Allyship in Motion: Dr. Helen Burt

Dr Helen Burt

When Dr. Helen Burt first joined UBC as an assistant professor of pharmaceutics in 1980, she could hardly have known that one day she would play a leading role in UBC's efforts at reconciliation. Yet, that's exactly what she has done. Several decades later, her work to co-create the Indigenous Research Support Initiative (IRSI) and support a community-driven approach to Indigenous research at UBC have resulted in institutional changes that will advance the institution's vision of being a global leader in advancing reconciliation. At the end of this month Dr. Burt retires from a career at UBC spanning more than four decades. We wanted to take this opportunity to honour her contribution and showcase some of the important work she has done in support of Indigenous research and engagement.

Dr. Burt stepped into her current role as Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation in 2011 after holding the positions of division chair and Associate Dean, Research & Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. It was in her role at VPRI that she was called upon by to support a new and better approach to Indigenous, community-based research. Based on early conversations with a number of Indigenous scholars, and in collaboration with Dr. Linc Kesler (then Senior Advisor to the President on Aboriginal Affairs), Dr. Burt began the important work that would ultimately lead to the creation of a dedicated office for Indigenous research support.

Helen speaking
Dr. Burt speaking at MOA

From the start, Dr. Burt knew that the work would be challenging, but she dove in with enthusiasm and humility. On an early trip to UBC's Okanagan campus to learn from Indigenous scholars and administrative leaders, she had an occasion to practice that humility. While the intention of the trip was to learn from the work already done at the Okanagan campus to support Indigenous engagement in research, from the start the meeting was a difficult one. Dr. Burt spoke about doing things in a better way, but seemed to be operating in the same old ways, and participants listened with growing unease in an atmosphere of tension. Sensing the disconnect, Dr. Burt realized that she had much to learn, un-learn and relearn about the need for right consultation with Indigenous partners, both at the academy and in community. She took this experience to heart and accepted advice to create an Interim Advisory Group comprised of some of the strongest Indigenous voices to inform the co-creation of the IRSI. 

Securing funding for IRSI could have been the next challenge but for the vision and buy-in from the Provost pro tem, Dr Anji Redish, who approved funding for IRSI in 2016 as a pilot program. The work didn't stop there for Dr. Burt, who continued to invest time and effort into building the relationships that are necessary for a truly reciprocal approach to community-based research and engagement. Rather than sit behind her desk on campus to make decisions, Dr. Burt forayed into community to meet and listen to the needs and priorities of the people there. In 2016-17, she was invited to visit ʔaq̓am, a member community of the Ktunaxa Nation. There, she learned first hand about the history of Ktunaxa and ʔaq̓am, the St. Eugene Mission Residential School and historic impacts of bad research practices. The trip was a lot of personal and emotional work for Dr. Burt, but the experience served to further reinforce her commitment to help transform the way UBC engages with Indigenous partners.

Heiltsuk MOU
MOU signing between Heiltsuk Nation and UBC

Despite an increasingly busy schedule and set of responsibilities within the VPRI, Dr. Burt continued to make relationship-building a top priority, visiting a number of communities and participating in several community-based events and gatherings. In 2018, following a connection with people from the Haida Nation and the Heiltsuk Nation, she drove to Washington to witness to the Tribal Journeys celebration. Later that same year, she traveled to Bella Bella with IRSI Associate Director Lerato Chondoma to attend a Research Protocol Agreement signing ceremony between the Heiltsuk Nation and UBC. The Agreement had been five years in the making, only moving forward based on the new approach demonstrated by Dr. Burt and IRSI. 

Image above, from left to right: ’Qátuw̓as Brown, Wigvilhba Wakas' (Hereditary Chief, Harvey Humchitt), Chief Marilyn Slett (Heiltsuk Nation); Dr. Helen Burt, and Lerato Chondoma (UBC)

Throughout 2018 and 2019, Dr. Burt attended all five of the community gatherings hosted by IRSI. But not only did she attend, Dr. Burt participated fully in each event, from assisting with planning and preparation in advance, to providing Elder support, running last minute errands and acting as a back-up speaker or facilitator on the day of. Dr. Burt connected with people at every level, always demonstrating a willingness to listen and consider ways UBC might transform and improve its formerly extractive research practices, and take accountability.

Dr. Burt's contribution to reconciliation has not gone unnoticed. In the 2018 Spring Indigenous Graduation Ceremony held at the First Nations House of Learning, together with then Associate Provost, Erich Eich, she was blanketed by Dr. Leona Sparrow for her contribution to Indigenous initiatives at UBC. Helen was draped with a beautiful blanket in front of witnesses for her contribution and commitment to building the Indigenous Research Support Initiative and all that it stands for. And in 2020, Dr. Burt was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her research on drug delivery systems, leadership at UBC and for contribution to community engagement. Recently, she was honoured by members of the IRSI Indigenous Advisory Committee and Musqueam community, in addition to receiving heartfelt ‘Statements of Gratitude’ from Ktunaxa Nation members based on her visit to the community and willingness to listen in 2017.

Helen at Gathering
Dr. Burt at the 2018 Principles of Engagement for Indigenous Research Gathering

Dr. Burt continues right to the end of her time at UBC to champion the rights of Indigenous peoples and push for institutional transformation. Most recently, she has been striving to ensure that UBC has new research protocol agreements for their work with Indigenous community partners. The agreements specifically identify and ensure that collaborations are reciprocal, that they value the contributions of community partners, and that data and knowledge belonging to the communities must be respected. Today, IRSI is transitioning from being a pilot to an ongoing and necessary unit at UBC -- one that Indigenous community partners and researchers alike can feel comfortable approaching for support with their projects.

Dr. Helen Burt will be missed by many at UBC and within the greater communities that UBC serves and works with. Her spirit, commitment and contribution will never be forgotten.

Please join us in thanking her and wishing her an abundance of success and happiness in her next phase of life!

Below, watch the 2019 video of Dr. Burt discussing the inception of IRSI and the needed transformation in UBC's approach to Indigenous, community-led research: