When Barbara Wilson was a high-school student in Port Alberni, B.C., she and other students were urged to see a guidance counsellor to talk about university.
Ms. Wilson, who was 15 at the time, says the counsellor told her she was wasting her time.
“She looked down her nose and said, 'Oh no, you won’t be going to university − you’ll be a maid, or a chamber maid, or a store clerk,” Ms. Wilson, now 76, recalled as she sat in a sunny courtyard at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus, where she was about to join hundreds of other students in a convocation ceremony.
Ms. Wilson, a member of the Haida First Nation, has proved that counsellor wrong, by going back to school as a mature student to obtain an MA in curriculum and instructional foundation from SFU’s Faculty of Education.
In the process, she defended her thesis at home, in Haida Gwaii, where about 60 people showed up in April to hear Ms. Wilson describe her work, which focuses on climate change and Indigenous law. Since much of her research involved interviewing Haida elders about the impacts of climate change, she felt it was essential to share the results.
“I used the information that people in my village gave me − they shared their thoughts freely, they trusted me,” Ms. Wilson said.
“Because they gave to me, I have to give to them − and what better way to give than to talk about what I’ve learned and to honour them,” she added.
In completing her degree, Ms. Wilson reached a personal goal. She was also part of a milestone at SFU, where a record 164 Indigenous graduates convocated in June.
Her desire to defend her thesis at home, before the people who helped shape it, was in keeping with her research goals and the broader issue of reconciliation, said David Zandvliet, one of Ms. Wilson’s three academic advisers and director of SFU’s Institute for Environmental Learning.
“I think it was a really good decision for SFU to allow that − and I hope they allow it many times in the future,” Mr. Zandvliet said. “Because it really speaks to ‘who’s the research for?’ ”
For her convocation, Ms. Wilson wore a navy blue robe inherited from her mother and decorated with a family crest. Friends and family members came to cheer her on.
A long-time activist and educator, Ms. Wilson had worked as a cultural educator for SFU field classes in Haida Gwaii for more than a decade before starting her MA. Once enrolled, she revelled in studying alongside people decades younger than her, sharing insights that made her both student and teacher.
"I’m their grandmothers’ age for the most part … it’s been really good because I offer them the other side of the coin. They see the truth about what happened to First Nations in this country. They understand, even a little bit, what traditional knowledge is.
“And how important it is to honour and use that knowledge. And they see another option to the laws that are not very kind in Canada," she adds.
Ms. Wilson is not fond of the word reconciliation − to her, it sounds too cozy, like what happens between two friends who have a falling out and then make up − and doesn’t capture the scope of how colonization has affected Indigenous people.
She plans to continue teaching and studying, focusing on ways to make her home communities more secure and sustainable.
She hopes her children and grandchildren will see her degree, her thesis defence − for which she received a standing ovation − and her convocation as fuel and inspiration.
“I just want them to know that there’s no time limit to doing things. I spent my whole life wishing to come to university − and I keep saying to them, ‘do what makes you happy.’ ”