CHASIcast: Dr. Sarah Beaulieu part 2 — making research meaningful

We’re honoured to welcome Dr. Sarah Beaulieu back to the CHASIcast! As a conflict anthropologist, UFV professor, and CHASI faculty associate, Dr. Beaulieu’s work spans from the classroom to archaeological sites, with a focus on former internment camps and working with First Nations groups.

In this episode, Dr. Beaulieu explains her work with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and how it intersects with Indigenous traditions, her approach to Indigenizing research work, and uncovering her family’s history for a chapter in a book recently released by UFV’s South Asian Studies Institute.

Content warning: This episode includes discussions of Indian Residential Schools, missing children, and suicide.

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: “For me it's really important that we are upholding and raising these oral traditions and these stories. It's important that the protocols, these traditions, are upheld, and are held equally to the science — the science that we're using behind GPR.”

Dr. Beaulieu’s chapter in “A Social History of South Asians in British Columbia,” along with the many other stories in that publication, are available to read for free online at:

She also recently presented at The National Gathering on Unmarked Burials in Edmonton. Her presentation is detailed on pages 33-37 of the summary report, available at:

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: For me it’s really important that we are upholding and raising these oral traditions and these stories. It’s important that the protocols, these traditions, are upheld, and are held equally to the science — the science that we’re using behind GPR.

Intro: Based out of the University of the Fraser Valley on unceded, traditional lands of the Stó:lō 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. Sarah, you’re a longstanding member of the UFV community. We were fortunate to be able to talk with you on a previous podcast. I’m thrilled you’re a colleague of mine in the School of Culture, Media and Society, and welcome again to the CHASIcast.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Thank you. I’m just as thrilled to be here.

Dr. Martha Dow: Well, we’re never gonna let you go now. So, hoping today — you’re involved in so many different projects in the community, that’s one of the things I think that you and I bond over is that responsiveness to communities. And I wondered if maybe we could talk a little bit about how you got into GPR work in particular.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: When I was in my undergraduate studies, it was during the time of when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was interviewing witnesses from the IRS system, from the Indian Residential Schools.

And one of my classmates that I had done a number of directed studies with in social cultural anthropology, her father was interviewed and within a couple weeks of that interview, he had committed suicide. And that really impacted me at the time, obviously it had a greater impact on her, but it really drove where I decided to go with my work after that.

So when I applied for graduate school, I had wanted to work with Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn at Simon Fraser University. He was the first Indigenous archeologist to hold a PhD here in Canada. He was also working on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the time with missing children. So I started with an interview with him, and when he asked what my research interests were, of course I had said I’d wanted to work with missing children.

And there was no response from him at the time. I’m sure having a newly minted undergraduate student come into the fold wanting to do such important work was rather risky. And so he had offered me a project on what he thought at the time was a veteran’s cemetery, but it ended up being a prisoner of war cemetery in Morrissey.

So I began doing ground penetrating radar work, or GPR. When I was looking into this particular cemetery, there were four prisoner of war burials there. But we could see depressions in the ground and we knew that there were potentially other burials onsite. And after doing this work, I knew that I wanted to expand the research from the cemetery and work in the actual internment camp proper, but that site was the size of a small town.

The government had taken over a small mining town. There were six streets and four avenues, and to do ground penetrating radar work on a site of that size would be extremely cost prohibitive. Especially for an undergraduate student. So at the time I was working with the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, and they had purchased a ground penetrating radar for my research and also paid for me to take the training necessary to conduct the research itself.

So that’s how I got into using ground penetrating radar within looking for building footprints, but also working within cemeteries, and began working in traditional cemeteries and historic cemeteries around the Fernie area and expanding to the Fraser Valley, working with different cities and Indigenous communities as well. And from there began working on Indian Residential School sites.

Dr. Martha Dow: Can you tell me a bit more about what it is? I get asked that a lot when I’m bragging about you and the work that you do and trying to explain it, can you just talk about what it is?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: It’s essentially a radar. It can either be on a tow system — most often people associate them with a lawnmower configuration — but essentially what it does — they have different frequencies from a hundred megahertz to 900 megahertz and what you’re doing is emitting an electromagnetic pulse into the ground. And when you do this, you’re taking these measurements, so the velocity to measure the distance of this anomaly or this object that may be below the surface.

And so when you pass a GPR across the surface and you take these regularly spaced acquisitions, you essentially get a vertical slice. So a vertical picture or an image of the vertical slice of the ground beneath you.

Dr. Martha Dow: And so, then I presume like anything, you analyze that — how do you sort of make sense of those images to someone? ‘Cause I think one of the things that we talk lots about in CHASI is, we do research, but how do we make it meaningful to those who have asked us to do the work or engagement? So, how do you take those images and make sense of them for people that are trying to understand them?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: It’s interesting because we do have a screen attached to, or a computer that’s attached to the machine while we’re working onsite, so we can see exactly what’s being picked up below the surface. But a lot of the stuff needs to be analyzed and interpreted in the lab outside of the field.

One of the common things that people think is that you’re able to see a body beneath the surface or that you’re able to see an actual artifact. And that’s not what we’re reading. We’re actually reading hyperbolic responses, or a bunch of black squiggly lines is how most people tend to associate it.

But when you’ve been doing the work long enough, these squiggly lines all have different signatures, and the signatures for burial are very different than the signature for a building footprint. When you’re working construction, often you’re looking for voids. In roadways, you’re looking for rebar. You’re looking to see the depth of an ice sheet for roads up north and whatnot.

With burials, it’s a very different — a grave shaft has a very different image or signature that we’re looking for. And what we typically have done is used traditional cemeteries where we know that there are burials and have compared these signatures to more clandestine sites to be able to analyze the data.

Dr. Martha Dow: What does that look like when you’re working in various communities to bring this sort of technology, this equipment in? And I know you’re so attentive to sort of working alongside community. Can you talk a little bit about how that works in terms of community protocols?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: When the news in Kamloops broke last year, one of the things that was really at the forefront was this notion that we had used science. For some reason, whatever reason, with non-Indigenous Canadians from Turtle Island, the idea that we are able to name names of the children or have actual numbers of the children that went missing means more than the actual stories, the oral histories that come from the Indigenous communities that have been talking about this for generations. And for me it’s really important that we are upholding and raising these oral traditions and these stories. It’s important that the protocols, these traditions, are upheld and are held equally to science — the science that we’re using behind GPR.

The Mi’kmaq, an Indigenous community from out East, have a saying or a term called “two-eyed seeing,” and that’s using one eye to see the world through the lens of Indigenous values and knowledge systems, and to use the other eye to see the world through western values and knowledge systems, but then to use both eyes together for the betterment of society.

In Tk’emlúps they have a similar saying — it’s called “walking on two legs” — and it’s upholding western laws and values but also upholding te Secwepemc laws and values through oral histories and songs.

And so for me it’s important that we’re merging both of these, and when you’re brought into a community, because of the colonial ways that research has been done in the past, where research has been conducted on communities, communities have been essentially objectified.

The results have not been shared with communities. They have not been to the benefit of communities. Often secondary data has been used without the knowledge of Indigenous communities or without their permission, importantly. And because of these reasons, there is a lot of mistrust. Now with Indigenization, communities are conducting the work themselves.

They are asking the questions that are relevant to their communities. They’re asking the questions that benefit their communities. So it’s not for an outside researcher to come in and say, “hey, this is a question that I would like answered.” So it’s important to be invited in to a community to conduct research that is important to them.

And for me that means, as an outsider, that everything from conducting a survey, to preparing a report, to the interpretation of the results, to the review of the report needs to be run by the community itself. It’s not for me, for instance, to present the data. It’s not for me to speak on behalf of the community. The data is owned by the community. Everything is centered around — heart-centered around — the community itself. I am working with and for an Indigenous community when I’m invited in. But it’s not me doing this research for the interest of myself, to publish, or for any other reason than to support a community.

Dr. Martha Dow: It’s interesting. I find we run into a lot of mistrust in communities. I often run into it in my work — it has more to do with the university structure. I would suggest with a lot of the work that you do, it has to be, it’s much bigger than that. The university is one representation of sort of colonial structures, so it’s much bigger.

I wonder if you can talk a bit about how you sort of navigated that, your engagement with community. I know you spend a lot more time in community than just coming in and doing the work, because you honour that. Talk a bit about what that looks like.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Absolutely. The trust-building within a community is not something that happens overnight. It can take months or years to garner the trust from a community when you’re working with them. Part of it for me is reputation and being recommended by one community to another community for the work that I’ve done. Importantly, it’s about honouring protocols. Cultural protocols take place before, during, and after any survey that I conduct.

As an outsider — there are 200 Indigenous communities in BC alone, there’s 30 language groups, six dialects. It’s about not broad sweeping which is something that sometimes a lot of outsiders do, is assuming that what you do in one community is something that you — a template that you can then use in another community.

For instance, with protocols in one community — I won’t get into them because every community is different of course — but you may use ochre. You would put it on your temples and your forearms when you’re in a working in a cemetery situation. And that would be so that the ancestors don’t accidentally bump into and make you sick by accident.

However, using ochre within another community is something that only men would wear. And so knowing the differences between this is really important. Presenting tobacco for honouring and gift giving, and sweet grass — cleansing yourself with rose water is really important. I’ve been asked to clean my equipment when I leave so that I don’t get sick.

Calling your name back from a site is another really important one, to make sure that you don’t leave a part of yourself behind. And so I think it’s important to be humble and to acknowledge what we don’t know and to not presume that we know everything about every Indigenous community that you’re working with. But also to be vocal about the fact that you are wanting to learn, and to be present, and to be part of it, and to participate in a respectful way. And that you are invested in doing the work in the best way possible.

Dr. Martha Dow: How can we as universities do that better so that our students get a bit of a sense, that they can’t get unless they’re out there in the field with you or others doing legwork, how can we do that? We show movies and we have speakers. Have you thought about ways that you you’d love to see that interface become stronger and more creative?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: We talk about decolonizing, where we’re dismantling these aspects of the structures of colonialism within our teaching and learning, the education system as well.

It’s about going further with Indigenizing, which is — we’re more there today than we certainly were 10 years ago or 20 years ago. But with Indigenizing it’s really about raising up Indigenous knowledge systems, Indigenous worldviews, feelings, thought systems, the lenses and perspectives. It’s about giving voice, too. So I think the Indigenizing aspect is really important to how we disseminate this information within the classroom, and also for really basic things like our land acknowledgements. It’s not just about spewing out a very generic statement because it’s an obligatory thing to do.

I, for instance, talk about that in the classroom. What does it actually mean? Why are we giving a land acknowledgement? And one of the things I actually wanna do within my classroom is have students write their own and make it personal so that they’re actually investing in it and understanding why we do things like that.

I think it’s about bringing in that personal investment with students and making connections from their own lived experience on how this can be done, what they knew before, what they’re learning now, how that can be applied in the future to what they’re doing working with communities, and in their day-to-day lives.

Dr. Martha Dow: I’m intrigued by when our students have gone to work with you. I’m always struck that we can’t send enough, ‘cause you don’t need as many as… but the nice thing about it is, it doesn’t feel voyeuristic because they’re busy. They’re there to do work. I wondered if you might talk about how else can we bring more students into communities, whatever communities they are, to have experiences and yet ensure that we’re not entering that space of more voyeuristic tendencies?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: I think the amazing thing about a teaching university like the University of the Fraser Valley is that we have this experiential learning model, so that you’re taking more than what you’re learning from a book, or from a lecture, or from a video, and you’re actually getting out into the field and applying what you’re learning.

So when you’re working within communities, you have these “aha” moments. You’ve read about it, you’ve watched it, you’ve heard it on the news, but you’re actually listening. For instance, when we’re working within a residential school survey site, you’re listening to survivors who are coming onsite and saying, “Have you looked here? This is a story from my mother. This is a story from my grandparent. This is how I have been affected by this.” And students hearing this firsthand makes — it makes a huge difference than just reading it and being removed from the actual situation. It brings an emotional aspect to it. It brings investment where students actually want to participate in affecting change, and I think that is important.

Dr. Martha Dow: One of the projects that we’re involving students in is the Haida Gwaii project. And you mentioned earlier that it’s by reputation that you get connected, and that’s certainly how you were asked to support the work in Haida Gwaii, and bringing that through CHASI we’re able to have a number of students involved in that as well.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, sort of, how do you approach an invitation like that in a community such as Haida Gwaii?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: It’s a privilege to be working in Haida Gwaii. It’s a privilege to be invited to help support the research in Haida Gwaii. So I think I could say that we are all very excited to be a part of this project.

It’s fascinating. It’s a commemorative memorial wall the size of a basketball court, so it’s very large. What’s amazing about this particular research is that it’s acknowledging all of the colonial issues that have taken place within Haida Gwaii from the time of contact with the smallpox epidemic that wiped out the majority of the community, from the flooding that happened, to where families were lost to sea, to the Indian residential schools, the Sixties Scoop. And what’s beautiful about this project is that there’s going to be a portion of the wall that talks about where they see themselves going as a community into the future.

It’s going to be written in Haida and translated into French and English, which is another great way of Indigenizing and decolonizing as well. So it’s a privilege to be a part of this work and to be invited into it and to be able to use the knowledge that I have from working on other sites and be able to take that experience and contribute and support the community.

To be able to bring in research assistants and students from CHASI and other faculty members to work on this project is incredible as well because it gives us all the opportunity to participate in a way of supporting a community and participating in reconciliation.

Dr. Martha Dow: One of the things that struck me when the community came was their incredible commitment to digital memory, ensuring that they honour stories and have those stories maintained in a way that the voices can continue to be heard. I wonder if you might be able to talk a little bit about that role of visual representations merged with sort of the archival research that you’ve done on other projects because that was so central to their vision.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: One thing that’s happening within all communities right now is this race to interview survivors. And the survivors are elderly. Many are dying off as we speak. And there is a race to make sure that these stories are told and that they are held in perpetuity. So that not only the research can continue, but so that these histories, these family histories, these stories can be told and retold.

So the digital aspect is a really beautiful way of being able to not only commemorate it, but to make sure that the research can continue and reconciliation can happen, but also so that families can heal. So having a digital aspect where people can walk up to a monument and not only read what’s on the monument, but listen to the stories of, or see pictures of — really places the individual back into the story and takes it away from us being removed from it and being almost within the story itself, understanding the true effects of it.

Dr. Martha Dow: You talk in the work and have been so attentive around cultural monitors, cultural supports in terms of the heavy work. Certainly seen it with our students as they understand the moment in terms of involvement in this project. Can you talk a bit about how you’d work with communities to ensure that the supports are available to community members, and certainly as well, recognizing that as researchers come in they need support as well?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Support is so important when you’re working in any area of conflict, when you’re working with victims of any type of atrocity. This type of memory work triggers, it’s retriggering, it’s retraumatizing, it’s dredging everything up from the past.

It’s important for the work to be done, but the support needs to be there for the community. The beautiful thing about the IRS work that’s being done is that the mental health supports are there on site. At every step of the way. And this is important because every individual is going to be triggered in some way by bringing up these memories of ancestors, of family members.

It’s also just as important for the researchers that are working on site. It’s very traumatic work when you’re looking for missing children. Obviously not in the same way as it would be for the affected community, but it’s important for these supports to be there for students and for all the researchers to be able to talk to somebody.

And this is where within the Indigenous community or communities, the ceremonies. Our healing when we were working with the radar on site, we would have cleansing ceremonies, quite often, to remove any negativity from us to make sure that the ancestors were staying on site and not following you when you left the site.

So cleansing ceremonies are very important, and part of the ceremonial protocols. And I think all the students that I’ve worked with onsite have definitely felt the energy cleanse and shift when elders have requested that we take part in these. And it’s a privilege to take part in them.

Dr. Martha Dow: So how do you take care of you? You do a lot of heavy work  — and responsible, I would argue as well, for students that are there. So what do you find most helpful as you navigate so many of the projects that you engage in?

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: For me, I think the work is so important to tell the story, bring these stories to light. Give voice to help marginalized communities feel like they’ve been heard finally. And for me, that is the cleansing part. Being able to be part of the reconciliatory process, to be part of decolonizing academe, be part of Indigenizing our pedagogy and where we are today. Playing a very small role in that, for me, is what makes me able to get up every morning and do it again tomorrow.

Dr. Martha Dow: So on that note, I wanted to shift gears a little bit because there was something I had wanted to ask you the last time we spoke and I didn’t have a chance. And that was about the book chapter that you wrote, and that journey with our colleague Satwinder Bains. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Absolutely. I think my investment in Indigenizing and decolonizing, although I am an outsider coming into Indigenous communities here, I’ve realized my own family history has very much been affected by a colonial history. And it wasn’t really until my undergraduate studies when I was learning about indentured servitude and indentured labour, that I went back to my father and said, “Isn’t this what happened to my great-great grandfather?”

Because it had never actually been expressed in those words before it. And so I was asked as a faculty associate in SASI [South Asian Studies Institute] to write a chapter on my family history. And my ethnic background comes from the Middle East. And my great-great grandfather was traveling the Silk Road, the Trunk Road into India.

And when there, somehow we end up in East Africa, several generations in East Africa. So I sat down to write this chapter, and I feel like growing up we listen to the stories that our parents share, but we don’t truly listen to them. So when Dr. Bains had asked me to write the chapter, I thought, oh, “this is an easy, quick one. I’ll bang it out in a couple days,” and realized I actually didn’t know the full stories and had to sit down with my father and ask many, many questions.

But yes, the story was my great-great-grandfather was called into town one day because he had a debt he hadn’t paid, and disappeared.

From there, several weeks later, the family receives a postcard from Bombay and the postcard states that he is on a ship to Africa, and once — if he’s able to pay off his debt, he will be able to return home. And these were, a debt that should never have been incurred. It was these exorbitant interest rates, part of a colonial system in British India at the time.

So he left his entire family behind and our ancestry then takes up in Kenya, in East Africa. So for me, working with marginalized communities, Indigenous communities is because I feel like I do share this colonial history of displacement and understand it from another part of the world.

Where I understand how generations have been — how generations of my family have been affected by colonialism itself, and where we are today and how we got here.

Dr. Martha Dow: That’s great. We’ll make sure we put a link to that in the show notes of the podcast as well.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Thank you.

Dr. Martha Dow: So yeah, I encourage people to have a look.

Well, thank you very much for taking the time. It’s always such a pleasure and I’ll look forward to us doing this again at some point, perhaps, and certainly look forward to continuing our work together.

Dr. Sarah Beaulieu: Absolutely. I feel the same. Thank you, Martha.