CHASIcast: Dr. Sarah Beaulieu’s conflict anthropology resurfaces Canada’s buried past

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu, a conflict anthropologist, UFV professor, and CHASI faculty associate, joins us on the latest episode of the CHASIcast. Her work spans from the classroom to archaeological sites, with a focus on former internment camps and working with First Nations groups.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu sits in the CIVL Radio studio with a microphone in front of her. Behind her, a window looks out at the UFV Abbotsford Student Union Building Atrium, with flags visible hanging from the ceiling above. A quote from Dr. Beaulieu reads: “You are working with disenfranchised communities, marginalized communities, and giving voice to those communities who have essentially been forgotten about ... bringing to light a part of history that we are no longer talking about. And we can’t learn from our mistakes unless we talk about it and make amends for it.”

In this episode, Dr. Beaulieu discusses how she found a passion for conflict anthropology, the range of ways to memorialize victims, and how she pieces together history using clues ranging from kitchen scraps to escape tunnels.

Our conversation with Dr. Beaulieu continues in the next episode of The CHASIcast.

Hosted by CHASI’s director Dr. Martha Dow and recorded in CIVL Radio’s studio at the University of the Fraser Valley, the CHASIcast is available to stream below, or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, and other platforms!

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Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: As we know, history is often written through the lens of the victor. So you are working with disenfranchised communities, marginalized communities, and giving voice to those communities who have essentially been forgotten about. So the work is very important in that aspect of bringing to light a part of history that we are no longer talking about. And we can’t learn from our mistakes unless we talk about it and make amends for it.

Intro: Based out of the University of the Fraser Valley on unceded, traditional lands of the Sto:lo people, we are the Community Health and Social Innovation Hub, or CHASI for short. We support the social, mental, emotional, physical, and economic health of those living in our communities by bringing together experts from across disciplines. Those experts have some incredible stories and insights. To share those with the communities we serve, we bring you the CHASIcast, a monthly program where we drill down on a current topic and chat about how it impacts our lives.

Dr. Martha Dow: It is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Sarah Beaulieu. Dr. Beaulieu is a longstanding member of the UFV community, with your most recent accolades being your appointment to a tenure track position in the School of Culture, Media, and Society while also currently completing your role as a research fellow in conflict anthropology. And that’s a co-appointment between the South Asian Studies Institute, which is SASI, and CHASI and we were thrilled about that partnership. And of course, most important to us, you’re an incredibly active and valued faculty associate in CHASI. So, welcome.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Thank you very much. I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Martha Dow: So you’re a conflict anthropologist, and I thought we could just start there. What is that? What was your journey to that, in terms of both your academic journey and your interest?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Conflict anthropology is such a fascinating field because when we look at anthropology, it’s really a subdiscipline within modern conflict archeology. And with that it focuses on conflict from the 20th and 21st centuries. And it is interdisciplinary, which is what I love so much about it. So with that, it brings in anthropologists, it brings in heritage and museum studies, it brings in historians, it brings in psychologists and, you know, cultural geographers for instance.

So I love the interdisciplinarity about modern conflict anthropology. What’s great about it is that you’re working often within the realm of living memory. Well, it’s great, it’s good, and it’s also very sensitive in its nature. And with that you’re working with the lived experience of many communities.

There’s a lot of sensitivity when it comes to disseminating the information from your research. So, for instance, often working with human remains or burials, working with sites of memory, working within, you know, the government, political, and economic sectors, with tourism and whatnot. And so it’s an all-encompassing field working within communities that have lived through conflict.

Dr. Martha Dow: How do you navigate that? You know, you say, I think it’s interesting you talk about it being interdisciplinary. It almost feels like you need, you know, those supports on site in many cases. Is that so? How do you walk that line of such sensitivity and yet obviously the work to be done?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: It’s very sensitive. It’s important to acknowledge as researchers our own biases when we’re going into the research itself. It’s important to acknowledge the many stakeholder communities that you’re working with as well, and being able to navigate those fine lines and having no bias within the research that we’re conducting while also honoring the communities whose interest it is to have you come there and conduct the work itself.

Often you have communities where the perpetrators and victims are still living as neighbors. So you risk bringing back conflict that you had never planned to do within your research. And so it’s very sensitive in the nature of the work itself and, and being very careful in how the information is disseminated.

Dr. Martha Dow: I’m doing a course, you know ’cause we’ve chatted about it, this year on the public apology. And when I think of your work and what you just described, in many cases there’s this response societally, sometimes institutionally, where we see the need to make amends, if you will. How important is the research to some of those political kinds of moments that we see?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: The research is important because, as we know, history is often written through the lens of the victor. So you are working with disenfranchised communities, marginalized communities, and giving voice to those communities who have essentially been forgotten about. So the work is very important in that aspect of bringing to light a part of history that we are no longer talking about, and we can’t learn from our mistakes unless we talk about it and make amends for it.

Dr. Martha Dow: One of the projects that was a lot of fun for us to be a part of because it was so important and it was a different medium, was the documentary on Monashee. And I wonder if you could talk a bit about, you know, that work, what it was like doing the documentary and bringing that to life, and obviously having the screening that had some really positive response to it as well.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: A lot of my work has been with first World War internment camps in Canada. It’s work and research that really has only come to light since about the early 2000s. When you’re speaking with students, or the public in general, are very familiar with internment camps from the Second World War with Japanese internees or German internees. But when we look back, you know, to the First World War, very few people are aware that we had Austro-Hungarian, or those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and also Germans again, that were interned during the first World War.

So when I first began my research, it was with the Morrissey internment camp outside of southeastern British Columbia. And then subsequent to that one was the Monashee Internment Camp, which is in the Monashee Mountains in Vernon. And the great part of being able to have a documentary filming and recording while we’re in the field is that we’re bringing, we’re disseminating this information and getting it out to the greater public and talking about these issues and internment that very few people still today, in 2022 know little about.

Dr. Martha Dow: What I really enjoyed watching the documentary was the interaction that you had with the other people that were there and just the curiosity and the sense of accomplishment when you found something and you framing that really immediately for people you were working with in the field.

I just thought I was really inspired, sort of as a teacher by your approach to that. Can you tell me a bit about what that, I know you work with students, grad students, I know you’ve been working with undergrad students and through CHASI on different kinds of projects. But what’s that like when you’re out in the field and people are discovering what you have a bit better sense of?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: It’s absolutely amazing when students are volunteering for archeology projects, they’re… we typically think of the classics of, you know, excavating pottery in Greece or the pyramids in Egypt, and further back in antiquity. What I’m doing in conflict anthropology is more of a historical archeology, so it’s a triangulation of data sets.

We’re working with the archives, we’re working with descendant communities that we are interviewing. And then of course the third aspect of that is the material record. So excavation itself. Monashee was fascinating because with all of the internment records from the First World War, most of the archives were destroyed in the early fifties. It was part of a process. They were running out of space and they needed to get rid of them.

Because of that historians have mined the archives, and there is very little information that’s left for us to tell this story. So coming in from this historical archeological, anthropological perspective is really great because you’re able to take a look at the material record and either corroborate what we’re seeing in government documents or corroborate letters that we’re reading from prisoners that are talking about the lack of food that’s coming into the camp, or the severe labour conditions that they’re working under when they’re road building or doing other types of construction.

So working with the student volunteers is amazing because you’re almost, it’s almost like uncovering, you know, a part of a mystery. This unknown. And the Monashee internment camp was fascinating because we had few archival photographs to go by. The camp was only open for three months and it was a very small footprint. We didn’t think there was a large area that we were going to be looking at.

And after spending a couple weeks there, we discovered an entire part of the camp that we don’t have any recordings of it in the historical record anymore. So to have students have these “aha” moments in what we can see in the material record and what we’re excavating and how we’re able to document it that way is absolutely fascinating to see it through their eyes.

One of the students created a blog, for instance, and was journaling and taking photographs and sharing with other students from different universities and here in CHASI, in UFV as well, you know, the perspective, that lens of a student, what it’s like to be a student in the field, what it’s like to be camping or staying in cabins, and the type of work you’re doing, and the issues you have when you’re out there, and the fun things that happen, and the long lengths of time that you have before you discover something, and how you have to just keep going and trudging through it. And so for me it was exciting to… it’s always exciting to see it through the students’ eyes and you know, live it, in a sense, with them all over again, every field that we go out and we excavate.

Dr. Martha Dow: So interesting. How does it fit… even in that documentary, you see interviews with individuals and you see paper records, you see photographs, et cetera. Can you talk a little bit about that detective work, what does that look like as it unfolds, whether it’s on this project or others, are you constantly going back to interview material? Are you trying to find more people to corroborate that? How does that all work?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Well, if I take it back to the Morrissey internment camp, that one was really interesting because you read these newspaper accounts or, you know, government accounts, for instance, of the escape tunnel that they had there. And it talks about, from the lens at the time and the feeling about these Axis powers, these prisoners, even though they were civilian and many of them were naturalized citizens in Canada at the time. But how they had dug, for instance, this escape tunnel and how they weren’t smart. They dug it out the front of the building and it was, you know, dug towards the guards quarters where they were eventually found. And so going into the camp, we used remote sensing and located the tunnel.

And the tunnel was actually outside the back of the building where it would’ve eventually ran towards the, the outside of the camp where freedom would’ve been easy access had they not been found or had it not been discovered the night before the escape. So that was one fascinating one.

Another one was going through some of the letters from the prisoners that were talking about how they were very hungry. They weren’t being fed well. And also interviews with the descendant communities where they talked about their fathers who talked about this hunger within the camps and going through the military records, the governor general’s audits and whatnot, for instance, it talked about 30,000 pounds of meat that was coming into the camp every year. And that’s a lot of food coming in.

So it’s hard to say or hard to look at that and think that these prisoners were really starving. And then when we excavated, for the number of years that we were in the Morrissey internment camp and we’re pulling out the faunal remains, so the animal bones that were disposed of directly from the kitchen, the prisoners’ kitchen.

We were able to see, for instance, that the amount of meat that was being provided each year was actually decreasing and the amount of bone in meat was increasing. So on paper, for instance, it looked like the same 30,000 pounds in meat that was coming in every year. But the quality of the meat and the actual amount of protein that the prisoners was getting was actually decreasing. So this is where, almost forensically, you’re able to solve these mysteries and have these “aha” moments and corroborate much of what the prisoners were trying to tell us.

Dr. Martha Dow: Wow, amazing. Though I have to ask at this point, so were you the little kid in the backyard digging things or being a detective as a kid? What brought you to this? And I know our journeys can be kind of wonky and take lots of turns, et cetera, but how did you get here to this work that you so clearly are passionate about and students so enjoy and get so much from you when you’re talking about it?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: My, my journey is wonky. They say you change careers five times at least in a lifetime, and I’m sure I have, in a sense. I took an archeology course in my undergraduate studies and after that ended up on a five week trek from Turkey down into Egypt. So Turkey. Jordan, Syria and Egypt. And after learning about things like projectile points and whatnot as I was touring these different sites, I was able to identify them.

Dr. Martha Dow: Can I interrupt? Was that a school trip? Was that a you trip?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: That was a me trip.

Dr. Martha Dow: Okay.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Immediately after taking this course. And that was my “aha” moment of “I’m good at this, I can see it. I like it.” I’m actually you know, putting into practice something that I’ve learned in the classroom, which was really exciting for me. And that’s when I decided that archeology and anthropology were really the fields that I wanted to be in.

Dr. Martha Dow: Wow. So what do you see from students? We get a lot — I’m a sociologist, so I get it as much as you — about relevance, you know, and I still hear so often from my students saying “can you come to my dinner table? Can you convince my parents that it makes sense that I take some sociology.” How are you finding the conversations about the relevance of your discipline you know, in 2022?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Well, my undergraduate background is in sociology and social cultural anthropology. At the time, I thought the only way to a career within the discipline was graduate school.

But what I’m realizing today with you know, current society and the topics that are discussed within the media and everywhere else, it is so relevant. Whether it’s, you know, a job in government, whether it’s working with Indigenous societies, working within the internment camps itself, there is so much work to be done and so many possibilities for students.

Dr. Martha Dow: I’m struck by some of the conversations we’ve had because of the conferences you’re at, about how this work is being done in other places in the world and what kinds of historical moments, events, and more contemporary moments and events, and how they vary depending on where we are in the world.

I wonder if you could talk about — I’m thinking a little bit about conversations we’ve had with respect to people that do this — this is all the work they do, in other places to illuminate events. What are some of those that stand out for you around the globe?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Well, right now, one of the biggest topics with Indigenization is the issue of repatriation. I was just at a conference, the Society for Historical Archeology in Chicago last March. And it was a fascinating panel with the Shuar, with the Shuar heads from South America, within the Amazon. But also working with a slave cemetery in the southern states. And then of course, working with Tk’emlups.

There’s a lot of work that’s being done within modern conflict anthropology with wars when we’re talking about sites of memory and commemoration and memorialization. Rwanda’s a really good example of that. How do you preserve, conserve these sites when you’re living in a community with perpetrators and also victims of such atrocities.

The same with Germany of course, and Kosovo and working around the world with different forensics teams. There’s a lot happening within modern conflict, anthropology and so much work that we can do with marginalized communities to support and, and, and bring these stories forward.

Dr. Martha Dow: When you talk about that, there’s so many different instances that you just listed there. At their core, do you find they’re the similar questions, that context is different? So, you know, I hear lots when you talk about honouring right? And listening and amplifying voices, et cetera. So even in these different circumstances, how does that play out?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: At the core, it’s the same. How it plays out is different in so many different places because it’s about trauma and retraumatization when you’re bringing out these issues. Many feel when you’re forensically excavating a site, for instance, many don’t want it to be excavated because you are retraumatizing a community.

You risk you know, the conflict coming up all over again. Others want these sites and these stories told so that people never forget about it. You know, in Germany we have these competitions for memorials to ensure that communities and people around the world remember. So the way it happens is so community specific and there is no template because trauma and re-traumatization and how it affects communities and our psyche is so different culturally and with identity.

Dr. Martha Dow: I’d love to ask you if you could teach a course that you haven’t had the chance to teach or design yet, putting you on the spot, what, what would you love to spend a term exploring with your students?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: I love the aspects of commemoration and memorialization and how different places around the world do this to bring these stories to light, but also to bring about healing in different ways. There’s a site in France, for instance, Oradour-sur-Glane where the entire village was killed by the Germans.

And this particular village has been left exactly the way it was, the day that these atrocities took place. Whether it’s from the blood on the walls to where the cars were parked at the time and the way they’ve honoured the victims of the atrocities for instances is to put plaques up on the different houses and tell the stories of the individuals that were there. In Rwanda the way they, many of the places have done it, the schools where the atrocities took place, they have pictures of the various children on the walls.

And they stories of for instance, what the children like to eat or what their favorite toy was so that you have this visceral reaction as a tourist because they’ve become sites of tourism as well. When you go into these different places and you can feel what has taken place there.

Germany has a beautiful site where they have an incredible memorial. It’s made out of lead. It’s triangular in shape with a stylus attached to it where tourists can come and sign their names to it. And there’s a plaque at the bottom that tells you, what atrocities took place there. And what’s fascinating and different about that one is the idea behind it was that people would come to the site and learn about it, but this monument descends into the ground, or it descended into the ground a little bit every year, until it was completely gone.

And the point behind it was that the village could let go and let other people learn about this for a time being. And once the monument was gone, they would take up that memory again. And so I think looking at the different ways that we around the world acknowledge these atrocities, there is no one right way for a community to heal. And looking at these different aspects and how it can be done to support every community and to remind us as human beings, what we can do better is so important.

Dr. Martha Dow: Thank you. We’ll end it there, hoping that we can — you’re doing so many interesting things — I hope we can talk again soon. I feel so privileged anytime I get a chance to sit with you, and I know our students feel exactly the same way, so thank you.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Thank you.