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Major CURA project announced for Faculty of Arts

By Janet Harron

The first multidisciplinary and comprehensive study of the Labrador Métis and their history has received full funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) through the Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program.

Directed by researchers in the Faculty of Arts, Understanding the Past to Build the Future will be supported at the requested amount of $999,935 for five years.

The research objectives of this ground-breaking endeavour include investigating Inuit occupation of Southern Labrador, collecting and analyzing evidence of Inuit-European interactions, documenting cultural changes and bringing the history of the Métis into the present day.

Dr. Lisa Rankin of Memorial University’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology and her team initiated the research after the Labrador Métis Nation requested it in meetings with team members.

Dr. Rankin has worked closely with the Labrador Métis since beginning her Labrador fieldwork in 2001. Dr. Rankin and her team will be conducting new archaeological research (along with her students and team member Dr. Marianne Stopp) to better understand the pre-contact and early contact period of Inuit occupation in Southern Labrador. These investigations will be located around Inuit dwelling structures near Sandwich and Alexis Bays.

Team member Dr. Hans Rollmann of the Religious Studies department will be conducting research in European and North American church archives as part of the project. His research on Moravian, Methodist and Anglican missions in Labrador will provide details of interactions between Inuit and Europeans along the Labrador coast. These church records are quite significant because they essentially document the origin of the Labrador Métis people, including marriages between resident Inuit women and European visitors. Moravian archival records also detail Aboriginal movements between the north coast and southern Labrador.

Retired Memorial anthropology professor Dr. John Kennedy is a pioneering scholar of the economic and social history of the southern Labrador coast. As part of the team, his role is searching archives for ships’ logs, journals and diaries describing Labrador’s social condition of the 18th and 19th centuries. He will also be working closely with four Métis research assistants to examine historic stigma and contemporary Métis culture and identity.

Another Memorial University figure on the research team is Dr. Mario Blaser, who is the new Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies. His role is to work with community members to “translate” the results of the research into documentaries for educational purposes and for the wider public.

Other members of the research team include Labrador’s pre-eminent genealogist Patricia Way, archaeologist Marianne Stopp, and Gregory Mitchell, representing the Labrador Métis Nation. Dr. Evelyn Plaice, who holds a joint appointment in Anthropology and Education at the University of New Brunswick, will contribute to the project by developing educational materials for Labrador schools.

“Memorial researchers such as Dr. Rankin and her interdisciplinary team are doing important and fascinating work here in this province that will further shed light on the history and heritage of the Labrador Metis,” said Dr. Ray Gosine, vice-president (research), pro tempore. “This significant CURA funding builds on Memorial’s reputation as a leading research university in Canada and is an example of how our Faculty of Arts is a key contributor to our growing range of world-class research. Our university led the way in research income growth from 2002-’07 and with close to $90 million in external research revenue awarded annually to Memorial, researchers like Dr. Rankin and her colleagues are able to carry out research that is important to understanding the culture and heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Ultimately, the objectives of Understanding the Past to Build the Future are to combine and apply academic and community-based knowledge for the benefit of all stakeholders. A key outcome will be the incorporation of information into school curricula for southern Labrador, and material for adult literacy support. This will in turn result in greater local content for use in social studies and history classes, hopefully attracting student interest and stimulating learning.
Métis students and adults will also be trained in archaeological field methods, archival research, and ethnographic and educational work. As a result of a recent memorandum of understanding between the provincial government and Aboriginal groups, local Aboriginal governments will eventually oversee the protection and development of archaeological sites in all of Labrador. Skills learned through this project will help to train Labrador Métis for this responsibility.

Findings from the new archaeological, archival and historical research will also provide a significant stimulus to the nascent heritage tourism industry in southern Labrador. In addition, the employment of numerous Métis on the project will result in a body of trained experts who will be more than capable of developing this business. Labrador Métis will also have full access to the ongoing research findings via a project website and touring exhibitions based on the research will be rolled out to various communities.

The work of Dr. Rankin and her team exemplifies the emphasis Memorial’s Faculty of Arts places on community-based research projects. Understanding the Past to Build the Future continues the tradition of CURA grants such as the Community-University Research for Recovery Alliance (CURRA) undertaken by Dr. Barbara Neis, Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie’s Innu Language Dictionary, and Dr. Peter Pope’s Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program (NAHOP).