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Michelle Saunders

Q&A with the Labrador Institute’s 2019 International Indigenous Intern

special feature: Indigenization

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.

By Lisa Pendergast

As the Labrador Institute’s 2019 International Indigenous Intern, Michelle Saunders is creating new ways to incorporate her heritage into her future career and sharing her experiences with the Indigenous youth of Labrador.

The internship includes a four-month fellowship in Finland and Norway, and a one-month community and school visit component, to take place in Labrador. Ms. Saunders is currently on the Finland leg of the internship.

As an Inuk woman from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Ms. Saunders grew up with a natural appreciation for wildlife and living on the land. She has taken that enthusiasm and applied it to her education and career, completing her bachelor of science in ecology and conservation in 2018.

As well, her curiosity in ornithology – the study of birds – has translated to a project with Dr. Ian L. Jones, supported by the Tradition & Transition Research Partnership, to put together an informative, photographic bird field guide written by and for Nunatsiavummiut in the next couple of years.

LP: What did you enjoy most about being a student at Memorial?

MS: Moving from a small town in Labrador where you know everybody to a large city like St. John’s is a very scary thing for many students like myself, but I knew Memorial would become like a second home to me with the Aboriginal Resource Office offering vast supports to Indigenous students, as well as the rich Newfoundland culture that is so welcoming.

“That one experience really showed me that Indigenous students have the ability to carry out their own research and study in their own communities.”

I really enjoyed the homey feel that Memorial had. I had the opportunity to work at The Breezeway (MUNSU) for two years, which became like a second family to me. I also had the opportunity to work as a student assistant at the Tradition & Transition Research Partnership and as a research assistant for Dr. Luise Hermanutz for a few semesters.

Memorial is a large university, but there are so many opportunities available for Indigenous students. I really enjoyed my research with Luise, working on ethnobotany uses in Labrador. That one experience really showed me that Indigenous students have the ability to carry out their own research and study in their own communities.

That was a big factor in deciding to pursue my own research project. I’m very grateful to Dr. Hermanutz for giving me that opportunity and encouraging me to pursue my goals.

LP: How did it feel to be named the Labrador Institute’s 2019 International Indigenous Intern? How have you enjoyed your internship experience so far?

MS: I was ecstatic to hear I had been chosen. I’m honoured. I was honestly a bit surprised, as there are so many young Indigenous people in Labrador doing some really amazing things.

It has been amazing. It’s always great to travel to another country to get to see another culture, but living and working in Finland has allowed me to really grasp the cultural differences and see how things work here.

Of course, I get to do some adventuring in my down time, so I have been trying to make the most of the beautiful outdoors, explore the city centre of Rovaniemi and I even got to go “winter swimming” one night, which was jumping into a frozen river!

Michelle Saunders at a reindeer roundup in Sevettijärvi, Finland.
Photo: Submitted

I also had the opportunity to travel to Inari, where I attended the Skábmagovat Film Festival and participated in a reindeer roundup in Sevettijärvi — a truly amazing experience!

LP: How has Memorial enabled and supported your success?

MS: Memorial has enabled me to go above and beyond my wildest dreams. A year ago, I never would have thought that I would be researching my own project and writing a book or spending four months on an internship in Finland and Norway.

Memorial has been so welcoming, encouraging and supportive of me throughout my whole post-secondary education – from the Aboriginal Resource Office supports to the Physics Help Centre to employing me as a research assistant, funding my research project and sending me on this amazing internship.

LP: What motivates you?

MS: I’m motivated by my late mother who was an Indigenous woman. She went to university, made a prosperous career for herself and managed to raise two children all on her own – she was my biggest supporter and a true hero in my eyes.

I’m also motivated by Indigenous youth. I want to be able to show them that getting a post-secondary education is not only possible but that it also opens so many doors. You can be a researcher, a professor, a doctor, a teacher, whatever you want to be.

Michelle Saunders winter swimming in Rovaniemi, Finland.
Photo: Submitted

I am an Inuk woman who can do all of these amazing things and they can as well. In terms of my research, I’m motivated by my ancestors and the elders who have passed down this traditional knowledge for generations and generations – I want to be able to teach that to my children someday and show the world that traditional knowledge is just as important as scientific knowledge.

I’m motivated by my ancestors because I owe it to them to make a change in the way traditional knowledge is perceived.

LP: Do you think innovation plays a role in your internship experience?

MS: I don’t think innovation is always coming up with a new way of doing something, but maybe looking around us and learning from others or looking back at the way things used to be. I think Indigenous Peoples in Canada and around the globe have a lot to teach us. Listening to what they have to say, learning a lesson from them and applying it – to me, that is innovation.

My goals for this internship are to be able to learn from Indigenous Peoples I meet here and take home what I’ve learned and hopefully share that in a way that can help provide a solution to some Indigenous issues in Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada.

LP: Why is innovation, or innovative thinking, important for the future of Newfoundland and Labrador?

MS: I think innovation is very important for the future of Newfoundland and Labrador. Our leaders of tomorrow are our youth and this is the time for us to show them that the possibilities are endless and that is how innovative thinking begins.

“Once we begin to support and encourage Indigenous youth, I think we will begin to see real innovation.”

If we can teach our youth to dream big and give them the right resources and tools to achieve those goals, then we will be in good hands. For the future of Newfoundland and Labrador, we need to put more emphasis on supporting Indigenous youth and marginalized groups.

There are whole groups of people with a perspective and a completely different way of looking at things that have been disadvantaged and not given the same opportunities as others.

Once we begin to support and encourage Indigenous youth, I think we will begin to see real innovation.

LP: What is next for you?

MS: After my internship, I plan on completing my master of science in biology (not sure where yet!) and continuing to work on research with Inuit and other Indigenous groups.

It’s really important to me to continue the work I’m doing, so I’m hoping to be able to do that for a long time.

Funding partners for the internship are Memorial University’s Labrador Institute, the International Grenfell Association, the Nunatsiavut Government, the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat and the University of the Arctic.

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