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March 14, 2002 Gail Valaskakis wins Aboriginal Achievement Award



Gail Valaskakis

Gail Valaskakis, former Arts and Science dean

by Barbara Black

Look for Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, former Concordia Dean of Arts and Science, on national television this spring.

She has won a national Aboriginal Achievement Awards in the category of Media and Communications for her academic work, which was done for the most part at Concordia between 1970 and 1997. The awards were presented at a gala in Winnipeg last Sunday night, and the event will be broadcast by CBC sometime in April.

Valaskakis is Canada’s leading authority on northern and aboriginal media and communications. Back in the late 1960s, she began travelling to the North to do the fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation.

She studied the impact that a satellite system would have on the people and their traditional way of life. Through this research, she came to play a pivotal role as an advisor to native groups who were establishing their own communications systems.

She wrote a report for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and many articles and papers on the subject. She was invited to lecture in China, Russia, Israel, the U.S. and at universities across Canada.

She left Concordia in 1997, and wrote a book. Gail now lives and works in Ottawa, where she is director of research for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. This organization was established in 1998 in response to the concerns raised in the Royal Commission in the mid-90s about the impact of residential schools.

Between 1863 and 1983, approximately 107,000 aboriginal people attended 130 residential schools run by the national churches and funded by the government. For many, this led to the loss of their languages, cultures and families; for some, it involved traumatic physical and sexual abuse.

In January 1998, the federal government created a “healing fund” of $350 million. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is a not-for-profit organization established to manage this fund. It focuses on assessing, funding and monitoring almost 500 healing programs that range from healing circles to specialized trauma centres.

As research director, Valaskakis identifies and promotes the “best healing practices” that emerge from aboriginal projects, particularly in relation to sex offenders, physical abuse and the intergenerational impacts of residential school experience.

In an article she wrote recently for the Concordia Pensioners Association newsletter, she said, “These research areas are challenging, because there is little aboriginal-specific data or literature, especially in relation to Inuit and Métis communities, and we are working in a tight timeframe.

“To support our research agenda, the Foundation has partnered with the Aboriginal Mental Health Research Team, which is sponsored by McGill University and the Jewish General Hospital, to apply for a five-year SSHRC grant through the Community Alliances for Health Research Program.

“Research, too, hopes to contribute to greater understanding within not only the general public, but among aboriginal children and their parents and grandparents through the development of school curricula and other resources.

“We may not know the extent of our impact for years, but we’re encouraged by the feedback we’ve had from some communities. The Foundation looks forward to sharing what we learn with aboriginal communities and others through our Web site, publications and resource centre.”

Gail’s work at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation has led to other activities in Ottawa, including the editorial board of ISUMA, the new Canadian Journal of Policy Research, and the co-chairship of a group of aboriginal scholars who are undertaking an horizontal research project in partnership with an inter-departmental government committee, an initiative that is sponsored by the Policy Research Secretariat.