Transdisciplinary research and reconciliation in Haida Gwaii

Erin Alexiuk, Geneva Cloutis and Dan McCarthy Prof. Dan McCarthy and SERS graduate students Erin Alexiuk and Geneva Cloutis in Haida Gwaii.

Transdisciplinarity: A vision for research and learning that transcends disciplinary paradigms, extending the research process to all relevant knowledge holders and stakeholders for the purpose of developing practical solutions to wicked, real world problems.

Transformative learning: involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feeling, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and permanently alters our way of being in the world.


The most rewarding and impactful research of my career has been of this kind. When I’m lucky, I have the privilege to witness moments of transformative transdisciplinarity.

The archipelago of Haida Gwaii is located approximately 70km off the northwest coast of British Columbia and is the ancestral home of the Haida Nation who have occupied Haida Gwaii since time immemorial. There is a long-standing tradition among the Haida Nation and the islands’ municipalities of innovation and collaborative leadership resulting in numerous precedent-setting blockades, legal battles (Haida v. BC 2004), and negotiated agreements. After nearly 40 years fighting to (re)assert, defend, and protect Haida rights and title.

Drawing on Haida Gwaii’s legacy of innovation and leadership, the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society (HGHES) was established as an enterprising non-profit organization that develops and delivers transformative education inspired by people, lands, and seas of Haida Gwaii. Through the HGHES and its semester programs, undergraduate students from around the world journey to Haida Gwaii each September and January to learn from and with the Haida Nation, island communities, and provincial and federal governments as they work through complex joint management models towards reconciliation and sustainability.

For the past 6 years, I have called Haida Gwaii my second home, spending 3 weeks each November as a visiting instructor. From the moment I step off the plane, time simultaneously slows down and speeds up. Being on the islands invites one to be more reflective, mindful and responsive to the natural environment. But there is always change afoot, whether its preserving the Haida Language, providing local food to the schools, or piloting Canada’s first full semester in reconciliation studies, it’s not hard to be busy on Haida Gwaii. This legacy of innovation and leadership enables HGHES’s place-based, transdisciplinary approach which views the social and ecological systems of Haida Gwaii as natural classrooms, grounding course content in living, local case studies and fostering a rich collaboration between academics and local knowledge holders.

Recently, the communities of Haida Gwaii identified a need to broaden the scope of place-based, intercultural research and learning by HGHES in the spirit of reconciliation. In this new context, researchers and professionals must work together with the public to address the nuanced variations within and between diverse social contexts, false divisions between nature and culture, and the relationship between scientific and practical knowledge(s) to enhance social-ecological sustainability. Always looking for useful way to apply a transdisciplinary systems perspective to wicked problems, my research has most recently led to an exploration of how systems thinking may be applied in the context of reconciliation on Haida Gwaii.

I was happy to be invited to discussions that identified a window of opportunity on Haida Gwaii for intercultural social innovation in reconciliation as the result of a growing national interest in reconciliation and the capacity for intercultural innovation on Haida Gwaii, and community-level interest in teaching and research. Soon after, the Haida Gwaii Museum (HGM) joined the research team. In April 2017, we were awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant for the project, Practicing Reconciliation through Teaching and Research on Haida Gwaii. The project aims to examine, support, and document how HGHES and the HGM respond to this window of opportunity as both examples of, and change agents in, reconciliation processes on Haida Gwaii and across Canada.

Transformative transdisciplinarity is a theme running throughout my time on Haida Gwaii and the SSHRC Insight project exploring education in reconciliation studies. I see it in the students leaving the islands, irrevocably changed by the three months they’ve spent learning in the living classroom so generously provided by the communities, environment, and seas of Haida Gwaii. I see it in our project team, facing the challenges of educating a new generation of resource managers with a transdisciplinary perspective. And I see it in myself, as my perspective changes a little more with each visit, transforming towards something more discerning, open to change, and a little bit closer to understanding what reconciliation might look like in my lifetime.