Prof. Keavy Martin ‘00
The School has always been home to an eclectic student population whose pursuits once leaving the confines of campus have mirrored these varied interests and priorities. We had the opportunity to reach out to one of our graduates who is at the forefront of one of the most germane topics across Canada today, to get her insights on her field of study
and its importance in our ever-evolving society.
Brentwood Alumna, Prof. Keavy Martin ‘00, is an author, a mother, and associate professor, Department of English & Film Studies and adjunct professor, Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, Treaty 6 and Métis territory. She is no stranger to publishing. Her first book, Stories in a New Skin:Ap- proaches to Inuit Literature (winner of the 2012 Gabrielle Roy Prize), explores the intersections of Inuit
traditional knowledge about ‘literature’ with southern academic practices. She recently concluded a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) -funded collaborative re- search project called “Creative Concili- ations,” which looked to Indigenous arts in order to try to think beyond
the discourse of ‘reconciliation.’ She was inducted into the Royal Society
of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists in 2016, and she is the mother of a young son, Edzazii.
Prof. Martin’s research interests include Indigenous literatures and intellectual traditions, Inuit literature, oral history, Indigenous languages (es- pecially Inuktitut), literary history and criticism, Aboriginal and treaty rights, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Indigenous methodologies, and alternative pedagogies.
Tell us about the work you are currently involved in.
I’m an English professor, teaching Indigenous literatures, among other things, at the University of Alberta. I finished my PhD in 2009 at the University of Toronto, having written a dissertation about Inuit literature. More recently, I’ve been doing collaborative work on the issue of ‘reconciliation’ in Canada--not only in light of the Indian Residential School system but also of ongoing settler-colonialism.
To put it another way: I work every day--and I struggle--to think critically about the narratives and structures that many of us have been led to take for granted. The land that I now own title to and the land that my institution occupies--how did that come to be part of “Canada”? By which processes did that occur? What stories had to be told in order to make that possible? These are difficult questions, as they have a way of implicating everyone personally. In my classroom, we turn to Indigenous literature and art to help scrape back the layers of sediment that have covered up colonial histories and ongoing realities. It is hard work, and I am never in any sort of righteous position of knowing more, knowing better. As a white professor, I risk being part of the problem; I make mistakes; I am learning, constantly.
How did your journey to becoming so involved in working with Indigenous peoples evolve?
In part, what I do today is because of the absences that still lingered in high school curricula across the province of BC in the late 90s--and perhaps especially in private education: we did not have the same tools, then, to be talking about Indigenous histories and contemporary colonialisms. At Brentwood, it never once occurred to me to ask whose territory I was on, what had been there before the school, or how it came to be that we acquired those beautiful lands. Today, things are very different: post-secondary institutions across the country are trying to find ways to “indigenize” and/or “decolonize” (both contested terms): they are grappling with the complexities of the lands that they occupy, they are working to remove barriers for Indigenous students, and they are shifting the sorts of stories that they are telling about themselves. As much as I am skeptical of assertions of progress, I am excited by the changes that I see taking place, both at the U of A, at Brentwood, and at other institutions.
I was raised mostly overseas, the daughter of a Canadian diplomat: my dad, Michael Martin, is also a Brentwood grad (‘78), as is my mom, Lindsay Durgan, nee Dutton (‘79), now a psychotherapist in San Francisco. The Canada that I knew was largely produced by the mythologies that were circulating: that this was a peace- keeping, multicultural nation, etc. It wasn’t until I was in university and reading Thomas King’s 1993 novel Green Grass, Running Water, along with the works of other Indigenous writers, that I started to see the cracks in the facade. Later, as a graduate student in comparative literature, I began learning Inuktitut--and then spent five summers in the community of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island. This changed my outlook on everything. For the first time in decades, I was out of the classroom: on the land, in the community; meeting elders, hunters, seamstresses; trying to build relationships; witnessing first
hand the resilience and innovation of northern communities that had endured decades of federal administration and today are still feeling the impacts of southern activism against the seal hunt. It wasn’t until I went to Nunavut that I learned what community can mean. It’s not just about a sense of belonging: it’s about relationships and the responsibilities that come with them.
Moving back and forth between northern communities and the university can be disorienting, even though there are other academics who are also doing this kind of thing. When we would work with elders like the late Inuusiq Nashalik in Pangnirtung, they would often begin a statement along the lines of: “I’m only going to tell you about what I know. If I’ve only heard about something, I’m not going to talk about it.” Knowledge in this context comes from personal, first-hand experience, and this is reflected in Inuit pedagogies, which emphasize observation and hands- on learning. Back down south, when I’m participating in PhD defences, I’m often struck by the very different ways in which universities conceive of knowledge: we often talk for hours about things that we have only read in books, with which none of us have any personal experience. In other disciplines, like Native Studies, this doesn’t really fly. But in English, there’s still a significant danger of being an armchair scholar. Increasingly, we are trying to build in more hands-on, embodied, experiential learning, and to insist on the necessity of building relationships beyond the academy. As my former doctoral supervisor Ted Chamberlin always reminded me, there is a huge amount of knowledge and expertise to be found outside of the ivory tower.
When I was fairly new to my job, I travelled with my colleague Prof. Sam McKegney to the Inuvialuit community of Paulatuk, NWT, to talk with the Thrasher family about possibly re- publishing an out-of-print book--Skid Row Eskimo--by one of their relatives, the late Anthony Apakark Thrasher. The original 1976 publication had been very aggressively edited, but Sam had gotten ahold of the original 500-page typescript, and we wanted to find out whether there was interest in its becoming available again. For various reasons, this project never went ahead. But I’ll always remember the conversation that I had with an Inuvialuk RCMP officer, Brad Carpenter, who helped us out when we were in town: he asked me, “why are you doing this?” With fire in my eyes, I launched into an impassioned speech about the importance of Thrasher’s writing being available to contemporary readers, as he had wanted. Brad listened to me with a quizzical look on his face, and when I’d finished, he said, “I don’t think you know why you’re doing this. I think you’re doing this to get a pat on the head.” This response surprised me. But he had a point: I had no personal connection to this work, no personal stake in the project--beyond maybe a desire to ‘do better’ than the white editors of the past, to learn from their errors, and yes, to get a pat on the head. This comment got me thinking long and hard about why I do what I do--and under what circumstances
a project like this can and should proceed. Nobody would have asked me that pointed question in a university setting, where the value of re-publishing an out-of-print text so that everyone could read it would have been taken for granted. I had to travel 1800 km from the university before I was able to consider this.
A few years later, back in Edmonton, I met Mini Aodla Freeman, an Inuit elder from James Bay who had also published a book in the 1970s: the stunning memoir Life Among the Qallunaat (qallunaat is the Inuktitut word for white people or southerners). Like Thrasher’s book, it was also out of print--and it had a bit of a strange publication history, having been released thanks to a deal struck between the publisher, Mel Hurtig, and the Dept. of Northern Affairs (all without the author’s knowledge). Mini was interested in her book being made available again, and we quickly found a publisher for it: the University of Manitoba Press, which had a series dedicated to out- of-print and/or previously unpublished Indigenous literature. This time, my co-editor (Prof. Julie Rak) and I had the opportunity to get to know the author, to gradually build trust with her, to try to poured over the typescript, we saw that the original 1978 edit had made significant changes to Mini’s phrasing and had also cut numerous important passages. In our 2015 edition, then, we were able to restore that material. And this time, I had a different sort of personal stake in the work through my relationship with Mini. I wanted to do this work well because of her, because of a sense of responsibility to her and what she had been through the first time round. This story’s cover photo was taken when Mini was having tea at my house--and the box of her newly- published books just happened to arrive. Today, Julie and I are editing Mini’s next book, a fictionalized biography of her famous grandfather, George Weetaltuk.
So how to do this work--and how to write about it--without what is sometimes called ‘virtue-signalling’: without trying simply to get a pat on the head? It’s pretty tricky. More and more, I notice this rhetorical technique being deployed by white academics: the safe and easy critique of other white people, usually from the
past. We’re not like them, we suggest; we know better. This is a significant problem in ‘reconciliation’ work: the desire or expectation of white folks--those who have benefitted from the colonization of Canada--to move through it unscathed, looking great, being lauded for their efforts. I don’t doubt that we all also have good intentions, but one quick look through the history of colonialism can show us just how dangerous good intentions can be: the residential school system, for instance, was built on a twisted version of colonial benevolence. Increasingly, the more that I do this work, the more I realize that it is not characterized by warm and cozy affects. We’re dealing with colonial legacies that are ongoing, lived on a daily basis by Indigenous subjects, and the most important thing for me is to be able to deal with being corrected or even scolded when my own good intentions have gone awry, when I have inadvertently become part of the problem.
Just as was outlined in the treaty agreement (here in the territory that I call home), the relationship between Canada and Indigenous nations is ongoing, intended to last forever. That doesn’t just mean my treaty right to live on this land: it means that I have responsibilities as a relative under the treaty, and those obligations are eternal. There’s lot of good reading about this: Sylvia McAdam, Harold Johnson, Michael Asch, and numerous local experts who carry those teachings. We’re in this for the long haul, together.
For me, I muddle through this in my daily life in Treaty 6--and also in my classroom. Thankfully, there is a huge windfall of work by Indigenous writers and artists that can help us to grapple with these issues (if you haven’t already, check out the new work by Eden Robinson, Cherie Dimaline, Tracey Lindberg, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Katherena Vermette, to name only a few). These conversations about literature are never easy--often including ethical and political dimensions that students haven’t encountered in ‘regular’ English classes. I am kept awake many nights by the problem that half my class has only a vague sense of the history of settler-colonialism and that the other half already knows this stuff viscerally and deals with it every day. Handling the diverse needs that result from this situation is a significant pedagogical challenge. Increasingly, I hope to step aside and make space for those who have greater understanding--through personal experience--of what can make a university classroom work for Indigenous students. One thing that we know for sure is that seeing an Indigenous professor at the front of the classroom makes a tremendous difference. I look forward to finding ways that I can work supportively, often from the sidelines, so that these necessary shifts can occur.
Whichever courses I teach, I do draw on the rather rigorous literary critical and writing skills that I gained at Brentwood from teachers like Paul Collis and Edna Widenmaier. Close reading, I find, is a super useful tool not only for understanding the British literary canon, but also for unpacking the world around us: the street signs, the tweets, the Tim Horton’s coffee cups. It’s fun, too, to work with students to challenge the essay conventions that most of us were trained in: for instance, I strongly encourage students to use the word “I” in their essays--and not only the discursive I (“I will argue...”) but rather the personal I that locates them vis-a-vis the topic they are addressing. For most, this is still a radical departure from what they are being taught in high school. And it completely changes the conversations understand her wishes, her history. Initially, we thought it was going to be a fairly simple task: the book would need a new cover, some new paratextual material, and any changes that Mini wanted to make. But one day, we went to her house for a visit, and she had on the table the original typescript of the book: she had found it in storage somewhere. For editors and book historians, this kind of thing is the holy grail. As we that we have: we are all people, we all have bodies, we all have experience. What happens when we make this visible, rather than hiding behind the authoritative “father tongue” (to quote the late Ursula Le Guin). Heck, that voice can be really useful sometimes, like when you need to throw your weight around, but it can also be a way of ensuring that nothing changes...
What are some key takeaways from your experiences?
Last year’s sesquicentennial was a really rich time for discussions about national history. As Canada attempted to celebrate its 150 years since Confederation, often whitewashing its history in the process, Indigenous activists and artists spoke up, troubling this national remembering, such as via the #resistance150 hashtag. Two University of Alberta scholars, Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky, created a really awesome list of 150 acts of reconciliation for those who want to do something. Step 1 is to figure out whose territory you are living on, and there are lots of other really useful suggestions: like, if you want to engage with Indigenous culture, how about you make sure that Indigenous people are involved? Bring in local experts (and pay them well for their time); buy from Indigenous makers. One of the major critiques of reconciliation is that it tends to be symbolic rather than material. How can those of us who hold a lot of capital in Canadian society--and I’m guessing this includes quite a few Brentwood alumni--use our influence to direct funds and resources to Indigenous initiatives, like Kwi Awt Stelmexw, the Sḵwxḵwú7mesh non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening culture and language? How cool is their full- time adult immersion program in the Squamish language?
When I was in Nunavut, I was met with such incredible generosity. I remember my very first day in Pangnirtung: another student and I were walking along the beach and came across a family taking in their fish nets. They chatted with us, and at the end of the conversation, they gave us an entire Arctic char. “It’s
for sharing,” they said. We were flabbergasted--and thankfully, we didn’t try to decline. Who gives complete strangers a fish that could probably fetch $70-$100 down south? My hope is that I--along with my family, my people, and this country--can try to emulate this spirit of generosity. We have taken a huge amount, and a lot has been shared with us. I owe a lot... and giving back, in the most material way possible? It actually does feel good. It feels like relationship.