News, Graduate Studies, Indigenous

In a first, SFU’s oldest grad presents thesis defense in Haida Gwaii

June 10, 2019

“I had always dreamed of going to university,” says Barbara Wilson, who at 76 years is the oldest student to convocate with a graduate degree from Simon Fraser University this summer.

A member of the Haida Nation, Wilson will receive an MA in curriculum and instructional foundation from the Faculty of Education during the June convocation. She is among 164 Indigenous students to convocate this June, a record high for SFU.

Setting still more precedents, Wilson also became the first student at SFU to host an MA thesis defense in Haida Gwaii. She invited SFU faculty and staff, as well as more than 60 people from the Haida community, to the event in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii.

Describing the experience as gratifying and frightening in equal measure, Wilson says it was her honour to present the core of her learning to the elders in her community.

The presentation, entitled ‘DamXan t’alang hllGang.gulXads Gina Tllgaay1’ or ‘1Working together to make it a better world,’ followed Haida protocol of ‘Daw in’ or ‘to witness,’ and ‘Gud gad iis’ or ‘coming together to discuss,’ with attendees including Haida hereditary chiefs, matriarchs, elected members of the Council of the Haida Nation, Gwaii Haanas staff, youth, community leaders (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), and Haida elders, many of whom Wilson had interviewed for her thesis on climate change.

“The pride and admiration for Barb’s research, wisdom and accomplishments was felt by all of us in the room,” says Anne Salomon, professor in SFU’s Faculty of Environment, and one of Wilson’s thesis advisors.

“After a thoughtful round of questions and dialogue with university examiners and community members, Barb received a powerful standing ovation from her community. Following the Haida law of ‘Isda ad diigii isda’ or ‘to reciprocate,’ a feast was provided to all those witnessing the defense. It was truly a remarkable event.”

Wilson’s thesis on climate change tapped into her Indigenous roots as a Jiidaga XaaydaGa (Haida woman) and a life lived on an island. She examined how islanders, both in Canada and around the world, have been deeply impacted by climate change.

She also wanted to find out what could be done to ensure that everyone has safe and healthy homes in spite of all the changes.

“The impacts of these changes on our lives, the berries, sea creatures, and animals, along with economic costs rising are, in many cases, very frightening," says Wilson. "Using the ancient laws of my ancestors, and the comments made in the survey responses, I have proposed options, which could make a difference if we viewed our world and capitalism in a different way."

Attending SFU as a mature student, Wilson initially found the entire experience very intimidating.

“I had to learn a whole new vocabulary, attempt to be very deliberate in order to get through courses. Even though I am older, I felt like a frightened teen inside when taking part in classes on campus. I am thankful to the staff and professors who stepped up to help when I needed guidance and suggestions.”

While her graduation marks an important milestone in her life journey, Wilson, a grandmother of five, is looking forward to taking on newer challenges.

“I am interested in returning to the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program to resume learning my mother tongue: Xaayda Kihlgii.”