Friday, April 16, 2021

Roll Call Votes on the UBC Senate

A motion came to UBC-V’s senate Wednesday, April 14th that would have made recording the vote of each senator for each motion a rule of senate. The advocates explained this as a response to concerns with the use of roll call votes this past year. They said that mandating roll calls will make senate more transparent and senators more responsive to their ‘constituencies.’  After a lengthy debate in which mainly student senators said making all votes roll call builds a better senate, and mostly faculty senators saying the status quo was fine, the motion was referred back to the agenda committee for further consideration and consultation.

[One note on senate's organizational structure. I note that many of the student senators discussed senate as though it were a representative government body in which each senator had a duty to a particular constituency.  My understanding of senate, as per the BC University's Act, is that senate is an academic governance body - not a legislative assembly. Perhaps this is hair splitting, but with the mix of appointed and elected senators, the division of categories of senators, it raises a question as to whether or not the notion of a representiare assembly is the correct way to regard senate.  But this is a minor aside to the core issue.]

With regard to the rule change I find it a bit perplexing as to what problem it is trying to fix. From what I have seen this past year roll call voting has been used as a particular tactic when there are motions that elicit strong emotions and arise out strong moral convictions and that a coordinated group of Senators want passed. In these cases, those arguing for the motion expected all of senate to agree with them. When dissent appears, a senator advocating the motion would then called for a roll call vote under the frame of ‘transparency,’ yet it appeared more like a tactic of enforced compliance in which they hoped it would ensure support would go their way; trusting that with the implied threat of having each vote recorded those thinking about voting against the motion would change their mind and vote for it it or be silent. The complaints against roll call being used as a policing tactic won't end when roll call is normalized, their inherent problems simply become engrained in the process.


The rule change appears to deal with concerns over the tactical use of roll cal voting by making all votes roll call, using the technical argument of ‘transparency’ as the rationale and ignoring the tactical deployment of the roll call vote that I have witnessed this past year several times.  This is a neutral change (in terms of ‘democratic’ process), except in so far as it might add time to meetings for counting and recording (though there are very likely technical fixes to bring to bear). What intrigues me about it is how it is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist – at least one that this kind of rule change won’t fix - the use of social media shaming and attempting to imply disagreement is a kind of moral failure.


If there is a concern over transparency of decision making processes then I would think all meetings of senate (except those with reasonable grounds) would be open to the public, that agendas of committees would be publicly available in advance of committee meetings, that minutes would be available, and that we would get meeting materials with enough time to actually read them. But none of that currently happens. Try finding meeting minutes to committees and you will find a patchwork quilt of materials with gaps. You will spend a lot of time looking. Some committees don’t even have publicly discernible schedules. Try, as a member of the university public to attend a committee meeting and you will find yourself rebuffed on several fronts. 

Roll call votes have an interesting history in governance models. An important use of roll call vote would be  when the decision is split and it is hard to ascertain the vote outcome. While nothing in typical rules of order prohibit it from being used in a ‘policing’ manner, each time it has been used this past year has been in the context of emotionally charged debates where the advocates feel they hold the moral authority. The implications is one is racist if one challenges the particulars of an EDI motion or anti-student if the use of proctoring software is defended or extended withdrawal dates questioned. What this has led to, as we can see from some of the discussion Wednesday evening, is silencing of senators who would just rather not get mobbed online.

The current rule allows the assembly itself to decide when to do a roll call (or a secret ballot). The idea behind allowing the assembly to decide when to do a roll call or secret ballot is based on the premise that it is the assembly’s will, not a prearranged procedure, that should decide when to roll call or secret ballot.  There is no easy way to prevent the deployment of political shaming to enforce compliance to popular cultural values. The very idea of a roll call is to force individuals to put their name behind their actions. In contexts of heated debate and high emotions this can contribute to some to either abstain or vote with the outspoken advocates simply to avoid problems. If we wanted our academic governance body to act more representatively then we really should be enable secret balloting as the norm so that individuals can vote their conscience, not be cowed into going with an outspoken cohort that feels it has the moral upper hand. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

President's Advisory Committee for hiring a new Dean of Arts, UBC-V: election.

Update, April 20, 2021. The election is over and I was not among the four elected. Thank you to those who did vote me for, I appreciate your trust!


Seventeen faculty members have put their names forward to be elected to one of four spots on the hiring advisory committee.  I am one of those seventeen.

This is my official statement as submitted to the UBC elections folk:

Charles Menzies (hagwil hayetsk) is a professor in the department of Anthropology. As a researcher his work focusses upon Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in laxyuup Gitxaała (north coast British Columbia) and North America ( ). Charles has also served as a member of the UBC Faculty Association Executive, the UBC Board of Governors, and is currently an elected member of the UBC-V Senate (

Short and to the point.

I thought about what one might say in such a statement. There are many possibilities. 

One could focus on all of the administrative positions one has held (or currently holds). I am not an administrator.

One could focus on all the academic accomplishments in one's career. That doesn't strike me as relevant to representing colleagues in the selection of a new Dean.

One could highlight the values that I hold and would apply to the selection of a new Dean. That seems more apt, but not what I did.

Instead I presented three things. My name and role at UBC. A summary statement of my research. A listing of my public, elected service roles at UBC.

I stand on a record of community-based service. I might also have mentioned my role as an elected resident director of the UNA for four years.  From my time as a member of the UBC faculty association executive to being an elected governor on UBC's board my pressing interest has been in transparency and open democratic processes.  On the faculty association I was part of the change that resulted in all committee chairs being elected, not appointed. At the UNA I pushed for the end of appointed voting directors. I ended up on board of governors after having been part of the UBC Clean movement that called for open meetings and democratic procedures. Grassroots, democratic, and participatory are values I am proud to uphold.

While I was an elected member of the board of governors I was involved in hiring processes for several senior administrators now working for UBC. It was an illuminating experience to observe the ways in which corporate head hunting firms structure the fields of choice.  In those discussions it was important to have the diverse student and faculty voices that often stood apart from the more corporate directions of administrators. Selecting a Dean will require a diversity of people at the table. As an Indigenous British Columbia (Gitxaała Nation) and a social justice activist I bring a particular perspective that is unique among my fellow candidates. 

Right now the University Administration is trying to get approval through Senate and the Board of a revised hiring process for Deans that would encode a process that is more focused on obscuring, than it is on opening. There is an important place for confidentiality in hiring processes. Deans, though, are public academic leaders who will serve a large constituency. It is more important that the process of hiring them is open, transparent, and democratic then it is secretive and out of sight.

As a member of the hiring committee I would be a voice for all of us who desire more openness in UBC policies and practices, a person who will place social justice at the center of the process, a colleague who understands that those of us from the grassroots have an important voice that needs to be heard among the administrators who inevitably will populate this committee.

I trust that you can count me as one among your four choices.

Friday, March 19, 2021

UBC-V boots Proctorio off of Campus.

I have never used these kinds of invigilation software for any of my classes. They violate civil liberties. They invade personal privacy way more than is acceptable.

I can also appreciate the problems for instructors who have been assured by the entire management system at UBC that these systems are okay to use, until they're not okay. There is no real support for the few faculty using these systems to make a change that won't cost them large investments of time that they likely don't have. It is unreasonable to say to them -'too bad, should've known better.' [I essentially heard people say words to the effect during the debate in senate]. But UBC should never have been using this system in the first place. There is no way that the university should be enabling such a massive violation of civil liberties with this kind of surveillance.

Cheating is embedded in the culture of capitalism, but most people follow the normative rules and punishing the majority for the willful violation of a minority does not strike me as warranted.

I am fortunate to be able to teach in a discipline where I can create examinations that do not require tight controls or lock down. My approach is that the exam questions should be evident from the course outline and lecture/seminar discussions. I have found over the years that even when I permit fully open book exams and provide students with questions in advance, the resultant output still conforms with the faculty of arts grading guidelines.

No one likes an exam (well, almost no one), not those taking it, not those writing it, not those marking it. I am not sure exams are even a necessary evil. However, as long as we run industrial scale courses scaled up to the hundreds or thousands of students exams will be a necessity. What we really need to see happen is a banning of giant courses. If we had student enrolments at a human scale we would be able to assess and evaluate knowledge acquisition directly. We would have no need of testing students over and over again. But I can dream and run my classes as humanely as I can manage given the constraints under which I work.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Year in the Rearview Mirror

A year ago today things already felt unsettled. News of COVID-19 was spreading. The early January news feed about outbreaks in China had now been surpassed by the growing health disaster in Italy. Indications were clear this was no longer simply a regional concern, it was going global.

In late January I returned from what I now know to be my last pre-pandemic conference. The international arrival terminal at YVR was a strange place to be. I could tell by how people were acting - way more face masks, even one man with a big water bottle cut to sit like a space helmet on his head - that things were changing.

By March social media was filled with heated arguments about wearing masks or how the flue was/was not worse. I had stopped using public transit and avoiding going into shops unless absolutely necessary. In my classes  students were asking me if I thought UBC would shut down. At that point I said "I don't think so, but who knows." By the end of the week UBC's President had sent a message to the community that classes were moving online and all on campus activities were to shut down. 

I wrote about some of the shift online (also here) entailed, I also took issue with some of the ways the university dealt with anthropological research and some thoughts on responsible anthropology in the pandemic. As the year has continued on I've noticed a lot of expressions about harm and disruption, but also opportunities for people to recenter and find better live balances.  

The impact of the pandemic has been experienced differentially. This should not be a surprise. Crises typically reverberate along cleavages of societal weakness and fractures of inequality.  The pandemic has been no different. The industrial manufacturing sector (including heavy industry and construction) has done okay. It's the service sector that has been hit the hardest, especially the social components (bars, cafes, clubs, and theatres). On the university campuses some categories of workers continued with modest alterations in intensity (construction, maintenance, landscaping, etc). Some categories of workers continued under remote work provisions (white collar, clerical, and instructional). On campus, as in the wider society, workers in our service sector (in the food and housing divisions) faced major layoffs.  Once can plot out the likelihood of losing one's job at UBC based upon one's salary pre-pandemic. The lower one's pay, the higher the likelihood of having been laid off of terminated. Hundreds of workers in the student housing and food services sector at UBC were put out of work by the pandemic.

I've seen a lot of virtual  complaints about how tough academics have been finding the pandemic. Yeah, it's not like it was pre-pandemic. For most profs with regular jobs and regular pay things have been disrupted, but not destroyed. The first shift to emergency remote teaching was tough for most of us. It was an adjustment. Then the year of teaching online all the time - that took making adjustments. No picnic, that's true. But I have a point of comparison in my household, a partner who is a public school teacher. It gives me pause when I start to list my complaints when I then think of the work that they are doing and the seriously significant difference in degree between their work load and my own as a university faculty member. To be honest, it is humbling.

My partner found themselves tossed into full remote online teaching of the standard high school course load (7 class of 30 students each) immediately after spring break last year.  They didn't know this would be the case until some way through spring break (though the writing was on the wall, so to speak).  Meanwhile, my two seminar classes were already moving toward the close and it only involved some modest modification plus the willingness to be magnanimous to my students.  There just was no comparison between my situation and my partner's.

Like many people my age I have responsibilities for parents and offspring. Caring for one's adult parent comes with many complications.  Things have worked well this past year for my father. I feel fortunate he is not a resident of a long term care facility as I seriously have doubts he would have survived the year.  Our kids are old enough to look after themselves, but as my father says we still worry for them just the same.

Our household has been fortunate (economically) during this period.  For that we are all grateful. There have of course been increased stressors in our lives, but they may well have been here pandemic or not. There are pandemic changes - perhaps the biggest have been on my partner with their work in a public high school. Next could be mine with my research and conference travel cancelled for a year. Our other two household members have had fewer pandemic changes - just the standard nowhere to go outside the house except work or household tasks or exercise.

One can't discount the prevalence of stress caused by uncertainty:  this is something we all share. One of our biggest worries we have is, like everyone, becoming infected with the virus. Our biggest point of contact is my partner's worksite, which the government constantly tells us is safe. Yet, the notices of school-based exposures arrive on a regular basis. We worry that each cough or sniffle or slightly off feeling might be the onset of an infection. To our knowledge we have skirted the virus, but that doesn't settle our minds at all. The fact my 91 year old father is scheduled tomorrow to get his first vaccine reduces one source of worry, still the concerns lurk.

The passing of a year of pandemic hasn't really changed much existentially - we live, we grow older, things change, things stay the same. It has created a space where for some of us things have slowed down, kept us closer to home, opened up new opportunities to grow. For others the world has closed in on them making life harder to bear.  I want to focus on the strengths that have grown and sprouted over this past year -it's a way to find one's way beyond the stressors.  


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Michael Marker - Indigenous Scholar

Oct 20, 1951 - Jan 15, 2021.

Last time I met Michael he was scootering down Main Mall through the athletics' fields. Over the course of the pandemic I'd encountered Michael a half dozen times this way. We laughed about how it took a pandemic for us to start having regular meetings.  

His thoughts weren't on laughing matters though. He was troubled by the intersection of what he saw as misandry and racism. As a man he felt his moments of righteous anger were being called out while it seemed to him 'angry' women were being given a pass. Few of us are able to avoid the occasional tangental comment in a meeting; Michael was chaffing at being disciplined for speaking off topic (he has written about this in the journal Workplace).  He was feeling increasingly marginalized as an Indigenous scholar in his academic home. Added to this were personal life disruptions that weighed heavily upon him.  In our meetings this past pandemic year I felt for him, he seemed seriously in need of support. I worried for him. Despite it all he seemed optimistic, he assured me he was okay and had people to talk with. Yet I worried. When I learned of his untimely death (by natural causes) I was overwhelmed with sadness at the early departure of this wonderful person and valued colleague.

I have known Michael Marker since I started at UBC in the mid-1990s. Over the years I was invited to speak in his classes, served as university examiner on student committees he supervised, and collaborated with him and other indigenous colleagues to make UBC a better place for Indigenous people. We didn't always agree. We did, however, share the view that our world will be better when Indigenous people do better and are at the center of decisions that affect our lives. 

Michael was a force to be reckoned with. He was unafraid to state unpopular truths. Being principled and outspoken can, despite university claims of academic freedom, be a risky business. The brethren of the outspoken can all share stories of having more senior colleagues come to us to suggest a change in demeanour, a more polished tone, or my poised intervention. I recall quite vividly worrying that my public acts in support of a series of illegal public school strikes would lead to administrative discipline. I had attracted the attention of my Dean who sent me a volley of late night emails ranging from asking how these activities fit within my career path to suggestions on changing the name of a particular public event. It is no easy path to be outspoken. My advice, if asked, is to try (as best one can) to stay consistent with one's principles, to have the courage of one's convictions. What Michael, and many others, have come to realize is that being outspoken is today considered an act of aggression. 

As a serving member of the UBC Board of Governors I observed how power was deployed through the fulcrum of civility. Public 'niceness' hid what could best be called backroom verbal brawls and artful displays of institutional power. When those of us elected dissidents spoke out in public the push back was intense. But, it was not framed around what was said, only how it was said.  Our tone, our gender, our assertiveness was called out. The acts of dismissal, overt and explicit subterfuge of management was ignored. We have arrived at a moment in time were the form of communication displaces the value of content. I hasten to add I am all for civility, but there are moments when academic freedom does trump niceness. The problem is when management and their allies control what is nice, dissidents will almost always lose. 

To honour Michael's memory I have searched out his published academic work. As I have been reading his work I hear his voice, not simply the 'voice' of an author, but his voice.   It is, perhaps less present in his earlier pieces, but it is unmistakable in those published over the last decade. It is as though I am sitting in a big house listening to him speak; the cadence, the choice of words, the imagery, it resonates.

Each piece has a lesson drawn from the intersection of Michale's life and research. We are brought into the story. We could be sitting around a kitchen table, in a seminar room, a lecture hall, or on Main Mall surrounding by the athletics' fields at UBC.  There is a warmth in the telling. But don't be fooled - there is an underlying message and a theoretical frame. These are stories of settler colonialism AND Indigenous sovereignty. They are hopeful stories as they don't just dwell on the harms of settler colonialism, they speak to the present and future of Indigenous authority, jurisdiction, and creativity.

I am glad that I had the chance to see Michael so many times during this pandemic year. It makes my heart feel good to know that I had these opportunities to talk unfettered and with passion and warmth during a difficult year for all of us.  Wherever Michael is now I see him surrounded by those who support and value his sense of play and justice.


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Unintended consequences - graduate student funding at UBC-V

There is a lot of variation in how graduate students at UBC-V are funded. One of the biggest differences is found in how research Master's and research Doctoral students are supported. In 2017 UBC-V's senate passed a resolution to mandate a 4 year minimum funding program for all research PhD students. At the time, the proponents of this plan said it would have a neutral effect on other graduate certificates and funding programs. 

The PhD funding program places the responsibility for ensuring each PhD studnets gets the 4 year package into each individual graduate programs hands. There is no centrally coordinate funding source but rather: "Funding sources can include any combination of external or internal scholarships, research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or other academically-related work at UBC (e.g., Graduate Student Academic Assistantship, lectureships)" (Faculty of Grad Studies Handbook). 

Because there is no central funding mechanism, just a hodgepodge of sources quilted together case by case, a lot of variation and questions of inequity emerge. In STEM programs, where it is more common for faculty supervisors to have significant core funding to operate laboratories, graduate admissions is often based upon finding a supervisor willing to put the money forward for the student. In these cases, as long as the student meets the standards of the program and have a supervisor with cash on hand, they are accepted.  

In other programs where faculty lack the large core funding programs (like humanities, for example),  departmental committees have more control over admissions decisions but relatively less funds to play with. Here they cobble together funding offers from teaching assistantships, funding envelopes provided by central offices, research assistantships if faculty have surplus research funds, and anything else that the department can find. It's not really an effective system, but it has been working (sort of).

In between the two models described above is a spectrum of variations in amount PhD studnets get, source of their funding, and relative control over their income by research supervisor or department committee.  

I have noticed that MA students appear to be facing increased funding deprivation.  For one thing there has been an increased pressure at UBC to increase PhD student numbers as this is understood to be a metric of excellence.  Some faculty originate from education systems that only offer professional Master's programs or see the Master's degree as an enroute degree.  UBC has had a great Master's program that has served generations of students well. Master's students have never really received sufficient funding attention. However, it looks like Master's students are receiving even less funding attention these days. Programs without large STEM grants seem to be concentrating their meagre resources into funding PhD students at the expense of Master's students. Some programs have apparently even closed their Master's programs in favour of only admitting PhD students.

This unindented consequence could have been predicted four years ago when the policy of PhD minimum funding was enacted. But we were all too excited to be meeting the needs of potential PhD students and ratcheting up the rankings from excellence to eminence.  A master's degree is an important degree. For many professionals it is the certifying degree, not the phd. I've worked with over two dozen amazing MA students over my years at UBC. All of them are engaged in occupations that relate to the social sciences - from government agencies, to NGOS, to the private sector these MA students are making a contribution based, in part, on their time at UBC. It seems a major shame that our funding programs are creating the unintended consequences of diminishing the possibilities for future master's students.

Its time to reshape our graduate funding system in a way that is fair and equitable, and that prioritizes student learning over university rankings or individual supervisor preference.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Parsing out Identity Claims

Identity is as much about how others see us as it is about how we see ourselves. Identity depends upon how we feel about ourselves, how we present ourselves, and how others read our self presentations. In a society that values individualism as a concept, yet promotes mass production and homogenization in practice, who we claim to be and present ourselves as becomes a critical means of enacting our uniqueness. 

There are all manner of ways we present our sense of identity that conform and disrupt societal expectations. Anthropologists have run ongoing social media descriptions of our discipline's propensity to wear scarves.  Coming of age movies are replete with teenagers dressing against society norms  -punks, goths, sneakerheads. All around us people use clothes to define identity - from politics to religion to hobby to party. Some of these are pretty benign, others (like religious clothing) can elicit strong negative responses. Generally, these styles of self presentation are viewed as individual expressions and, while at times transgressive, are read by others as they are presented.

For close to five decades now social sciences and humanities have debated, discussed, and advanced the idea of the social construction of identity - put simply, that our identities emerge in relation to our social contexts and individual choices.  There are no truly immutable identities, no fixed essential selves. Everything is in a state of becoming. In anthropology we explored these ideas through notions of race and gender. Then, through experiments in textual representation.


Franz Boas was instrumental in undermining the racist social theories that motivated many early 20th century American academics. Long before the detailed genetic studies of the later part of the 20th century, Boas was demonstrating that race was not a biological category, but a social one. Race was how societies decided to group, include, exclude and allocate resources to - not an essential category predetermined in biology.  Even to this day, however, race is popularly considered an immutable essential category - it is an identity that people have, not decide to have. This is an intriguing conundrum that pits an anti-essentialist reality against a popular belief in an essentialized human category. 

How does one resolve the contradiction between identity theories that are premised upon social construction with self-identity. We have many examples of people who self-identity as a one race that others find hard to accept. One of the most infamous is the case of Rachel Dolezal.  Dolezel was born to a white couple, raised in a white family, and for all intents and purposes was/is white. This is all a matter of public record.  

"Dolezel spent years imagining it was all a horrible mistake. 'I would have these imaginary scenarios in my mind where I was really a princess in Egypt and [my parents] kidnapped and adopted me." ... As it turned out Dolezal wasn't an Egyptian princess, but  she didn't let go of the idea that maybe she was't who her parents claimed she was. By the time she finally slipped from under the fundamentalist yoke years latter, Dolezal was well on her way to becoming the person she regarded as her true self, a black American."

At the core of this conceptualization is the idea that there is a 'true self' waiting to emerge. For Dolezal and other race-shifters their intention is to present in accord with their racial identification, not their putative assigned race at birth.  

Critics of Dolezal point out to how she was exploiting the long history of black oppression to surface her own sense of victimhood. Her lack of any real personal connection and experience as actually black was raised time and time again.  Dolezal, however, argues "how I feel is more powerful than how I was born. ... I identify as Black.  Nothing about Whiteness describes who I am."  We have here a contradiction between an individual's self-identification as black, a social construction of identity consistent with the anti-essentialist theories of today, and a popular conception that being Black is more than a self identification, it involves connection and history. For many of the critics it is obvious that one can't just become Black because one has an inner feeling that one is Black. 


Anthropology was fairly blind to gender, except as in division of labour questions, until the rise of second wave feminism.  For North American anthropologists the Rosaldo and Lamphere edited collection, Women, Culture, and Society, marked a transformative recentring of anthropology. In this early moment women, as a sex and as a gender, were brought into focus as core concepts and active subjects. More than that it precipitated a discussion of gender as an identity and an expression. 

Subsequent discussions and research arose around gender identity and the rigidity/flexibility of women's roles in society. This then moved toward a position in which gender was understood as separate and apart from biologically defined sex. Simplistically, anthropological research demonstrated there were more than two genders globally. This led to the idea that there was no necessary, or direct, correspondence between biological sex and gender identity and/or expression. For much of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s anthropology, like other liberal arts, accepted the idea of a biologically defined binary sex (with some genetically defined cases outside the binary) but a socially constructed idea of gender in which there could be multiple socially acknowledged genders. Mainstream liberal arts theorists today challenge the idea of a biologically fixed idea of sex. Instead, the theories talk of gender identity as being something that is an essential sense or feeling an individual has, not an attribute identified at birth by secondary sex characteristics or genetic metrics.

Today gender identity and expression is accepted generally as being a manifestation of an individual's self-identity, not something fixed in a biological or historical experience.  In this manner identity is self claimed through a process that reflects how an individual feels about themselves, not how they might have appeared to others at birth or appear to others today. Here what counts is how the individual identifies and expresses their own sense of gender. 

Race and gender are categories that adhere, in popular perceptions, strongly to notions of a biological innateness, but with different outcomes in terms of claiming identity. How an individual feels in their inner self is not accepted as proof an individual is of the race they claim. However, how an individual feels about their gender identity is considered reasonable grounds to accept their self identification as the gender they feel they are.  This suggests something about the differences between the social category of race and that of gender. I would suggest, that what is happening is that race is understood as historically contingent, biological referenced, but ultimately something that emerged out of an historical process of, for example, being black in North America. Gender is conceived simultaneously more abstractly as a state of being and particularly as an individual experience and expression.  This is not to say gender is not historically contingent. Rather, it is to point to how we respond to, and enact, these categories of our self to reflect this kind of meta-difference between race and gender.

[Note: subsequent to writing this, a reddit reader shared two articles that make a claim for an idea of transracial identity in a way similar as is made for transgender. There is an intellectual grounding for seeing these 'trans' identities in similar ways, however, in our current moment few people popularly accept transracial as authentic. As observed above, I suspect the difference lies in the way one articulates to a collective historical identity while the other references a more personal and particular identity.]


Indigenous North American is a category that is racialized, historicized, and individualized in ways that complicate simple self-identification.  Like race, being Indigenous implies and requires historical connections.  Unlike gender one can't simply declare their inner self tells them they are Indigenous. Being Indigenous is further complicated by legal regimes that define who is and who is not Indigenous under law (both Indigenous laws and nation state laws).  Being indigenous is conceptually closer to having a racial identity than it is to a gender identity.  However, North America's cultural intrigue with family history and heritage add a nuance to how Indigenous identity gets played and expressed.

A lot of people in North America delight in discussing their family heritage.  Genealogy is a big thing.  It's like a treasure hunt, finding an ancestor of some note hidden here or there in the genealogy. Lots of North American families have their own lore of an 'Indian' in the family tree. Prominent examples include individuals like Elizabeth Warren and Joseph Boyden. But they are not alone. Many families of  carry this kind of North American folk tale. I suspect it has something to do about the construction of an 'indigenous' settler identity - a way of justifying one's place on someone else's land; an attempt to create an organic connection to the new nation states that were built out of Indigenous lands in North America. This kind of heritage 'Indian Story' is akin to the many ethnic histories North Americans claim as their own. But it doesn't make one Indigenous. 

In the CBC radio show, The 180, Kim Tallbear, talks about why, even if the family lore can proven by a DNA test, it still doesn't make you Indigenous 

"People who are not actually members of indigenous community, tend to define indigeneity or Native Americanness as a racial category. Now for us, those are umbrella categories which help us talk to one another, relate to one another, but our primary sense of belonging, and identity, is our particular indigenous or tribal community. They don't use the word tribe up here, but in the U.S. we do, so somebody might say 'I'm a member of the Métis Nation,' or 'I'm a member of this particular Cree band,' I would say I'm Dakota."

"There is this national sort of story, and this I do see becoming more prominent in certain parts of Canada too, that you have people with no lived experience in indigenous community, they can't even name any indigenous family or ancestors, but they have a family myth about a Cherokee great-grandmother, or they're descended from Pocahontas, you get that a lot on Virginia. So I think it's another kind of claim to own indigeneity, to try to have a moral claim or sense of belonging on the North American continent and so that's the context in which these tests are so popular."

Cherokee academic Jeff Corntassel has written about how Indigenous Identity can be defined through a 'peoplehood' approach:  connected, committed, and claimed. That is a person is related in some manner through family and history to an existing First Nation. This person is involved in their community and maintains active linkages. The community itself acknowledges them as a member and claims the person as their own. People outside that intersection of 'c's might have Indigenous heritage but, by this model are not Indigenous qua Indigenous. 


As humans we end up making all kinds of claims to identity. Many such claims are simply accepted at face value. One may be a runner or a back country hiker and that may form a critical aspect of one's sense of self identity. One may take personal meaning from one's occupation. For others, membership in a religious organization is the defining feature of their sense of self.  These identities may intersect with each other, even potentially contradict themselves, in the embodiment of the individual. Such identities are primarily self-claimed and claimed with out issue by others.

Indigenous identity is not, however a simple matter of individual choice or self election. To be Indigenous is about more than heritage, it is fundamentally a living connection and commitment to an existing community. People may have lost their way, had their connections broken, but that doesn't mean they are excluded. Our Indigenous histories are replete with accounts of people who lost their way and were brought back home.  To be Indigenous is thus something one can't really self-identify into. One is Indigenous, one does not become Indigenous. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

My Mother was a White Women

Shirley Marie Menzies, née Naud.  Born Sept. 13, 1932. Died April 18, 2013.

My mother was a teacher, that was her vocation, as much as it was for moments in her life also her occupation. She brought teaching into all aspects of her life and ours. She delighted in teaching my siblings and I how to read and do math before we entered school. Her teaching expanded to many realms - most importantly our history. She would regale us for hours with stories of our family's history.

There was the story of the little girl who slipped into the water cistern and drowned trying to pull a watermelon out. Then there was the story of three waters, a dog that licked dishes clean. Or the story of how great grampa Brown was adopted by missionaries after his parents perished on a trans-Atlantic crossing. Or how our Quebecois ancestors had come to New France to be farmers but the land they took up had no soil so they became stone masons instead of farmers. On and on these stories went, each attached to names and peoples, strung into a one large interwoven historical narrative about becoming Canadian.

My mother firmly believed that to go forward in life we needed to know where we came from. She was proud of her family history, rooted in lines that traced back to the late 1600s in Quebec, the 1700s in Nova Scotia and pre-revolutionary continental USA. For her, not knowing this meant one really had no foundation to stand. My mother knew she was white but thought of herself as Canadian first and foremost.

We didn't just learn her family history from her.  She also learned, and then taught us, our father's family history as well. As a child one didn't appreciate how this was happening, we just heard the stories. She would tell us about our grandmother (who passed away before we were born), about our great grandfather and our great grand mother and their lives growing up on the north coast. 

My father would tell stories about his mother and grandfather to us as well.  About spending time in Grassy Bay each summer. About fishing in McNichol Creek in the fall. About his grandfather's visits to his house when he was a child. To my mother fell the responsibility to tell us the stories my aunt and great aunt taught her about the deep history of my family on my father's side.

I think it was my mother's deep interest in history and storytelling that brought me to anthropology. I certainly never had the desire to chase the exotic, that so many anthropologists of my generation seem to have. When I read Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" for the first time I could see my mother as much as I could see a Marlow like figure telling tales on the deck of a boat. 

Marrying across racialized lines is fraught with all kinds of overt and tacit expressions of disapproval. As a child I sensed my maternal grandmother's disapproval of my father.  It was confusing then. Today, it remains unsettling, even if the adult me can understand her fears and prejudices fit within a wider racialized social order. Understanding it doesn't excuse it, but it does help. 

My mother understood the prejudices of families and societies. She spoke often about what she thought of as the 'errors of their way' when explaining her family's prejudices. It wasn't the kind of intersectional critical race feminism of today, but it was remarkably progressive for its time and place. She considered it within all people to be able to make the choices that respected difference. At the same time she had her own strong values on civility, proper manners, and respectful behaviour. She could be strict! 

This was the women who taught us our family history. She offered us context to this history. She inspired a delight in detail and nuance. She made it possible for us to challenge norms. But most importantly she brought us into the history and life of our complete family in a way that was encouraging, non-discriminatory, and life affirming. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Tracking UBC leaderships' statements on winter break travel.

 Dr. Berman. Director of the School of Population and Public Health. 

January 6, 2021.

Dear SPPH Community,

In light of recent events and news stories this past week, I feel that I need to share with you that I travelled over the holiday break. I recognize now that I should not have travelled, and that many of you have made sacrifices over these past several weeks that I too should have made. I truly regret this decision.


In my position as Director of SPPH, I would like to reaffirm my sincere support for the efforts of our public health authorities and many of you, my public health colleagues, to address this COVID-19 crisis. I would also like to assure you all that in my travel I have and am complying with all requirements for pandemic control and will continue to do so.



Professor and Director
School of Population and Public Health


President Sanata Ono. 

Late last year my elderly mother was taken to hospital by ambulance in her home city of Baltimore. Since my mother and father, who is 93, live alone, I was concerned about their welfare. There is no one in my extended family who lives in Baltimore and was able to provide support for them.

On December 10 I flew to Baltimore for a four-day trip and self-quarantined for 14 days on return, as per health and travel guidelines.

I carefully weighed the decision to travel and out of concern for my parents, made the decision to proceed with the trip. During my trip, I strictly followed COVID-19 safety protocols and guidelines, including quarantine rules. I felt it was important to travel at that time. This trip was not a vacation.

As president of UBC, I am grateful to the many public health professionals and researchers, both at UBC and beyond, who are working hard behind the scenes and on the front lines to protect us from COVID-19. I remain committed to doing my part to help bring an end to this global pandemic.

Santa J. Ono
President and Vice-Chancellor


Lesley Cormack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

January 7, 2021

In light of questions about travel in recent weeks and in the interest of transparency, I’d like to disclose that I have been in Edmonton at my primary residence since December 12 and will remain here until at least the end of the month working remotely.

As many of you are aware, I only recently took up my post at UBC Okanagan and this trip has been to prepare my home for sale and to arrange my affairs as I move permanently to the Okanagan.

I’m very grateful for the work and sacrifice of our healthcare professionals and I can confirm that I have strictly adhered to all public health guidelines.


Lesley Cormack
Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal
UBC Okanagan


Dermott Kelleher. Dean, Faculty of Medicine. VP Health.

January 7, 2021

Late last year, I made the difficult decision to travel home in early December to address serious personal and private matters. I did not make this decision lightly. Further, I continued to work from my home in Ireland during this time.

As such, I have strictly followed both the Irish and Canadian government's COVID-19 safety protocols and guidelines, including quarantine rules and very strict limits on social interactions. 

Dermot Kelleher, MB, MD, FRCP, FRCPI, FMedSci, FCAHS, FRCPC, AGAF
Dean, Faculty of Medicine
Vice-President, Health
The University of British Columbia