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Research and activism fit together for winner of Harry Jerome Award

PhD candidate Emilie Nicolas receives Harry Jerome Award

Emilie Nicolas

Emilie Nicolas. Photo: D. Tyszko.

For Emilie Nicolas, cultural and linguistic diversity is not just a field of study — it’s personal. The PhD candidate in anthropology says her research and activism work together, helping her become a more informed and active global citizen.

“I strongly believe that my academic research should be connected to people’s needs, aspirations and life experiences,” says Nicolas. “In my view, one of the greatest strengths of anthropology is that it asks scholars to not only base their knowledge on theoretical or archival research, but also to foster an ongoing dialogue with the people and ideas they study.”

“By looking at how Montreal’s non-Francophone community contributes to the discourse around Quebecois and Canadian identity, I am hoping to shed some light on some of the sources of intercultural tension in the city,” said Nicolas. “Hopefully, this project will contribute to a better understanding of how national identities and senses of belonging develop in this transnational, global age,” said Nicolas.

Beyond the university, Nicolas — who found a home in the ethnically diverse Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood of Montreal — has given back to her community by volunteering as French language tutor to newcomers.

“I wanted to take my connection to my neigbourhood — made up of an interesting mix of Université de Montréal students, recent immigrants and refugees from all over the world — a step further,” said Nicolas. “I shared my deep attachment to Quebec society, while also learning about the world through conversations with my students. The most satisfying community engagement cannot be one-way help services, they must be mutually benefiting relationships.”

Nicolas’s academic research questions are directly inspired by the people she engaged with.

“The role of language in identity is debated every week in Quebec’s media. Taking my place as a citizen among these conversations stimulated my awareness of the impact of these discourses in determining who feels included or excluded from the public sphere,” said Nicolas. “Volunteering fuels both my passion and my insight for the questions I am trying to answer, because they have such direct consequences for people I’ve grown with and been inspired by.”

Nicolas has also volunteered at a humanitarian cooperative in Peru and participated in an Israeli observation mission, sponsored by the Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs, for politically active young Quebeckers.

“The goal was to expose us to different public figures — politicians, journalists, NGO workers — tour the region, explore the culture and get a better understanding of how the conflict is felt on the ground beyond the media coverage we get in Canada,” said Nicolas.

“For me, the mission was really about learning how international observers think they know without really knowing. My visit helped me to be more critical of how media frame their stories for audiences abroad. Rather than providing definite answers, I experienced the mission as the starting point of a life-long curiosity.”

This past spring, Nicolas was honoured with a Harry Jerome Award. Established in memory of Harry Jerome — Canada’s premiere track and field athlete of the 1960s — and presented by the Black Business and Professional Association, the award honours excellence in African Canadian achievement.

One of Nicolas’s supervisors, UTSC anthropology professor Alejandro Paz, was unsurprised by the award announcement.

“I was thrilled to hear about Emilie’s award, which is one of many that she has won this year. But at the same time I am not surprised. Emilie is an extremely talented young scholar, whose motivation to write starts from her political activism in Quebec,” said Paz. “She puts her basic intuitions from this work under the scrutiny of theories about the relationship of nationalism, race, and language. She is not only extremely deserving, she’s also is a model for others to follow.

Nicolas also is this year’s recipient of the Barbara Frum Award in Canadian Scholarship and will join Massey College this September as a Junior Fellow.