Connecting through language

June 11, 2012
Raina Delisle
Russell Collier

River paddlers and ecologists may be familiar with the phenomenon of sticks and leaves snagging on a rock that’s just at surface, but they likely don’t have a name for it. The Gitxsan people do; they call it ’niilok.

Russell Collier, one of Canada’s foremost Aboriginal mappers and land-use planners, believes bridging the gap between Gitxsan traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and the language of Western science would be of great benefit.

“The whole of each are highly compatible with each other,” says Collier, who graduates from Royal Roads’ MA in Environmental Education and Communication (MEEC) program June 14. “Many forest science researchers have said they’d like to incorporate traditional knowledge into their work if they knew how. Lots of First Nations and Métis have said they’d like to see their traditional knowledge used in planning exercises and research, but don’t know how to make that happen either. People have been trying this for quite a while. I think I can do something to shift that.”

Collier’s Royal Roads thesis, entitled Dances with words: ecosystem terminology and the Gitxsan language, explored opportunities to share TEK and he now plans to take his ideas further. Possibilities include consulting and teaching, and writing more on the subject in the form of shorter articles for potential publication and a book.

“It was a very brave thesis and a really interesting and provocative piece, calling on scientists to get serious about the cultures in which they work,” says Prof. Rick Kool, head of the MEEC program.

Kool says the entire faculty was impressed with Collier and his work. As a result, he won a Founders’ Award, presented to one student in each graduating cohort of a degree program in recognition of having exemplified the qualities of leadership, sustainability and personal development. He also won the Chawkers Awards and the McLean Foundation Award for Environmental Studies, both of which are based on contribution to non-governmental organizations committed to the environment.

“He’s a remarkable, inspiring man,” Kool says. “He’s very serious about his community and that was reflective through his master’s work here.”

Now with a master’s degree in hand, Collier feels he has the credibility and confidence to make a greater contribution in his community and beyond.
Collier, who is based in Walcott, B.C. (a community of 30 or 40 people close to Smithers), is currently doing contract work across Western Canada with a focus on helping Aboriginal groups articulate their best interests and assessing the probable impact of development proposals. He has been doing GIS mapping for 20 years and has been hungry for new opportunities. However, Collier says, his lack of formal education was a hindrance.

“I was missing a lot of opportunities and I was too easy to dismiss when I spoke out because I didn’t have the credentials,” says Collier, who recalls an instance when he was chair of the First Nations advisory group to the Forest Investment Account (a provincial group) and felt his group's idea to incorporate traditional knowledge into forestry research and science was ignored by a prominent researcher because it didn’t have the academic backing.  

Collier got much more than just that strong academic backing at Royal Roads.  

“When I came to Royal Roads, I was hoping for personal and professional transformation. It was everything I was hoping for,” Collier says. “The experience of being on campus was fantastic. It forced us to break out of our daily thinking, our daily habits and connect with each other. I really felt like I arrived in a community I could call my own. It was amazing. It was transformative.”