Dr. Andrea Reid on the Skeena River near Terrace in 2018. (Photo supplied by Talon Gillis)

Dr. Andrea Reid on the Skeena River near Terrace in 2018. (Photo supplied by Talon Gillis)

Skeena Voices | ‘Thanks to the fish I found my way home’

Nisga’a scientist takes prominent role in UBC’s new Indigenous fisheries centre

The ocean currents have propelled Dr. Andrea Reid through life. From her upbringing on Canada’s eastern coastline, to her academic studies of sealife and to anchorages around the world with her unique research perspective, these currents have now brought her home.

Reid was raised by her mother of Irish decent on the shores of Prince Edward Island, where she developed a deep love for the water and the life it contained. Her father who is Nisga’a had his family torn apart in the 60s scoop and kept apart by the residential school system. Reid had never lived in the Nisga’a Nation nor spoke the Nisga’a language.

But when she chose a focus for her life, the Nisga’a Nation fully supported her education. It allowed her to complete her PhD in biology at Carleton University, receiving the Governor General’s Gold Medal and University Medal for Outstanding Graduate Work at the doctoral level.

She went on to co-found Riparia, a charity connecting young women with learning opportunities on the water. She is a National Geographic Explorer, and has worked extensively with Indigenous fisheries and fishers around the world. In Uganda, in the Lake Victoria Basin, she had an epiphany with the local fishers who could read the water and find the fish at any time, location, or season.

Fisheries were not defined by science alone, she realized, it’s about working with people.

Her appreciation of Indigenous fishers, and the continued support of the Nisga’a Nation allowed her to see the connection to her ancestral home was not lost, and it was time to return.

“Thanks to the fish I found my way home,” Reid said.

Last month the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries named Reid as assistant professor of Indigenous fisheries science and principal investigator of the new Centre for Indigenous Fisheries (CIF).

The CIF is a groundbreaking endeavour that will approach fisheries management through a blended model of modern science and Indigenous knowledge. Research will be conducted with the full participation, and permission, of Indigenous communities in response to their needs. This decolonized approach to science will determine what researchers do, how it’s done and where they go.

Reid is careful to distinguish her words. “Traditional knowledge”, she says, elicits prejudice of outdated practices, providing easy targets for conventional institutions. But calling it “Indigenous knowledge” accurately represents the complex systems of knowledge, practice and belief. It is an active noun, alive and contemporary.

“The process of science, in my view, needs to change in some important ways. Having communities and fisheries, youth and elders and knowledge keepers as true participants and partners in the process is crucial to me.

“Certainly there are communities, groups and organizations already doing wonderful work with stewardship, but there is a real lack of that kind of work from within the university structure.”

“There is so much we can learn from these longstanding practices and methodologies, these tools and understandings that have been in place for millenia. They’re matched to the environment. They’re so fundamentally place-based. There is so much that western science could learn from these approaches. My work, and the work of the centre, is about bringing together all of the tools and knowledges. It’s not abandoning western science, it has some massive strengths, but it’s about bringing together the best of both worlds.”

Reid strives to reveal the human impacts of a research subject and present it in an accessible manner. As such she regularly partners with creative minds and non-scholars to shape the findings into a relatable form, lit with emotion and meaning.

“It’s hard to hang on to a number, but it’s not hard to hang on to an emotion,” she said.

One of Reid’s first major projects will be funded with a collaboration grant from the National Geographic Society. She and three fellow Explorers — Lummi Nation poet Rena Priest, Vancouver-based photographer Amy Romer and University of Victoria conservation scientist Lauren Eckert — will combine their creative and scientific strengths to facilitate discussion on the decriminalization of Indigenous fisheries in the Salish Sea.

“It’s about both the past and present limitations on what are constitutionally protected fishing rights. There are a lot of people in this country and on this continent who don’t have a lot of awareness about these problems in a way that reflects the reality of the people who are on the ground. It leaves a lot of people confused and conflicted on who to believe and who to trust. Our intention is to just share these pretty heartbreaking stories, and to do so with compassion and precaution.”

Reid is at the front end of mapping out a long-term project for the Nass Valley.

In the meantime, she’s grateful for the opportunity her work provides to speak with elders and knowledge keepers to learn about their, and her, culture.

Since 2016 Reid has led salmon science camps in the Nisga’a Nation, but which have been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She assures the public she will carry forward with those camps once restrictions can be safely lifted.