Projects bring diverse perspectives to archeology and the justice system

A sociologist and an archeologist have received prestigious fellowships to examine and find solutions to pressing social problems in their fields.

Temitope Oriola

Sociologist Temitope Oriola and archeologist Kisha Supernant (pictured below) have received national Dorothy Killam Fellowships to examine and find solutions to two pressing social problems. (Photo: John Ulan)

Two scholars in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts have received prestigious national fellowships to examine pressing social problems.

Sociologist Temitope Oriola will assess how professionals who are Indigenous, Black and people of colour fare in Canada’s criminal justice system. Archeologist Kisha Supernant will explore ways to transform Canada’s heritage policy and practice to ensure Indigenous communities secure the right to their cultural heritage and how it is framed.

Both have received recently launched Dorothy Killam Fellowships, awarded annually to between five and eight scholars across the country, and worth $160,000 over two years. The fellowships provide relief from teaching and administrative duties while researchers pursue “original, transformational and future-focused knowledge and technology” aimed at “challenging the way we live.”

“Kisha and Temitope are exemplars in the arts community, and I’m so pleased they are being recognized and honoured in this way,” says Robert Wood, dean of the Faculty of Arts

“The fellowships not only reflect the depth and quality of their research expertise, but also their commitments to illuminate topics and issues of the greatest importance to our society.”

Focusing on professionals in the justice system 

In his research proposal, Oriola notes that while some research has been done on people in the criminal justice system who are Indigenous, Black or people of colour, it tends to focus mainly on their “victimization and historical positionality as oppressed persons or contemporary clients.” There is a huge knowledge gap when it comes to individuals from these groups who work in the Canadian justice system, he says.

“Little is known about BIPOC professionals with careers as police officers, judges, defence lawyers, crown prosecutors and corrections officers in Canada,” he writes, adding that filling that gap is crucial in the age of Black Lives Matter, decolonization and movements against Asian hate.

What does it feel like to work in those institutions at this moment in Canadian history? Oriola asks. He cites a “major crisis of legitimacy” in criminal justice institutions, following the cases of Regis Korchinski-Paque and Colten Boushie and the release of the 2021 annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator reflecting the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black peoples in prison.

Driving Oriola’s research agenda are four questions: How do professionals manage their identities as persons from historically marginalized groups while concurrently navigating and representing Canadian criminal justice bureaucracies? How do they see proposed solutions such as defunding the police or hiring more minorities? Why do they seek careers and remain in criminal justice bureaucracies? And how should the answers to those questions influence criminal justice policy?

With the help of graduate students, Oriola plans to conduct 100 interviews with criminal justice professionals who are Indigenous, Black and people of colour, then produce a book and peer-reviewed articles. He will also disseminate findings by engaging with the public and stakeholders through academic conferences, his monthly column in the Edmonton Journal, and social media, as well as engaging city councils and provincial and federal governments. 

Oriola served as special adviser to the Government of Alberta on its Police Act review and produced recommendations for the Police Amendment Act of 2022. He also appeared before the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights in 2022.

Kisha Supernant plans to design an archeology database that reflects Métis ways of knowing and allows community members to access knowledge about the lives of their ancestors in ways that make sense to them. (Photo: John Ulan)

Indigenous ways of knowing in archeology

Kisha Supernant, who is Métis, will turn her critical lens to Canada’s heritage laws, which are undergoing significant transformation partly in response to the federal government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While much Indigenous history is told through archeology, she says, most archeologists in Canada are not Indigenous. Nor are Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their own cultural heritage recognized through policy, which undermines Indigenous data sovereignty and self-determination.

“In most jurisdictions, provinces and territories are the managers and stewards of any archeological materials found,” she writes in her proposal for the Killam Fellowship.

“Indigenous people do not have the ability to determine how belongings [artifacts], ancestors [human remains] and places [archeological sites] are cared for.” This runs counter to the United Nations declaration, says Supernant. 

Archeological materials tend to end up in museums, collections and databases developed through western frameworks of knowledge, she says. Returning belongings and ancestors to Indigenous communities is one important step towards reconciliation, but communities must also be empowered to “determine what constitutes data, how it is organized, who has access and how it is stewarded for the generations to come.”

Through an ongoing project called Exploring Métis Identity Through Archaeology, and working with Métis elders and knowledge holders, Supernant plans to design a database that reflects Métis ways of knowing and allows community members to access knowledge about the lives of their ancestors in ways that make sense to them.

With her First Nations and Métis partners, Supernant also plans to help communities develop culturally appropriate heritage policy in Alberta and Manitoba. 

She will host a workshop of Indigenous heritage leaders, legal scholars, Indigenous archeologists and heritage practitioners to discuss and develop an Indigenous-led, co-ordinated national strategy for changing archeological practice. In all of these initiatives, Supernant adds, she will engage diverse graduate students through the U of A’s Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology.

The Dorothy Killam Fellowships were created in 2022 after the administration of the National Killam Program was transferred from the Canada Council for the Arts to the National Research Council of Canada.

The fellowships support leading researchers “whose superior, groundbreaking and transformative research stands to positively improve the lives of Canadians … and whose work exemplifies inclusion and understanding of people, cultures and needs with participation among economic, social and cultural backgrounds,” according to the website.