9 April 2018
After two years of slogging through digitized historical newspapers and trailing any reference we can find to sanctuary, the project team and I are still pursuing new threads and possibilities. It seems that once you broaden the definition of sanctuary beyond the conventional notion of church protection, that the possibilities for thinking about the nature of refuge and protection are seemingly (and terrifyingly!) endless. The question that animates our research these days is how to narrow the focus of this topic even as our research suggests new and exciting ways to broaden it.
For the research term, the bulk of the current research involves legal records from various courts in Montreal (currently the King’s Bench) from 1763 to present to determine instances when people were charged with a crime related to the protection of a body. There are translation challenges here but in English the search terms include “aiding and abetting” and harbouring. This is hard work – going through the large and unwieldly ledgers of indexes left behind by the courts administrative apparatuses to find reference to any case that might lead to further insights about a particular case. We are also awaiting findings aids from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives and once these are available we will begin research into episodes of famine, drought and war in the hopes of zeroing in on when any one of the trading posts might have served as a site of sanctuary. I am excited about the possibilities that this particular vein of research portends but also daunted. As with each of the research threads we are pursuing, this particular history could be a research project in and of itself.
As the team continues the work of empirical data collection, I am pursuing some conceptual work and also starting to pursue a couple of case studies more in depth. In terms of conceptual work, the question that is preoccupying me at the moment is the epistemology or genealogy of various acts of sanctuary. This history means thinking about the origins of protection and the origins of hospitality as well as refuge in the practice of offering sanctuary. It will mean tucking into Jacques Derrida’s ideas about hospitality among cities of refuge but I also need to find literature that will help me think about hospitality and protection from a theological perspective. I am excited about where this research might take me.
Relatedly, I am working through a couple of the cases that we uncovered in the initial round of research. Specifically, John Surratt (1865), Donald Morrison (1899) and Khurshid Begum Awan (2013). It’s quite a temporal stretch but my idea at the moment is to start with a history of Montreal as a city of refuge before moving on to a case study of sanctuary in Canada and ultimately one of refuge and protection among white settler societies. These three case studies have me thinking about transnational networks, humanitarian linkages and the porousness of borders.
28 April 2018
In Austin, Texas for a conference on Migration, Discipline and Displacement at the Institute for Historical Studies. Really fascinating conversations and research taking place about the history of sanctuary in the United States. Scholars are thinking about how contemporary state – federal tensions relate to earlier work by abolitionists in encouraging federal “non-enforcement” laws. It has me thinking about the various ways that we might think about sanctuary practices in the political and social landscapes of any given society. In what ways does sanctuary contribute to larger practices of enforcement and discipline. And then a great question over dinner, when does sanctuary become incarceration? At what point might someone seeking refuge start to think of themselves as a prisoner? There have been hints of this in the sources, and so this is a question that will have to be explored further.
I mulled all of these questions over as I took in the physical geography of the city. Austin is dotted with churches and given its proximity to the US – Mexico border (though obviously many places are closer), I couldn’t help but wonder what role these churches might have played in offers of protection, refuge and hospitality historically.
25 May 2018
Attending the Canadian Association for Refugees and Forced Migration Studies this week at Carleton University, Ottawa. There are some really interesting discussions taking place and it's interesting to bring historical context to a lot of the contemporary discussions around refugee education and assistance. I am particularly struck by the shift that has taken place since the early twentieth century from thinking about refugees as a temporary problem, and displacement as a temporary, resolvable situation to a headspace that conceives of refugee status as an enduring condition. I presented some of the results from the Sites of Sanctuary research project yesterday, which were well-received and led to some useful conversations about how to contain this ever-expanding project. One of the points that came up was about the definition of sanctuary with some push-back against applying the definition too widely. I had mentioned the 1754 case of a farmer's wife who was returned to her husband by the court after seeking refuge in a neighbour's house. She was considered her husband's property and therefore refuge was not a viable option for her (tangentially, this led to an interesting conversation about the relationship between how societies provide assistance to women in vulnerable situations domestically and the assistance provided to refugees fleeing situations of domestic violence). The other point that came up was about how to limit the increasingly expansive description of sanctuary that the project has been playing with. One idea is distinguishing between sanctuary where there is a guarantee of safety (in the case of embassy spaces and church spaces) and sanctuary that is more diffuse. I think there is something really promising in this approach.
1 June 2018
Just back from a really stimulating meeting of the Canadian Historical Association at the University of Regina where I was once again inspired to think about the impact of sanctuary. One of the research avenues that might be worth pursuing is thinking about how acts of sanctuary can reveal pre-existing networks of community and relations and how these same acts can also rejuvenate and inspire new ones.
26 June 2018
Lots of mixed feelings and thoughts today as the US Supreme Court allows the so-called "travel ban" to stand. I have a lot of feelings and thoughts, mostly about about how safety seems to be more of scarce resource than I had thought previously. Some preliminary thoughts in my piece at activehistory.ca (19 June 2018).
The mixed feelings come from having spent the morning stewing about the court's decision (which I am sure will be compared by future historians to the gutless decision in Korematsu (1944) and then, in an experience that can only be described as polar opposite, spending the afternoon in conversation with a retired pastor about his experiences with sanctuary and his views on hospitality and safe spaces. One of the great privileges of this project is being able to have conversations with some of the most committed and extraordinary people I have had the pleasure of encountering in my research travels. If I have not completely lost hope at this point, it is only because of these incredible encounters. Not to mention the incredible research the team is uncovering. More soon on Montreal as a node on the Underground Railroad!
12 July 2018
I was in Toronto this week for a whirlwind research trip to the Anglican Church Archives, the United Church Archives and the City of Toronto Archives - all for different aspects of the sanctuary project. Evidence of how complicated this research is becoming. I found lots of records that make me question how we think about the history of refuge, especially what constitutes a safe space. I also had the opportunity to stop by St. Luke's Church on Sherbourne. Until 1959, it was the Carlton Street United Church and in 1942 Muriel Kitagawa and her family lived in the church parsonage for several months. It has proven incredibly difficult to track the decision-making around their refuge in Toronto but it was enlightening to see the building. I imagined Muriel running her hand along the north-facing wall. The eastern wall is now covered with graffiti.
14 August 2018
I had the good fortune to be in Thessaloniki, Greece last month for the meeting of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration. Naturally, I explored some of the ancient sites and it was simultaneously humbling and inspiring to imagine the offering of sanctuary at various shrines in Ancient Greece. Back at my desk, I have been exploring ideas of refuge, refugeehood and protection in 17th century North America. In particular I have taken up the work of Bruce Trigger in The Children of Aataentsic and Richard White in The Middle Ground, where both authors regularly use the term "refugee" to discuss the displacement and protection sought by various groups in the conflict between the French, Haudenosaunee and Wendat. Their discussions have led me to consult the extensive Jesuit Relations for reference to refugees and refuge. Three volumes in, there are lots of references to refuge by the contemporary writers though any mention of refugee seems to be the work of editors. It's an interesting question, this musing of mine about the origins and the use of the language of refuge and refugeehood in French Colonial America. I have a mental note to see about any specific sanctuary practices in the Jesuit tradition. I am also particularly taken with Richard White's description of refugees, and refugee centers, emerging from a "world of fragments".
22 August 2018
I am in the middle of what I am calling "sanctuary comps" at the moment - trying to catch up on all the amazing literature out there. I am totally taken with Trisha Olson's piece, "Sanctuary and Penitential Rebirth in the Central Middle Ages" where she tackles a lot of the assumptions that underpinned relations between church and state in the Middle Ages. I am struck more and more by how much the history of sanctuary and refuge more generally can tell us about security and safety in various societies; what caused people to feel vulnerable? Where and when have they felt secure? These questions resonate for me in contemporary ways on almost a daily basis. After hours of reading, I stepped outside with my mind filled with passages such as "Rather than simply a means of thwarting a crude system of private justice, or of mitigating the harshness of an evolving public justice, sanctuary confirmed a complex cluster of ideas about the purpose of dispute resolution and the redemptive significance of punishment that permeated early medieval culture.” (39) On the sidewalk, I was met by a woman asking for money for food. I had none so she suggested credit, which seemed like a fair solution. Once inside the local coffee shop, we were refused service because my companion had apparently been requesting food from many passers-by this morning. It was a tangible reminder of how economic security, and the quest for such security, has become so central in our present-day world. I wonder about the search for economic security as a possible theme for sanctuary research, knowing that one of the reasons it declined in legal terms in England was that critics worried about the economic abuses of the practice.
29 August 2018
This week I have been reading Benjamin Drew's The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, first published in 1856. It consists of a series of interviews with escaped slaves who settled in Canada and as George Elliott Clarke notes in his introduction, it lays the foundations for many of the self-congratulatory narratives of refuge that emerged in Canada in subsequent years. As Clarke writes: "While Drew's interlocutors detail the savagery of slavery in the Great Republic, their ancillary effect is to paint the "Province of Canada" ("Upper" or "West") i.e. Victorian Ontario, as paradise. So cogent is this testifying that, in imbibing these narratives, our Canadian ancestors decided to acknowledge the invidious nature of the United States (and its South), to celebrate British North America (now Canada) as the site of genuine law and liberality derived from the Crown (as opposed to Yankee "mobocracy"), and to forget that slave ships ever docked in Halifax, Montreal, Saint John and York (Toronto)." In reading through the interviews, I came to sympathize greatly with Clarke's concerns. At the same time, I appreciated the fact that there are so many different ways of reading these testimonies in the present and ended up feeling mostly grateful that such a source survives. There were three things I found particularly useful in contemplating this early history of refuge. The first was the way that several testimonies talked about their experience with the land, and the ways in which they were able to seek refuge on the land. The second was the observation that many interviewees talked about multiple escapes, about searching for a way out and for refuge on numerous occasions and in numerous ways. This got me thinking about frequency and finality. The last point of interest that emerged was reference to the establishment of a Refugees Home Society near Windsor (1852), which apparently was dedicated to assisting "the refugees from American slavery to obtain permanent homes, and to promote their social, moral, physical, and intellectual elevation." This apparently involved purchasing land from the Canadian government to be redistributed to arriving refugees. The literature on settler colonialism is working through and around the history of slavery in the Americas and I suspect there is something to be learned here about the way that land and space was envisioned. There is only one reference to First Nations in the testimonies and it comes from Sophia Pooley who was sold and enslaved to aboriginal leader Joseph Brant so there is a great deal more thinking and research to be done on this front.
27 November 2018
I am always astonished at the way the academic calendar takes on a life of its own. The past few months have been thinking time more than anything else, combined with an antenna for any reference to sanctuary and its possible implications. In my Race, Empire and Humanitarianism class we are looking at the Rwandan Genocide and I am keenly aware, for the first time, of how many references there are to people seeking refuge in churches and how that sanctuary proved elusive, even somewhat of a trap. More and more, I wonder about assuming that refuge and protection are the norms. The experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada, for one, completely belies the idea of sanctuary as normative. The very grounds of this project are shifting.
21 January 2019
There was a news story this past weekend about four women arrested for leaving provisions in the desert so that migrants wouldn't die as they crossed into the United States. The judge used a law around entering a wildlife refuge without a permit to convict the women. I was struck at the use of laws around trespassing to convict the women of leaving food and water. And I was also struck at the irony of a wildlife refuge being such an inhospitable place for human refuge. The thinking around what has constituted refuge, and for whom, continues.
6 August 2019
Goodness. It's been almost a year since I last updated the journal. One might think it is because there is nothing to say when in fact there is almost too much to discuss. I am doing a lot of thinking out loud on Twitter now (@LauraMadokoro) and combing through the data we have gathered so far. The project is somewhat at a crossroads as we work through what is most important to pursue in terms of the historiography and the existing scholarship and what is most critical and relevant in our present age. The trial of humanitarian worker Scott Warren in the United States and the violent detention of children and families at the Mexico-US border is all making the question of where to go from here all the more important, and all the more daunting. Stay tuned.
17 August 2019
I am now fully immersed in reading Jason De Leon's Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail and I am astonished at the lives of the migrants and his intellectual courage. Every page is a revelation.
27 September 2019
In Montreal for the Savoirs Urbains conference at the Université de Montréal. Strange to be inside on a day when half a million people are gathering in Montreal as part of the global climate strike. I wish I could be there though I am also excited to present work on the Montreal dimension of the Sites of Sanctuary project. It's an opportunity to tease out the intersection of religious and sanctuary motives in contemporary sanctuary motives though I am also going to gesture to a longue durée approach to help think through what is being claimed when a city makes a declaration of sanctuary. I see a lot of tensions between what I am calling congregational sanctuary and sanctuary cities. Montreal's declaration stated, "Attendu que depuis sa fondation et dans des périodes sombres de l'histoire de l'humanité, Montréal a accueilli diverses vagues de réfugiés et que cet apport humain a été bénéfique dans la construction de son économie, sa société et sa culture;….". These are some of the historical examples though I am not sure city council actually had anything specific in mind. I thought about the founding of the city as a religious, European settlement in 1642, the arrival of United Empire Loyalists, Montreal's connection to the Underground Railroad system, the presence of Confederate soldiers, the protection of draft resisters in the Vietnam War and the growing presence of members of the Haitian diaspora. Famous anarchist Emma Goldman had this to say about her stay in the city in 1926: “…I have arrived safely. Had no trouble at all getting in. But I am not sure I will be iqually (sic) lucky in staying. Our people here tell me there is no danger of being sent hence, but our people rarely know these things more than the possibilities of their city.”
13 October 2019
I knew that the folks at Radical History Review were putting together a special issue on sanctuary and it just came out. It is an incredible collection of articles that challenge a number of common (mis)conceptions about sanctuary practices. I am particularly taken with Aimee Villarreal's "Sanctuaryscapes in the North American Southwest." It is a model of how to study and present what I have been calling a layered history - histories of refuge and protection that are piled on top of one another and that are sometimes related but more often they are piled out of blissful ignorance of anything that has come before. It's how I have been thinking about settler colonialism and humanitarianism and Villareal's deep research and powerful theorizing is providing some additional food for thought.
22 October 2019
Back in Winnipeg where my sanctuary research began many years ago. At the time, I had the opportunity to interview members of a congregation who had offered refuge to a Muslim family for almost a year. They were keen to share their experiences and reflect on them and I will never forget what it was like to walk around their church space and see where the family had stayed. In one room, there was a large portrait of Jesus on the cross, which the congregation had offered to take down but which the family had requested stay up, as a sign of respect and acknowledgement that they were guests.
This time, the research (and the weather!) is very different. I am holed up in the Archives of Manitoba on Vaughn Street, immersing myself in the records of the Hudson's Bay Company to understand the history of movement and dislocation that attended Indigenous - settler interactions in 19th century Manitoba. My goal is to be understand any history of displacement that the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation might have experienced prior to engaging in their own offer of refuge in the twenty-first century. It's been a great few days in the city - I have had a chance to meet with a community member, connect with amazing scholars in the city, and spend some time in the archives where my hopes of tracing contacts with HBC officials has been confirmed. Unfortunately, my efforts to see government records were frustrated due to the most complex access to information legislation I have encountered. I was able to confirm, as a side note, that government officials such as Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris did indeed use the term "refugee" when talking about the Sioux who came north to Manitoba in the 1870s. I now need to do some digging to figure out what the term signified to Morris in the context of late 19th century colonialism. Relatedly, one of the HBC trading posts I am looking at was Doubtful Post, est.1797. Now what do you suppose doubtful meant in 1797? Was it somebody's name? A feeling?
5 November 2019
I spent part of the weekend interviewing members of a congregation involved in a sanctuary offer six years ago. They were so generous with their time and I learned so much about what inspired and motivated them. I also think that the decision to offer sanctuary, and how people live with that choice, is far more complicated than one might surmise at first glance.
10 December 2019
It's been noteworthy to observe that in the rush and business of the holiday season two churches (that I know of) are using the story of Jesus' birth to draw attention to the plight of refugees. The Toronto Eastminster United Church placed the figure of baby Jesus in a cage to highlight the treatment of refugees and migrants. In California, the Claremont United Methodist Church placed the figures in their nativity scene in cages.
I find these gestures incredibly moving and I wonder about the impact they will have on notions of sanctuary, protection and responsibility more generally, if at all.
19 December 2019
Coming off an amazing day of research with by brain cells buzzing. I spent the morning with a human rights lawyer who has been actively involved in several sanctuary cases and then spent the afternoon in the Jesuit Archives thinking about the nature of persecution and refuge as it involved the Huron-Wendats in 1648. Two discrete threads and I can't tell whether it was helpful, or a mistake, two pursue two different research avenues in a single day. It was certainly enlightening. One thing I am left thinking about is how the plight of observers, and ancillary actors (in these cases lawyers and missionaries) are also bound up with lived notions of security and well-being. And how alliances, political or otherwise, inform notions of merit and care at different moments in time.
20 December 2019
Still thinking about yesterday's research. More and more I am inclined to break this study into parts. One that will focus on a history of sanctuary in Montreal (different from studying the history of sanctuary cities) and the other, more long term project, has to be a history of sanctuary and settler colonialism in order to think through fully how land, environment and colonialism influenced notions of humanitarianism, protection and merit in the Americas.
6 January 2020
I am in New York City for meetings of the American Historical Association and have found myself thinking a lot about sanctuary in cities (and the long history of). I arrived at Penn Station last Friday and the first thing I saw as I emerged on to 7th Avenue was a woman lying prone on the ground. She appeared to be homeless as there were a variety of items strewn about her mat. She was very still, too still and surrounded by police officers. It was a stark, visceral reminder of how insecure and precarious life in big cities can be. Naturally, my thoughts turned to the history of refuge in cities.
In some ways, the seeds for an urban history of sanctuary project were planted many years ago, when I was doing my postdoc at Columbia. I remember being out for a stroll in Washington Square and walking past the Judson Memorial Church and noticing signage about sanctuary. I often think of the church and its sanctuary resolution. The discrete notice of sanctuary was an early seed for this project and it has stayed.
12 February 2020
I have the sense of projects lying fallow just now. Doing lots of reading, and preliminary archival research (most notably in the marvelous Sulpician Archives in Montreal), but mostly letting projects breathe. It's proving to be quite exciting. I find myself zeroing in some key turning points for the Montreal sanctuary (in the) city project and have reached out to a number of First Nations communities to see about collaborating on some important cases from the 1980s. We shall see what comes, but I am feeling optimistic and determined. I think part of my mood comes from the work that I have been reading, including Sadiya Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which is so methodologically and conceptually rich and I think really challenges us to think critically about received narratives, especially if we have only ever understood them on a superficial level.
2 March 2020
This is somewhat of an aside but I was doing research for my lecture on the 1960s and was looking at old newspapers. The front page of the Toronto Star from 1968 really startled me. Notice the smaller headline: "How a miserable refugee camp gave birth to an assassin". I am struck by the attribution of responsibility in this headline, namely to the camp, but also provoked by the very unclear question of what follows time in sanctuary, whether it be in a refugee camp or a church or some other site of refuge.
21 March 2020
We are in a brave new world as a result of the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic. How quickly things change, and how strange to be living through a pandemic. I am at once obsessed with the big, global picture and the quotidian challenges of teaching and parenting. It's like we are living on multiple planes of existence simultaneously. It is terrifying, exhausting and fascinating all at once (when I have a chance to stop and think about what is going on).
Societies are taking extreme measures to combat the spread of the virus and the language of self-isolation and social distancing have become very familiar. We move in very small circles and hope to connect with people virtually when we can. And obviously, what these measures have revealed is the fault lines that existed in our societies already: the vulnerable are rendered even more vulnerable, which means lower income, working class people, folks who depend on public transport (and who provide those services) and people in close quarters. Again, this means lower income housing situations as well as situations where people are already in crowded quarters and such as refugee camps, immigration detention centres, homeless shelters, and prisons.
Naturally, this situation has me thinking about security, refuge and vulnerability. The coronavirus will spread quickly through a refugee camp and NGOs are already sounding the alarm about the need for continued and ongoing support. And the language of social-distancing and isolation assumes that the home is a safe place but this isn't true in situations of domestic violence and as one teacher friend reminded me earlier this week, they aren't safe at all for kids who are being abused. And so once again I find myself seeped in questions about safety and security and where we assume we will find these.
The UNHCR has stopped resettlement and yesterday the Canadian government announced that in addition to general travel bans on non-nationals, it was specifically closing its doors to refugees, a decision that unmoored me when I heard the news and which one I am still affected by. Such decisions have long term impacts and are born of fear and the perception that refugees will bring coronavirus with them. Associations with disease and perceptions of difference still haunt Chinese communities in the United States and Canada as reflected by the ease with which violence and vitriol has been directed their way. I worry about the present and I also worry very much about the future.
2 May 2020
Life in the pandemic continues as do the obvious inequities in terms of impact, most notably in terms of class, race and migration status.
Over the past week, I was fortunate to discover and then immerse myself in Rebecca Solnit's 2009 work A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. It makes for inspiring and reassuring reading and also gives eloquent voice to some of the ideas I have been toying with around security and insecurity and, more broadly, quotidian and exceptional states of refuge. Citing the sociologist Charles Fritz, Solnit writes, “everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us….people suffer and die daily, though in ordinary times, they do so privately, separately.” (107) There is lots to think about here but for the purposes of this project, I am thinking a great deal about the idea of physical refuge as well as community or spiritual ones. Understandably, much of our response to the pandemic has been in the realm of the physical: physical effects, physical distancing (even if it is called social distancing) and concerns about the physical impact of too many cases on health care systems globally. At some point, we will have to think about the mental and spiritual toll of our initial response.
In this vein, I continue to dwell on the question of sanctuary and incarceration and the nebulous lines between. Solnit hints at this as well, suggesting that the nature of sanctuary depends largely on its relationship to society more broadly. She notes that a refuge might not be the "the shelter at the center of the world, but all that was left: a prison.” (64)
31 May 2020
Terrible news and upset in the world as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, and we learn of another police murder in the United States. A recent story detailed how a "haven for refugees" in Toronto became the epicentre of the covid-19 crisis in that city. And over the past few days we have seen protests across the United States and Canada over the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto. Insecurity and precarity are everywhere, and the idea of refuge seems all the more elusive.
But the idea remains, even amidst all of this.
"Build your houses of refuge", Killer Mike, Atlanta, 29 May 2020.
24 July 2020
We are in the heart of a very strange summer but it is nevertheless summer, which for me always means a lot of reading (fiction and non-fiction) and thinking time. I find myself thinking about the intellectual challenge about writing a history of insecurity, building from the idea of refuge and the need for refuge being woven into the fabric of human history rather than being an exceptional thread. But how does one measure or document insecurity? Quantitatively? With mortality and unemployment numbers? Qualitatively? With individual stories and accounts of fear and insecurity? The challenge of theorizing and documenting how the nature of fear and insecurity has changed over time is certainly making me pause over the possibility, and merit, of grand historical narratives.