From that unfeeling place
(an ethnography of ongoing British colonialism)
In Métis legal-governance traditions, we draw on the nehiyaw (Cree) legal principle of wahkohtowin. This principle centres kinship, reciprocity, and relationality at the very core of Métis ethics, philosophy, and life. Métis historian Brenda MacDougall describes this principle in the following terms in her work on Métis life in the 19th century community of Sakitawak in northeastern Saskatchewan, Canada:
“The metis family structure that emerged in the northwest and at Sakitawak was rooted in the history and culture of Cree and Dene progenitors, and therefore in a worldview that privileged relatedness to land, people (living, ancestral and those to come), the spirit world, and creatures inhabiting the space. In short, this worldview, wahkootowin, is predicated upon a specific Aboriginal notion and definition of family as a broadly conceived sense of relatedness of all beings, human and non-human, living and dead, physical and spiritual’.”
Drawing from this principle, Métis life revolves around tending to relations. It requires a constant tenderness towards those we share time and space with. And it enmeshes us in stories and relationships which carry us through thick and thin. Messy and smooth.
In Red River Métis (otipemisiwak) worlds, the principles of relatedness, relationality, and kinship are everything. Tending to these relations, breathing life into them, imagining and storying them is foundational to existence. Without relations, without someone to claim me in one form or another, and without people to claim, I am nothing. I understand this all the better after moving to the UK (where some of my settler/non-Indigenous ancestors originate) and pursuing a PhD in the British academy. In the UK, I learned what it is to be unclaimed. To live in a place where I was not invited into reciprocal relations, where I was treated as a non-being.
I moved to the UK in the autumn of 2010 to start a PhD. Over the course of four years I spent roughly 2 and a half years living in the UK, split between two Scottish cities.
I have been home in Canada for nearly two and a half years now.
I rushed home to Canada in November 2014 because my step-mother had opted to terminate her palliative chemotherapy and had entered hospice. I packed up my things, set fire to any remaining emotional or professional bridges I was clinging to for dear life in my old academic institution, and boarded a 747 for the first time in my life. When the flight from Heathrow landed in Vancouver nine hours later, I felt relief.
It was like escaping an abusive relationship.
It’s amazing that, with the marvels of air travel, I could physically escape the heart of the British colonial empire in one (fitful) sleep. And yet, for years I felt trapped there -- emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically. When I was accepted to the PhD program in 2010, still a vibrant thin hopeful 27 year old, how was I to know Britain would be my ethnography of unhappiness and unfeeling? My sojourn in the UK was my ultimate lesson in the power of care, tenderness (or, rather, the lack thereof) in shaping hope and transformation.
My step-mom died two days after I got home. I still think she saved my life, calling me back like that. Any more time in that repressive, emotionally stunted, unbreathing place would have surely killed my Métis feminist spirit for good.
She called me back to my relations.
When I arrived in Vancouver on that late November evening in 2014, I was broken. Not just a bit exhausted, or homesick or out of sorts. Broken.
I’ve been picking up pieces of myself ever since.
I still remember the wonder of seeing my sister at the airport. The first time I’d seen family in nearly six months. (wahkohtowin)
‘They darn well know what state they sent you home in,’ my sister quipped one day as we walked along the river near her home. I wanted to burst into tears.
When I looked in the mirror I didn’t even recognize who I was. I was startled one day to stare into the bathroom mirror and discover my skin was wrinkling. My body was cushioned with 100 new pounds of flesh I had gained to protect myself against British unfeeling. My eyes were lined with deep purple rings.
But perhaps there was a certain kind of beauty to the way my body refused to hide its experience. A certain empirical measure to the way my body kept this particular score.
On some days, I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d actually lived the experience or imagined it. A low whistle would emanate from my mouth as I sat in sad reflection. Days and months spent trying to reconcile strict and unflinching British ideology with the pain and suffering it had wrought around the globe. I slowly began to excavate the laws and stories of my dad’s ancestors from my flesh. I washed myself against the cold granite rock that the Scottish walls and halls were built from. I had to throw myself against the sea and the sky in order to remember.
I refused to let them mold me, I refused to let them ice my kinship and my laws out of my bones.
The way my time studying in the UK broke my Métis body is, to me, a measure of what was exported, transported, packaged and enforced by British ideologies, policies and conquests when they moved outward into the world to create the Great British Empire. With itchy feet from oppressing and exploiting their own people, they decided to export inequality, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and an insatiable desire for capital to every corner of the globe they could reach.
I remember coming to this realization about the British exportation of suffering on a tourist tour of the Edinburgh Vaults in the autumn of 2013. I mean, I knew they had exported suffering. I understood this on an intellectual level. But on a visceral, embodied level, I still hadn’t put the pieces together. I hadn’t realized the origin story of the trauma that I saw reverberating through so many spaces infected by British colonial ideology. When I visited those vaults, I could place that suffering in its homeland.
So on a rainy October day in 2013, my friend – another Indigenous scholar visiting from Canada – and her sister and I booked a tour. As we walked through the Vaults we learned about how impoverished Scots lived in the dank catacombs of the space under Edinburgh’s South Bridge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The tour guide shared rehearsed-and-meant-to-be-titillating stories about how these caverns were hunting grounds for Burke and Hare in the 1820s. As the guide delivered his story in pitch-perfect cadence, I heard a high pitched scream emanate in my mind. In this moment, I realized in horror: this was their gift to the world. This is what they exported. The keen and specific suffering of late stage capitalism starts here.
If one were to ask, perhaps, where the violent and explosive ruptures of the Anthropocene begins, one tendril of its origins could be placed here. We could venture through these spaces where tenderness was severed. Where uncaring was perfected. Where the impoverished were forced into catacombs for survival. The end of worlds starts with not-caring.
I think that Vault was the first time I really felt true Evil closing in on me. I shivered.
This was what was mirrored in the Residential Schools they set up across Canada. The labour camps in myriad self-determining territories. The erasure. The violence. If they could warehouse their own poor in these leaky vaults under a bridge, allow them to be hunted by serial killers – what hope did people in other countries have for clemency and tenderness from the unfeeling forces of the British Empire?
(What hope do we have today for tenderness and care in the face of world-ending forces if this is one of the places where the supposedly great Enlightenment, the blueprint for this age, began?)
The claustrophobic Vaults mirrored the way Scotland made me feel, as a woman borne of Scots-Irish, English-Norwegian and Métis-Cree ancestry. In that vault, I felt the repression of colonial ideology closing in on me. And I felt the guilt, guilt I had been taught to feel as a child by white peers about my Indigenous ancestry, leaking in around me. Damp, suffocating. I couldn’t leave the tour fast enough once we completed it. It felt like a sort of inception space. Patient Zero.
I had to learn the deep unfeelingness of the British in order to truly disentangle myself from the reverberations of unfeelingness and reserve which infiltrate so much of Canada. In many ways, being isolated from my family, my friends, and my kin in a cold, unfeeling place was how I came to truly appreciate the passionate and loving work that my Métis family commits to in tending to our messy but strong kinship relations.
I perfected the art of feeling in the face of their immovability. Of affect in the face of stiff upper lips and unblinking eyes.
I spent more than a year untouched. Unloved.
I thought I would disappear from the sheer will of their uncare. I forgot what it was to be reciprocated.
I leaked emotion over every garden wall, every hedge, and every motorway.
I carried the stories of my ancestors back to that origin place, and I placed that tender gentle bundle down where it needed to be. Suture the stories of suffering. Tend to them. Breathe life back into them.
I unflinchingly offered my flesh as a kind of reminder. Even though they looked away I know they saw. And I know they knew.
I had to spend those years in isolation all the way over there across the ocean in order to truly understand how Métis law – founded on reciprocity, relationality, care – gives me life.