Talking Action Anthropology with Professor Colin Scott: An Interview

This past March, Professor Colin Scott from the Department of Anthropology, was awarded the Weaver-Tremblay Award from the Canadian Anthropology Society/La Société Canadienne d’anthropologie (CASCA) for his longstanding commitments to the territorial rights, sovereignty, and self-determination of Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

Professor Colin Scott“I was thrilled to receive news of this honour and felt such gratitude, touched by the care and generosity of those who prepared letters of nomination and support – mentors, colleagues, former students, Indigenous partners and friends,” says Professor Scott.  

“It was a true gift to meet and draw inspiration from the several founders of CASCA, including Sally Weaver and Marc-Adélard Tremblay after whom the award is named, and scholars who most influenced my own career path,” he says.  

A graduate of both the MA and PhD programs in Anthropology at McGill, Professor Scott joined the university as an Assistant Professor in 1986.  During his time as a graduate student at McGill, Scott’s research focused on the early implementation of a new Income Security Program for Cree hunters, fishers, trappers at the Cree community of Wemindji and Cree hunters’ knowledge.  

After starting his Master’s, Scott accepted an invitation from Cree elders and community leaders to join them on their territory and learn to live and hunt as they lived and hunted. Scott labels this the greatest gift of his career; it served to reinforce his scholarly and political commitment to the defence of hunters’ lands, lifeways and livelihoods. 

Scott’s career in Anthropology flourished during a time when, in the 1980s, there was a remarkable political resurgence amongst First peoples in Canada, which included extensive regional land claims negotiations and the constitutional entrenchment of Aboriginal rights. Having worked with James Bay Cree northern communities since 1976, Scott’s work spans decades of socio environmental assessments, policies and court case witness reports.  

Scott’s work and research is unique in the way he has chosen to prioritize developing and leading research teams that are simultaneously anthropological, interdisciplinary and inter-epistemic, which includes routine engagement of Indigenous knowledge holders in dialogue with the ‘Western’ disciplines. Scott believes there is a greater impact when work is done collectively, which has led him to devote significant energy to securing and administering team grants, which involve scores of colleagues, graduate, undergraduate and postdoctoral trainees, and dozens of indigenous partner communities and organizations.  

We spoke to Professor Scott about the importance of “action anthropology”, student mentorship and the responsibilities anthropologists honour when they work with Indigenous communities. 

Q: What is “action anthropology” and how do you instill its importance when teaching and mentoring your students? 

Action anthropology builds knowledge by addressing the problems that people face as communities, nations, and in global society. Its ‘engaged objectivity’ arises from up-close views of interacting perspectives, values, interests, and goals that one gets when entering into the dynamics of knowledge and power in which social worlds are made and remade.  

In teaching and mentoring students, I think it is so important to engage them in imagining a better world or worlds, and how they might find purpose and orient their own life’s work accordingly. Learning in social sciences and humanities involves a perpetual tension between what is and what might be – our knowledge means little if it fails to promote social justice and responsible relations with all of life on Earth.    

Q: Why is it important for anthropologists to work closely with Indigenous communities? What learning opportunities do anthropologists and students of anthropology come across during their exchanges with various communities?  

We are all products of, and actors within, ongoing colonial histories. In such ‘settler states’ as Canada, all citizens inherit responsibilities for systems that bring us benefits, too often at the cost of harm to Indigenous nations and their lands. We must repair inter-peoples’ relationships, fashion justice out of painful histories. We have a solemn and sacred duty to respect Indigenous rights and to uphold treaty undertakings.  

Anthropology was born in large measure as the science of both cultural difference, and what we humans share in common. Anthropology’s history includes enchantment with the marvellous diversity of ways of being in the world, but our discipline also contributed to social theories that have rationalized the colonial dispossession of Indigenous nations in the name of ‘evolution,’ ‘progress’ and modernist theories of ‘development.’  

Working closely with Indigenous communities educates us about the autonomies that they value and that can flourish as real alternatives in diverse life settings, while helping us to overcome biases in western intellectual history.  

Anthropology has developed intellectual tools for thinking about the ecological, institutional and symbolic dimensions of social transformation. These tools should contribute, through relations of mutual learning and alliance with Indigenous communities, to making space for genuine cultural difference and self-determination.   

Q: A lot of your work and research has been on Indigenous communities’ interactions with extraction industries, such as mining and logging. What responsibilities do anthropologists such as yourself have in building long term trust with these communities?  

Professor Scott speaking at a CICADA eventTrust hinges on two values that the Cree partners in my research emphasize time and again – respect and reciprocity. In my work with their communities, I have been told about, and have personally witnessed, heart-breaking damage to natural habitats and land-based lifeways caused by hydro-electric, mining and forestry operations. At the same time, I have witnessed attempts by Cree community members and leaders to negotiate respectful relationships with resource extractive companies, including entrepreneurial, employment and revenue-sharing opportunities that bring economic benefits to communities. It is extremely challenging for communities to decide, internally, when to oppose and when to collaborate with these companies’ projects.  

As anthropologists we must attend to this complexity, and make honest and realistic choices about where to focus our energies, contributing to community-led projects with which our own values and visions can align.   

Q: Your work touches upon various themes, such as “deep knowledge” and long-term commitment to a “territory of life”. Can you explain what these mean in both a theoretical sense and in practice? 

Knowledge is a social product, growing and deepening through co-creation in relationships that endure through time – time spanning research projects and programs, personal careers, and generations.  

The ‘territory of life’ perspective focuses on relations of care by Indigenous and other local communities for whole webs of life in the places they dwell. It acknowledges land-based livelihoods, lifeways, social institutions and knowledge traditions as integral to the biocultural diversity of a territory. 

The entanglement of human practice with the ecological being of a place gives rise to community ‘life projects’ that shape territorial futures – projects to defend and to renew the quality of life and lives – all lives – in a territory of life. Solutions to challenges in biodiversity or carbon stewardship, for example, must be devised by those who live close to the land. You can’t know if you are winning or losing if you are not listening to people who are the eyes and ears of the places they hold dear. We as researchers can complement this ground-level knowledge as allies supporting locally-inspired ‘life projects,’ in ways that become part of our own life projects.  

Q: You have been involved in CICADA, the Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives for several years. Can you tell us what work initiatives such as CICADA undertake and what your contribution has been over the years?  

Some sixty CICADA researchers work in partnership with three dozen Indigenous organizations and communities globally. We work on four major themes to support life projects for the defense and resurgence of territories of life: 1) self-determined conservation, involving customary tenure systems, local ecological knowledge, and heritage protection; 2) thriving land- and water-based livelihoods for enhanced food sovereignty, while confronting resource extractive pressures; 3) Indigenous laws and inter-legal strategies vis-à-vis the law of states and international law; and 4) inter-peoples’ alliances. My role as director of CICADA has been to develop this agenda with community leaders, land users/stewards and research colleagues from a range of relevant disciplines.  

CICADA, whose major funding comes from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et Culture (FRQSC), with contributions from McGill’s Vice Principal for Research and Innovation (VPRI) and other Quebec university partners, has built on perspectives and approaches developed through a project in the first decade of the 2000s that I co-directed with Rodney Mark, then Chief of the community of Wemindji, part of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee of eastern James Bay. That project, funded by the Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), led to the creation of one of the largest biodiversity reserves in Québec, and also initiated a process to create a regional-scale National Marine Conservation Area for eastern James Bay.    

Q: Over the span of your career, you have worked with Indigenous communities such as the Crees in northern Quebec and the Torres Strait Islanders and in both cases, were involved in legal cases on territorial rights. What insights can you share with us about these experiences? In what ways were they similar? In what ways were they different?  

There are remarkable parallels in the responses of Canadian and Australian states to demands by Indigenous peoples for a decolonial reset of relationships. In both countries, Indigenous peoples demand recognition of their collective property, and rights of self-government for their communities and territories. In both countries, the legal and political apparatus of the state came under mounting pressures, which have proven transformative, from the late 1960s forward. In both countries, Indigenous peoples are faced with the irony of proving their ‘claims’ in the courts of the colonizers, whose pretensions of sovereign ascendance ignore Indigenous laws.   

At the same time, pathways to change differ between the two countries, given quite different histories. Unlike Canada, the USA and New Zealand, Australia had no history of treaty-making with Indigenous nations, so the constitutional and legal underpinnings of ‘Native title,’ as it is known in Australia, are rather different from ‘Aboriginal title’ and treaty rights in Canada.  

The Australian High Court in its 1992 Mabo decision deemed that Indigenous law and custom were integral to the Common Law, so Native title claims must hinge on the existence and endurance of these laws and customs. Entitlement flowing from Indigenous law and custom would, however, remain subject to the authority of the courts and the legislative prerogative of the state. This approach opened a particular role for cultural anthropology in working alongside Indigenous claimants to document and interpret law and custom – or as witnesses appointed by the Crown to contest claims.  

In Canada, the starting point is a rather broader demonstration of community occupation and use of territory claimed, which tends to involve the work of cultural anthropologists alongside historians and geographers.  

Q: You have supervised and mentored undergraduate and graduate students in trans-disciplinary teams both from the Faculty of Arts and the Bieler School of Environment- what have your students taught you over the years?  

Students at every level and from diverse backgrounds have brought me the joy of seeing things with fresh eyes, have posed fundamental questions from unexpected directions, have exposed me to learning through their own research that I would otherwise have missed, and have played a big role in sustaining hope for values-based community and continuity.  

Engaging graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduate interns in transdisciplinary, community-partnered research has shown me that research invigorates pedagogy, and vice-versa. And has taught me that mentorship is a multi-directional process, not confined to the ivory tower or orthodox hierarchies of knowledge.  

Q: How can academics in disciplines such as anthropology be active participants in decolonizing academia, stepping back so that Indigenous voices can be heard more directly? What role do initiatives such as CICADA play in advocating this movement?  

Research agendas must grow from conversations with Indigenous community leaders and members, from initial conception, visioning, and design, through to execution, in an iterative and perennial process.  

Our involvement with local knowledge and perspectives is not just interdisciplinary, but inter-epistemic – we must welcome opportunities to have our own paradigms interrupted by the realities of others, as part of building consensus for allied action toward a better world in common.  

Decolonizing the academy’s external relations depends at the same time on internal reform. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to co-direct with Professor Peter Brown and – since his retirement from McGill – to direct the Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) initiative. This initiative in interdisciplinary doctoral-level pedagogy, involving collaboration between McGill University and the University of Vermont, aims at broad-spectrum rethinking of orthodoxies in law and governance, economics and finance, and modernist ontology and ethics that are extensively reproduced by institutions of “higher” education.  

We seek to engage macro-systemic reform guided by Indigenous strategies for territories of life. Anthropology, a holistic discipline long engaged with alternative logics of social and ecological relationship, has a particular role to play in imagining and enacting local to global social transformation.  


To learn more about the various research programs going on at CICADA, consult their website here. 


Back to top