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Kim's MA thesis: researching on spatial inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples

The two-year EMMIR journey ends up with an exciting and relieving feeling: handing in the MA thesis. Students are encouraged to start reflecting on their interests already in the first semester, some of them even manage to achieve the most difficult part during their mobility path... finding a thesis topic! The vast amount of work is mostly done during the fourth semester, when students have meetings with their supervisors, conduct interviews, and get writing. Acquire theoretical background, define a framework, review the literature, find some hypotheses: it's not a small feat! An MA thesis is the result of hundreds of bits and pieces of hard work, it's often a time of being locked-up in the library and drinking coffee until you wake up in the middle of the night and you get the magic answer. You FINALLY know it... the one and only... the research question.

Joking aside, writing an MA thesis is far more than diving into hundreds of academic articles and work non-stop coding of interviews and processing all kinds of data. It's about an inner passion that inevitably leads students to a complex and fascinating life experience. Or perhaps the lack of that vested interest serves as the basis of an innovative research project that brings up something new into academia. Well, EMMIR students are known for trying to bring together academic excellence, activism, and social engagement. That spirit is one of the reasons that brought cohort 7 graduate Kimberley Hartwig to research on the death of Colten Boushie, a young man who was shot dead in Saskatchewan, Canada.

I chose to write about this topic because it was so familiar. It seems like every few weeks another story is coming out about a young Indigenous person who has lost their life. Why so many deaths? Why is this so routine? Is there a way to break the cycle? To shock people out of inaction?

Let's ask Kim more about her thesis.

Why did you choose to write about this specific topic?

The first time I read about the death of Colten Boushie it struck a chord. As soon as I read the story I had the sinking feeling that, once again, a white person would not be held responsible for violence committed against an Indigenous person. As more and more information came out about the event, I became even more sure about my initial assessment. News stories focused on the more unsavory actions of the youth (which are actually quite common amongst youth in Saskatchewan. The day drinking, for example, is something my friends and I took part in many times).

While Colten and his friends were portrayed as dangerous, violent, and as having made one too many bad decisions, Gerald Stanley received none of this negative media attention even though he was the one who shot the young man in the head. Growing up in Saskatchewan I expected all of this. I've seen it so many times but this time I wanted to dig deeper into why this type of violence and this type of rhetoric so deeply permeates our culture.

Kim took this photo in North Battleford, where the trial for Boushie's murder took place. It is a site dedicated to the mass hanging of eight Indigenous men in 1885. "I had to walk through an empty field to find this place and when I asked around in town no one mentioned it to me which I thought was interesting. There we also no signs or anything I just had to wander through a snowy field until I found it.", she said.

What's the most interesting point of your thesis conclusions?

I think the most interesting point of my thesis conclusion is just how many stories on the Prairies have this same narrative arc. For so long, Indigenous peoples have been portrayed as inherently violent, uncivilized and as needing to be contained. So long, in fact, that these qualities have become naturalized, they hang from the skin of Indigenous peoples. Even settler Canadians who mean well can fall back into this thinking because it is so all-encompassing. Indigenous peoples who are successful continue to be held up as the exception to the rule.

The other most interesting point is just how large a role geography plays in creating and sustaining the inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Colonialism is an ongoing force that has a strong spatial aspect. The introduction of the reserve system hundreds of years ago continues to order Canadian society and keep Indigenous peoples at the margins. There are spaces that I, and other non-Indigenous Canadians, will never enter into because they remain coded for Indigenous peoples. These spaces are another form of violence Indigenous peoples endure and are spaces where violence is permitted.

When an Indigenous person enters into a white space, such as when Boushie and his friends entered onto the Stanley farm, they can be violently expelled and this expulsion will be considered lawful both by the courts and the general population (it will, often, be lauded). Again, this stretches across history.  

What's the main learning you get from these past months researching?

The most enriching part of the months of researching was when I moved to Nibinamik, a remote, fly-in reserve in Northern Ontario. I did not move here for the purpose of my thesis but for work. Very, very few non-Indigenous Canadians spent any time on a reserve so the 8 months that I will spend in this community will put amongst a very small percentage of the population and give me insights very few people have.

Living here has reaffirmed the fact that geography is a driving force in colonialism, capitalism, and marginalization. There truly are two Canadas and the standards of living on reserve would shock those who are only familiar with the first, public Canada. This version of Canada is hidden away and visible only to those who truly look and who truly want to see the vast inequalities that exist in this country that is often held up as an example of human rights to the rest of the world. How can this be true when Indigenous peoples continue to suffer so greatly? Addressing the geographic and spatial inequality that exists in Canada would go a long way towards a meaningful attempt at reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation when reserves across the country continue to live under boil water advisories, live in houses replete with mold, and have their land stolen out from under them. 


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