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Problems of Place: Drifting, Part Two

Editor’s note: This is the second half of Katie’s two-part series on dislocation and grief. Read Part 1 here.

A few months after my dad died, I attended Challenging Canada 150: Settler Colonialism and Critical Environmental Sciences. The symposium was organized by my now-advisor, historical geographer Kirsten Greer, and her colleague, April James, at Nipissing University, alongside members of Dokis and Nipissing First Nations on Robinson Huron Treaty territory. The event welcomed participants from varied disciplines, institutions, and nations.

I didn’t want to go; I was still in the fierce grip of grief. I also suspected I had lost the ability to have a regular conversation with anyone, let alone seasoned academics with well-meaning but truly unbearable questions like “so what are you working on?” and “what’s next for you?”

The honest answer was, simply: “trying to find meaning in a world without my dad.”

In the end, I’m glad I went. Learning about Indigenous environmental histories with a supportive and critical group reignited something in me. Three years later, I still reflect on keynote talks by Wendy Makoons Geniusz, Alan Lester, Nipissing Chief Scott McLeod, Deborah McGregor, and Paul Nadasdy. I was particularly grateful for music, water, wampum, and medicine teachings shared by elders and knowledge keepers. Placed together as an Indigenous-led practice of “working in relationship,” these conversations foregrounded Anishinaabe concepts of “braiding knowledges” that I learned from the writings of Sonya Atalay (Anishinaabe-Ojibwe) and Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi).

My dad would have been fascinated by these conversations as he struggled to come to terms with his own complicity in settler colonial histories. He surprised us the previous Christmas by asking for a copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report in a concerted effort to un/learn. Long before, he instilled in me the importance of asking about histories of the land I stood on as a guest. He taught me that listening is a vital way of knowing, giving, and receiving. I was now practicing these teachings in a new form of earwitnessing over the five-day gathering, leaving with deeper awareness of how my own histories of listening were shaped by settler knowledges that had plugged my ears to other ways of hearing the past and present.

Two people speaking in front of audience.
Cherished PhD advisor and geographer, Laura Cameron, with composer and musicologist, Matt Rogalsky, asked participants “what would it mean to listen ‘against the grain’?”
[Image description: two people speaking on a podium in front of sitting audience members in a theatre. A blakc-and-white picture of a car and a satellite dish is projected on a whiteboard behind them.]

Eventually, I landed a postdoctoral position with Kirsten Greer, finding myself in a research partnership that welcomed my interests in sonic histories of place. An outgrowth of the symposium, the partnership involves strengthening relationships between northern Ontario universities, First Nation communities, and museums. After years refuting colleagues’ claims that I was a historical geographer, I suddenly—but gratefully—acquired the title of “Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Environmental Geographies and Histories,” which also announced my apparent arrival in the locales of environmental history. This transition pushed the limits of my understanding of interdisciplinarity and the histories of disciplines and places I had previously called “home.”

Over the past few years my work has carried me to places like Lake Nipissing, where collaborators from Nipissing and Dokis First Nations share and amplify longstanding histories of the Anishinaabeg; to the Smithsonian Institution and Carnegie Museum of Natural History for repatriation consultation regarding cultural-environmental heritage; and to my first ASEH in Ottawa in preparation for my future role as a co-organizer of talking circles on “place-based reparative environmental histories” (regrettably cancelled along with the entire ASEH, thanks to the pandemic!).

Conference poster.
Place-based circle sessions at the ASEH 2020 Conference in Ottawa, cancelled due to COVID-19.
[Image description: poster of a conference program on “Circle Sessions on Place-Based Repearitive Environmental Histories.” A watercolour painting is in the top right corner of the poster.

I even ended up in Barbados retracing hurricane histories and Cold War-era research stations. It was there, watching the sun set over the water with my friend and mentor, Kirsten, that we toasted the first anniversary of my dad’s death with a bottle of whisky she procured for the occasion.

I must be careful not to get too cavalier with the metaphor of drifting; doing so uncritically can reproduce the effects of settler colonialism through another form of academic voyeurism. Although I have been a temporary and sometimes uninvited visitor in the places of my research, I am working to understand my responsibilities as a guest in places not mine to call home. This postdoctoral experience has pulled me to all kinds of new places but, importantly, it has also pushed me to re-examine what I thought I knew about the places that feel closest to home.


During this period of introspection—through layered grief-scapes of personal loss and global pandemic—I have thought a lot about home. Specifically, I wonder whether I can harness it in one aspect of my life as a scholar without sacrificing it in others.

Where is the “home” for my work, and where is “home” for me (as someone whose identity includes, but is certainly not limited to, being an academic)? Is there room for both in the same place?

I don’t have those answers, even after returning to Canada. What I have learned is that, for someone who has spent half her life in academic spaces, I actually know relatively little about the one place I consider home—Thunder Bay. As feminist thinkers have taught me, all knowledge is partial. Yet, acknowledging such partiality cannot become an excuse to avoid learning deeper, more nuanced, and (often) unsettling histories of the places we love.

One thought that has left me more unsettled as time passes is the acknowledgement that my dad died a white settler on Indigenous territory—on land that was never really his to claim. What does that mean, not just to me, but also to the people whose traditional lands were taken, violently, by colonial expansion that later enabled my family to build fond memories there?

In a recent talk for the Indspiring Change @ Home series, Métis-Cree author and professor Jesse Thistle reminded listeners that we “need to get people oriented to the land that they live in.” He insisted on the importance of contextualizing one’s own family histories as a starting point for acknowledging the lands through which those histories took place. Indeed, my family is embedded in a colonial history that quite literally took place.

At the very least, I can learn more about the histories of that place as a way of coming to terms with my dad’s death and with the problems of place it has since revealed to me. Working in relationship with Anishinaabeg communities in a neighbouring territory, it has finally sunk in that if I love my “home” as I say I do, I must dedicate more of my time to learning about its histories beyond the stories settlers tell.

This re-focusing includes treaty-based, Indigenous, settler colonial, and environmental histories, all of which are connected. It involves re-writing, re-sounding, and re-naming place. It involves engaging more deeply with Land Back projects.

I can start by renaming some of the places in my own story here, learning not just to write them but also to sound them out. Lake Superior returns to Anishinaabewi-gichigami; Kakabeka to Gakaabikaa; Grand Portage to Gichi Onigamiing; Grand Marais to Gichi Bitobig. This work entails learning about my dad’s so-called nemesis, a hill named by another dad, John Godfrey, for his daughter, Josephine. But it also requires pushing beyond that story to understand what that landscape meant to Anishinaabe-Ojibwe communities and their relations before settler renaming displaced such meaning.

Learning these histories of places along the shoreline where my dad cycled his last living day is just a start, but a clear part of my journey.

As it turns out, I’ve ended up drifting a little closer to home.

A white man and woman with a diploma.
My dad lived to see me graduate with a PhD and took more than a bit of the credit. Photograph by Susan Hemsworth.
[Image description: a white women wearing a doctoral robe stands next to a white, older man with her elbow on his shoulder and with her thumps up. The man is wearing a shirt and tie and a graduation hood, holding a rolled-up diploma.


If you change one letter in the metaphor of drifting, you get the cycling term “drafting” – working together against the wind to conserve energy, share resistance, and protect others who need a chance to breathe. I am fortunate to have had people who created the conditions of drafting so I could drift a while. Thank you to my family – mom, Susan; brother, Paul; twin sister, Callie; loving partner and editor, Matt; and our combined families of Hemsworths, Boeckerman-Belangers, Ventrescas, and Chiens – for weathering this experience of grief and love with me. I will also never forget the care and kindness offered by friends, mentors, and colleagues in many places. I’m grateful to Elizabeth Hameeteman of EHN for offering me a platform to write so personally about place and history.

Thanks for letting your soul shine through us, Dad.

*Cover image: Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: an archive cabinet opened with one drawer pulled out.]