Spring convocation: PhD graduates with a degree that is one of a kind

(Edmonton) Leanna Parker thought she’d grow up to be a scientist, pure and simple, working with microscopes and test tubes.

Instead, she’s garnered a cutting-edge degree from the University of Alberta that is not only a proud first for the Faculty of Native Studies but also represents a new way of blending science and sociology.
Parker convocates with an interdisciplinary PhD in environmental sociology and native studies. The degree makes her the first graduate student to convocate in the Faculty of Native Studies with the only degree of its kind currently offered in Canada.

Earned jointly through native studies and the Department of Rural Economy in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, Parker’s parchment pushes social and natural sciences out of their respective boxes and into a rapidly changing world.

“It’s becoming difficult to separate the two fields, especially in the area of native studies, where contemporary resource management is a leading issue for Aboriginals,” said Parker.
From her days as an undergrad at the U of A, Parker’s career as a scholar has focused entirely on native studies, in particular how the identity of indigenous people has been shaped by traditional and contemporary economies�from the fur trade of yesteryear to resource extraction today.

Parker is exploring the complex challenge faced by Aboriginal people: living on the land, which is made more difficult by resource extraction, and the need for a good wage, which is made possible by that same resource-based economy.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1995, Parker was among the first students to earn a master’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Native Studies. She then taught for five years at Aurora College in the Northwest Territories. Living in the community of Fort Smith, Parker was able to see first hand the complexities of land-claim negotiations and resource management issues from an Aboriginal perspective.

“It was only through being in the community that I saw the background. As much as we try to boil down these situations to black and white, it is far more complex and inter-related.”
Her interest in Aboriginal issues began early in life through her father’s duties as a social worker on
Aboriginal reserves in the Calgary area where she grew up. “My school lessons taught me that Indians were part of the past, but through my dad’s work, I knew it to be otherwise.”

Parker loved teaching college, but missed conducting research, so made her way back to the U of A for doctoral studies in 2003, drawn by the work of Frank Tough, a former University of Saskatchewan professor who had moved to the U of A, and who was conducting his own research into Métis economic history.

Through research for her doctoral thesis, Parker found that while the Aboriginal traditional economy has changed over hundreds of years of contact with non-Aboriginals, “it is still reflective of an Aboriginal identity.” Applying that concept to contemporary resource management is the next logical step, Parker believes.

“We have to start looking more seriously at what indigenous knowledge and management practices have to offer industry.”
Parker is proud to be the first graduate student in the Faculty of Native Studies and hopes that field of study continues to grow. “We need to shift the relationship between non-Aboriginals and Aboriginals in this country by expanding the minds of the general public, and the university is a great place to do that.”