media release

PhD sheds light on First Nations violence

June 09, 2014

Sarah Hunt, 250.888.0641,   
Dixon Tam, SFU media relations, 778.782.8742,

“We often think law is a solution for violence, but law can create violence,” says Victoria resident Sarah Hunt, who receives her PhD in human geography this month.

She also receives a Governor General’s Gold Medal, awarded to the two graduate students with the highest scholastic standing upon graduation.

After spending 15 years working with First Nations communities to address violence Hunt, whose ancestry is Kwagiulth, Ukrainian and English, decided to try another approach.

She returned to university to pursue a PhD in hopes her research might reveal new ways of stemming the violence.

Her findings: mend Aboriginal peoples’ relationships with each other, with the land and with their own systems of law.

“So often when we think about violence we advocate for change through law or more police enforcement,” she says. “But that hasn’t made a difference. The violence hasn’t changed.”

She points out that many colonial measures were aimed at severing relationships between families, with land, and with their Aboriginal laws.

As a result, she says, Canadian law can actually exacerbate the problem. “Canadian law is very tangible—put people in jail. That severs relationships.”

To mend those relationships, she says we need to revitalize Aboriginal law while changing the way we think about Aboriginal communities. This is aimed at confronting the stigma of Indian reserves, historically created to keep Aboriginal people apart from society. And, importantly, as a place associated with violence.

“I’m suggesting that there already exists in communities something that works for them—we don’t need to keep relying on government.”

After research interviews with First Nations people doing anti-violence work across B.C., she discovered that people are creating change, although it may not be very visible.

“People are turning to neighbours when violence happens, they’re creating safe houses, they’re creating emergency response teams.”

Now Hunt, 37, plans to continue research and education in the area of Aboriginal knowledge.

She has been nominated for a Canada Research Chair at a B.C. university, which, if successful, will be announced in the fall.

Simon Fraser University is consistently ranked among Canada's top comprehensive universities and is one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 125,000 alumni in 130 countries.


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