A scholar, writer, and policy analyst, Emma is committed to pursuing just relations between Indigenous Peoples and settlers. Working in partnership with Indigenous activists, her research on the ‘Constitution Express’—a movement to assert Indigenous rights, nationhood, and self-determination during the patriation of Canada’s Constitution—seeks to inform our relations today.
On November 24, 1980, hundreds of Indigenous people boarded a train, destined to change the Constitution. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had proposed to patriate the Constitution from the UK, leaving out any mention of Indigenous Peoples. It looked as though Indigenous rights would be extinguished by omission. Led by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the "Constitution Express" set out to assert a just relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada, rooted in Indigenous nationhood and self-determination. Travelling from Vancouver to Ottawa, and later to the United Nations in New York and the House of Lords in London, the movement was critical in adding section 35 to the Constitution Act, 1982. Now, more than thirty years later, the Constitution Express has yet to receive public attention. Working in close partnership with its leaders and participants, my project aims to recover this important story and examine its implications for Indigenous-settler relations today.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
Being a public scholar means not drawing a line between our intellectual pursuits and broader social and political commitments. As someone who studies political relationships with Indigenous Peoples, it means actively engaging and embodying the kind of just, reciprocal relationships that are also the subject of my research.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
In my experience, many scholars across disciplines are already engaged in dynamic public and community-based work. However, this work does not always receive the same recognition or support as more traditional academic pursuits. By the same token, I think that academic work that takes a more critical or systemic approach is not always recognized for its public value. This can create a false dichotomy between theoretical and applied scholarship. The Public Scholars Initiative helps to resolve this disconnect, elevating the public impacts of research as an integral aspect of academic scholarship, not an accessory to it.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
My understanding and commitment to social justice has evolved over the course of diverse experiences working with non-profit organizations, First Nations, and the public service. I do not see my PhD as a departure from the on-the-ground work I have undertaken in the past, but a scholastic extension of it. Throughout my PhD and beyond, I hope to continue to work across sectors, with the aim of contributing to public discourse, knowledge, and policy.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
In keeping with the spirit of the project, my research on the Constitution Express guided by the Indigenous Peoples to whom the story belongs. I am working directly with those led and participated in the movement, some of whom I have close working relationships, and others I am just getting to know. Under the auspices of PSI, I will be in an even stronger position to establish these partnerships. Ultimately, I hope to engage in research that honours Indigenous Peoples’ authority over the production, application, and dissemination of knowledge. Further, by focusing on just relations between Indigenous and settler people, I hope to produce work that is broadly relevant and meaningful to the Canadian public.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
My education on Indigenous law, rights, and settler obligations really began to evolve on Secwepemc territory in 2010. There I learned about the Constitution Express from those who had been part of it. The urgency to document, examine, and publicize this historic movement was clear. This was an exciting project that needed a home. Having gained valuable experience in policy, non-profit, and community contexts, a PhD seemed like the natural place to pursue this project.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
UBC has become a hub for community-oriented scholarship that challenges settler colonialism in radical and creative ways. The opportunity to learn from leading legal, political, and anthropological thinkers drew me to UBC as a place where I could continue to pursue community-led work and push my thinking in new directions.
I am committed doing anthropological research that is openly political, action-oriented, and self-reflexive".