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Lydia Toorenburgh

Person with long blond hair, septum piercing, beaded earrings and tattoos on arms and chest.
  • Category: Indigenous Community Alumni Award
  • UVic degree: Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, 2018; Master of Arts in Anthropology, 2023
  • Current hometown: Victoria, BC
  • Birthplace: Maple Ridge, BC

About Lydia

Lydia Toorenburgh (they/them) is a tastawiyiniw (Two-Spirit) otipemisiwak (Bungi-Métis) artist and researcher working in the fields of Indigenous and Métis studies, audio-visual anthropology and community-engaged research. Lydia completed their bachelor’s and master's degrees at UVic, worked as an Indigenous student recruitment officer and, most recently, was the Tri-Faculty Indigenous resurgence coordinator. Lydia’s current doctoral research is contributing to the reclamation, revitalization and resurgence of 2SLGBTQIA+ Métis people, teachings, stories, language, community roles and cultures of acceptance.

Lydia is also a beadwork artist, drag performer and singer-songwriter. Lydia received a Chair in Transgender Studies scholarship for their MA in 2019 and for their PhD in 2023 and is currently a member of its steering committee. In 2023 they received the Faculty of Humanity’s həuistəŋ award to recognize their leadership in decolonization, and in 2024 they received the Dean’s Award for Indigenous Graduate Students.

How did your experiences at UVic shape who you are?

My experience in Indigenous Studies was formative. It helped me to reconcile my enjoyment of anthropology… and helped me navigate a discipline that has colonial baggage in a way that made me feel excited and hopeful about the work that I could do. The other thing that was key is, when I came to UVic I didn't feel very connected to my Indigenous community. But on campus we have the Métis Elder in Residence, Barb Hulme, and excellent Métis scholars like Rob Hancock. It was the first time I had a strong connection to Indigenous community. And that was life changing for me.

What skills or traits are needed to be good at what you do?

When I was the Indigenous recruiter and tri-faculty Indigenous resurgence coordinator at UVic, two things I learned were compassionate listening—to hear the heart of what people are telling you—and how to communicate about injustice in a way that gets people excited to be part of the change, rather than feeling immobilized, helpless or discouraged.

What’s a characteristic in people that’s underappreciated?

One teaching that I’ve been learning from the W̱SÁNEĆ and lək̓ʷəŋən folks here is eyēʔ sqȃ’lewen, good heart, good mind. I think sometimes in professional settings and academic settings people leave their hearts at the door, or they think it's unprofessional to bring our emotions in. But there's something about when we bring our emotions in, we speak with so much more care. We plan our work with so much more care.

What motivates you?

I came to UVic in 2014, and I've never left, and I haven't had one year away from campus. I love my studies. I love research, and I love education. Both my parents are teachers, and I originally thought I wouldn't be a teacher because school was traumatic for me. But then I remember a friend, an older mentor, saying to me, “You weren't made for grade school. You were made for university.” When I came here, it was like, yeah, this is the kind of education that I feel passionate about. The thing that keeps me coming back to UVic is community, and I think the people here are special. It makes me want to continue to invest in my relationships here. And even though there continues to be challenges, there are so many people working on the change.

What do you do to relax?

I do traditional and contemporary beadwork. It helps me stay connected to my culture. It's left brain, right brain. It's very relaxing. It’s also related to visiting with other people, so I'll go to a conference and be beading at my table while I listen.

What’s your go-to karaoke song?

I love “Man in the Box” by Alice in Chains. It used to be on the video game, Rock Band, and I would play it on expert, and I would get 100 per cent. That's how much I love that song.

Who plays you in the movie of your life?

I don't know anybody who looks like me! Someone younger. Maybe Saoirse Ronan? She's got that coolness about her. And she’s always in such interesting movies.

What’s your advice to someone who’s about to graduate or uncertain about their future?

When I was a recruiter, I would say to students there's no useless degrees, only useless resumés. We have many ways to convey the amazing stuff we've done. You don’t go to school to become a recruiter. You don’t go to school to become a research coordinator. But these are jobs that we find based on the skills we've developed. In your schooling, pursue what you love and find ways to build the skills that will make you marketable to careers that you will love. 

About the Distinguished Alumni Awards

Nominations for the 2024 awards are now closed. Nominations for the 2025 Distinguished Alumni Awards are open through Oct. 18, 2024.