Jocelyn Joe-Strack was sitting on her desk, writing up the working land use plan for her First Nation’s land when she was struck with an idea.
“I was sitting there going, ‘This sounds like a PhD.’” She picked up the phone and called Douglas A. Clark, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and pitched her idea.
“He was really supportive of the idea to turn this three-year project to concurrently do a PhD,” she said.
But Joe-Strack didn’t stop there. She applied for the Vanier Scholarship, a prestigious government scholarship that offers $50,000 for students to pursue doctorates. Applicants are doctoral students from any discipline all across Canada.
Clark likens the scholarship application to playing hockey against the entire NHL at once.
“Every other applicant is not only a top student but also an emerging leader in their own professional or personal life. Every one of them has an inspiring story, “ he said.
When Joe-Strack applied, she was hopeful but didn’t know whether she would get the scholarship. She was sitting in Clark’s office, giving him an update on her work when she got the email.
“I was ecstatic. I showed him the email and was like, ‘Is that what it says? Does it say I got it?’”
She did. It was a special moment for her to share it with Clark, who has been working with her nation, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, for about 17 years. Clark believes that her research is unique because of the self-governing nature of the Yukon First Nations.
“Those nations, and Yukoners as a whole, have learned so much since the signing of the Umbrella Final Agreement and the world really needs to hear those lessons. Jocelyn’s research is well set up to make that happen,” he said.
Her research will focus on land use planning for Champagne and Aishihik settlement land. But it’s a land use plan unlike any other.
“It’s land use planning based on values, will and desires of the people. It’s based on culture and the old way of culture,” she said.
She wishes to tap into her people’s extensive knowledge and experience of their land to help shape her research. The relationship with the land that her community holds is integral to her work.
“We don’t view land as a commodity. We don’t look at it as a resource for extraction, conservation or preservation. It’s something we live with in a shared relationship and we need to steward and care for,” she said.
This view, she says, is something that is missing in current land use plans. She believes it could be a reason why land use planning hasn’t been successful so far in the Yukon.
“One issue with land use planning is the clash between stewardship and ownership and title and boundaries,” she said.
She hopes that her research will change this.
“My hope is that somebody from the Yukon government or Government of Canada can pick up the plan that we produce and feel that they know us better, feel that they have a sense of who we are as people and why we make decisions the way that we do,” she added.
Steve Smith, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, said Joe-Stack’s community is “excited and proud” of her work. “Chief and council (are) very happy to see all of the hard work that Jocelyn has put into her education and that Champagne and Aishihik no doubt will benefit from her attaining a PhD in land use planning,” Smith wrote in an email. “Ms. Joe-Strack is a leader within the community, and is carrying on the legacy of her father, Willie Joe, of strong community involvement and leadership through hard work.”
Joe-Strack, who hopes to write a book at the end of her research, said the land use plan is just a piece of her broader PhD work. “It’s more about the journey and significance of how we’ve come to be able to plan for the land we own,” she said.
Having previously worked with the Yukon, federal and First Nations governments, Joe-Stark is in a unique position to be a bridge for the different levels of government to work together. She hopes her work will drive reconciliation and healing within her community and beyond.
“In having all of those hats, I’m really well-equipped to to recognize where these different bodies need to start communicating a little better to create opportunities,” she said.
Asked why land use is the best way to foster collaboration between governments, she points again to the significance of land within First Nations communities.
“It’s about reflecting on yesterday where our connection to land was so strong and using that power today to influence a society that has become so disconnected from the land. For us, as a community in healing, the land is one of the best avenues for us to heal and regain our culture and language with the goal of safeguarding the land for our future generations,” she explained.
The leadership and strength that Joe-Strack exhibits comes from the past leaders of her community, including her father, Willie Joe. He was a member of the Yukon Native Brotherhood’s executive council — one of the bodies that eventually became the Council of Yukon First Nations, which negotiated the Umbrella Final Agreement.
She credits their lessons and demonstrations of leadership for the path she’s on. She hopes to pass these lessons on to her daughter, Lyla Jane. Since she was born, Joe-Strack has found a new meaning and motivation for her work.
“I continue the same path that (the Yukon Native Brotherhood) started,” she said. “I do it for my daughter so we remain together today for our children tomorrow. The purpose, the motivation and the dedication hasn’t changed since it first started and I anticipate that if I do that for her, then she would do that for her children.”
Contact Sharon Nadeem at firstname.lastname@example.org