top of page

Research Journal

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 (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.

27 August 2020

I am writing as unrest continues in the United States in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, and as Tropical Storm Laura is set to hit Texas and Louisiana. The search for refuge in the age of systemic racism, and climate change, and the lingering influence of the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are foremost in my mind, although the optimism in Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell is there as well.

Meanwhile, my research on sanctuary has shifted to understanding the larger history of homelessness and housing, which is deepening my sense of home and place and the ways in which histories of vagrancy (and responses to this issue) and histories of displacement might be intertwined. I had the pleasure of attending the virtual launch of Franny Nudleman's Fighting Sleep: The War for the Mind and the US Military where the discussion on the militarization of sleep (e.g. US efforts to dissuade protesters from using the Mall in Washington DC by insisting that they could be there / could camp out, as long as they didn't fall asleep) was connected, in the discussion that followed, with the war against poverty and homelessness and, in particular, the efforts to regulate and control those "sans-abris". Reading Roxanne Gay's Difficult Women, I came upon the phrase "vagrants and malcontents" and was struck by how easily these terms have been associated historically, and in the present. There is such fear in the idea of unrootedness, or displacement, at least from the perspective of observers. It will be interesting to think through further questions of agency, security and responsibility in the history of homelessness alongside the history of displacement. There are some connections to be made, I suspect, between the personal, the local and the global.

5 September 2020

Working through a conceptual history of refugeehood and homelessness and points of intersection and divergence. It's tricky but I think it is important in order to talk about refuge in an urban context - we need to have a sense of the landscape of people in the city at any given time in order to talk about the nature of charity, relief and refuge. I guess I am trying to situate sanctuary experiences but it's definitely a struggle. 

I am currently writing about shared mobilities as part of this conceptual work and while I am not getting very far, this 1938 image by Dorothea Lange tells me that there is something to be said (Source: Library of Congress, "Toward Los Angeles, California", March 1937, LC-USF34-16317).


1 October 2020

I am in the thick of the literature on sanctuary cities and getting more and more immersed, and maybe more and more lost. It is becoming all the more obvious to me that the need for a historical intervention in this literature is paramount as discussions of policies, political networks often lack historical context and history tends to be relegated to discussions of biblical cities of refuge and the English practices of chartered sanctuary and abjuration in the 12th century. But how to do this? The challenge is great because it requires a multi-pronged effort: 1) to document the changing nature of urban spaces especially in Ancient and Early Modern times, and in the present 2) to move away from formal categories and declarations of sanctuary to privilege lived experiences and the fluctuating nature of sanctuary at any given time and 3) to better understand how sanctuary practices moved from a focus on criminal offenders, to the homeless and impoverished to migrants and refugees. It is the experience of the homeless and destitute that appears out of place given the current state of the literature and yet it strikes me as a key concern if we are going to understand any sense of responsibility towards the "stranger". Or maybe this point it is the archives that will reveal all.

Meanwhile, my pandemic reading is bringing to light all kinds of revelations. One is that police violations were more frequent than I realized, especially in France. The most public incident occurred on 23 August 1996 when police stormed the Church of St-Bernard de la Chapelle in Paris to remove 300 people who had sought shelter to protest new immigration laws. Some had undertaken a hunger strike as part of their protest. The media was there to cover the raid and while public opinion was mixed, there is some suggestion that the protest and the government's response influeced the sans-papiers movement and encouraged serious contemplation about the nature of citizenship in the republic. In the context of my current research, I am drawn to understanding how the raid was sanctioned.

The other thing I have been thinking about is the continued claiming of church space as sanctuary space. It occurred again recently in the United States and was documented in the following Twitter thread (26 September 2020):















27 October 2020

I am immersing myself in the literature on sanctuary and abolitionist futures, most notably the work of Dr. Naomi Paik and Dr. Ananya Roy. I am finding it really interesting, especially as it raises questions about history, historical methods and the genealogies of sanctuary. Both Paik and Roy trace contemporary of sanctuary efforts in the United States to the 18th and 19th century efforts to abolish sanctuary. The result is quite astonishing, drawing attention to the potential for structural change if sanctuary providers and those who engage in sanctuary efforts become radical in their approach. I can see the compelling nature of this approach. I mean, the US Federal Court spelled it out in its 1986 conviction of sanctuary providers when it declared that their efforts were akin to a modern underground railroad and there is no doubt that the work of abolitionists has had an enduring impact on sanctuary providers (am currently working on a really exciting and conceptually challenging chapter about sanctuary and the Black community in Montreal during the Underground Railroad era and in the early aughts). But, what exactly, is this legacy? And how might people work with it? So much more thinking to do on this, particularly around questions of innocence and deservedness. It remains incredibly striking to me that early sanctuary practices were about the protection of criminals and the moderating of criminal justice systems while the current focus, and perhaps the focus since the abolition of slavery has been on the innocent. This is no minor shift. My current sense is that it is an 18th century change (maybe?) that needs to be fully accounted for in order to talk about "abolitionist futures".  Maybe 18th and 19th century sanctuary, as manifested by abolition and the Underground Railroad, is entirely distinct from what came before. Maybe that is the break I have been trying to understand...

16 November 2020

As part of my research on the Underground Railroad (which is proving especially timely given the shift to discussing abolition and sanctuary in the United States), I am reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time. It is almost unbearable and I can see how stories of families being torn apart and the general violence depicted in the book would have had quite an impact on contemporary readers. There is also much to reflect upon in terms of how characters are represented, and given my research interests, I am attentive to the way Stowe depicts those seeking refuge as well as the various views of abolitionists in the book (including some very racist ones). Stowe recognizes the complex nature of human beings, and also seems to think that everyone can be corrected and redeemed. More profoundly though, I am struck by how fearful and anxious I feel reading the book (I am only two hundred pages in). Every time I turn the page, I wonder if something awful is about to happen to one of the protagonists. It certainly has me thinking about anxiety as a historical experience, and the role of novels in shaping sensibilities (à la Lynn Hunt). If I am struggling as a reader, what does that say about the actual lived experience and possibility of refuge in the era of legalized slavery? 

18 November 2020

It's gotten to the point (it's actually a return) where I have so many ideas about sanctuary and so many different threads that I want to pursue that I really wish I didn't have to sleep and could just keep plugging away on the research, writing and thinking for these various projects. My latest brain frenzy was sparked by a really interesting discussion following my guest lecture in UBC's ACAM 300: Dis/Orienting Asian Canada where I talked about the case of Weldon Chan (a case that I have thought about for over a decade now and still haven't figure out how to write about it). One of the questions that came up was about the difference between sanctuary and hiding. It's such a core question. I am stunned that I didn't think of it earlier and of course, it really does have me in a tizzy - thinking about fixed, physical refuge as opposed to diffuse community refuge (which obviously connects to the idea of sites of sanctuary) and the extent to which hiding and sanctuary are conjoined or dissimilar (which also goes back my thinking about the very public nature of many sanctuary practices since the 1980s). The 19th century Underground Railroad was maybe a combination of hiding and sanctuary, of community protection and physical refuge. Is that how we might describe our present moment as well?

28 May 2021

Amazing how the time flies. I have been deep into the archives researching the Underground Railroad and Emma Goldman's time in Montreal and am only briefly coming up for air. I had occasion to do so yesterday as I co-convened a workshop at the Institute for Historical Research on "Sites of Refugee History". What a pleasure to hear practitioners and academics talk about their experiences and research. I was particularly taken with comments made by Anna Beesley (British Red Cross) about the physical sites of detention centres and how their influence (especially their capacity to engender fear) goes far beyond the physical site. This led to a conversations about "hauntings" and how the experience of camps, for instance, might be felt by refugees long after their time in the camps. I wonder if the same might be true of sites of sanctuary?

22 February 2022

This journal is sorely neglected as I immerse myself in writing about the history of sanctuary in Montreal. All I can observe is that the threads of history are long, and entangled.

13 July 2022

Just realizing that this journal was once again neglected as I embarked on a four-month Fulbright Fellowship to research the history of sanctuary in Arizona. Some of the work was connected to this original Sites of Sanctuary project but in many ways this research was a bridge to future work. There are many possibilites and it will take some time to consider what direction to move in. Two things struck me quite powerfully: 1) The importance of place. Where people seek sanctuary matters and the borderlands culture is powerful in this regard. 2) The power of analytical frameworks. People involved in sanctuary in the 1980s referenced the failures of the Second World War and they referenced individual responsibility under the Nuremberg principles. This shaped their worldviews and their activities very deeply. What, if any, historical frameworks are people using today?

6 November 2022

The updates are far from fast and furious but as noted in the previous entry, it's partly a sign of how immersed I am in the research and writing at the moment. My latest challenge has been twofold. First, the question of whether to research and write about a relatively recent sanctuary event (2002) when the sanctuary seekers involved have ignored my requests for an interview, suggesting that they are not interested in having this history revisited. The second, is about ensuring that people's love of place and homeland is not lost in accounts of flight and sanctuary. I had a really interesting exchange with one of the lawyers involved in one of the cases I am looking at from 2002. They questioned by interesting in knowing exactly where people came from (beyond country of origin), misunderstanding that I was somehow interested in drawing my only conclusion about the merits of a case instead of understanding their life experience more fully.

Screen Shot 2020-09-25 at 3.50.36 PM.png
Screen Shot 2020-09-25 at 3.51.02 PM.png
bottom of page