Crystal Fraser

Studying and Making History: Crystal Gail Fraser Learns From The Past and Works Towards the Future

When things were hard, Crystal Gail Fraser kept showing up and that carried her through so many life challenges. She is of Gwichyà Gwich'in and settler ancestry, originally from Inuvik and has lived in Edmonton for the past two decades. A mom of two, she spent her own childhood in her home community, learning from her grandmother.

She works as a historian and Indigenous studies scholar at the University of Alberta and came to academia in pursuit of learning more. She remembers how at 15, she dropped out of school and became homeless, returning in her twenties to graduate after such a long break. While working at a bar full time until the early morning hours, she had a hard time keeping up but she still kept showing up.

After graduation, she moved to Edmonton for her first degree and did the same thing: she kept showing up and seeing what would happen. Then came another degree, and another. University of Alberta is where she got her Bachelors degree and her PhD and she got her Master’s degree from University of Victoria. 

Despite her success, she found the university system challenging and inhospitable to racialized people. Not everyone took her area of research seriously, saying residential school studies wasn’t a real topic. She describes it as “learning to exist in a space that is continually trying to undercut you and not only exist in this space, but actually thrive and do well, and meet the right people and be successful and get the job... All of these little things come together, which doesn't really happen by accident.”

In her research, Fraser theorized around Gwich'in concepts of strength. Her early research happened while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was active and the nation was awakening to survivor narratives. “Every single elder and knowledge keeper and survivor that I talked to had talked about how strong they were as a child, or how strong their community was, or how strong they were today in order to be able to get through all of that. Even though a lot of unfair, unethical, and inequitable things may happen in these contexts I always had this continued idea of strength running in the background in my research. But then, of course, your research starts to transfer to you and so I actually became stronger and I was able to use that strength by my research topic,” she recalls. 

Her advice to youth considering leaving home to learn or travel is to go for it. Through her studies, she has been to New Zealand, Japan, Italy, France and Norway. “I get the feelings of being scared. I actually think those feelings never go away. We just learn to ignore them and work with them better and overcome them a little bit. But it can be scary,” she acknowledges. 

"Have a good sense of who you are. You may think that you don't know who you are, but I can tell you that your ancestors know who you are, your family knows and your community knows."

The rest of her advice is rooted in identity. “Have a good sense of who you are. You may think that you don't know who you are, but I can tell you that your ancestors know who you are, your family knows and your community knows. So I bet you you know who you are,” she continues. Beyond that, Fraser suggests setting goals and having visions of what you want out of life. 

Fraser was once the only Indigenous student registered for a history of Alberta course and was told there were no Indigenous people in Alberta so they would not be studied. Later, she encountered barriers in funding and having time to go home for cultural activities and visits. Incorporating her culture in academic spaces has also been hard. 

As a historian, she’s found her discipline is fixated on archives and interpretations of written documents and she wasn’t mentored because there were no Indigenous historians. “You realize that nearly 100% of the records are written by white people, and men, and mostly Indian agents and missionaries. You start to realize like how deeply colonial things are and… it forces you to rethink in your brain. How can I see myself in this work? What would my grandma say about this right now? How can we make this more about us and less about them?” she wonders aloud. She longed to examine records where Indigenous people spoke for themselves. 

"How can we make this more about us and less about them?"

To maintain her mental health, Fraser naps to offset the sleep deprivation of raising a baby. She’s been sober for a few years, eats healthy and meditates. Getting outside even for a few moments helps her maintain perspective. 

When it comes to inspiration, Fraser is inspired by new things every day, from social media posts, making progress on her book, journaling on her phone and a desire to keep learning about residential schools. When mass graves were being discussed more in the media there was a heightened awareness about how little was known about residential schools. New funding opportunities became available and Fraser says, “there's like a spirit that has been awoken to get things and work done around this.” 

Fraser is also a founding member of the National Advisory Committee on Unmarked Graves and Missing Residential School Children. She works with organizations, Northerners, her home community, elders and family members to identify research needs and how it could be done fairly, centering survivors’ voices and with a Northern perspective. She is inspired by the childhoods of those who endured these experiences, not just ancestors but also people her own age. 

To inspire viewers, Fraser shares, “In your life and in your careers, you're going to be able to do so many amazing things… You also don't have to pigeonhole yourself. If you want to do lots of things, you can curate your life and your career to have that flexibility. You don't need to conform, even though it may feel like it. But believe in yourself because so many other people do and that's hard to see sometimes.” 

As someone who also wants to do lots of things, she has a book coming out called “By Strength, We Are Still Here”, her thesis on Northern residential schools. She’s also working with a northern birth work collective on Indigenous birth work and midwifery. The scope of her work is broad and impactful and all of that has been possible because Crystal Gail Fraser kept showing up. She showed up to see what would happen and later to find out what happened. From being the only Indigenous person in her history class to becoming the only Indigenous historian she knew, she worked in a bar and now raises it in an industry that was never set up for her to thrive.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
  • Date
    March 1, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
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