Nov. 8, 2018
Class of 2018: PhD graduate studies how traditional laws protect Indigenous communities
Dr. Beverly Jacobs has spent decades exploring and educating people about the historical trauma and other effects of colonization and advocating for the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. She’s received a long list of awards and accolades, including the Order of Canada, and this November Jacobs will walk the stage to receive her interdisciplinary PhD.
Jacobs, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor, is from the Mohawk Nation, a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Southern Ontario. When she began her PhD at UCalgary into how Indigenous laws and Eurocentric laws can protect the holistic health of Indigenous communities in the context of resource development, she thought she’d study communities near the oilsands.
“The original intent of my PhD was to go to the tarsands but it’s a very political issue so I decided that if I had to deal with political issues I’d come back to one of my own Mohawk communities,” she says. She chose Akwesasne.
“By the time the conclusion came, it became quite obvious that the protection of holistic health is through the practice of our own traditional laws, which means self-determination. So, I also argued that we do have the right to self-determination under section 35 of the Constitution Act in Canada.”
Jacobs’ supervisor was human rights expert Jennifer Koshan in the Faculty of Law. One of the members of the supervisory committee was an Elder and scientist from the Akwesasne community, Henry Lickers. “He came along during the whole process,” she says. “I want to acknowledge the university’s willingness to ensure that an Elder representing the community was part of my committee.”
Jacobs is also grateful for the friends she made and support she received from Blackfoot communities around Calgary. While working on her PhD — "Impacts of Industrial Development on the Holistic Health of the Mohawk Peoples of Akwesasne: A Human Responsibility and Rights Solution" — not only was Jacobs working full time, she was also suffering from much personal loss including the murder of her pregnant cousin.
“I had some really good relationships that helped me through the difficulties I was having,” she says. “Going through that process of understanding how resource development has impacted Indigenous people is also a very emotional issue so I had the help of the counsellors from the Native Centre on campus that really helped me through the years that I was in Calgary.”
Jacobs is one of the first Indigenous scholars in Canada to receive an interdisciplinary PhD in this field. It’s yet another achievement in her long career which includes starting the First Nations Law Students Society at the University of Windsor Law School and heading up the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC).
“My focus has always been about advocating for our people and bringing awareness of who we are as a people, the truth about our history, the history of colonization and the impacts on our people,” she says. “I feel that the education system isn’t telling the truth. I think it’s really important to ensure that the truth is told.”