Leslie A. Robertson

Broadly, my research examines the circulation of forms of social knowledge (public histories, anthropological theories and representations, colonial legends, medical discourses), in sensitive political and cultural contexts.

Primary ethnographic projects include : indigenous and settler historiographies; colonial regimes of difference; life story and oral histories; radical methodologies.  I explore forms of power and representation in the context of urban marginalization (drug use, sex work, health, and violence). I have conducted ethnographic, ethno-historical and applied research and coordinated a number of regional oral history projects with members of settler communities and First Nations in Western Canada. I am interested in community-based research, community-generated methodologies, and collaborative forms of ethnographic writing.

My recent research focuses on the existential afterlife of historical colonialism, how people from diverse cultural and social locations inhabit their histories, the imaginative resources they draw upon to speak about them, and the role of anthropology in translating and interpreting them. This includes attention to social projects linked to the re-inhabitance of histories and territories and realized through community-generated and collaborative methodologies. 

SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant 2018-19

Re-Inhabiting History: Making the Past in Nak’azdli Territory- Re-Animating Customary Memory Genres.

I am a cultural anthropologist who has conducted a variety of academic and applied ethnographic projects in Western Canada. Research and community collaborations include work on: intergenerational biography; aboriginal activism and historical colonial processes; street drug use, violence and homelessness; place-making and memory; difference; stigmatization and women’s health.
Primary Research Projects:
Currently collaborating with a First Nation in British Columbia as they seek to re-voice their own past in relationship with archival materials in part, to characterize their relationships to their traditional territories  for their own uses.
(2002 -2011) I was invited by members of the Kwaguł Gixsam to research and write a collaborative, intergenerational history about their ancestor Ga’ax̱sta’las / Jane Constance Cook (1870-1951), a Kwakwaka’wakw leader and activist who testified at the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, was the only woman on the executive of the Allied Indian Tribes of BC, and was a fierce advocate for the material needs of women and children. Through co-analyses of oral histories and archival materials, we examined the repetitive stream of scholarly narratives that misrepresent her motivations for criticizing customary practices surrounding the potlatch.  Our co-authored book Standing Up with Ga’ax̱sta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom (2012), narrates a history of the political suppression of aboriginal institutions, the rise of new forms of indigenous expression and their entanglement with early American cultural anthropology. Ga’ax̱sta’las’s descendants introduce a gendered history of the potlatch, discussing shifting marriage practices in the on-going contexts of  colonial incursion, Kwakwaka’wakw assertions of sovereignty and cultural reproduction. Research included attention to diverse methodologies, memory practices and processes of cultural renewal as the Kwagu’ł Gixsam  “stepped back into their history” through feasting and potlatching.
(2000-2004) As part of a team of researchers with ‘Health and Home: Relationships between Health and Housing Among Low Income Women in Downtown Eastside Vancouver’ (Dr. Dara Culhane, PI), I met with fourteen aboriginal women over the course of a year to speak about their perceptions of health and housing. A co-edited book, In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver (2005), resulted from the longitudinal, ethnographic research with street-involved women. This collection of seven life stories was collaboratively edited with the narrators. The intention was to confront and challenge the familiar stereotypes applied to drug users, to “wayward women,” and to those who live with disease and/or mental illness; to complicate prevalent media depictions of urban poverty, the “drug problem,” “prostitution” and statistics on crime and violence.
(1997- 2000)  I conducted an ethnographic study exploring  stories that fuel ideas about human difference. I was interested in popular understandings about “race,” and “foreignness,” regional, class and religious identities and I worked with residents of Fernie BC, a coal mining town transforming into an international ski resort. The starting point was a popular local legend about an indigenous curse cast on the valley in the nineteenth century. Successive interpretations of the story revealed a complicated landscape of memory linked to  European imaginaires, to official and contested histories of immigration and colonialism, social and scientific theories, and political discourses. This work resulted in the publication of, Imagining Difference: Legend, Curse and Spectacle in a Canadian Mining Town (2005).
 Selected Applied Projects:
(2012 -2016) Reasserting ‘Namgis Food Sovereignty in an Era of Climate Change OR, Three Boats and a Pickup Truck. Peter Wall Solutions Initiative. Terre Satterfield (PI).
(2011) Cultural impact assessment of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. With the Gitga’at First Nation, Hartley Bay, British Columbia. (With Terre Satterfield, Nancy Turner and Anton Pitts).
(2004) Researcher: ‘Homecare for Homeless People with HIV’ and, ‘Aboriginal Drug User Support Networks.’ Health Research and Methods Training Facility, Simon Fraser University. (Dr. Cindy Patton, PI).
(2003-04) Coordinator / Researcher: Emerging Voices: Developing a Collaborative Strategy to Address Violence against Women in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Status of Women Canada / Women’s Information Safe House Society [WISH], Vancouver, BC.
(1998-99) Coordinator / Researcher: Elk Valley Italian Oral History Project: Festa Italiana. (Oral History). The Royal British Columbia Museum / Fernie and District Historical Society.
(1995) Coordinator / Researcher: Waterton Lakes National Park Centennial Oral History Project. Parks Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park / Waterton Lakes National Park Community Association, Alberta.


Robertson, Leslie and the Kwaguł Gixsam. 2012. Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church and Custom. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Robertson, Leslie. 2005. Imagining Difference: Legend, Curse and Spectacle in a Canadian Mining Town. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Robertson, Leslie and Dara Culhane, eds. 2005. In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Vancouver: Talonbooks.


2007 Taming Space: Drug Use, HIV and Homemaking in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Gender, Place and Culture 14(5):527-549.

2006 Risk, Citizenship and Public Discourse: Coeval Dialogues on War and Health in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Medical Anthropology 25(4):297-330.

1998 A Penny for Your Thoughts: (Cultural) Properties of Anthropology in a Transnational Present, Anthropologica, XL (2): 97–214.

Recent Chapters and Research Reports

2017  Satterfield, Terre, Leslie Robertson, Nathan Vadeboncoeur and Anton Pitts. Implications of a Changing Climate for Food Sovereignty in Coastal British Columbia. In, Conservation in the Anthropocene Ocean: Interdisciplinary Science in Support of Nature and People. Phillip Levin and Melissa Poe eds., pp. 399-421. London: Elsevier.  

2016  Robertson, Leslie. Cultural Anthropology: Methodological Possibilities, in Ethnology, Ethnography and  Cultural Anthropology. Edited by Paolo Barbaro, in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems  (EOLSS), Developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO, EOLSS Publishers, Paris, France, [http://www.eolss.net]. Includes: glossary of terms and annotated  bibliography (with Lindsay Moore).

2015  Terre Satterfield, Leslie Robertson, Anton Pitts and Diane Jacobsen and the ‘Namgis First Nation.  Re-asserting ‘Namgis Food Sovereignty in an Era of Climate Change, OR Three Boats and a Pick-up Truck. (109pp. + appendices). Peter Wall Solutions Grant.https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/facultyresearchandpublications/52383/items/1.0307423

2012  Terre Satterfield, Leslie Robertson, Nancy Turner, and Anton Pitts.  ‘Being Gitka’a’ata: A Baseline Report on Gitka’a’ata Way of Life, a Statement of Cultural Impacts Posed by the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and a Critique of the ENGP Assessment Regarding Cultural Impacts.’ (125pp). Submitted to the National Energy Board, Joint Review Panel.


Winter 2020
No ANTH course(s) were found for W2020 term.Winter 2020

ANTH516 Qualitative Methods in Anthropology Sections

A discussion of selected methods used to observe, describe, and interpret cultural phenomena and social organization, including participant observation, interviewing, ethnographic semantics, life histories, componential analysis, and photography. Attention will also be given to ethics in anthropological research and writing and to such analytic matters as the nature of description, conceptualization, generalization, and content analysis.

ANTH 409:Knowledge and Engagement

This course involves a critical examination of many forms of applied scholarship with special attention to possibilities for change as they are imagined by different publics. Important here is the recognition of local knowledge holders and diverse modes of knowledge production outside of the academy. What does it mean to practice an anthropology that “joins in” with social and political projects envisioned by and with others? We will explore various roles: as writers; as researchers (of archives, policy, multi-disciplinary literatures and lived realities); and, as witnesses to on-going events and processes; as cultural translators; advocates; activists; and / or experts. Through readings and lectures, students will become familiar with questions of power that arise from disciplinary histories of interventionist research and with the development of ethical praxis. We will discuss possibilities and challenges that arise from applied or transformative work in sites and situations where “research” conforms to local protocols of knowledge production and circulation, conventions surrounding authority, ethical practice etc. Course materials are drawn from numerous social and political projects.

Robertson, Leslie A. with the Kwagu’ł Gixsam Clan, Standing Up with Ga’axsta’las:  Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and  Custom. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012.

2015   Finalist (1 of 5), François-Xavier Garneau Medal, Canadian Historical Association, (shortlist March).

2014   Canadian Committee on Women’s History Book Prize.  Women’s and Gender History. Canadian Historical Association, (May).

2013  ‘Exemplary Title,’ American Association of University Presses, (November).

2013  Wheeler-Voegelen Prize, American Society for Ethnohistory, (September).

2013  Canadian Aboriginal History Book Prize, Canadian Historical Association, (June).

2013  Clio Book Prize – British Columbia, Canadian Historical Association, (June).

2013  Finalist, Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Book Prize, Province of British Columbia, (May).

2013   K.D. Srivastava Prize (1 of 2), Office of the Vice-President Research and UBC Press, University of British Columbia (March).


Robertson, Leslie and Dara Culhane,  In  Plain Sight:Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005.

2006     Winner, George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature and Publishing, George Ryga Society, BC Bookworld, and CBC Radio.

2005    Finalist, City of Vancouver Book Award, In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown   Eastside Vancouver. City of Vancouver.