People, Research

National award recognizes dissertation excellence

June 15, 2022

Professor Candace Brunette-Debassige

An Education professor’s groundbreaking research on Indigenous women has received national honours.

Professor Candace Brunette-Debassige has won the George L. Geis Dissertation Award from the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education.

Her doctoral thesis examined Indigenous women working as administrators in Canadian universities since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015.

“There isn’t a lot of research on Indigenous leadership,” Brunette-Debassige said. “It was from my own struggle and speaking with other Indigenous women that inspired me to do this research.”

Brunette-Debassige found Indigenous women administrators face a lot of pressures and struggles because they straddle different epistemic worlds - the university and Indigenous communities. For example, they’re expected to communicate, translate and work across difference and champion complex systemic change.  

Combined with the university’s colonial lineage and highly bureaucratic organizational structure, along with managerialist approaches to leading, and masculinised definitions of leadership, Indigenous women struggle in university administration, she added.

“They talked about pressures to perform their Indigeneity and to be the face and the symbol of reconciliation and solutions,” Brunette-Debassige said. “At times, they were sometimes painted as problems when they resisted certain administrative pressures.”

However, Brunette-Debassige discovered these Indigenous administrators were highly resilient, adaptive and persistent through complex struggles because they believed in the transformative potential of colonial education.

“At the same time, they were advancing some really exciting changes in the universities,” she said.

The dissertation award is in honour of George Geis, a respected scholar and long-standing member of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education.

The award for the outstanding dissertation or thesis in Canadian universities focuses on topics in higher education, including the sociopolitical context, access, governance, teaching and learning, institutional studies, and education and employment.

The overall criterion for selection is research excellence, which have significance, substance, and distinctiveness.

Brunette-Debassige hopes Indigenous women administrators see themselves represented in her research and that their perspectives can be better appreciated by university colleagues as Indigenous women face unique challenges when they take on these roles. Part of these challenges include ensuring institutional accountability and providing guidance on collaborating ethically with Indigenous communities within a complex institutional framework.

“When Indigenous Peoples take on that labour – it’s heavy. It's important for everyone to understand what that means to us from our own lens,” she said.

Brunette-Debassige is also publishing journal articles based on her dissertation, ‘The trickiness of settler colonialism: Indigenous women administrators’ experiences in Canadian universities.’ She is in the process of expanding the dissertation into a book that’s scheduled to be published in the fall of 2023.