When Letitia Pokiak was following the developments in 2019 and 2020 on the Wet'suwet'en and Unist'ot'en territories in B.C., and with the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, she felt the Indigenous groups were being marginalized on their territories.
Both areas were sites of major conflicts between First Nations and energy companies and governments.
Pokiak, who was doing her master's degree in anthropology at the University of Victoria at the time, said she thought industry and governments were trying to develop on Indigenous lands "without really meaningfully consulting with those Indigenous groups," she said.
"It really made me want to address how those situations were playing out."
She decided to study how the lack of consultation with Indigenous groups affected their well-being. She also wondered how similar dynamics played out in relation to the climate crisis.
She went home to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, and interviewed 18 elders, harvesters and land claim negotiators, including her uncle Randall. She sought their perspectives on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, whether the Inuvialuit land claim agreement was working the way it had been envisioned, and on how climate change had affected the region in the past 40 years.
Pokiak compiled the information she gathered in her master's thesis, in which she concluded that industry and governments should "stop what they're doing and really consider those Indigenous groups who are making efforts to rebuild sovereignty and rebuild their nations within their own values and future-making efforts."
History as an example
Part of the thesis addresses the two-year Berger Commission that looked at the potential impacts of two proposed pipelines in the Mackenzie Valley in the mid-70s.
The commission consulted extensively with Indigenous peoples in the North, more than any other resource-related consultation until that time. It concluded that Indigenous land claims should be settled before industrial development, and called for further study as well as a 10-year ban on pipeline construction in the Mackenzie Valley.
"I wanted to document that as an example that governments at one point meaningfully consulted with Indigenous peoples," Pokiak said.
Pokiak also documented the Inuvialuit efforts to negotiate a land claim that resulted in the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. Signed in 1984 after 10 years of negotiation, the agreement sets out the conditions under which development can occur on Inuvialuit land and the role the Inuvialuit play in that development.
She said her grandfather, Bertram Pokiak — Angagaq in Inuvialuktun — was her inspiration.
He worked as one of 217 field workers while the Inuvialuit were negotiating the agreement. He went into people's homes and spoke with families, elders and harvesters, recording land use for their territory, creating maps of traditional place names and documenting where different families established camping grounds and hunting areas.
"He made sure every family was consulted," she said.
Pokiak said her traditional upbringing in Tuktoyaktuk informed her research.
"Just having that context and background provided me the tools with which I could write about meaningful consultation and meaningful participation and meaning making in which, as Inuvialuit, we are able to have a future based on our own values and our own sovereignty," she said, adding that she wrote her master's thesis as a story that respected Indigenous practices of storytelling.
For her efforts, Pokiak was recently awarded a prestigious award for her masters thesis from the Western Association of Graduate Schools, which represents all the graduate schools in western Canada, 14 U.S. states and western Mexico.
Her graduate supervisor at UVic, Prof. Brian Thom, said Pokiak "understands how knowledge can be mobilized in the world and what kinds of questions that we need to ask to be able to move our communities forward."
"I think that's really part of her lived experience," he said. "She asked really good questions and I think not everybody can do that."
Pokiak said she encourages Indigenous people to stay in school and take advantage of the funding and other opportunities available to them.
As for the award, she's still letting that sink in.
"I mean, it's still very surreal," she said.
She said she's not sure what she wants to do next — law school or a Ph.D. are options — but she knows she wants to put her education and experience to use to help Indigenous communities in one way or another.