Northern Borders Project Summer Students

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It has been an exciting first year for the Northern Borders Project team. We held a Northern Animals and Borders Workshop – with the tremendous help of the NiCHE team – partnered with the David Neufeld Memorial Lecture to host the first Neufeld lecture, and edited a series on Northern borders and boundaries with fantastic contributions from an interdisciplinary group of scholars. We are so pleased with the reception our project has gotten from these pursuits.

Along with making scholarship on northern environmental history accessible, one of our primary objectives with the project was curriculum development and providing training opportunities and research experience for students. We were privileged to have received an Open Educational Resource Grant from the Council of Atlantic University Libraries to help us develop an open-access, free teaching module with a focus on the broad history of northern boundaries and borders. This grant provided us financial support in getting started on the module and, along with Saint Mary’s University student work programs, gave us the ability to collaborate with students throughout the summer.

The Northern Borders Project welcomed two summer students to our team who were invaluable partners on the project. They were enthusiastic about the work and often inspired us in brainstorming sessions and module unit planning. Great credit goes to Gabe Isenor and Bernice Perry for their contributions to this project. We want to introduce them and highlight their excellence in research and team work, so please read on to learn more about Bernice and Gabe’s experience working with the Northern Borders Project!

Bernice Perry

female standing in the foreground of a snowy lawn and an old university campus in the background
One of my proudest individual accomplishments was enrolling at SMU. First time on SMU campus, January 2020.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc.)?

I grew up in a rural community, Tignish, Prince Edward Island, where the words “women” and “research” never appeared in conversation. Being raised in a single-parent family, graduating from high school was a huge deal. The standard trope in the 80s in my hometown was that women became secretaries, nurses, schoolteachers, or they got married and had children. I did
the latter, marrying my husband of 38 years and raising two intelligent, independent young women in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia. Although lack of confidence, financial viability, and timing restricted my attendance at university, I always left the option open.

Most of my adult life was spent caring for family, volunteering, and working around my husband’s busy work schedule. In 2009, I became a breast cancer survivor. In the following years, I became an adventure seeker. I skydived, kayaked, and most importantly, began dragon boating with Bosom Buddies of Nova Scotia. A second cancer diagnosis forced me to further reevaluate my direction in life. I credit my daughter’s words, “I will support you,” for motivating me to enroll in a Bachelor of Arts degree at Saint Mary’s University on January 6, 2020. Lately, I have spent much of my time researching and studying but always find time to care for Patrick, my friend’s non-verbal, autistic young man who teaches me more about life than one can imagine. I also enjoy playing cards, washer toss, and eating incredible outdoor meals at the campground. I especially enjoy sitting by the brook in the wooded oasis surrounded by Indigenous art. The art brings me a sense of calmness and peace. I appreciate the stillness and skill it takes someone to sit quietly whittling until a piece is finished.

Image of an Indigenous mask on a tree surrounded by vibrant green leaves.
One of the art pieces at the campground. Unknown Artist.

How did you come to this position working as part of the Northern Borders Project?

I believed enrolling in university at the age of 56 was the most unrealistic thing I could ever do, but I was wrong. My interest in history, especially missing and forgotten narratives in the North, piqued my interest. Wanting to learn more, I applied and was delighted to hear I had received the prestigious SSHRC first-year undergraduate summer award. Working alongside my history professor, Dr. Heather Green and her dedicated team, as a research assistant, I contributed my first research to the Northern Borders and Boundaries teaching module.

What individual project are you working on?

During my summer research in 2021, I discovered the High Arctic Relocations. The stories I read, and the interviews I heard, enticed me to continue researching the topic. In the beginning, my attention focused on the relocation in general and the government’s intention. I was heartbroken by the atrocities forced upon the Inuit. One day, while struggling with the story, I took a leap of faith, scrapped my story map’s original theme, and randomly opened an article announcing Markoosie Patsauq’s death. Perhaps it was the connection I felt from the many hours I had spent watching and hearing Inuk interviews, or it could have been how defeated and tired I felt, but I broke down crying. I decided to tell the story of Markoosie Patsauq. My story map, “The 1953 Inuit Relocation – Markoosie Patsauq was only twelve,” is about an unsung hero who survived tuberculosis, residential schools, and the relocation and became a pilot, novelist, and activist.

What part of this work was/is most exciting for you?

Working alongside knowledgeable scholars and a resourceful student on the Northern Borders and Boundaries teaching module was exciting. Furthermore, knowing that students will discuss Northern narratives reflected in the module is extremely rewarding.

Has this work made a lasting impact on you, your education, or your future career goals?

Woman standing in front of a window and greenery, wearing a mask and holding an iPad.
First time back to SMU after Covid restrictions were partially lifted. October 2021.

The answer is yes, yes, and yes. The injustices and lack of exposure during the High Arctic Relocations have led me to broaden my research to unveil other Northern narratives lacking attention. I have been educated beyond my imagination, conversing and sharing information with those who are willing to listen. I am grateful that “research” and “women” are now used in the same sentence within my family and community.

Other than your current project, what else are you interested to research about?

During this project, I learned I resonate well with the stories of people. I am interested in doing a story map about the Klondike Gold Rush and highlighting Martha Black, an amazing woman who climbed the Chilkoot Pass while pregnant and illegally rode the rapids to reach her destination. Women partaking in the arduous journey through the rapids faced jail time if caught. Instead, they walked on foot around the coastline. I also have a personal interest in creating a story map depicting my great-great, Grandfather Stanislaus Perry’s political journey and digging further into Acadian history.

Do you have one book, film, article, work of art, or musical artist related to Northern History that you recommend others check out?

I would recommend the film Broken Promises to anyone who wants to hear first-hand accounts from Inuit forcibly relocated to the High Arctic in 1953. I also enjoyed the fantastic film Capturing Spirit: An Inuit Journey. As for books, Women of the Klondike by Frances Backhouse has impressive stories about not-so-typical women of the time. Martha Black is one of the women portrayed in her novel.

Gabe Isenor

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc)?

When people ask me where I’m from, I struggle putting a clear label on it. If they’re from Atlantic Canada, I usually end up saying “30 minutes from Truro”, which doesn’t feel quite right. It feels misleading. To find the small hobby farm my sister, brothers and I grew up on, you’ll have to step off the beaten tracks a bit. At the end of a dirt road, my early childhood was spent in the forests and rivers, supervised only by my older siblings and our family dog. Tapping maple trees, swimming in the river, weeding the gardens and bottle-feeding the goats. There were no neighbors at the end of a dirt road, and we had no TV.

But as I grew older, into middle school and high school, I lost my passion for these outdoor pursuits. “Growing” increasingly disconnected from nature. This was a period of turmoil and change, resulting in my big and boisterous homelife shrinking from 6 to 2, leaving only myself and my Dad commuting to and from Truro. My passions became limited mostly to football, rugby, and video games, i.e things that damage the brain. As my high school career drew to a close I faced the inevitable question of what to do now and where to do it. Almost solely based on one programming class I enjoyed, and the promise of job security, I decided to go into the Computer Science program at Saint Mary’s University.

Two years later, in March of 2020, COVID-19 crashed into Halifax, and shut down Universities. In the face of this unknown threat I fled my Halifax basement apartment I was living at, to go back to the farmhouse. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty that characterized this period, my father threw open the doors to my siblings, their partners, and me. With eight people now living there, the place once again came to life. The barn was repaired and filled with animals and our days were spent together on the land, dreaming of the “Isenor commune.” For me, this was a transformative period that lead me to seriously reconsider my path.

I realized my educational direction so far, consisting of Computer Science and Business Management as you can see it here, was not leading me to where I belonged. Through engaged rural living, I accepted that a vibrant, passionate life full of genuine connections to family and friends was something worth pursuing, and “job security” was not a good enough reason to devote your life to something you were not interested in. Armed with this realization, I transferred into the History Program at Saint Mary’s, with plans to retain a minor in Computer Science. A degree I surmised could lay the foundation for a newly found ambition to go into teaching, while allowing me the flexibility to choose classes I was genuinely interested in.

How did you come to this position working as part of the Northern Borders Project?

My history degree started in the fall of 2021, the year Saint Marys University transitioned to online learning at websites like While I chafed somewhat to this disconnected environment, my courses were interesting and I felt secure in my decision. In the spring of 2021, I took an online course taught by Dr. Heather Green, History of Film: The North. At the time, I was living with Tara, my north-obsessed girlfriend, someone who had previously lived in an Arctic research station in Northern Sweden and quite enjoyed speaking in depth on the region. When the pandemic locked Halifax down again, and our “bubble” became just two of us, the film class- and more broadly the North- became a strong intersection of our interests. We watched and discussed each film together, often at length. Our individual conversations were followed up by the weekly class discussion facilitated by our professor. It was in one of these weekly discussions where I mentioned my ambitions of going into education. The Northern Borders project was in the process of developing a teaching module out of the media it had already curated and was looking to take on a student for the summer. Dr. Green passed the job information to me and the rest was (environmental) history.

What part of this work was/is most exciting for you?

To me, the most exciting part of this work was the opportunity to learn more about the characteristics of the massive swaths of land that make up Canada. Despite being such a huge part of Canada, the North is criminally under-represented in contemporary society. In particular, learning about the Inuit peoples of Canada has been an extremely interesting and inspiring experience. The Canadian North has such intense environmental challenges, challenges that make those who reside there resilient, adaptable, and unique.

But what really excited me was the open ended nature of my work and flexibility with areas of research. The Northern Borders team had plenty of ideas and direction but was not totally cemented on the specifics topics for it’s upcoming module. Working with professional academics who shared their knowledge and yet were open to receiving input from my findings was a special sort of introduction to the field of academia. Beyond those I worked immediately with, I also had the chance to reach out and talk to other northern academics and authors. The community I was brought into can be genuinely described as gracious, welcoming, and supportive.

Has this work made a lasting impact on you, your education, or your future career goals?

Well for one, I now have plans to go North. I recognize my time spent on films, articles, books, and photos is a minuscule piece of the northern world, and I believe that travelling and experiencing the land itself will be a rich and rewarding adventure. As this position was remote, it was also geographically flexible and I used this opportunity to live and work from the west coast of Newfoundland. My work was thus inseparably intertwined with that fact that I was spending time researching land I have not seen, while living and exploring a novel landscape. A particular combination of situations which had me:

a) Enjoying a new location and culture
b) Missing my home
c) Envisioning my future adventures Northward

This work and life experience has made the prospect of travelling North to teach seem possible, meaningful and worthwhile.

Do you have one book, film, article, work of art, or musical artist related to Northern history that you recommend others check out?

I’m glad you asked!

Over the summer I had the fortunate position of immersing myself into the National Film Board archive of films centered on Northern Canada. These films are a totally mixed bag, ranging from Indigenous-led creative enterprises to government propaganda. Others still escape easy categorization. One in particular, High Arctic: Life on the Land (1958), struck me as particularly odd. The film itself is based around the ecology of the far north, but it just has the most bizarre musical score. It takes pictures of plants growing in the sun, and sets it to this ominous, horror film inspired orchestration.

Another big category of these films consist of stark reflections of dated, paternalistic views and policies of white Canadian men who viewed the North as a region to exploit for personal and national aims. These films are not set to ominous music, but instead feature cheery tunes set to the images of land degradation and erosion of traditional ways of living. Films like Look to the North(1944), Road of Iron(1955), and Down North(1958) all are films speaking from an Canadian Nationalist, exploitive framework, one that has had tragic long term consequences for the peoples who reside in the Canadian North. The lens they viewed the world in is on full display in these films and it can be useful to see, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

A much better short film to watch is Northern Games(1981). This film features an annual Inuit cultural gathering centered around a blend of modern and traditional Inuit customs and friendly competition. Historically the Inuit spent a big portion of their arctic winters together with kin inside igloos. This unique reality of life led to all sorts of activities that served as a means of passing the time. Inuit throat singing, carvings, and igloo making are the more widely known cultural practices of the Inuit, but this only begins to scratch the surface. This film does a great job of showcasing the evolution of these igloo based activities into a border transcending event for the broader Inuit community.

But to answer the question of just one media recommendation, it would have to be Picturing a People: George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer. This film by Carol Geddes showcases the story of a Indigenous fur trapper in Canada during a critical period in history. George Johnston has left a particularly visual historical legacy due to his early and wholehearted adoption of photography practices. George Johnston leaves an inspiring example of Two-eyed seeing,  adaptation to change yet respecting towards the continuation of traditions and ways of living on the land. Explored through the medium of genuine historical photographs, recreated scenes of life and spoken word from his direct descendants, Picturing a People is a captivating film. The film shows an initial prospering culture becoming a victim of gradual degradation of society by outside forces. This degradation comes to a head with the construction of the Alaska Highway during the second world war, a development historically remembered as a heroic feat and a grandiose achievement. But for those who lived on the land it cut through, it was not something to celebrate. It was the beginning of the end.

Carol Geddes, the films director, was a descendant of one of these communities that was changed as a result of the highway and accompanying disease, residential schools, and alcohol. Growing up Native, a short autobiography by Carol Geddes, offers another piece to the story that pairs together her experience post-highway with George Johnston’s pre-highway existence. Together, they form a intergenerational story of an often ill-considered historical event.

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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