A conversation with the 2020 Sterling Prize Committee

Mon, 26 Oct 2020

Kim Regala
Communications & Marketing Assistant, SFU Public Square

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy is one of SFU’s most highly valued, and unusual, awards. Each year, the Sterling Prize selection committee combs through dozens of nominations to reward one individual whose work challenges firmly held beliefs and presents new ways of looking at the world. 

This year, SFU Public Square’s very own Seth Erais joined the selection committee, chaired by Ron Ydenberg (Professor, SFU Department of Biological Sciences) and including three faculty members from various departments and one graduate student.

I sat down (virtually) with Seth, along with Dr. Erin Barley, another committee member and a senior lecturer at SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences, to talk about their experiences and what made this year’s recipient, Tamara Starblanket, stand out from the wide range of nominations received.

The Sterling Prize recipient, according to the guidelines, may be rewarded to an individual whose work is the object of or presents a meaningful analysis of the conduct or consequences of controversy. It must challenge complacency, but still remain morally sound and adhere to high academic standards.

“Although there were a lot of guidelines,” Seth said, “we were always given an opportunity to expand the definition of controversy and say why we believe a person has done incredible work. It was a very collaborative process.”

Dr. Barley, who has had a lot of experience with committee work, added that what stood out about this committee in particular is its diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. “It was nice to have conversations with people from different faculties who think differently as they each brought in their own sets of ideas,” she said.

However, the main factor that the committee struggled with was deciding how important it was that the recipient was connected to the SFU community.

Nora and Ted Sterling – who established the endowment fund and prize – intended for the award to go to someone with some connection to SFU. 

“But what we really wanted to prioritize in our decision-making was that the controversy is relevant to Canadians,” Seth said.

This is why the committee chose Tamara Starblanket, the Dean of Academics at the Native Education College and a Cree woman from Ahtahkakoop First Nation in Treaty Six, whose legal research provides a rigorous documentation of Indigenous genocide by the Canadian state and unpacks Canada’s role in the removal of cultural genocide from the Genocide Convention.

Starblanket’s work is crucial, especially in the current political climate of the world. “As some of the momentum from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is winding down, it's important to reopen the conversation about the atrocities that Canada committed,” Seth said. “It is still immediate in the past and present. We need to continue the conversation.”

Typically, the Sterling Committee assesses the value of the work through how much public awareness there is for its generation of controversy in the public sphere. However, the Committee felt that Starblanket’s work wasn’t given as much public recognition — so they felt it was important to highlight her work through the Sterling Prize.

Seth described how Starblanket’s writing expressed a sense of urgency, humility and grace. Her book Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State forces Canadians to put a mirror on themselves, revealing what the country has done and how her research can be used to better our policies and our structures.

Dr. Barley praised Starblanket’s work for the way it pushed the boundaries of academic writing, while remaining substantive and grounded in research.

“It’s easy to do something provocative, but Tamara’s work goes beyond that – she has created something with value and merit that can challenge and influence public opinion and perception,” Dr. Barley said.