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Student Profile: Elena Pennell
Elena Pennell is pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology, a field she enjoys because, she says, “it is very self-critical—it’s very aware of its history as a tool of colonialism, but it has certainly developed since then—it’s not just the study of ancient cultures that are static or dead. I like that you can look at modern issues.”
So Pennell is combining her passion for Mexican cultures, and her $30,000 Aboriginal graduate scholarship, to study how Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) affects family life for the thousands of Mexican temporary foreign workers who arrive in Canada each year to work on B.C.’s farms and vineyards.
Mexicans, she says, represent 70 per cent of all SAWP migrants. Their temporary immigration status is tied to their labour contract, with no avenue to permanent residency. And because they are not Canadian citizens, they do not enjoy the same labour rights as Canadians.
Since trans-nationalism is a growing phenomenon, with many more people moving across borders and cultures, Pennell wants to shed light on how programs like the SAWP are affecting family life for temporary foreign workers.
“What is it like to be separated for eight months at a time? How are they communicating and maintaining relationships, and how are those relationships changing?” she wonders.
Pennell’s own hereditary background is Anishinaabe from central Ontario, but she grew up in Victoria and says it wasn’t until high school that she began to learn more about, and really connect with, her own Indigenous identity.
“It’s been a process of getting in touch,” she says, “and I feel privileged to have pursued an education to help with that.”
During high school she also developed a strong interest in Mexican and Latin American cultures after meeting exchange students from Mexico and learning about the country’s colonial history.
She went on to earn a BA with a double major in Latin American studies and anthropology from the University of Victoria in 2015.
She says her work on the SAWP is inherently political, and hopes it may improve the seasonal workers’ situation.
“I hope my thesis can help to support advocacy and change,” she says, “so that we don’t have this treatment of “others.”