Delta – where an Aklavik residential school opened in the 1920s and Inuvik's last residential school, Grollier Hall, closed only in 1996.
"What I tried to do was use these oral interviews as a way to let Indigenous people speak for themselves in Canadian history, but also to bring a Gwich'in lens to these histories," Fraser told Cabin Radio.
"Specifically, I focused on student experiences. Part of my research looked at sports and extracurricular activities like girl guides, at student relationships, at what students did after school and in their downtime. How they fought back against the system and how they used strength in order to make it through their experience."
Connecting the public
Fraser believes her work occupies an important gap in Canadian literature on the history of residential schools, much of it authored by non-Indigenous historians.
"What I'm trying to do is... we already know these institutions were bad, and these colonial policies attempted to basically move Indigenous people off their land and assimilate them into white, Canadian society," said Fraser.
"We already know that. I wanted to bring a bit more nuance to it and come from a Gwich'in and Indigenous perspective. I wanted to give people the space to really speak for themselves and share the kinds of history they feel are important."
Fraser defended her thesis last Friday before taking a weekend break. She owns a company, Indigenous Consulting Services, and is working on several projects while contemplating the search for a teaching position at a university.
"I have taught and designed a course on the history of residential schools that I would really like to teach," she said, "but right now I'm working with the Gwich'in Tribal Council on a 20-page brochure on the history of residential schooling in that region, so that the public connects with it.
"I'm also working with the NWT Recreation and Parks Association on the history of residential schools and we're hoping, one day, that'll be a travelling exhibit similar to the [Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre's] special constables one.
"I really see my position as one where I would like to engage with the public. I'm hoping, in my future research, that I can work with communities again to understand what they feel is important."