People Profiles

Wenona Victor, PhD, Criminology

October 13, 2015

Author: Jackie Amsden

Wenona Victor is using ancient stories to create new possibilities.

Victor is an assistant professor with the University of the Fraser Valley’s Department of History. She completed a PhD in Criminology focused on Indigenous Governance and Self-Determination at SFU in 2012 and was the first Indigenous student to graduate at the doctoral level from this program. Victor is from the Ts’elxwéyeqw tribe and is a member of the Skowkale community.

Victor’s research focuses on revitalizing her people’s traditional cultural knowledge and applying it to contemporary settings. Victor explains that narratives, such as the origin story of of Llílheqi (also known as Mount Cheam), can help First Nation people build resiliency and support communities to build more effective systems of governance.

“Our people governed ourselves for thousands of years pre-contact. We survived famines, floods, earthquakes, landslides and raids—and the laws, wisdom and knowledge of how we did that is embodied in the stories, or sxwōxwiyám, attached to different parts of the land,” she says.

One of Victor’s current research projects aims to reduce suicide rates among Indigenous youth by reconnecting them to the land and helping them relearn traditional sxwōxwiyám.

“We are going to take the youth to places like Llílheqi so that the kids can relate to the land and teachings associated with our territory. We want the kids to see that Stó:lō ways of knowing are not 'myths' or 'legends' but are legitimate ways of understanding the world. Ultimately, we hope they will gain a sense of pride and confidence in who we are as a people,” says Victor.

Victor is also collaborating with a local women’s empowerment group to help reinstate the role of the matriarch in Stó:lō society as a guardian of the people.

“The Indian Act is not working for us and yet we continue to govern ourselves under it. I feel that we are now at the point where we are ready to stand up and operate outside of the Act. My work is about helping to provide an alternative to that framework and build a stronger governing system and therefore a stronger people,” she says.

Helping Indigenous people reconnect with their own cultural knowledge is not a new task for Victor. Prior to entering her doctoral program, she worked for eight years with the Stó:lō Nation Justice Department, helping communities resolve conflicts by applying traditional Stó:lō forms of justice. Although this role was gratifying, she eventually felt the need to make a larger impact in her community and entered a PhD program at SFU.

“I wanted to explore governance more broadly and not just in terms of justice. I felt I had done all I could in that area and needed more tools. I ran into Liz Elliott at a conference and she said, 'you should do a PhD.' She planted the seed and I’m glad she did—the experience was instrumental to where I am now. My PhD program allowed me to learn from the sxwōxwiyám and the ultimate resource and keeper of knowledge—the land,” she says.

Reposted compliments of the Office of Graduate Studies & Postdoctoral Fellows.