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Meet Gillian McNaughton, OFI Module I Master's student

by Gillian McNaughton

Listening to people talk about their connection to the land and fish has by far been the most incredible aspect of this project. Innu memory of their relationship with land, animals and fish goes back generations that pre-date European arrival in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A lifelong resident of the Northwest Territories with years of hands-on experience in the environmental sector, Gillian possess an unstoppable passion for nature and is especially interested in supporting culturally and contextually relevant strategies for environmental and wildlife stewardship. Some of her career highlights thus far have included coordinating a grizzly bear DNA project on the tundra, working with communities in Nunavut to protect culturally important shoreline areas, and traveling the Mackenzie River by boat. In addition to working and her educational pursuits, for the past five years Gillian has held a seat on a steering committee for a northern charity that encourages the development of northern young leaders through on-the-land camps and programming.

What is your research about? What are you currently working on? 

My research is looking at land claims and self-governance processes between Indigenous peoples and the Federal and Provincial or Territorial governments of Canada through the lens of the cultural relations with fish. More broadly, I am investigating how management of fisheries in land claims areas is negotiated and ultimately implemented in light of these relations.

What drew you to explore this topic originally?

The partner on this project, the Innu Nation, identified a need to look at Innu cultural valuation of fish in order to inform future fisheries management when their treaty is implemented. I found it an exciting project from the beginning as land claims have always been of interest to me, but I've had few opportunities previously to delve in on a professional or academic level. Having grown up in Inuvik, NT during the years that the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in agreements were finalized and implemented, from a young age the impacts that treaties have had on Indigenous peoples has been on my periphery - although as I've experienced throughout my research, treaties are incredibly complex and there is much to learn. Taking a deeper dive into this subject area through looking at environmental management in this respect was an opportunity to expand on this interest while incorporating my professional and experiential background.

What is the most interesting aspect of your research? Share something you have discovered through your research so far.

Listening to people talk about their connection to the land and fish has by far been the most incredible aspect of this project. Innu memory of their relationship with land, animals and fish goes back generations that pre-date European arrival in Newfoundland and Labrador. Something that wasn't surprising but striking nonetheless was how inseparable colonialism is from contemporary fisheries - it was something I heard time and time again, embedded in stories and experiences that were shared.

How does your research address present day fisheries issues in Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewhere? How does it help inform governance responses for coastal communities in the province in a context of change?

Culturally and contextually relevant strategies for fisheries management are critical on both a local and global level. By looking at Indigenous cultural valuation of fisheries, culturally informed management strategies can be developed that in turn supports Indigenous communities who continue to face often disproportionate levels of change.

What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?

When engaging with work that involves Indigenous partners and rights holders, it is important that we take responsibility for learning how we've arrived to where we – and our partners – now find ourselves situated. In the case of my research, learning about the history of Indigenous-Crown relations and the history of the state’s dispossession and appropriation of land and water that now forces Indigenous peoples to engage in lengthy processes of negotiation to regain the ability to be decision-makers of their traditional territories was critical. Just as the Innu cannot speak about what fish mean to them without speaking of the harms colonialism continues to inflict upon them, I cannot approach writing about fisheries management without centering those experiences. When I first set out on this project, initially I was looking to a lot of technical and historical literature on fisheries management that really did not dig beyond the last few decades. Going beyond that literature and delving into the wealth of information available from predominantly Indigenous scholars supported the trajectory of this project in being able to complement the qualitative data that I was working with.

What are the next steps and what do you want to achieve with your research?

It likely goes without saying the last few months have differed from what was originally planned, but next I am completing my thesis and an advisory report for the Innu Nation with fisheries management recommendations based on the ethnographic fieldwork I completed. It is my hope that this report will provide that cultural valuation component that was identified as a gap at the outset of this project.

What do you like doing when you are not working on research?

The accessible wilderness opportunities in Newfoundland are one of the things that drew me to pursue graduate studies at MUN and I try to spend a lot of time outside. While it is difficult being so far away from home and my family during a time when travel – and everything for that matter – is hindered, I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to be.

Learn more:

To be in touch with Gillian, you can reach her at

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Written by Gillian McNaughton

Gillian is an OFI Module I Master's student at Memorial University's Geography Department. Her research project 'Innu Fisheries into the Future', co-supervised by Dr. Mario Blaser and Dr. Julia Christensen, is part of sub-module I-3 on Perceptions, Values and Knowledge of people in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

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