Mere months away her June 2020 convocation at Calgary’s St. Mary’s University, Kate Gillis’ days are full of Zoom call collaboration and deep-dive independent research.
Such is the life of an academic in 2021.
The 22-year-old Métis woman, who graduated with a BA in History at St. Mary’s, is navigating the intensiveness that comes with being a first-year graduate student in pursuit of a Master’s degree in Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan The focus of her thesis is Métis feminism.
On top of that, the Calgary-born and raised Gillis — her Métis roots are planted in the St. Laurent rural community in Manitoba’s Red River region — is also serving as a K-12 Education team intern for the Rupertsland Institute Métis Centre of Excellence.
This non-profit, with offices in nine Alberta communities, provides a comprehensive suite of professional and educational services to Métis people all over Canada’s most populous prairie province.
Her effort in the 2020-21 academic year has paid off substantially. She earned her an academic achievement award at the University of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Student Achievement Awards Ceremony on Feb. 4. This honour commemorates “academic achievement, leadership, research, resilience and community engagement.”
“As a first-year graduate student, it was really encouraging and reassuring to me to know my work has been paying off,” Gillis said.
Building connections with peers and professors — in spite of the obvious limitations that accompanies virtual-only learning — has been a highlight of her year.
Her love for collaboration was evident during her four years at St. Mary’s under the mentorship of St. Mary’s University professors, Norman Knowles and Gayle Thrift.
“I believe Kate valued the opportunity to build supportive relationships with both her professors and her peers within our close-knit university community,” said Thrift, an assistant professor of history and the interdisciplinary studies chair for the social sciences.
Thrift adds that her former pupil’s passion for Métis studies was evident in many of her major assignments, which included examining Indigenous soldiers’ roles during both World Wars and the decolonization of archives.
The professor, who has also taught at Mount Royal University, admired Gillis as “a passionate advocate for the Indigenous perspective” who articulately “communicates these concerns with a sensitivity that facilitates understanding and empathy.”
Gillis said that a high point at St. Mary’s was a History of Indigenous Peoples in Canada course with Thrift in her second year.
“I was instantly hooked. Studying under both Dr. Thrift and Dr. Knowles provided me the opportunity to explore and pursue not only Indigenous history on a broad scale, but myself and my family.”
With the research skills she acquired working on projects at St. Mary’s, Gillis is confident she has the tools needed to authoritatively document the role of Métis women in Métis history.
“St. Mary’s University provided me a foundational background into studying and researching history,” said Gillis.
“One of the highlights of the history department is the capstone project in your final year. This provides the opportunity to research a topic of your own choosing and work with a supervisor to complete this work. I found this especially helpful prior to entering grad school to get a taste of independent, self-directed research.”
Gillis said her research career is still in its infancy. Her next year will be devoted to incorporating the foundational St. Mary’s skill: unearthing archives, conducting interviews, forging community and giving a commanding written voice to her research subjects.