People of SFU

Q&A with Dara Kelly: Indigenous wellbeing means caring about the places that sustain us

October 27, 2022
SFU Indigenous Business Professor Dara Kelly (foreground, speaking with graduates of the Indigenous Business Leadership Executive MBA) is advancing the field by looking at the foundations of Indigenous thinking around leadership, economics and wellbeing.

Professor of Indigenous Business, Dara Kelly is from the Leq’á:mel First Nation, part of the Stó:lō Coast Salish. She is advancing the study of Indigenous business by looking at the foundations of Indigenous thinking around leadership and economics, which has historically received limited attention from academia. In 2020, she was awarded the Confederation of University Faculty Associations (CUFA) British Columbia Early in Career Award for her work advancing scholarship in Indigenous business theory and methodologies.

She currently leads research on the concept of Indigenous wellbeing and what it means to live a good life, based on Indigenous philosophies and gathering institutions that are thousands of years old.

Kelly’s research recognizes Indigenous worldviews from B.C. and around the world and maintains that human wellbeing is very much interconnected with the wellbeing of the places that sustain us. Respecting Indigenous knowledges, re-connecting to lands and territories and focusing on climate innovation that is informed by Indigenous communities is key to building a more sustainable world for future generations.

We met with Dara Kelly to discuss her work and how it relates to community-centred climate innovation.    

Please share about your research and position at SFU. What makes you passionate about your work?

I am inspired by the global context of other people who are also committed to developing the different areas of Indigenous business research. I am passionate about research that asks interesting, timely and necessary questions that we have not had the opportunity to ask in previous national and global contexts but that are increasingly urgent to ask.

I did most of my studies in New Zealand and I am inspired by seeing another reality of what is possible for Indigenous peoples who are guided by the wisdom of their ancestors and seeing how there are no barriers to where that wisdom can be applied to our day-to-day lives. I am also deeply committed to elevating what is possible for future generations from ancestral wisdom.

The work I am doing in my research capacity is about creating a world where we are not just focusing on Indigenous rights or making things right, but recognizing that we have a right as Indigenous peoples to dream and to state our aspirations for the future. I believe that is a deeper conversation than one that is rights-based. It is about creating a future that we want to live in and being able to make the space for that to become possible.

Please share how your work pertains to community-centred climate innovation (C3I).

One of the projects I am working on is focusing on articulating and defining Indigenous wellbeing as an alternative to gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure for economic success. The reason I am focusing on this notion of wellbeing is because for Indigenous peoples, wellbeing is not a state of mind only pertaining to humans. Our wellbeing is very much interconnected with the wellbeing of the places that have sustained us for generations. It is about nurturing this larger connection to cosmology and to the universe, recognizing that this very ancient relationship continues to be the world that we live in even if we are not particularity attuned to that relationship at the moment.

If we are to take seriously how we think about Indigenous wellbeing, then by necessity we have to think about the wellbeing of the places that look after us—the lands and territories around us and the places that will nurture the next generations as far into the future as we can imagine. My project on wellbeing is very much connected to C3I, through this interconnected and holistic relationship between humans, place and cosmology.

One of C3I’s three foundational cross cutting approaches is the valuing of Indigenous Knowledges and perspectives. It is an approach that crosses over all three of C3I’s research streams (adaptation; mitigation; and sustainability). Please explain how your project on the concept of Indigenous wellbeing connects across all streams.

When thinking about the three research streams within the C3I project, there are some tensions emerging from the historical exclusion of Indigenous peoples from long-term development in Canada due to processes of colonization. What this has meant is we are also contending with the story of development in which Indigenous peoples need to “catch up” with the rest of Canada. This story derives from a deficit perspective and it also comes from this legacy of a derogatory and racist discourse—but thankfully that is shifting. Indigenous peoples have been working very hard to shift this discourse. Increasingly, we are finding a wealth of insights and wisdom in Indigenous knowledges and ways of being, doing and knowing—these three pieces are coming back together again.

With regards to adaptation, when it comes to well-being we are dealing with an imbalance, and we need to address resilience within our social structures and also within the built infrastructure that we live in. For Indigenous peoples, the infrastructure that exists on reserve lands has failed us with regards to water rights and with regards to adequate housing. These policies were not designed for Indigenous wellbeing and have caused deep disconnection, separation of people from their territories and for First Nations in Canada, the Indian Act continues to be a barrier that prevents Nations from being responsive to climate change within their territories. Often, these barriers are bureaucratic and we have to navigate these on reserve lands. Adaptation means contending with this barrier and communities are having to come up with creative solutions to work with resources outside of those policies in order to support their communities. Overcoming these legacies is very hard to do, but there is a lot more urgent work happening now around climate change from having to find new solutions.

With regards to mitigation and sustainability, this involves engaging with Indigenous laws and looking to Indigenous governance principles that take seriously the limitations of the world that we live in. For example, from my time spent in New Zealand, I know many Indigenous languages have concepts and practices around protecting something by suspending access to it. In Te Reo, the Māori Indigenous language, they use the word kaitiakitanga, which contains knowledge about guardianship. Here in B.C., many of these guardianship abilities have been curtailed through dispossession from land and territories. A big piece of the work that needs to happen is not only focusing on the land back movement, but actually facilitating repair work between Indigenous peoples and their lands—a re-connection between people and land is a necessary step towards real engagement with those laws.

What makes SFU unique in our leadership of community-centred climate innovation. What does C3I mean to you?

SFU has particular capabilities because of the wide diversity of Indigenous voices represented among our faculty and staff. Within the Beedie School of Business for example, we have many Indigenous graduate students who are grounded in the knowledge of the particular lands and territories where SFU is located, in addition to Indigenous perspectives from across B.C. and Canada. We also have a lot wisdom being exchanged in the classroom at an inter-national level—meaning between Indigenous nations. At SFU, we have access to a lot of wealth in knowledge if we draw from insights from within our own students, staff and faculty at the university. I also know we have great relationships and partnerships with the surrounding communities who are making incredible changes within our landscapes in the Lower Mainland.

To me, C3I means engaging with the knowledge of the land and place where we are. That means engaging with the laws and the governance structures that emerge from this place and have been here for thousands of years. I care very deeply about the impact of my research and it is really important for me to connect with my community—which I see as being the people who can actually use that knowledge right away.

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