The Hot, the Cold and the Eye-Opening Splendour of Canada

Jessica Lai, Cathy Bell and Sheila Greer

By Jessica C. Lai

For the last three years, I have worked at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland, for a project called the International Trade of Indigenous Cultural Heritage, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. I came to know Catherine Bell through a workshop that we hosted in Lucerne, in January 2010.


Catherine was a keynote speaker, responsible for clarifying the situation of Canadian Indigenous peoples. After spending some time with her, I was totally taken by her openness, breadth of knowledge, warmth and humour and knew that I would love to collaborate with her, if possible.

Afterwards, I contacted Catherine and asked if she was interested in co-authoring something with me. With great academic generosity, she immediately said yes and we started to hash out the details of the when, where, what and how. As part of my project, I was entitled to undertake a "research mission." I suggested a visit to Canada in February. Though our communication was by email, I could tell that Catherine was laughing in her reply: not February! She suspected correctly that I wouldn't have been able to handle the cold and suggested the summer instead. So, there I was in July and boy was it summer! Though Catherine said that I must have brought the summer with me - 35 degrees was unusually hot - I wasn't convinced that it was a result of my presence nor willing to take the blame.

As hot as it was out, it was cold in the University of Alberta grad room. Because it was the summer, I only met one other soul my entire time spent in that room. All in all, it provided the perfect conditions to be productive. The cold kept me awake (along with the coffee guy down the hall) and I had few distractions. In a few weeks, I had punched out fifty pages or so about how international copyright law and its national implementation can hinder museums and archives from meeting the interests of Indigenous peoples, even when they want to. Surprisingly, it is a little-explored area. This formed my part of our work on "Law, Ethics, and Respect for Indigenous Intangible Heritage in Museum Contexts".

I was lucky enough to be in Canada while Catherine was planning field work in the Yukon with youth from the Champagne Aishihik First Nation in Haines Junction. She invited me to tag along. I'm one of those theoretical people who lives a lot in books, so I was both excited and a little bit terrified to be working with real people. It turned out that my apprehension was completely unfounded. I had intended to take some notes, but after a few minutes found myself too transfixed. Listening to the youth speak was very validating for me; the last few years of my life that I have spent researching about Indigenous peoples' rights to their cultural heritage is relevant. It does mean something. Here was the next generation, showing that their cultural heritage is important to them and plays a vital role in their daily lives. At the end, I told the interviewers that I felt like a sap for being so moved. Sheila Greer said, "Don't worry. We're all saps".

My trip up to the Yukon was also special for another reason: It's absolutely stunning! I come from New Zealand and live in Switzerland, two countries also renowned for their beauty. Switzerland is geographically small and quite densely populated. It can be difficult to find solitude. New Zealand is larger and more sparse than Switzerland, but cannot compare to the absolute vastness and emptiness of Canada. Canada is just so big. As Catherine said to me, Canada is like New Zealand expanded. To drive for hours, seeing only snow-capped mountains and empty roads was an experience I’ll never forget.

Finally, I was amazed by how difficult it was for me to find authentically Indigenous made goods. Whenever I asked, I was told by shopkeepers that the goods were Canadian made, as if that answered my question. In fact, most of the time, the shopkeepers seemed surprised that I was asking and was interested. Again, I saw my research reflected in reality. My experiences showed me the importance of correct labelling and the potential value of using certification trade marks, something I have also written about. 

I am grateful to have had the chance to visit the University of Alberta and the Yukon. Working with Catherine opened the door to opportunities I otherwise never could have gained access to myself. It was like a reward at the end of my PhD and I can’t imagine a better or more suitable reward.

Photograph courtesy of Jessica C. Lai, used with permission. 

Jessica C. Lai is a research fellow at the i-call research centre for International Communications and Art Law, at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland, and is a member of its International Trade in Indigenous Cultural Heritage Project (IT ICH).