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 a more restrained 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 Micheal'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.


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