Category Archives: resurgence and survivance

Decolonizing against extinction part II: Extinction is not a metaphor – it is literally genocide



Buffalo Calf by Mark Spearman Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Extinction is not a metaphor…

Extinction has become an emblem of Western, and white-dominated, fears about ‘the end of the(ir) world’. This scientific term is saturated with emotional potency, stretched and contorted to embody almost any nightmare, from climate change to asteroid strikes. In academic and public contexts alike, it is regularly interchanged with other terms and concepts – for instance, ‘species death’, global warming or ecological collapse. Diffused into sublime scales – mass extinctions measured in millions of (Gregorian calendar) years, a planet totalized by the threat of nuclear destruction – ‘extinction’ has become an empty superlative, one that that gestures to an abstract form of unthinkability. It teases Western subjects with images of generalized demise that might, if it gets bad enough, even threaten us, or the figure of ‘humanity’ that we enshrine as a universal. This figure of ‘humanity’, derived from Western European enlightenment ideals, emphasizes individual, autonomous actors who are fully integrated into the global market system; who are responsible citizens of nation-states; who conform to Western ideas of health and well-being; who partake of ‘culture’; who participate in democratic state-based politics; who refrain from physical violence; and who manage their ‘resources’ responsibly (Mitchell 2014).

Oddly, exposure to the fear of extinction contributes to the formation and bolstering of contemporary Western subjects. Contemplating the sublime destruction of ‘humanity’ offers the thrill of abjection: the perverse pleasure derived from exposure to something by which one is revolted. Claire Colebrook detects this thrill-seeking impulse in the profusion of Western blockbuster films and TV shows that imagine and envision the destruction of earth, or at least of ‘humanity’. It also throbs through a flurry of recent best-selling books – both fiction and speculative non-fiction (see Oreskes and Conway 2014; Newitz 2013; Weisman 2008). In a forthcoming intervention, Noah Theriault and I (2018) argue that these imaginaries are a form of porn that normalizes the profound violences driving extinction, while cocooning its viewers in the secure space of the voyeur. Certainly, there are many Western scientists, conservationists and policy-makers who are genuinely committed to stopping the extinction of others, perhaps out of fear for their own futures. Yet extinction is not quite real for Western, and especially white, subjects; it is a fantasy of negation that evokes thrill, melancholy, anger and existential purpose. It is a metaphor that expresses the destructive desires of these beings, and the negativity against which we define our subjectivity.

But extinction is not a metaphor: it is a very real expression of violence that systematically destroys particular beings, worlds, life forms and the relations that enable them to flourish. These are real, unique beings, worlds and relations – as well as somebody’s family, Ancestors, siblings, future generations – who are violently destroyed. Extinction can only be used unironically as a metaphor by people who have never been threatened with it, told it is their inevitable fate, or lost their relatives and Ancestors to it – and who assume that they probably never will.

This argument is directly inspired by the call to arms issued in 2012 by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang and more recently by Cutcha Risling-Baldy. The first, seminal piece demonstrates how settler cultures use the violence of metaphorical abstraction to excuse themselves from the real work of decolonization: ensuring that land and power is in Indigenous hands. Risling-Baldy’s brilliant follow-up extends this logic to explain how First People like Coyote have been reduced to metaphors through settler appropriation. In both cases, engagement with Indigenous peoples and their relations masks moves to innocence: acts that make it appear as if settlers are engaging in decolonization, while in fact we are consolidating the power structures that privilege us.

In this series, want to show how Western, and white-dominated, discourses on ‘extinction’ appear to address the systematic destruction of peoples and other beings while enacting moves to innocence that mask their culpability and perpetuate structures of violence. As I argued in Part I of this series, extinction is an expression of colonial violence. As such, it needs to be addressed through direct decolonization, including the dismantling of settler colonial structures of violence, and the resurgence of Indigenous worlds. Following Tuck, Yang and Risling-Baldy’s lead,  I want to show how and why the violences that drive extinction have come to be invisible within mainstream discourses. Salient amongst these is the practice of genocide against Indigenous peoples other than humans.

…it is literally genocide.

What Western science calls ‘extinction’ is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of desirable ‘human’ activities. It is an embodiment of particular patterns of  structural violence that disproportionately affect specific racialized groups.  In some cases, ‘extinction’ is directly, deliberately and systematically inflicted in order to create space for aggressors, including settler states. For this reason, it has rightly been framed as an aspect or tool of colonial genocides against Indigenous human peoples. Indeed, many theorists have shown that the ‘extirpation’ of life forms (their total removal from a particular place) is an instrument for enacting genocide upon Indigenous humans (see Mazis 2008; Laduke 1999; Stannard 1994). Specifically, the removal of key sources of food, clothing and other basic materials makes survival on the land impossible for the people targeted.

Nehiyaw thinker Tasha Hubbard (2014) makes a qualitatively distinct argument. She points out that the Buffalo are First People, the elder brothers of the Nehiyaw people (and other Indigenous nations – see Benton-Banai 2010). Starting in the mid-1800s, the tens of millions of buffalo that ranged across Turtle Island were nearly eliminated through strategic patterns of killing carried out by settler-state-sponsored military and commercial forces. Their killing was linked to governmental imperatives to clear and territorially annex the Great Plains by removing its Indigenous peoples. As Hubbard points out, methods of destroying buffalo herds included large-scale killing, but also the disruption of their social structures, the destruction of the ecosystems on which they rely, and the removal of calves. These acts involve each of the components of the definition of genocide enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention: 

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

From Hubbard’s viewpoint, rooted in Nehiyaw philosophy and ethical-legal principles, the  systematic destruction of the buffalo is not like genocide, nor is it exclusively a tool for carrying out genocide against human peoples. It is genocide in its own right: an attempt to destroy a particular First People and the possibilities of its continuity. In other words, the deliberate and systematic attempt to eliminate the buffalo, enacted by settler states, simultaneously enacted genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nonhuman relatives.

Genocides of Indigenous peoples (human and otherwise) continue apace in contemporary settler states, transformed into multiple manifestations. For instance, they are integral to ‘biosecurity’ strategies designed to police the biological boundaries of these states and their citizens. Laced with racializing and xenophobic rhetoric (Subramaniam 2001), strategies such as culling or planned


Flying fox and her cub by Richard Wasserman licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Attribution-Non-commercial-Non-Derivs

eradications are intended to remove ‘invasive’ or ‘foreign’ life forms in order to protect ‘Native’ ones. Many of the ‘invasive’ life forms targeted for destruction were transported to unfamiliar lands through colonial patterns of settlement and global trade flows.

However, this logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006) is often perverted, turned against Indigenous* beings whose flourishing impedes the expansion or consolidation of the colonial state. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose (2011 a, 2011 b) shows how this form of violence is continually waged against flying foxes, who are framed by the settler state as “pest[s] whose extinction is [deliberately] sought”. This act of elimination involves explicit genocidal ideation, or the imagination of the destruction of a people. Rose characterizes it as a “matter of imagining a world without [dingoes or flying foxes], then setting out to create it” (Rose 2011a). The Australian settler state has used multiple tactics to induce terror and preclude flourishing amongst flying foxes, from the emission of high-pitched electronic signals to smearing trees with python excrement (Rose 2011b). Indeed, in 2014, I lived near to the roosting site of a group of flying foxes in Turrbal and Jagera Country (suburban Brisbane to settlers). Such nesting places are called ‘colonies’ , reflecting a Western scientific rhetoric that frames Indigenous peoples as ‘invaders’ of the settler state. The trees that housed the nesting site backed onto a municipal facility, whose fence had been covered with barbed wire, in which many of the bats snared their wings and starved to death.  This ‘security’ measure – designed to protect the facilities relied upon by urban settlers from the intrusion of flying foxes – is a powerful weapon for precluding ongoing flourishing of Indigenous other-than-human peoples. I learned from neighbours that this ‘colony’ had previously been ‘moved’ from several other sites around the city, suffering significant declines in population each time. Indeed, despite reported declines of 95% in flying fox communities in Queensland and neighbouring New South Wales, the Queensland settler state legalized the shooting of the bats in 2012 by fruitgrowers.

Of course, in some cases, the elimination of life forms is not as targeted or intentional – it may take the form of land-based extractive violence, the creep of ocean acidification, the decimation of rainforests by climate change. Proponents of a Eurocentric definition of genocide could argue that these events lack intention. Indeed, within international law, intention to commit genocide is a necessary criteria for conviction. However, theorists of critical genocide studies have long argued that this definition is inadequate: it brackets out a great many of the acts, logics and structures that produce the destruction of unique peoples. According to Tony Barta, definitions of genocide that focus on ‘purposeful annihilation’, and in particular on physical killing, have “devalu[ed] all other concepts of less planned destruction, even if the effects are the same” (Barta 2000, 238). For this reason, he shifts the focus from ‘genocidal intention’ to ‘genocidal outcome’ – that is, from the abstract assignation of genocidal agency to the felt and embodied effects of eliminative violence. It is the focus on intent, he contends, that allows white Australians to imagine that their relationship with Aboriginal people is non-genocidal despite overwhelming evidence of systematic and deliberate racialized destruction over several centuries. In contrast, an approach based on ‘genocidal outcomes’ makes it possible to account for complex causality and weak intentionality – that is, for myriad acts mediated by subtle, normalized structures that, together, work to eliminate a people. I want to argue that the same logic applies to nonhuman peoples: the destruction of a life form, its relations with other beings and its possible futures is a genocidal outcome, whether or not intention can be identified.

Similarly, Christopher Powell (2007) argues that, since a ‘genos’ is a

“network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships…these effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy. They could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. They might even result from well-meaning attempts to do good” (Powell 2007, 538)

As I have argued elsewhere, extinction is defined by the breaking of relations and the systematic destruction of the conditions of plurality that nurture co-flourishing worlds. Whether inflicted out as a deliberate act of extirpation, or as the convergent effect of eliminative logics expressed over centuries and enormous spatial scales, extinction is the destruction of relations and the heterogenous societies they nurture.

Understood in this way, ‘extinction’ is not a metaphor for genocide or other forms of large-scale violence: it is a distinct manifestation of genocide. Masking the genocidal logics that drive extinction involves several moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Treating extinction as something short of genocide entrenches Eurocentric understandings of personhood that are limited to homo sapiens, which is itself an act of violence against these peoples. Ironically, the entrenchment of this dichotomy also enables the logic of ‘dehumanization’, in which human communities are likened to reviled nonhumans (for instance, cockroaches) in order to motivate violence against them. As I have argued elsewhere (Mitchell 2014), the logic of generalised ‘dehumanisation’ is uniquely effective in Western frameworks in which the lack of ethical status for beings other than humans removes obstacles to their mass destruction. Within worlds in which human and nonhuman persons are linked through complex systems of law, treaties, protocols and long-standing relations, this claim is illogical. Within Western settler states, however, it functions as a means of justifying ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations.

In addition, by framing extinction as a problem for a universal figure of ‘humanity’ (more on this to follow…) mainstream discourses of extinction obscure its profound entwinement with race and racializing structures.  These examples make it clear that eliminative violence is targeted on specific groups of people and their other-than-human relations, as defined by the aggressors. Indeed, patterns of genocidal violence extend racializing categories, hierarchies and eliminative impulses to other-than-human peoples. Just as approaching gender violence separately from race effaces their intersection, understanding extinction as distinct from race is deeply misleading. This is not only because racialized people are more likely to suffer from the effects of ‘extinction’ and other forms of environmental racism (which they are). It is also because the eliminative violence that drives extinction extend and enact race beyond the category of homo sapiens by defining particular groups against white settler norms and as threats to the settler society. To approach extinction separately from issues of race is, therefore, to miss one of its most defining features.

Extinction is not a metaphor – in many cases, it is quite literally genocide enacted against Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human relations. To treat it as a metaphor is to obscure and participate in the structures of violence that drive it. From this perspective, in addition to active decolonisation efforts, and the resurgence of Indigenous peoples, addressing extinction also requires attacking the genocidal, racializing,  eliminative logics that are diffused throughout settler (and other) states. It also requires honouring the unique relations, worlds and peoples that are targeted by these discourses and practices.

*In this context (referring to flying foxes and other non-human peoples), I use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to the historical inhabitation and co-constitution of a particular place, and enmeshment in meaningful relationships with the other beings that co-constitute that place. Within this perspective, life forms deemed ‘exotic’ or even ‘invasive’ in Western science could potentially become part of that place if accepted by, and in mutually beneficial relations with, existing communities. I use the term in contrast to narratives of ‘native’ or, sometimes ‘Indigenous’ species, which make dichotomous distinctions between those beings deemed to be ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’.




Decolonizing against extinction part I: extinction is violence



Tar sands, Alberta by Dru Oja Jay

Western scientists* are proclaiming the start of a ‘sixth mass extinction event’ that may involve the destruction of more than three quarters of earth’s currently-existing life forms. In their attempts to explain this phenomenon, most scientists have converged around four major, interlinked drivers: climate change, habitat destruction, species exchange, and the direct killing of plants and animals. In most cases, these drivers are understood as the unintended consequences of generic ‘human’ activity, and as a result of desirable trends such as development or urbanization (Wilson 2002; Barnosky 2014; Ceballos 2016).

A crucial driver is missing from this list: transversal structural violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations, and colonial violence in particular.

Structural violence’  involves systemic forms of harm, exclusion and discrimination that disproportionately affect particular groups, and which can take many forms (physical, psychological, economic, gendered and others). They are embedded in and expressed through political, cultural, economic and social structures (Farmer 2009) that can persist across large spans of time and space. I use the term ‘transversal’ to refer to forms of structural violence that extend across multiple boundaries – not only those of nation-states, but also other kinds of nations (human and otherwise), communities or kinship groups, and temporalities. Prime examples of transversal structural violence include: settler colonialism, colonial genocides (Woolford et al 2014); environmental racism  or ‘slow violence’, including toxification and pollution;  and complexes of sexual, physical, communal, spiritual and land-based violence associated with the extractive industries.

Each of these forms of violence is ecologically devastating, and their convergence in European projects of colonisation is even more so. Many formations of transversal structural violence are significant causes of the so-called ‘four horsemen’ of extinction mentioned above. For instance, ‘direct killing’ is carried out to clear land for settlement, and it occurs as a result of ecological damage caused by resource extraction. Settler colonialism, carbon-based economies and regimes of environmental racism also support forms of socio-economic organization (for instance, carbon and energy-intensive urbanized societies) that intensify climate change and increase habitat destruction. Meanwhile, colonization has played a significant role in the ongoing transfer of life forms across the planet – whether unintentionally (e.g. the transfer of fish in the bilge water of ships); as an instrument of agricultural settlement (e.g. cattle ranching), or as a deliberate strategy of violence (e.g. smallpox).

However, transversal structural violence is a driver of extinction in itself, with its own distinct manifestations. First, it involves the disruption or severance of relations and kinship structures between humancommunities and other life forms, and the dissolution of Indigenous systems of governance, laws and protocols that have co-created and sustained plural worlds over millennia (Borrows 2010; Atleo 2012; Kimmerer 2013). Second, the destruction of Indigenous knowledges through policies of assimilation, expropriation, cultural appropriation and other strategies undermines these forms of order and the relationships they nurture. Third, the displacement of and/or restricted access to land by Indigenous peoples interferes with practices of caring for land or Country that are necessary for the survival of humans and other life forms (Bawaka Country 2015). Colonial genocides embody all of these forms of destruction by killing or displacing Indigenous communities, undermining Indigenous modes of governance and kinship systems, systematically destroying relationships between life forms and erasing knowledge. All of these modes of violence weaken co-constitutive relationships between Indigenous communities, other life forms and ecosystems that have enabled their collaborative survival. This results in disruptions to ecosystems – and climate – that  Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte (2016) has recently argued would have been considered a dystopia by his Ancestors.

In other words, transversal structural violence, and colonial violence in particular, are fundamental drivers of global patterns of extinction. It stands to reason, then, that responses to extinction that focus on managing endangered species or populations, or ‘backing up’ genetic material, are insufficient: they leave the structures of violence intact and may add to their power. Instead, efforts to address extinction need to focus on identifying, confronting and dismantling these formations of violence, and on restoring or strengthening the relations they sever.

Yet responses to global patterns of extinction are overwhelmingly rooted in Western scientific concepts of conservation – a paradigm that emerged within 20th century European colonial government structures (Adams 2004). Contemporary conservation approaches – from the creation of land and marine parks to the archiving of genetic materials – may exacerbate the destruction of relations between Indigenous peoples and their relations. For instance, conservation strategies often involve displacing Indigenous peoples from the land that they care for (Jago 2017, Brockington and Igoe 2006), or curtailing of processes such as subsistence hunting, fishing or burning that have enabled the co-survival of Indigenous groups, plants, animals and land for millennia. Meanwhile, ex situ and genetic forms of conservation (including zoos and gene banks) may violate these relationships by instrumentalizing or commodifying kinship relations. Increasingly popular conservation approaches based on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) approaches claim to center Indigenous communities and knowledges. However, they ultimately instrumentalize fragments of Indigenous knowledge systems (for instance, data on climatic change) to test or support Western approaches. As such, they leave the structures of colonization and other forms of transversal structural violence untouched, and may even exacerbate them.

All of this suggests that confronting global patterns of extinction calls for decolonization and other ethos that work to eliminate transversal structural violence – and I don’t mean this metaphorically. Enabling the restoration of relations that can enable the ongoing flourishing of life on earth will require the transfer of land and power back into plural Indigenous peoples and their distinct modes of sovereignty, law and governance (Tuck and Yang 2012). These relationships and forms of order have enabled plural Indigenous peoples and their multitude of relations to co-flourish for millennia, including through periods of rapid climate change, and they are needed to ensure the continuation of this co-flourishing. This means that decolonization is not simply related to global patterns of extinction: it is necessary to ensuring the ongoingness of plural life forms on earth.


* see: (Barnosky et al 2011; Ceballos et al 2015; Régnier et al 2015; McCauley et al 2015; WWF 2016; Brook and Alroy 2017)


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‘Colonial Baggage’ A Mitchell 2017

As Canada gears up to mark 150 years of statehood on 1 July, a barrage of posters, events, advertisements, sales and other promotions urge to celebrate the country’s achievements. While there are many things to celebrate in this country, it is crucial that the congratulatory spirit of this event does not overshadow, mask or erase the violent realities of its history and present. Indeed, there are multiple occasions in which one can reflect on positive features of Canada and Canadians. July 1st specifically marks the founding of the modern Canadian state, and Canada 150 is, ultimately, a celebration of a century and a half of settler colonial statehood. Settlers – those of us whose presence on these lands is made possible by long-standing and ongoing colonial violence – need to recognize the injustices that have marked its emergence and transformation.

In particular, we, as settlers, need actively to confront the genocide that has been carried out throughout the history of the settler state, and whose manifestations shape today’s Canada.  An important part of this process is to recognise genocide for what it is: systematic, structural efforts to destroy entire peoples, the conditions of their survival and the possibilities of their resurgence. By emphasising the term cultural genocide, mainstream political discourses have softened the impact of the concept, making it appear as if the violence in question targeted ‘just’ cultures, and not whole peoples.  ‘Culture’ is not a qualifier, but rather a logic and means for carrying out genocide. To state that a genocide is ‘just’ cultural is similar to arguing that a murder was ‘just’ done with a hammer, versus a knife or a gun. By whatever means it is pursued, the deliberate effort to eradicate a people is genocide, period. It is also crucial to note that the continued flourishing and resurgence of Indigenous peoples, communities and cultures does NOT suggest that the genocide was any less severe or extreme than in other cases. Instead, this reflects the incredible power of Indigenous survivance –  that is, survival and/as resistance – in refusing eradication. Genocide is defined by the intention and effort to destroy entire peoples, not by the degree to which it is ‘completed’.

Genocide can be difficult to grasp in its entirety, so addressing and preventing it demands constant vigilance and careful attention. It is insidious, unfolds over long periods of time and assumes multiple forms – some spectacular and some more apparently subtle, and some which even appear to be positive or progressive.  A one-time recognition or apology for an aspect or act of genocide is not sufficient. Instead, daily work on a massive scale over decades or perhaps even centuries is required to dismantle the complex and enduring structures that enable genocide. To do this work, it is necessary to track, observe, bear witness to – and, of course, fight against –  the development of structures and logics that support genocide across spaces and times, on multiples scales and across diverse aspects of society.

With this in mind, for each of the 150 hours leading up to 11:59 on Canada Day – 1 July, 2017 – I will tweet one major development in the history of (settler) colonization in Canada for each year since 1867. I will tweet from @AudraLMitchell, on the hour, starting at 6PM on 25 June, with the hashtag #colonial150.

The tweets each reflect an event in the Canadian settler colonial state, society, economy and culture, each of which constitutes a significant contribution to Canada’s genocide. Some of these events have been magnified by mainstream history – for instance, the founding of the state or other institutions, or the signing of major treaties. Others have been marginalized in mainstream histories, including acts of violence and abuse against students in residential schools. In addition, some of these events are punctual (e.g. the suppression of the Northwest Rebellion) while others unfold over long periods of time and/or space (e.g. the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that has spread since the 1980s). In no way is the list of events comprehensive. Instead, by focusing on manifestations of colonial violence at different scales and contexts, I aim to reflect on the often subtle but remarkably persistent transformations of settler colonialism into multiple forms, temporalities and expressions.

The focus of these tweets is the development and transformation of the settler colonial

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‘Colonial Baggage II’ A Mitchell 2017

state in Canada, its logics and cultures, and its manifestations across various dimensions of society. This focus is by no means intended to underplay the profound acts of survivance and resurgence enacted by Indigenous communities across Canada (and elsewhere), and still less to lock these communities into discourses of ‘victimhood’. Brilliant Indigenous writers, thinkers, artists and activists across the country are living and telling these stories of survivance and resurgence, which are not mine to share. Instead, I want to bear witness to the structures and forms of power that position me in this society and country, that are part of my (hi)story. I am not doing this as an apologia for white settler politics, nor as a move to innocence  (although, as Tuck and Yang argue, settlers should never be complacent about the possibility that even well-intentioned actions may be guided by this impulse). I do not for a second believe that this small act absolves me of the need actively to fight persistent structures of settler colonialism and genocide. On the contrary, this is simply one small hourly practice that can remind me of the profound violences that have made my life and my privileged status in this country possible, and my responsibility to fight against them everyday, not just on Canada day.

Thank you to Liam Kelly for his help with to compiling and checking sources, and scheduling tweets.

The Tweets:

1867: British North America Act gives the federal government responsibility for Aboriginal peoples and their lands.
1868: Wikwemikong Catholic residential school opens.
1869: Transfer of Rupert’s land to the federal government of Canada sparks Red River rebellion.
1870: Northwest Territories created and placed under federal control as Canada’s first territory.
1871: Treaties 1 and 2 transfer land in southern Manitoba from the Anishinaabeg and Swampy Cree to federal control.
1872: Metlakatla Anglican residential school opens.
1873: Treaty 3 transfers land in southern Ontario and Manitoba from the Saulteaux tribe to federal control
1874: Treaty 4 transfers lands from the Cree, Saulteaux and Assinaboine to to the fedearl government.
1875: Treaty 5 which transfers land in Northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario to federal control
1876: Indian Act is passed, making Indigenous people wards of the Canadian state
1877: Treaty 7 transfers lands from the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina peoples to federal control.
1878: JS Dennis advises PM John A. MacDonald that Indigenous peoples should be trained in farming and mechanical trades to assimilate them.
1879: Emmanuel College (residential school) opens.
1800: UK gives Canada control of the Arctic islands.
1881: Canadian railway is incorporated; PM JA MacDonald deliberately starves thousands of Indigenous people to clear a path for it.
1882: full turnover of teachers at Fort Simpson residential school reflects poor conditions in these schools.
1883: PM JA MacDonald calls Indigenous parents ‘savages’, calls for students to ‘acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men’
1884: Aboriginal potlatch celebrations are made illegal under the Indian Act.
1885: Canadian Federal government puts down the Northwest Rebellion, extending Canadian law to the West and executing leader Louis Riel.
1885: Indian Pass system requires Indigenous people to carry a pass when entering or leaving a reservation.
1886: Election Act of Manitoba disqualifies ‘Indians’ or persons of ‘Indian blood’ from receiving annuities from the Crown.
1887: being an ‘Indian in a state of intoxication’ made punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both.
1888: St. Catharines Milling and Lumber v Regina states that Aboriginal title allowed only at Crown’s pleasure, can be revoked any time.
1889: New Brunswick elections act disqualifies ‘Indians’ from voting
1890: Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed proposes that ‘native language’ teaching in residential schools be discontinued as soon as possible.
1891: Jean L’Hereux, employee of Indian Affairs, allowed to resign after accusations of sexually abusing children in residential schools.
1892: Onion Lake Catholic residential school opens (closes 1974)
1893: Indian Affairs “Programme of Studies for Indian Schools” states that residential school students must be induced to speak English.
1894: Duck Lake residential school opens, not to close until 1996.
1895: Indian Agents instructed to seek permission of Department of Indian Affairs to allow residential school students to marry.
1896: Canadian Government funds 45 church-run residential schools across Canada.
1897: Kah-pah-pah-mah-am-wa-ko-we-ko-chin deposed from his position at White Bear Reserve for his vocal opposition to residential schools.
1898: Saddle Lake Roman Catholic residential school opens, not to close until 1990.
1899: Federal government signs Treaty 8 – the largest treaty by area in the history of the Canadian settler state.
1900: Crowfoot, St. Joseph’s, St. Trinité residential schools open, not to close until 1968.
1901: Proposals to construct a hospital at the Regina residential school are rejected.
1902: Duncan Sticks freezes to death after running away from the Williams Lake, BC residential School.
1903: principle of Red Dear, AB residential school scolded for allowing use of Cree language.
1904: Department of Indian Affairs issues two policies to quicken Indigenous assimilation, end native customs and improve ‘Indian education’, and pressure Indigenous groups to cede land to settlers.
1905: Federal government signs Treaty 9, which transfers much of current northern Ontario from the Ojibway and Cree to federal control.
1906: Federal government signs Treaty 10, which transfers lands in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta to federal control
1907: Dr. Peter Bryce conducts study that shows extremely high rates of tuberculosis in residential schools.
1908: Saskatchewan Elections act disqualifies ‘Indians’ from voting.
1909: Athabasca Petroleum Syndicate forms, begins drilling in oil sands north of Fort McMurray.
1910: Indian Affairs signs contract with churches to set standards for residential school diets and ventilation – it fails to make impact on TB crisis.
1911: Songhees Reserve (Victoria, BC) is relocated.
1912: Cross Lake, St. Joseph’s, Norway House, Notre Dame Hostel, Jack River Hostel (Cross Lake) residential school opens.
1913: police are called when a mother removes her daughter from Fort Resolution residential school.
1914: a father successfully sues the Mohawk Institute residential school for locking his daughter in a cell for 3 days.
1915: a report on the Roman Catholic residential school at the Blood Reserve states that education is merely ‘memory work’
1916: BC members of Indian Rights Association travel to Ottawa to express grievances over land rights to federal government.
1917: parents of children at the Shoal Lake residential school refuse to return their children when principal does not resign.
1918: Indian Agent John Smith reports lack of nutritious food at Kamloops residential school
1919: Yukon Territory Ordinance Respecting Elections disqualifies ‘Indians’ from voting.
1920: Duncan Campbell Scott (Indian Affairs) recommends Bill 14, which restates Canada’s right to force attendance at residential schools.
1921: Federal government signs Treaty 11, which transfers a massive parcel of land in the present-day Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavat to federal control.
1922: after deaths of students at Kitimaat residential schools, parents withdraw children, demand better food and care
1923: former industrial school principal RB Heron reports on inadequate education, excess labour in residential schools.
1924: reports of inadequate isolation facilities for tuberculosis patients in Mission, BC residential school.
1926: parents of children at Elkhorn residential school fail to send their children back due to poor food, clothing.
1926: Balfour Report declares Canada a fully independent country, confirming the sovereignty of the settler state.
1927: Indian Act is amended to make it illegal for First Nations peoples to raise money or retain a lawyer to advance land claims.
1928: Mt. Elgin residential school principal claims that ‘in the case of the Indian, a little learning is a dangerous thing’
1929: Big Trout Lake signing of Treaty 9, which ceded land around James Bay to the federal government.
1930: 75% of all Aboriginal children between the ages of 7-15 are in residential schools.
1931: Statute of Westminster grants the Canadian settler state full legal freedom.
1932: 8213 Aboriginal children are in residential/industrial schools.
1933: amendment to Indian Act enables federal gov’t to order forced enfranchisement of First Nations for assimilation purposes
1934: first of six residential schools established in Québec on Cree, Algonquin, Attikamek and Innu lands.
1935: Métis of Ste. Madeleine, Manitoba, relocated under the authority of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act.
1936: Report by D.A. Stewart states that deaths of Aboriginal people from tuburculosis in the West 10 x higher than non-Aboriginal people.
1937: Dr. HW McGill, director of Indian Affairs, limits Indian health-care services to ‘those required for safety of life, limb or essential function’
1938: The per capita grant issued for Aboriginal students was $180 compared to $294-$642 for white students.
1939: police officers conclude that runaway boys from Kuper residential school in BC were escaping sexual abuse.
1940: RA Hoey (formerly of Indian Affairs) reports on ‘dilapidated’ conditions, fire hzards in residential schools.
1941: named and unnamed combined death rate at residential schools is 4.9 x higher than general death rate
1942: First Nations Nutrition Experiments conducted on children in residential schools.
1943: Federal government declares compulsory military service for all ‘Native’ men of military age, despite lack of voting rights, benefits, etc.
1944: 31% of school-aged Aboriginal children are in residential schools.
1945: Indian Affairs shifts policy towards day schools as residential school system faces economic collapse from under-funding.
1946: Special Joint parliamentary Committee on the Indian Act explores possibility of extending suffrage to First Nations, despite worries abt loss of treaty rights, tax exemption.
1947: Canadian Citizenship Act grants citizenship to Aboriginal people registered under the Indian Act, with residency requirements.
1948: Special joint committee on the Indian Act recommends extending suffrage to Aboriginal people.
1949: Canada signs the UN Genocide Convention, yet residential schools continue to operate for 30 years after this date.
1950: Federal policy forces Aboriginal people to give up tax exemptions in exchange for the federal franchise.
1951: Bill C-31 defines a woman’s ‘Indian’ status entirely through her husband; and federal gov’t takes control of Indigenous child welfare.
1952: First Nations Nutrition Experiments conclude after 10 years.
1953: Trans-mountain oil pipeline completed on Indigenous land – to be approved for expansion in 2016.
1954: Construction on St. Lawrence Seaway begins, involves displacement of Akwesasne community.
1955: 23% of teachers at residential schools have no teaching certificate.
1956: Sayisi Dene in Northern Manitoba are relocated.
1957: Federal government makes Thanksgiving a national holiday, entrenching an official narrative about colonization.
1958: Senator Gladstone (Blood) appointed to the upper house, but could not vote in federal or provincial elections.
1959: Inuit of Hebron, Labrador, are relocated.
1960: Aboriginal people become the last group in Canada to attain the right to vote.
1961: National Indian Council is set up by federal government to represent non-status ‘Indians’ and Métis people.
1962: Father Houston of Grollier Hall residential school convicted for the sexual abuse of five boys in his care.
1963: Federal government commissions HB Hawthorn’s report, which concluded that Aboriginal peoples are ‘citizens minus’ in Canada.
1964: Gwa’Sala and ‘Nakwaxda’xw (British Columbia) are relocated.
1965: Federal-Provincial Child Welfare Act mandated Ontario to provide welfare services on reserves as part of assimilation policy.
1966: Federal government and government of Manitoba begin the strategy of forced adoptions of Indigenous children (the Sixties Scoop)
1967: Centenary of the Canadian settler state.
1968: after 102 years, Len Marchand(BC)   becomes the first status ‘Indian’ sit in the House of Commons.
1969: Federal government White Paper proposes abolishing Indian Act and treaties, assimilating all Aboriginal people in the Canadian state.
1970: Indian Association of Alberta (led by Harold Cardinal) rejects 1969 White Paper as ” a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation”
1971: between this year and 1981, c. 3400 Indigenous children in Manitoba are forcibly adopted, over 80% to non-Indigenous homes.
1972: first time ‘Indians’ served on a Canada jury.
1973: Federal government Statement on the Claims of Indian and Inuit People retains extinguishment of title as central policy.
1974: Federal policy reiterates that not statutory or treaty rights exist to provide health care to Aboriginal people.
1975: start of Comprehensive Claims Policy: Aboriginal Rights & title transferred to the Crown through agreements that define rights and benefits for signatories.
1976: Founding of Saskatchewan Indian Federated College as the only university in Canada under Aboriginal governance.
1977: Canadian Human Rights Acts excluded matters under the Indian Act (and therefore people with status)
1978: by this year, only 5 of 57 land claims had been settled by the Office of Native Claims (DIA)
1979: Federal Indian Health Policy is developed to recognizably ‘intolerable conditions of poverty and community decline which affect many Indians’
1980: beginning of a period in which more than 1200 Indigenous women are murdered or go missing #MMIW
1981: 45-55% of Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families are adopted to the US.
1982: Constitution Act protects a range of rights (e.g. customary practices), but not claims to land itself or assertion of Aboriginal title.
1983: term ‘Sixties Scoop’ coined to refer to unusually high numbers of Aboriginal children removed from their parents during that decade.
1984: Pope John Paul II addresses Aboriginal peoples in Yellowknife – mentions their gratitude for the work of Church, missionaries.
1985: the last large residential school hostel closes in the Yukon.
1986: United Church of Canada makes a formal apology for the destructive role of its missionaries in relation to Aboriginal culture.
1987: PM Mulroney proposes Meech Lake Accord; Cree MLA Elijah Harper leads resistance due to lack of attention to Aboriginal issues.
1988: Calgary Olympics organizers suggest staging an ‘Indian attack’ scene in the opening ceremony; medals depict ‘Indian’ headdresses
1989: Temagami First Nation and Algonquins of Barriere Lake blockade to stop development and clear-cut loggin (respectively) on their lands.
1990: Sûreté de Québec deploy teargas and grenades to break down Mohawk barricades at Oka to ensure building of a golf course.
1991: Report of the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Committee (Manitoba) reveals serious concerns about effectiveness of policing.
1992: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples established to address issues of Aboriginal status brought to light by Oka, Meech Lake.
1993: Nunavat Agreement marks the conclusion of the largest land claims settlement in the history of the Canadian state.
1994: Presbyterian Church apologizes for its role in operating residential schools.
1995: Nora Bernard, residential school survivor, starts registering survivors for Residential School Survivors Association
1996: Gordon residential schoo (Saskatchewan)l, the last federally-run residential school, closes.
1997: Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia supreme court decision states that Aboriginal land rights can be overridden for reasons such as economic development, conservation and other public projects.
1998: Syncrude becomes first producer to ship one billion barrels of crude oil from oil sands from territories of 18 First Nations and 6 Métis communities
1999: in Corbiere v. Canada, the Supreme Court declares unconstituation Indian Act provision that that denies band election vote to members living off reserve.
2000: after 111 years of negotiation and campaigning, the Nisga’a treaty (including $190 million in compensation)is the first modern treaty in BC
2001: Unemployment rate of Aboriginal youth twice that of non-Aboriginal youth; only 8% of 25-34 age group of Aboriginals have university degree (28% for non-Aboriginal people)
2002: James Bartleman, First Lieutenant Governor of Ontario of Aboriginal heritage, is appointed.
2003: 52.1% of all Aboriginal children living in poverty; only 24% of Aboriginal peoples under 25 able to converse in an Aboriginal language.
2004: Amnesty International releases report ‘No More Stolen Sisters’ drawing attention to national crisis of MMIWs
2005: it is estimated that 18000 law suits have been filed by Survivors of residential schools.
2006: Median income for Aboriginal peoples is 30% lower than median income for other Canadians.
2007: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is passed – Canada withholds full support until 2016.
2008: PM Stephen Harper states at a G20 news conference that Canada has ‘no history of colonialism’/
2009: in McIvor v. Canada, the BC Court of Appeal forces federal government to Amend Indian Act to eliminate discrimination against wives and children of non-status Indians.
2010: Vancouver Olympics games use ‘Inukshuk’ image as logo despite protests from several Indigenous leaders.
2011: Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says that residential schools were simply ‘education policy gone wrong’
2012: Idle No More is founded to oppose Bill C-45 on the grounds that it violates Aboriginal sovereignty, removes protections from rivers and lakes.
2013: Enbridge refuses request by Missisaugas of the New Credit to have archaeological monitors present at Line 9 sites.
2014: RCMP report “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Weomen” identifies 1181 MMIWs
2015: Truth and Reconciliation Commission report finds Canada responsible for cultural genocide.
2016: PM Justin Trudeau approves Kinder Morgan’s trans-mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3.
2017: RCMP attempt to block reoccupation movement of youth organisers and water protectors from erecting a tipi on Parliament Hill.

Several key sources consulted in compiling the list are:

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Online archives of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

Library and Archives Canada 

APTN Archives

Canadian Encyclopedia

Moss, Wendy, Elaine Gardner O’Toole, 1987. Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws

University of British Columbia Wiki

The Toronto Star

The Vancouver Sun 

The Globe and Mail

The Winnipeg Free Press



Lifework Part II

Macquarie Mural Leanne Tobin

This mural at Macquarie University, by acclaimed Darug artist Leanne Tobin, expresses Darug Eel, Goanna and other Dreamings that shape and sustain Wattamattagal Country

Last autumn, I published a short piece – ‘Lifework’ – that reflected on my ongoing journey towards more committed, responsible, meaningful and respectful forms of research. The post provoked some wonderful responses that gave me the opportunity to learn from others’ journeys towards honouring the life of the work they’re engaged in, and of the other beings with whom they learn and create.

On a recent research visit to Darug Country (Australia), on the land of the Wattamattagal/Wallumattagal[1] clan, I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop on the theme of ‘Lifework’ with a talented group of Masters and Doctoral students from Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales. The workshop was jointly hosted by the Environmental Humanities programs at each of these universities. Special thanks to Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kate Lloyd and Emily O’Gorman for organizing this session. This research visit was possible thanks to funds from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation.

During the workshop, we had the chance to share our research projects and to talk about the callings, commitments, responsibilities and aspirations that enliven our lifework, and we decided to write down our thoughts as a collective response to the ‘Lifework’ piece. Since we affirm knowledge as living, embodied and in constant motion, I am delighted to see the conversation thrive and grow.

What follows is a co-composition amongst:

Wattamattgal/Wallumattagal Country – with our gratitude to the Elders, past, present and future, who have and always will care for this land.

And, in alphabetical order:

Sophie Adams

Tasmin-Lara Dilworth

Sarah Judge

Kate Lloyd 

Patrick McEvoy

Audra Mitchell 

Harriet Narwal

Emily O’Gorman

Jo Anne Rey

Sandie Suchet-Pearson

Sabiha Yeasmin Rosy

Thomas Wicket


Communication is central to our lifework. The ways we communicate, and with whom, matter deeply. We need to refuse expected modes of communication, expressing ourselves in ways that are congruent with, and respectful of, our worlds and the worlds we work with and within.

We also need to acknowledge that language cannot be reduced to written or spoken word. Instead, it is expressed by multiple bodies, relations and places, not only in marks or sounds, but also in movement, in presence and absence, in sensations that make themselves felt through all of the senses, through dreams and Ancestral knowledge. Communicating well means attending care-fully to many kinds of beings and to all the different ways they communicate with us.

It is also important to think about the ways that we communicate with plural others. This is not simply a matter of clarity or the efficient transmission of information. On the contrary, it means interacting in ways that respect and amplify the expressions of others, rather than imposing our own perspectives. This may mean confronting familiar and encouraged patterns and habits of communication that curtail the expression of others. For instance, written English, and academic writing in particular, prioritizes nouns. Meanwhile, many of the languages (human and more-than-human) with which we work are driven by verbs or by gerunds, which are noun-verbs. Working with gerunds means recognizing the constant co-becoming of beings and worlds. Resisting the priority of nouns means rejecting the fixture of identities, ways of knowing, doing and being. This also makes it possible to open ourselves more fully to other beings, whether humans, goannas, snakes, stories or waters.

Simply being able to see or recognize – without necessarily identifying, or pinning down others – is essential to our lifework. This requires cultivating our skills in noticing and our plural registers of perception. It also means suspending, as much as possible, our expectations about every encounter.

Creativity is integral to our lifework. We recognize that all forms of creativity are co-creativity, and affirm the intention of making worlds together with plural others. Lifeworking creatively means embracing playfulness and fun, not always being serious, and making expansive room for the unexpected.

Embracing co-creativity also means working to create openness and to inhabit uncertainty with purpose. It means resisting completion, or the attempt to close the trajectories of being, doing, knowing and relating. We aim to make ourselves vulnerable to uncertainty, doubt and the openings they create within ossified systems of knowledge production. This also involves accepting complexity, including working with multiple narratives, paths and questions that do not always resolve into a single theme or category. Instead of working to simplify or reduce, we welcome the complication of our lifework by the many beings who contribute to it.

Creativity is a form of resistance and a powerful political act. It entails rejecting the reduction of our relations and interactions to simple, static models and facts. An ethos of co-creativity is oriented world-affirming and world-creating; it understands everything as expansive and incubating multiple futures.

We lifework with love. This does not only mean showing care and taking pleasures in the beings and experiences to which we are oriented and with which we are familiar. It also involves accepting and even embracing what we feel we cannot relate to. This does not mean relinquishing our critical perspectives; we resist and reject through love just as much as we embrace with it. It means that our lifework is animated by attachment and affection for the worlds in which we are embedded.

Trust is essential to our lifework, but it cannot be demanded or taken for granted. We need to understand the risks and privileges that come with trusting, being trusted and being able to trust – or the inability to do these things. The risks surrounding trust differ between different beings – amongst humans, between humans and other beings, and between other beings. Becoming sensitive to the risks of trust is fundamental to life-working respectfully. At the same time, we need to recognize that not trusting others is a privilege not available to everyone as a result of structures of oppression and dependency that generate radically unequal relations. Building trust in our work means recognizing its nuances, its inequalities and the forms of power that shape it for different beings entering into co-creative relations.

We oppose violent totalisms. In particular, our work confronts the unwillingness to share space that has become integral to Western political and economic logics. In some cases, these logics take concrete, large-scale forms such as genocide, white supremacism and settler colonialism. Although our projects differ and do not all focus directly on these subjects, our ways of working contest the logics of power and stuctures that generate them.

We also contest and seek to dismantle acts of hatred against beings other than humans, including hate campaigns against particular beings (for instance, ibis, bell birds, flying foxes, magpies, foxes and lantana). We are acutely aware of discourses on ‘invasive species’ and the very real effects of the movement of beings across worlds. However, instead of mobilizing hate towards these beings, we seek to direct attention towards the conditions in which they have been displaced, and the conditions of their co-existence. Many of these beings are defined as ‘nuisances’, ‘vermin’ or ‘weeds’ by dominant settler colonial cultures because they fail to fit within instrumental logics of usefulness. Instead, we affirm their powerful efforts to survive across multiple times and spaces, and the respect this demands. In some cases, these beings even help to protect and nourish worlds. For instance, although it is considered an ‘invasive weed’ in Australia, the lantana also provides critical habitat for small woodland birds that would otherwise be threatened by habitat loss and cat predation. We affirm and respect the conviction that Country should decide whom and what flourishes with/in it, and which relations are possible.

Our lifework comes with the responsibility to recognize, call out and dismantle structures of violence. We feel powerful obligations to deconstruct dominant forms of authority that make claims to universality. At the same time, we are inspired by and learning from multiple other forms of authority, knowledge, wisdom, law and guidance.

A crucial part of this process is to reflect on the power and possibilities that come with being researchers. We need to pay close attention to the acts of amplification and erasure that our framings, theories and questions enact. In addition, we need to be aware that we must often go to meet others – in their worlds, their country, their knowledge systems – instead of expecting them to come to us. However, we need to go to others as invited guests, rather than entitled intruders. All of us – whether Indigenous or members of settler communities – need to reflect on how colonial violence shapes our worldviews and patterns of thought, how and whom it privileges and oppresses, and how we can combat it.

Although we are committed to critique of existing structures of dominance, we also affirm the need to emphasize the positive efforts, acts and relations that we are privileged to be part of in our lifework. More than this, we commit to strengthening, amplifying and contributing our energies towards these positive assertions of co-be(com)ing.



[1] Darug scholar and co-author Jo Rey points out that, since most clan, place and other names are transmitted orally, spellings can vary. She derives the spelling in the following way: Wallumai: Black Snapper fish; matta: place; gal: people –> Wallumattagal: Place and people of the Black Snapper Fish




This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.



*Please also see Lifework Part II*

Over the last year or so, it’s been my privilege to help convene a wonderful collective of scholars, writers, thinkers and knowledge-keepers – the Creatures Collective. We are a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars (I am amongst the latter) who are working together and as part of broader collectives, families and relations to contest dominant narratives of the global extinction crisis. Our conversations center plural forms of Indigenous knowledge and we strive to approach our work as a lived, experiential ethics – what Creature Noah Theriault has called ‘more-than-research’. This approach seeks not only to understand the protocols, laws and bonds broken by ‘extinction’, but also actively to help remake them. This is not only research – it aspires to be a lived, committed, embodied form of work.

I have felt disconnected from this kind of work for most of my career. Finishing my PhD as the global financial crisis ramped up, I entered a UK academic job market in which staying afloat meant producing large numbers of quantifiable, ranked outputs and generating constant flows of grant money (or at least applications). Achievements were not experienced so much as measured, assessed and compiled, calculated into averages and translated into floating numerical indicators of ‘excellence’. Conventions of value and prestige consigned entire categories of publication and modes of working to worthlessness. For instance, a colleague was told that many of her early publications were ‘CV pollution’. Working weekends and late into the night were so normalized that it was considered self-indulgent to take them off. Even if the actual expectations for outputs were not outrageous, I felt enveloped by the pressure to maintain whatever level of productivity I’d reached, constantly attempting to overshoot in the hopes of making some space to catch my breath. Of course, as soon as I did, new demands consumed my hard-hoarded time. As I ‘progressed in my career’, I watched my PhD students racing to publish at an even faster rate than I had found necessary, barely taking the time to settle into their projects before being consumed in frantic job-market strategizing.

This logic and lifestyle were not exactly difficult for me to internalize. If anything, I adapted to them them with an unhealthy degree of compliance. But doing so had deep implications for how work felt. The grating anxiety of quantification formed a thick callous, separating me from my work. I entered a kind of dissociative state in which the work I was doing passed through me without making much of an impression. The time or energy I felt I had available to commit to a piece of work was limited: as soon as a book or article was published, it dropped out of my circle of concern. I became prolific and promiscuous with projects, jumping from one to the next, phasing each one to match the machinery of deadlines, publication gaps and reviewing backups to ensure a constant feed of outputs. What this actually fed was my anxiety: any gaps in the assembly line became signals of failure. Getting promoted and achieving other ‘milestones’ didn’t remove the deadening buzz of pressurized momentum – if anything, they amplified it.

My experience is hardly unique: the culture of constant anxiety, strain, workaholism and wildly inflating expectations is the norm in neo-liberal universities. How are academics expected to deal with this? Well, we are encouraged to develop something called a ‘work/life balance’. At first glance, this sounds like a good idea: earmarking some time free from constant performance surveillance and production mania. But in reality, ‘work/life balance’ is a tool of neoliberal resilience – it encourages small periods of rest in order to sustain high levels of productivity. More than this, it installs a dichotomy between work and life that is harmful to both. It is not simply that ‘work/life’ balance frames ‘life’ as fragments of excess or waste – what is left over after work (if that ‘after’ ever arrives). Just as alarming is the fact that work is opposed to life – it becomes lifeless.

Collaborating with the Creatures Collective has brought me to a different understanding that I will call lifework (centring life, and opposed to the harsh severance of work/life or the disjointing of work-life). Within this group, we talk about work as ethics, as the embodied fulfillment of responsibilities, as relation-weaving and worldmaking. Work is lived, and work has life – one lives, and lives with, one’s work as one lives with other beings. This absolutely does not mean that formal, professional ‘work’ should be allowed to bleed into every aspect of one’s daily life. There are always aspects of working in a modern Western institution that produce abstraction and disconnection, and need to be strictly limited. It also does not mean shirking the duty to publish, write grant proposals or ‘produce’ in those conventional senses. It is still possible to operate in these worlds and to honour many of the demands that they make. Lifework is vigorous, creative and highly generative of a wide range of ‘outcomes’- but production is part of the life of the work, and not an end in itself. It involves recognizing the life (one’s ‘own’ and that of others) put into one’s work, being present in that work and in those lives. Lifework recognizes that work produces beings that affect worlds around them, deserve respect, and command care.

Photo Aug 25, 09 52 55.jpg

Some members of the Creatures Collective co-writing. Clockwise from right: Zoe Todd, Erik Mandawe, June Rubis, Noah Theriault, Audra Mitchell. Other member of the collective include Sarah Wright, Tim Leduc, Vanessa Watts and Genese Sodikoff.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned and principles I’m trying to live up to since working as part of this collective. Because we are a collective, these ideas are ours and not ‘mine’ – but I would not claim to speak for the group as a whole. Instead, I would say that these ideas are inspired and fostered by our collaborative work and relations.  These ideas are also deeply influenced by Indigenous research methods, and by the approaches of Indigenous scholar-friends, but they are not, strictly speaking, Indigenous methods. Instead, they are reflections about the lifework I’m engaging in with others, and how I’m learning to care for it:

Lifework is a responsibility. By virtue of being who and what I am, on this land and planet, as a being that harms other beings in my existence and actions, I have responsibilities to them. The work I do should clarify these responsibilities and help me to live up to them.

Lifework is a commitment that goes far beyond production. I need to make the commitment to every piece of work I do, with all that entails: obligation, care, humility and patience. Regardless of pressures, norms or incentives, I should not begin any piece of work that I am not willing to commit to care for in this way.

Knowledge, ideas, wisdom, creativity and inspiration are gifts. I work with them, but they are not mine in a proprietary way: they are always given, and maintained, by plural others. I need to recognize and receive them as gifts, and wherever it is possible, to reciprocate. I also need to understand lifework in the form of gifts. This does not mean assuming that my work is so excellent that I consider it a ‘gift to the world’. On the contrary, it means having the humility to think about how it can serve others and meet their needs, how it can be given without demanding reciprocity (which would involve exchange, not giving – see Rauna Kuokannen’s excellent work on this subject).

Lifework should not be rushed. It requires building community, living with ideas, changing one’s mind, allowing experience and relations to shape me. All of this takes time; it richens and ripens over time. Lifework needs to be lived with.

Putting something into words – especially shared words – has power and impact, no matter how small or indirect. It may be necessary to wait patiently until I can speak or write about something with integrity before I try to do so.

Just because I can master a subject, form of knowledge, or practice does not mean that I should. I need to be careful, respectful and attentive about what is ‘for me’ and what isn’t. I need to know the limits of my knowledge and place limits on what I expose, take, transport to other spheres or transform.

I need to be concerned about the lives of ideas, words and knowledge that I work with. That means that I need to think carefully about what might be done with those beings, how they might be received, interpreted, instrumentalized, abused, commodified or otherwise co-opted. This does not necessarily mean refusing to write or speak about them, but rather committing to care for them after they are put into different worlds (e.g. in print, online, or into antagonistic forms of academic discourse). It also does not reflect any fantasies of control over the lives of ideas once they leave me, or a stubborn refusal to allow them to be changed, hybridized, hacked, or remixed. Instead, it calls for a commitment to care for those ideas, to defend and protect them when needed, but also to embrace their transformations. This responsibility does not end with publication: it simply enters a new phase.

Keeping secrets, holding knowledge, is as important as disseminating it widely. The imperative to ‘mobilize’ knowledge amongst wide public audiences is a part of academic life. It can be serve a lot of worthy purposes – for instance, fulfilling one’s duties to communities and broader publics, raising awareness of important issues, helping to decolonize knowledge, and creating beneficial networks. However, it can also expose knowledge to predation, instrumentalization, (willful) misinterpretation or violation. Concepts like ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge mobilization’ suggest that knowledge is beneficial to the extent that it is made public. This suggests that all of ‘humanity’ should have a claim to particular knowledge. In fact, sometimes protecting knowledge means keeping it secret, helping to nurture modes of transmission that are closed to outsiders (and respecting this in one’s own actions). It might mean refusing to divulge information that could result in harm, or in cases in which exposure is harm in itself (Simpson 2014). Even if this means that much of the knowledge shared in co-researching is ‘off the record’, this kind of work makes important contributions to the nurturing of knowledge.

When I learn from others, I am taking something and I owe something in return – if only the necessary respect. I may not always be allowed to take what I want. There are obligations involved, permission to be asked, negotiations to be carried out. Others (human and otherwise) can always refuse, and I need to honour and learn from, rather than resent, those refusals.

Lifework must embody my ethics, not just comply with them. Of course, any action compromises my ethics (aside from, and sometimes in conflict with, codes of institutional or professional ethics) should not be part of the work I do. But beyond this negative account, the work I do should help to realize my ethical commitments in the world. My work and ways of working must be ethical acts in themselves.

If I ever find myself working on something that I find boring, repetitive or uninteresting, I should not be doing it. To work with ideas or beings that I don’t actively care about is disrespectful to those things. I should be the right person to make each argument I’m making. If I am not inspired or called by it, then I am not the right person.

Each piece of work I do takes a great deal, not only from me, but from all of the others that co-work with me: time taken away from other things, care, energy, resources, input, patience, calories, bytes, printed paper, emotion, and so on. For this reason, no project should be considered a ‘throwaway’, or a quick job (this calls to mind the recent idea of the ‘quick monograph’ now circulating in UK academia). Rushing to produce something and then abandoning it is deeply wasteful and contemptuous of the value of all of these beings that co-create it.

Sometimes lifeworking in this way means starting from scratch. No matter what I have done or achieved, if I am entering into a new place or body of knowledge, or interacting with beings who are new to me, I need to start from the ground up. There is no shame or loss of stature in this – it is a privilege to be allowed to begin again and renew as one moves through different worlds. This learning takes the time, energy and commitment of others, which all need to be respected, and should not be taken for granted or treated as an entitlement.


These are a few of the ideas I am reflecting on – and living with – as I try to move from work/life to lifework. I am not claiming that I live up to these principles  completely, or every day. Instead, they are intentions that are guiding my work, helping me to find – and hopefully to nurture – the life in and around it. I would love to hear from others who are trying to do the same.


*Note: I want to recognise that it’s relatively easy for me to write these things from the privileged position of tenure. Colleagues who do not (yet) have this security, and/or are working against structural forms of exclusion, may find it much riskier to talk about their experiences, let alone to criticise the power structures that lock so many of us into unhealthy work-lives. For that reason, I strongly believe that it falls on those of us with tenure (or equivalent job security) do everything we can to create a culture in which all of our colleagues have the time and space to take care of themselves and others. This not only means trying to achieve wellness, kindness and reciprocity in our own lifework, and being a source of support for others, but also talking about these issues in order to make healthier ways of working acceptable in our workplaces.






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