from here to there

from here to there

Dark green conifers rise out of a muted pale grey mist
(June Fog, photo by Zoe Todd)

2 years and 11 months ago, I posted my last entry on this website:

What I didn’t know then, on January 27, 2020, was that I had caught the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus before it was officially detected in Ottawa. I still remember standing at my dresser, typing the post into my laptop resting precariously in front of me, editing my thoughts in a haze, thinking I simply had a ‘flu’ that was kicking my butt a bit harder than normal.

It is strange to read that post now.  It is like staring in through a deteriorating two way mirror, back into a past I barely recognize.

So much has happened since then that it is hard to access the thoughts, feelings, dreams, and aspirations of the person who was writing that entry nearly 3 years ago.

At the time, I was reeling from the incredibly unprofessional and embarrassing behaviour of some white anthropologists in Canada who were demonstrating their ‘white possessive’ (Moreton-Robinson 2015) proclivities towards Indigenous colleagues with great flourish and confidence. After an incredibly revealing encounter with white anthropologists on both sides of the Medicine Line, I walked into my Chair’s office in late November 2019 and formally requested to leave my employer’s Anthropology program for good. Thankfully my Chair, who is a fantastic and supportive colleague, accepted my request and I transferred over to the sociology side of our department. And I am grateful I made that choice as the sociology program was an incredibly fruitful place to work through the early years of the pandemic. With the support of compassionate colleagues and administrators, I was able to work remotely even as I spent almost all of 2020, and a good half of 2021, recovering from a terrifying encounter with SARS-CoV-2.

When I asked to leave the anthro program at [redacted] University in November 2019, and when I typed out my bittersweet post here in January 2020, I could not have known just how much transformation, tumult, chaos, and change would be barrelling down upon us in such short order. I haven’t had much time to reflect on the discipline, or my encounters with it as a Red River Métis person, until now.

It is strange, but not surprising, to think that white people (self-described ‘allies’, no less) behaving badly was the final straw that quietly ended my formal anthropological career. My journey with anthropology started in 2002, when I walked into my first Intro to Anthropology course at the University of Alberta. Twenty years ago, I was a biology student who chose anthropology as a random elective to fill out my program requirements. It was an 8 AM course in the Tory lecture theatre with Dr. Charles Schweger, and he joked that the only benefit to taking the course in the depths of a northern winter term was that at least by the end of semester the prairie sun would be shining when we got to campus. He incorporated a murder mystery novel into the course readings. I was hooked.

In 2010, when I was granted a full scholarship to pursue a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, I had a lot of trepidation. But it felt like I needed to follow through with the call to head back to Scotland and understand the terrain that my white ancestors had shaped in the rolling hills and denuded forests they left behind when they came to colonize unceded lands here in so-called Canada. It has felt like I was on a rollercoaster of fate, divination, and mystery for the better part of the last twelve years. And I am so grateful that the ride is finally over. So I can start a new journey.

A friend recently said that if the answer to something is not ‘fuck yes’, then it’s a ‘fuck no’. And although there have been moments when I was working within the discipline that were thrilling, expansive, joyful (almost exclusively these were moments when I connected with resurgent scholars working to dismantle oppressive structures and imagine new horizons), on the balance it is a relief to let go. Some places just are not a good home for various reasons. And anthropology just isn’t my home. I have found so many new homes within other spaces, content to swim through inter-disciplinary contexts and dive into more concretely experimental art-driven work. And connect with amazing co-thinkers and collaborators.

In some ways I couldn’t know what home felt like until I quite literally moved back to western Canada to be with my family. As we wend our way through upheavals at local, national, and international scales, things like disciplinary boundaries, career aspirations, and making myself legible to imperial disciplines feels less and less important every day.

In August 2020, I packed up my Ottawa apartment and drove across the country with another Red River Métis person who was keen to get home. And it is the best decision I ever made. It was a ‘fuck yes’ moment that compelled me to get the heck out of settler Ottawa, and back into the orbit of my big, bustling, beautiful family.

I chuckled this summer when I attended my first in-person meeting since early 2020 [held outdoors with great care to ensure all attendees were safe]. It dawned on me that I had not spent any time with other scholars in person for two full years. Instead, I had spent almost every waking moment hiking through lush coastal forests, connecting with my dad who shares stories of our huge Métis family stretching through generations and centuries, even. Being teased by my sister. Making art. Listening. Softening. Healing.

Last summer, a very prominent anthropologist aggressively pursued me to give an in-person talk at a prestigious university in the USA.

I considered the request. I considered my expired passport (and the catastrophic backlog at the Canadian passport offices). I considered my newly impacted immune system that has never been the same since catching SARS-CoV-2. I considered how much peace and joy I find in being home. And I politely asked if I could deliver a virtual lecture.

Their previously flowery emails were replaced with a short response: ‘there is little interest in the dept continuing with zoom events at this time’. 

Never mind the fact that, legally, our departments can and must support accommodations for disabled and vulnerable colleagues. It was the lack of appetite for ensuring my safety in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis that really drove home for me that I had made the right choice to step away from institutional anthro when I did.

Two plus years of untangling myself from different corners of the colonial academy and re-learning who I am has been a paradoxical gift. It is only possible because I tore through the early days of the pandemic with an illness that irreversibly changed my body and myself. I am only just now confronting the fact that I came very close to crossing over into the other world. And every day since I am firmly rooting myself into mud and moss and grass and weeds, and willing myself to lead a life that nurtures my body, mind, and spirit, however that is possible while systems collapse around us.

I am ever conscious that others have not had the supports I have. And I am committed to working collectively to make sure we dismantle hierarchies that exploit the most precarious within our workplaces, at a time when employers and institutions are trying to squeeze every last ounce of life out of society.

In a way, reading that post from 2020 feels … unimportant.

What matters more to me now is: how are we traveling together? And are we using all the tools available to us to make sure we collectively flourish?

It feels exhausting to reach this stage in a pandemic and know that we are losing so much every day as dominant western society refuses to enact mutual care, interdependence, and compassion to stop the suffering that both SARS-CoV-2 and the systems of exploitation that shape late stage capitalist imperialism create. But I also feel inimitably hopeful that we will find our way through. And in the face of this, disciplinary boundaries feel so inconsequential. What gives me faith and hope is that, collectively, we have the capacity to build something expansive and life-affirming.

As I say to my students: take what is useful from these systems, and leave the rest behind.

So I don my mask. And head back into the world, with care for those whose lives, like mine, have been irrevocably changed by SARS-CoV-2. Ready to keep building beyond the legacies the colonizers left for us.

I truly wish for 2023 to be a year that supports our interdependence. And helps us imagine and build beautiful and magical homes for ourselves.

kinanaskomitin. <3

Works Cited:

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2015. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press.

One Reply to “from here to there”

  1. Thanks for this Zoe. I love this question: “What matters more to me now is: how are we traveling together? And are we using all the tools available to us to make sure we collectively flourish?”

    You always get me thinking about how we can leave all those dead structures behind–and why we need to do it.