Native studies grad goes off the map to find true calling
Kayla Lar-Son was set to become an archeologist until an encounter with an influential professor helped her find her career passion: finding hidden treasures buried in archives.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
When Kayla Lar-Son was in high school, she never thought she'd move on to university. But that changed after she graduated from school in Tofield, a small town 45 minutes southeast of Edmonton, and moved to the city.
“I was hairdressing and had been in the trades for a few years,” she explains, but with a few of her friends studying archeology, she decided to apply to join them at the University of Alberta.
Married and settled in the city, she found the university appealing for another reason beyond her friendships: the campus was familiar and accessible. “With the connections that I had, the closeness to home, I didn’t have to reroute my whole life to come here.”
But it was an encounter with one professor that transformed the course of her university career. Native studies professor Frank Tough, an expert on Métis archival research, was Lar-Son’s teacher for NS 290, a research methods course.
Although she had already taken some Native studies courses, that class really got her hooked. In her third year of university, she changed her major to Native studies and decided to pursue an honours degree.
“I was loving what I was doing in archeology, but I wasn’t deeply invested in it, which I was when Frank started showing me the world of archives.”
Lar-Son remembers one of her professor’s signature assignments as the spark for her love of libraries. “I did really well in the class, and I loved his lab assignments. They were almost like treasure hunts, where you go into the library and have to find a source that talks about Métis people from the 1880s. He doesn’t tell you what it is—he gives little clues, and then you go and find it. I really loved those. After I finished the class and got my final grade back, he offered me a job.”
Working in the lab quickly became more than a job. After Lar-Son started off with some filing and getting used to working with archives, her work began to take off. Soon, she was helping with genealogies and community research projects, working closely with Tough on Métis research.
As a Métis woman, Lar-Son felt a deep connection to the projects. “Working over at the lab gave me a way of giving back to Indigenous communities through a different form.”
Travelling through Indigenous history
Her work with Tough began to open more doors, including a Canadian studies conference in Cuba and a summer course that saw Lar-Son travel to Ottawa to study at Library and Archives Canada, where she had the chance to take on her own research project on an important but little-known part of Alberta’s history.
“I did my research project on Jasper National Park and Métis communities that were in Jasper and what happened to them after the park was created. I got to handle National Parks archival documents that talked about the removal of Indigenous people from the park.”
She also had the chance to visit Gatineau, where many of Canada’s most significant historic documents are preserved, including original copies of treaties and maps from the early days of settlement. “People don’t get that experience, to go in and see where they keep really important heritage documents. We got to go over there and have a behind-the-scenes tour.”
Another opportunity played a major role in her decision to become an archivist: a working trip to the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg, which gave her a first real taste of what it would be like to be a working professional as an archivist and researcher.
“We were working with archives from Fort Chipewyan, and so we were looking at post journals and account books that were dating back from the mid-1800s. There was one that was even covered in caribou hide. People drawing in them and—it was just amazing.”
As well as being a mentor, Tough has been a connector, helping Lar-Son reach out beyond the classroom. “Frank has introduced me to people within the community, people within different governance systems, community leaders, lawyers, academics, so that’s been really nice. It was giving back, but it was also a huge learning opportunity, which was really important to me because I’m very hands-on and like to meet people.”
Although her path through university has become clear, it hasn’t always been easy. After losing both of her parents early in life, she had a small circle of support. “When I was a teenager, both my parents passed away, so it’s just me and my husband. And even through my university experience, quite a few of my integral support system, including my grandpa and my auntie, passed away.”
Circle of support
Lar-Son attributes a lot of her success to finding a circle of support in the Faculty of Native Studies, a tight-knit community that helped see her through the difficult times. As an Indigenous student, she found that being in a place where she could connect with many other students from similar backgrounds helped to build deep bonds of friendship.
“Those are the obstacles that you need to get through. Finding those support systems elsewhere—the faculty was really helpful with that when I was going through those hard times.”
Now, as she graduates with first-class honours, Lar-Son is looking forward to the next stop on her journey. After convocation, she will spend this summer in an Indigenous student internship at U of A Libraries before beginning her master’s in library and information studies in September, where her goal is to see more people like her represented among archivists.
“I don’t think there are enough Indigenous people working in libraries, and especially working with special collections and Aboriginal historical documents,” she explains.
She also wants to give back to her undergraduate faculty. “I’m hoping to work with special collections but also branch out and keep connections with Native studies and the students that I know, helping out.”
Looking back, Lar-Son says, her teenage self would never have imagined where her road might lead.
“When I was in high school, I never thought that I would be here.” Unlike many of her friends, who had a clear idea of what they wanted from an early age, she was unsure even midway through her degree.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what I want to do,’ until my second year of university, where I got thrown into it. It’s been something I’ve been pursuing ever since.”