Image: © Ute Inselmann. Cécile Heim (right) with former English department colleague Ute Inselmann (left) at the top of the Augstmatthorn. Lake Brienz, named after the village where Cécile grew up, is seen below.
Author: Tonia Ramogida
On March 21st 2022, I met with Cécile Heim at a café in Fribourg. Cécile is at the end of her contract as PhD candidate and Doctoral Assistant at the English Department. She joined me after a long day of putting the finishing touches on her dissertation—Representing and Resisting Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls through the Rougarou, Deer Woman, the Windigo, and B’gwus—which she’ll defend on April 29th. She nevertheless made time to discuss her work, politics and thoughts on social issues over a glass of wine. Here is our candid and laughter-filled discussion.
Tonia Ramogida: Thank you for accepting to do the interview. I was really looking forward to speaking with you.
Cécile Heim: (laughs) I was really surprised that you asked me! I’m at the end of my contract now—I have, what, ten days left on it? (laughs) I’m going to defend my dissertation, my PhD, at the end of April. I’m at the end of my time at university, really.
TR: Oh, wow. So, you’re all done? You’ve written it?
CH: Yeah, I’m essentially done. I’m putting the final touches on my dissertation as we speak. I just came from it. I’m taking a break now.
TR: Cheers! Congratulations!
CH: Thank you! My goal is to finish everything this week and send it, so my experts and professors will have a full month to read through everything again, and to prepare for the soutenance. So, I’m at the very end of that journey.
TR: Oh, wow. It’s a book? It’s long?
CH: It depends on how you define a book. In terms of length, it’s definitely a book; it’s probably an encyclopaedia. (laughs) Without the bibliography, the first version was 369 pages which is awfully long. I’m trying to shorten it now by cutting out everything that people have found repetitive. But it’s not a book in the sense that it’s not published. I can turn it into a book afterwards if that is something that I want to do. But yeah, it’s long.
TR: You must feel a great sense of accomplishment.
CH: I mean, not really. Frankly, when you hand it in the first time, you’re just super happy that this huge weight is off your shoulders. And then you have to get back to it. For me, it’s the revision part that I found awfully difficult.
Before I even started the PhD, I heard so many horror stories about writer’s block, and people not being able to motivate themselves for five years, and then having to rush for one year to finish their dissertation.
Luckily for me, that never happened. I never hit writer’s block. I was always happy to work on my dissertation, all the way until I handed it in the first time which was on the… 17th of December, just before Christmas. And then it was like, “Ah! Finally, I can breathe again!” Then I had the colloque in early February, and when I had to get back to it, I had a really, really hard time. I couldn’t for many weeks.
You don’t really get a sense of accomplishment because you’re never done anyway. The kind of work that we do is not the kind where you can tick a box at the end. It’s never done. You could always pursue it; you could always take it further. You could always just improve on whatever you’ve done, no matter how much of a perfectionist you are.
Everybody has a different opinion, so you can have ten experts and you’ll have ten different opinions—sometimes contradictory, and sometimes they will agree…. Essentially, at some point, you just have to stop yourself. If you wait for the moment that you’re done, that’s never going to happen.
For me the struggle was to wind back in my brain, to put the backwards gear in, and to go back to the dissertation before moving on to the next step, which is applying for jobs… and just trying to plan the rest of my life. (laughs)
TR: Yeah, that’s, um… No Pressure.
CH: No pressure at all, yeah. (laughs) No pressure at all.
TR: I was looking at your personal website and you’ve done a ton at UNIL and within the department. You were in the labour union; you were co-organizing first-year courses; you’ve done a lot of teaching. You’ve done conferences, written lots of different articles. And then there’s DICE—the Decolonial, Indigenous, and Critical Ethnic Studies Network. You started that?
CH: Oh, yeah, I’m so happy with that. It’s fantastic.
The advantage that we have when we study and work in Switzerland is that it’s a really small community. Everyone knows each other, and they’re all super nice and very supportive, generally speaking, of young scholars. And a lot of it is just sheer coincidence. For example, I got a position with the Swiss Association for North American Studies (SANAS)—I’m the Swiss delegate for the European Association of American Studies (EAAS). It’s a fantastic job. I absolutely love it. But I only got it because Boris resigned at the right time, and because Agnieszka was supposed to take it but couldn’t for personal reasons. So, they asked me, but it was a “Shit! We don’t have anyone—what about Cécile? Let’s ask her” kind of thing. It was a complete coincidence. I ended up having a fantastic time and I loved doing it.
And that’s how the DICE Network came about. It’s a network that I co-founded with Prof. Aleksandra Izgarjan from the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. It’s sponsored by the EAAS. We’re not an academic association per se, because we’re a non-profit, non-money-holding-in-any-way kind of network. But we’re working through the EAAS, who are a recognized association, to connect people within Europe or people interested in working with Europeans on these fields. The goal is to work across fields.
You know, there are quite a few people in Europe who work on Indigenous Studies or on Black Studies, but they all are in their little corners, and that’s why, very often, they feel isolated. But when you actually start looking around and working with various associations, you realize that these fields are growing really fast and there are actually an increasing number of people working on them—it’s just that they don’t necessarily know each other or know of each other.
With the Serbian delegate, we had this idea of creating a network. We did, and it just took off overwhelmingly. Now, all of a sudden, we’re managing more than 150 members—which is fantastic—but we never expected it to take off like that. It just proves how necessary it was and how big the demand is.
In a couple of weeks, there’s the EAAS biennial conference. This year, it’s in Madrid. We decided to ride the wave. We’re going to have our first public appearance as a network. We created a few panels; we’ll have a round table, and… our first general assembly where we’re going to vote on the network’s articles. It’s going to be a thing—a real thing!
TR: That’s awesome!
CH: Yeah, it’s really cool.
I mean, I think a big part of what academia is, you just walk through it, and hold on as much as you can. Opportunities pop up and you can take them or leave them. Sometimes you get really lucky and sometimes you get horribly unlucky.… I just got really lucky, I think.
TR: I have a question from the editing team at MUSE: what do you take away from your time at UNIL? You’ve been there a number of years now. How many years in total?
CH: I did all of my studies there—except during my BA I went away for a year to Glasgow, and then during my MA I went away for six months to Vancouver, to UBC, your home town.
CH: I worked for a year and then talked to Agnieszka. I was like, “Okay, let’s do a PhD if you’re still up for it,” and she said, “Yes, but there is no available assistant position right now, but we are still seeking for someone to go on a Teaching Assistant exchange at Buffalo, in the state of New York.” I said, “Sure, let’s do that.” I did that for two years and then I came back and worked for a year at UNIL as a chargée de cours, and then as a regular teacher at a different school. Then I started the contract that I have now, which I have been on for five years. So, yes, it’s an institution that I’ve been in and out of for many, many years. It’s been one of these on-off relationships….
TR: Ah, yes… those.
CH: (laughs) So what do I take from that experience?
I take from it pretty much what you would take from all on-off relationships, which is that you love it and sometimes you also realize that you need a break from it. That it doesn’t only do you good, or that it’s time to move on.
It’s hard to summarize what I take from it in a few sentences because I learned so much there. You know, I very much became – … I think one could say that I very much grew into to the adult that I am now at UNIL. And thanks to UNIL. And thanks to the teachers I had at UNIL. But also, especially, the texts that I read and the opportunities that UNIL created for me.
So I guess I’m just slightly more… slightly wiser than I was before. It’s hard to say.
I was a student there. I became a teacher there. I became a researcher there. I had really good times. I also had some of the toughest times of my life. Not just because of UNIL… a lot converged at one point in my life—it was private stuff, but also stuff at work—and it just felt apocalyptic…. So, yeah… I take a lot from it. (laughs)
TR: Yeah, no, for sure.
CH: Yeah, it’s really hard to say.
TR: I was at the Talking About Race and Racism series event where you presented along with Jennifer Thorburn and Agnieszka Soltysik. I thought the talk was really fantastic; it seemed like it resonated with a lot of the people that were there.
CH: Jenn and Agnieszka did an incredible job with that series.
I really regret that I couldn’t be there for more events because of that bloody dissertation. (laughs) No, no, it’s not bloody at all (laughs), but I needed to work so I really couldn’t join for more events.
I hope they’re going to do more stuff like that. It’s absolutely fantastic what they’ve done. I think it’s the kind of topics that students are really concerned by, not just for research purposes or whatever, but because it is a struggle everyday in their lives.
I think there are many topics like that that people don’t talk about enough just yet in academia as research or as material that needs to be taught.
I think it was a wonderful event and I hope that there’s going to be more. Having said this, I would understand if they just couldn’t create more because every time teachers create events like this, this is on a purely voluntary basis—they don’t get paid more, they don’t get any kind of discharge of teaching or anything like that. It’s a tremendous amount of work, in addition to the full-time job that they already have. It’s a huge investment on their part and I think that was fabulous.
TR: How did you come to study what you study?
CH: That’s a good question. It’s a question I try to answer in my dissertation.
Part of the answer is that I was always frustrated with hearing only one side of the story. When I started my studies in English, I had a great time. It was all good, but it was mainly white, male authors that we read. You had a Black author once in a while. This is not to say that these are not fascinating subjects or texts to study—but I just felt like it wasn’t answering a lot of the questions I had. And I think it was when I started going abroad during my exchanges that I started realizing what direction I needed to go in to find the answers I was looking for.
If I had to pin-point a moment, I’d definitely say it was my exchange at UBC in Vancouver, my six months there, that really started it all. That’s when I had my first classes in Indigenous literatures… and I volunteered there at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEWC).
TR: Did you?
TR: Oh my God, really.
CH: It was a fascinating experience.
It was really easy for me to talk to one teacher at UBC—she’s still there, her name is Lorraine Weir. She was a great teacher and we talked a lot together. She said, “You should really go and have a look at the DEWC because you seem interested in working with Indigenous women, and you seem interested in topics such as sexual violence or domestic violence or just gender violence in general. Maybe you’d be interested in hearing some of the stories women have to tell there.”
I quickly realized what kind of place it was, but I didn’t shy away from it still. It was an incredibly fascinating experience. This is where I started seeing the importance between research and activism. And the kind of impact that volunteer work can have on your research, and on your work as an academic and as a teacher.
I then wrote my MA thesis on Indigenous women’s plays, on the tropes of movement and mobility. It was a shit MA thesis—like, don’t go and look it up. (laughs)
But, yeah, I think it all started in Vancouver for me.
TR: I’m curious, what are your thoughts on Canada as a settler-colonial project? And, again, no worries if there’s anything you say that you don’t want published.
CH: Well, I mean, pretty much everything that I say here I will have published even worse versions of already, so no worries. (laughs)
I mean, everything I say about Canada is true as well for other states, like the United States, but also South Africa—although the situation there is slightly different—or Australia and New Zealand. Even here in Europe. Or even non-settler-colonial states.
I think there are interesting parallels in policies and ideology to be drawn between settler-colonial states and European states. Obviously, settler-colonial states are very much influenced by the originally colonizing continent of Europe. Let’s talk about these connections a little bit later.
These states are not post-colonial. They are still colonizing the lands of people. So, for me, the Canadian, and American, and Australian states are illegitimate in that sense. Unless they are able to acknowledge Indigenous peoples and their governments in addition to their own relation to Indigenous peoples, they remain illegitimate.
I think it’s fair to say there is a colonial relationship between the contemporary states of Canada or the US and that this relationship can still be described in many ways as genocidal.
Do I think that… all government people in Canada and the US are complete pricks who… actively want to kill off all Indigenous peoples? No. I do think that some of them—I don’t know how many—have sincere intentions of trying to create a good relationship. I also believe that a lot of politicians really believe that by enacting certain laws or policies they think they’re improving Indigenous peoples’ lives, even though they clearly aren’t. I think it’s a lot more complicated than black and white, obviously.
I think that states such as Canada and the US are so far behind in their understanding of themselves. And this is where literature comes in. Here I know a little more about the US than I do about Canada—but I think it’s fascinating to try to understand how narratives come into play when it comes to creating national identity and national history—which ends up being monolithic, linear, and sanitized in many ways.
You have stories and theories such as the Frontier Thesis, or the City on the Hill, or the Promised Land, or Manifest Destiny. These are all narratives… stories that people tell themselves to rearrange the world in a way that makes sense to them. And very often, excluding any other vision of that.
TR: What you say about nations like Canada not understanding themselves is interesting.
On Canada’s first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation last year, Justin Trudeau ignored two invitations from Kúkpi7 Roseanne Casimir, chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation, to attend one of the country’s biggest events in Kamloops, British Columbia. A couple months earlier, they found the unmarked graves of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
He nevertheless decided to take a 6-hour flight from Ottawa to British Columbia to spend the day vacationing with his family in Tofino, a rural surfing town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
This man positioned himself as a ray of hope for a progressive, feminist kind of politics. It’s upsetting.
CH: Hugely. But he’s by far not the only one. We actually see a lot of those.
I think that people like Trudeau—like Emmanuel Macron in France—I’m half-French, my mom’s French, so most of my family now is in France, except for my brother who’s here, and my niece… anyway—people like Trudeau and Macron are typical products of the neoliberal state.
I think they are exceptional failures—no, sorry, they are not exceptional—they are precisely the result of the logical failures of neoliberal, very often socialist politics.
These are children of politicians who thought that it was enough to just have a diverse government to be fair and not be oppressive anymore. These are people who thought that you just need to have enough women in your government in order to not be sexist anymore. These are typical neoliberal moves where a lot is done for the show, for the appearance, or because it is trendy to do so, without actually understanding the systemic repercussions of oppression. Without actually understanding that violence is something that is structural or that oppression is something that is systemic. These are people who want to find quick solutions for profoundly embedded ills.
I mean, the kind of oppressions that Indigenous people face—but also that women face in many of our European countries—or that People of Colour face—this violence, this kind of oppression is something that stems from centuries ago, that does come from colonization. This is profoundly embedded. This is actually inscribed in the very structure on which our societies function and are based, on which our laws are written. To think that it is enough to have one Black person or one Indigenous person in your government to solve all problems of oppression against People of Colour or Indigenous people or whoever—is ludicrous.
This is a typical neoliberal attitude of, “Oh, let’s just be multicultural, and that’s the solution to everything,” without understanding that these are institutional, systemic, structural issues that need profound reworking.
Where did I read this lately? I think it’s in Histories of Racial Capitalism—it’s a book that just came out—and they say in there that there never existed any form of capitalism other than racial capitalism. And to actually create an egalitarian society—that is, a non-racist society—one doesn’t just need to be anti-racist, one needs to redistribute wealth. Our current economies are founded very much on slavery. But, of course, this is an absolute taboo.
TR: I took a class with Dr. Enit Steiner last semester and we read a book by Olaudah Equiano, which brought to light the economic and industrial side of slavery. My partner and their sibling got into roasting coffee beans, buying green beans direct, and researching the coffee market. And then you find out that coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world after oil—and you’re like, hold on, wait—
TR: Are all these coffee harvesters happy people?
CH: Yeah. Do you remember how coffee came to Europe?
TR: Oh, God. I don’t.
CH: Well, it was part of the triangular slave trade.
TR: Oh, was it? Yeah, there we go.
CH: Yeah, so these coffee harvesters are probably not very happy….
But what do we do now? You know, that’s the thing. We can create all of that knowledge which is important and which we need to do. We can educate people. We can write articles on it—which is a crucial task—but it’s still not going to be good enough.
The truth is, I have reached a point—and maybe this is just too tainted by everything that’s going on in the world—I have reached a point where I don’t honestly think that we’re ever going to be capable of creating a fair and just society for all. There’s too much work to be done. Every time we take a step forward, we go two steps back. There was a huge backlash after Barak Obama, for example, even though he wasn’t the most anti-racist kind of president.
I hit the point where I just raise my hands to the sky and say, “I don’t know what to do now,” because we have all that knowledge. We also know about climate change—we’ve known for years. We know about mass extinction—we’ve known for years. Does anyone do anything against it? No, not really. Does it stop people en masse from taking the plane to go somewhere? No. Does it stop me from going anywhere? No, not really. I mean, what the fuck does it take for us to change?
There are things that I do to try to prevent climate change. It’s nowhere good enough. There’s still more I could do, so why don’t I do it? Why don’t we do it, generally, as a society? Why don’t we move away from excessive consumerism? Why don’t we move away from fishing out the oceans? Why don’t we move away from relating to the land in extremely extractive ways, and start relating to it in more equal ways? Or start to respect it as a living being, instead of as a resource to be exploited?
I don’t have any answers. Bourdieu would say it’s habits—we have been socialized, acculturized like that; it’s just our habit to do so. Habits sound harmless—but they’re extremely difficult to break. And I think it’s more than this. I think it’s just that deep down, we don’t really want to change.
TR: Something I’ve noticed, among a couple of the women I know here—who are maybe, like, 10 or so years older than me—so, early to mid-forties—a couple times when I brought up the topic of feminism… the response was, “Oh, no, je suis pas du tout féministe mais… I negotiated a higher salary for myself, or, I have my own place and my independence and don’t want to live with my partner,” you know? So, is ‘feminist’ still a ‘bad word’? What’s the deal with that?
CH: Well, it’s really funny you should say that, because I had almost the reverse experience.
I’m 35 now and was talking with younger women who are in their late teens or early 20s. This was a few weeks ago, when I did a substitution at a high school here in Fribourg.
I taught an English class and wasn’t given the programme. I’m like, “Okay, I’m just going to do whatever I want,” so I gave them some Emily Dickinson to read, some Harlem Renaissance poems, some this and that…. I had a great time with them. We didn’t at all do the grammar program we were supposed to. (laughs)
Anyway, I had a few conversations with them about feminism. They all say, “Yeah, I’m a feminist! I’m a feminist!” And I’m like, “Great, what does that entail? How would you define being a feminist?” And they’re like, “Well, I’m the same as a man. I’m equal to men.” And I’m like, “Great, absolutely.” And I say, “So why do you always dress in the sexiest way possible? Why do you always have to keep sexualizing yourself?” And some of them are like, “Well, that’s just my style.” And I’m like, “Great, that’s a cool style to have…. Is there anything to it? Why do you girls on Instagram do the duck mouth picture all the time? What is feminist about that?”
It was very interesting for me, because I had a generation in front of me who wasn’t shy about claiming themselves as being feminist. But I didn’t really see a lot of feminism in how they were behaving in their day-to-day workplace or high school. …
That’s where I would differentiate between feminist theories or feminist discourse and the identity of feminist. I think these are two different things and I think that emerges from what you and I have been saying just now.
You can face someone who lives in the most feminist way possible without identifying as a feminist, because, for that generation, to be a feminist meant being lesbian—not that being lesbian is bad in any way—but there was the social stigma that came with that. For that generation, being feminist meant never being in a relationship…. In French, feminists were often called les mal baisées or things like that. It was as if being a feminist stemmed from some kind of discontent or from an eternal state of unhappiness that was self-induced.
These women are now 40 or so, but they’re from the 70s, right? That’s second-wave feminism—and after that came a huge backlash. The 80s and 90s are a huge backlash for feminists, historically speaking. So, I understand if people who became adults during a time when feminists suffered a huge backlash don’t want to identify as feminists even though they do live in a very feminist way.
And now we can maybe see a little bit of the contrary. People who become adults now do want to claim that identity because it’s cool, because we have the hashtags, the massive social media movements, the Journée de la Femme. We live in moment in our society where it is cool to be considered a feminist. But I don’t think that everyone who actually claims that identity really understands what it entails. Some of them certainly do. But I don’t think that all of them do.
I think that’s where we have to differentiate between claiming an identity—being feminist—or being queer—or being any other kind of identity you might want to claim—and actually acting or living according to that identity.
Another question that raises is: what does it mean to be a feminist?
When you claim that identity, are you not a feminist when you walk around in sexy clothes? Was I wrong to ask that question to my students? Of course, I would never say that someone who walks around in a hyper-sexualized way is a bad feminist, if they then advance the cause, or if they don’t accept subordination. But then, who am I to make that decision?
To answer your original question—whether ‘feminist’ is a ‘bad word’—no, not anymore. But then, it’s changed. And I really wonder what it means to claim that identity.
Would I claim that identity? Absolutely, yes.
Why do I claim that identity? Well, because I’ve studied feminist theories; my research is heavily influenced from that. I would consider my work to be feminist work. Because I try to fight inequality between men and women wherever I can. But does it take all of that to rightfully claim being a feminist? I really don’t know.
This is where I find Roxanne Gay’s book Bad Feminist really interesting. It had very good and very bad critiques, but I think it raises interesting questions. Again, I have no answer.
This will be the most frustrating interview you will ever do. Whatever question you will ask me, I’ll ask you fifty back.
TR: Fine by me.
Being Canadian and a bit homesick, I got really caught up in following the Truckers’ Protest—the Freedom Convoy—that took place in Ottawa in January and February 2022. Some convoy supporters said they wanted this to be a Canadian version of the January 6th attempted insurrection in Washington, DC.
It was crazy to see a super-disruptive protest movement literally shut down parliament and the downtown core of the nation’s capital—and to have that go on for nearly a month without any serious intervention from police.
Back in BC, there are the Wet’suwet’en land defenders—have you heard about them?—there was a blockade—
CH: The pipeline?
TR: Yeah. In November 2021, militarized police troops with attack dogs, helicopters, snipers came down on a relatively small number of peaceful, unarmed land defenders. They used a chainsaw to break through a door and put journalists in jail.
One of the issues raised was the double standard in terms of who is allowed to protest, to be disruptive. What were your thoughts on that?
CH: That’s a really interesting question.
I didn’t really think about the Canadian example as much as about the French example, which is very similar.
In 2020 and 2021, there was a huge wave of Black Lives Matter protests that came all the way here to Europe. In France, these protests lasted for a while, because there were a few incidences of Black—especially young men—who had been hurt, and a few of them killed, by the French police, in similarly unjustified circumstances as in the United States.
When these protests happened, the crackdown from the government was massive, really massive. They were deplored in the media in general. There were very few media who were sympathetic to these protests. Nobody understood why statues like Colbert would be put down—you know Colbert?
TR: You’re going to have to explain that one to me.
CH: Colbert was an economic minister in France under Louis XIV. At the same time, he was also one of the founders of the triangular slave trade. He’s the author of the Code Noir—which is kind of like 18th century French Jim Crow laws—which justified slavery.
During these Black Lives Matter protests, statues of Colbert were pulled down and desecrated. French people were like, “No! But why? This is holy!” Black Lives Matter protests were received very negatively.
Even to this day, as soon as you start talking about decolonization, about anti-racism, about systemic racism—these are ‘bad words’ in France.
People will tell you that you’re some sort of woke academic or woke leftie who just wants to follow the ideological fashion of the day. Or they’ll tell you you’re completely exaggerating.
But then, something like three weeks ago, there were massive independence protests in Corsica. People from Corsica attacked the police, and put quite a few of them in hospital. And the French media and public opinion were like, “Aw, so cute! Little independentists! Aren’t they cute and lovely? Look at their beautiful little island! We love them so!”
The difference in reaction—the double standard, precisely—is just ludicrous. So that is very similar to the double standard that you were talking about between the Truckers who are considered almost cute—
TR: There were videos of police officers expressing their support—
CH: Right, exactly.
TR: They blocked the Canada-US border at three spots.
CH: And they probably did a lot more damage than a lot of the Indigenous protesters, protesting pipelines or water dams or any kind of project.
The double standard exists. It’s undeniable. It is there. It is horrifying to see. It’s simply impossible to deny that it exists and that people aren’t treated in similar ways. This is the proof.
What’s fascinating is that this is so strongly connected to public perception as well. This kind of public discourse doesn’t just come from politicians. It is also media representation.
These are representations that are circulating differently through media who are supposed to be independent from politics, which leads me to say, it’s not just about politics, is it? It’s not just about law. It’s really very much about discourse, representation, about perception, about ideology, about the symbolic part as well as the nitty-gritty legal, technical part.
TR: I went to an all-girls Catholic high school which turned me off the religion for one lifetime. In June, I found out that the nuns that founded my school actually founded the Kamloops school—
CH: —the residential school?
CH: Oh, shit.
TR: Yeah. They founded or staffed at least 5 other schools in BC, and one in Alaska. They found 215 graves at the Kamloops school, 160 at the Kuper Island school, and most recently, 93 at the Cariboo school in Williams Lake.
Every year, my high school took the Grade 11 class on a trip to Vancouver Island to see stuff related to the order’s history like the convent and the ‘pioneer schoolhouse’—which is a small, 1840 log cabin located on the grounds of the Royal British Columbia Museum.
So, we went to see what is basically a glorified shed built by these so-called bringers of hospitals and schools who voyaged out West from Quebec to provide services to people during the Gold Rush, or whatever.
We visited Providence Farm, which is now a community farm for people with disabilities. Back in the day, it was a residential school, and later also an orphanage for Indigenous children. We were never told any of that. Or about their involvement in the residential school system. The story we got was ‘Pioneer Nuns’….
CH: (laughs) … Pioneer Nuns…
CH: It’s funny how they try to make it a feminist thing—
TR: —and they did! There was this weird feminist/anti-feminist thing going on. They were really good at instilling anxiety in girls. It’s the creation of the character that gets me: the Pioneer Nun. I mean, what were these nuns actually doing?
CH: If you start reading Black feminist theories or Indigenous feminist theories, the degree of complicity of a lot of whitestream feminist theories with imperial or settler-colonial projects is absolutely horrifying.
One example is the slave mistress who fights for her rights while subduing Black people as a free labour force. There are also many accounts of the on-off relationship between the whitestream feminist movement for voting rights in the US and the abolitionist movements.
If you read Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class, she has a very detailed account about that relationship—how whitestream feminists at first were keen on working with abolitionists to end slavery and to gain the right to vote for Black people as well as women. As soon as Black men started receiving the vote, they became major racists because they were like, “They’re becoming our enemy now, because they are taking the voting right away from us.” That’s obviously a simplistic, reductionist version of their logic, but it’s not as shocking and as despairing as it might seem. You’re like, “How is it that when you fight one oppression, you end up creating another one?” That’s horrible; that’s not the point. But it’s by far not unheard of. This is common.
The Pioneer Nun—it’s one of these feminist histories that one has to be very, very leery of. I think that this is also a kind of divide-and-conquer strategy of the settler-colonial ideology in general. If you have minorities fighting against each other, they won’t bother you too much by trying to actually change things. That sounds very conspirationist, but I think that’s what it is.
The Pioneer Nun image. Well, it’s a ridiculous image. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I just don’t see how you can be Catholic and feminist at the same time. These are profoundly opposing value systems to me. If anyone can explain it to me, that would be lovely. But I haven’t been able to create that connection just yet. While it is ludicrous to me on that level, in addition to that, I think it’s very perverted on the settler-colonial edge that it takes.
TR: After the discovery, there was a letter written by an alumna who’s an investigative journalist now. She’s done work on fake Indigenous art.
The letter was signed by over 1000 students and alumnae and called for the school to make specific changes, like ceasing all visits to the Farm, implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action by developing ongoing curriculum on residential schools and the Sisters’ involvement, as well as editing school material and signage that “glorify colonization.”
It goes to show how deep that ideology goes. I grew up right next to a First Nation and knew nothing about it.
CH: You’re not the first person I’ve heard that from. When I was in Buffalo, I heard very much the same.
While I was in Vancouver, I met a good friend of mine who also came from Lausanne. We both studied at UNIL at the same time, in different years. But it’s only in Vancouver that we met. We had very different experiences of Vancouver.
I took these classes on Indigenous literatures. I became more and more involved in Indigenous issues. I went to protests. And, of course, I did the internship at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre where there were a lot of Indigenous women.
My friend didn’t have that experience at all. She said, “Oh, I didn’t realize the Downtown Eastside is full of poor Indigenous people. This is something that passed me by. I was just told, ‘Don’t go into the east side of downtown.’ Nobody told you why, and I felt I was happy with that information. I felt like I didn’t need to know anymore.” She had a very, very different experience from me. I think to this day she perceives the city in a very different way than I do.
And I think it’s part of the identity that settlers have created for themselves. For them to legitimately inhabit that place, they need to ignore Indigenous people. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.
TR: —it’s grim.
CH: Yes, the RCMP. I hated them before I fully understood who exactly they were. (laughs)
Do you know the book by Maria Campbell? She’s a Métis author and she wrote what is essentially an autobiography called Half-Breed. … It was quite a big success from the start. She published the book for the first time when there was a growing interest for Indigenous authors and Indigenous life narratives.
In 2019, two researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver—Deanna Reder, who is a professor, colleague, and friend—and Alix Shield, one of her PhD students—discovered, in an archive in Dublin—at Trinity College, I think it was—the biggest excerpt from Half-Breed that had been edited out from its first publication in 1973.
Maria Campbell is still alive. They interviewed her after they found the passage and were like, “Did you want to take this passage out?” And she was like, “No! I wanted to keep it in!” It was silently edited out. The publishers cut it out without her consent.
It’s a passage that talks about her rape by two RCMP officers in her own home. I don’t know what the publishers decided. I guess they thought it put the RCMP in too much of a bad light.
It’s funny, because everyone who has read the first version is like, “Something is missing. Something is not making sense…. Now that we know about this passage, everything falls into place.” Maria Campbell says, “Yeah; that’s why I didn’t want it cut out, because it didn’t make sense without it!”
The RCMP is a very dangerous, executive part of the settler-colonial government. It’s dangerous because they’re not tied to a specific territory. They can go wherever. Within their larger organization, they have smaller jurisdictions, but as an organisation, they’re entitled to go pretty much anywhere. There’s very little oversight. It’s a tightly-woven network of buddies—most of them men, most of them white. For a long time and still now, they enjoy a massive amount of prestige because it’s called ‘Royal.’ To me, it’s one of the more dangerous institutions that Canada has. Maybe even more so than the actual police.
Content Warning: The following two questions and the links within them deal with subject matter that may be triggering for some readers. These portions touch on police brutality against Indigenous peoples and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
TR: APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) News did an investigation recently where an Indigenous woman spoke out about how she did sex work and had dealings with active police officers.
It touched on this idea of certain cases not being investigated properly, because how many of the perpetrators are actually the cops themselves?
CH: Oh, absolutely.
The amount of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada, but also in the United States—if we limit ourselves to North America—Mexico being quite a different context, so I’m not going to speak too much about that—the number of women and girls who have disappeared is massive, massive, massive.
Such governmental bodies as the police and the RCMP are not innocent in that.
There have been some inquiries, occasionally.
For example, there was a fairly famous case in Northern Manitoba—Helen Betty Osborne, in the 1970s.
She left her community to go to school in town to become a teacher. One night she was walking home from a friend’s and she was assaulted and brutally raped and killed. When she was found, it was obvious there was foul play. But the police didn’t really do anything. Her relatives had to push them. And then the police were like, “Yeah, okay she was attacked and killed.”
It took years and years for them to bring the perpetrators—and they very well knew who they were—to justice, but they got off pretty much scot-free.
There was a huge outcry again from the Indigenous population and the story managed to somehow reach the national news. This led to an inquiry against the RCMP who handled the investigation and butchered it. I mean, they did a shit job. Like they couldn’t care less. And they’ve done that over and over and over again.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Highway of Tears, in British Columbia?
TR: Of course, yeah. There was a report recently on APTN about Indigenous men and boys who’ve gone missing along the Highway of Tears, in addition to all the women. Which is why your work is so important. It’s not only women, it’s everyone.
CH: It is absolutely everyone.
I think that the case of gendered violence highlights the colonial character of it even more. Which is why I decided to focus on that. It connects pillars—foundational values of settler-colonial society—to the form of violence that Indigenous women experience today. I can talk a little bit more about that later on.
The Highway of Tears is an example of the location of mass disappearance. Winnipeg’s Red River is another one. Hudson’s Bay is yet another. There are all these places—which end up just being Canada, in general—where Indigenous people disappear en masse. And hardly anything is done against it.
(This documentary film provides further information about The Highway of Tears, the Downtown Eastside, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.)
There’s this really fascinating book I’ve come across—thanks to one of my experts on my dissertation. Her name is Mishuana Goeman, she’s Seneca Tonawanda. She said I should look into Dying from Improvement by Sherene Razack.
It’s about Indigenous peoples’ death in custody. The last chapter is on freezing deaths. Obviously, it’s not a fun read… but it sheds some light on the particularly colonial character of the police and the RCMP. But also, how they work not just individually, but as a network, as an institution.
(In addition to the National Film Board documentary linked above, this podcast episode provides more information about freezing deaths or ‘starlight tours‘.)
It’s very sweet of you to say that my work is important. I think the topic is. I don’t think that my work about it is.
CH: (laughs) Well, I don’t know.
Maybe this is the PhD syndrome that I’m experiencing but I just don’t really see the impact that I’m going to have. You’re pretty much the only person I know who cares about my work right now. (laughs)
Obviously, I’m interested in the topic. Obviously, I think it’s crucial. Obviously, I’m happy to spend years of my life working on it, researching it, trying to understand it, to fight it. I just don’t think that my contribution to it is that important. Also, it would be arrogant if I did. (laughs)
TR: Probably. (laughs)
TR: So, there’s a photo of a horse on your personal website.
CH: (laughs some more)
TR: Who is that horse? Because he looks very friendly with you.
CH: Oh, that horse. (laughs) It was love at first sight.
His name is Brew. And he was a massive, massive Shire horse. I didn’t know him that well but I immediately fell in love with him. It was when I was in Scotland, in 2009. At the end of my exchange year—after I finished courses and my job at a hotel—I took several weeks and I travelled around Scotland. I went to the Outer Hebrides. The picture was taken on the west coast of Lewis. I was staying at a youth hostel with a friend. We were the only two guests there—it wasn’t quite summer vacation yet. There was Apple—the donkey—and Brew, the Shire horse.
They were the friendliest inhabitants of the island. (laughs)
The Outer Hebrides is quite the place. It’s very austere. When you arrive with the ferry on Lewis, people will not speak in English around you; they will immediately switch to Gaelic. It’s a very closed community. I wouldn’t say unfriendly, but not the most welcoming.
But I had a blast with Brew. I always brought him an apple.
I love horses. I’ve been riding horses for many years now.
TR: What do you do? How do you ride?
CH: Jumping, dressage, hiking, trekking.
TR: Oh, wow. You do it all!
CH: Yeah, I love it. Very much. Some of the most important relationships that I’ve grown up with have been with horses.
TR: I hear you.
CH: They taught me so much.
TR: Like what?
CH: They taught me not to hold a grudge. They never do. I feel like they live so much better for it. They taught me patience. They taught me kindness. They taught me self-control. When a horse gets scared, it flees. When you want to keep your horse under control when it’s scared, you cannot let it feel that you’re scared. You have to tell them that everything is all right. You have to override your own emotions to make sure that you can control the horse’s.
One of the most important lessons is that they taught me a whole different language. One that doesn’t work through words. But that isn’t any less meaningful because of that.
Animals are really wise. It’s a shame that we haven’t learnt to listen more to them. Horses are great teachers and companions. And they’re just lovely.
TR: Do you have a horse now?
CH: No, I could never afford it.
I still haven’t quite come to grips with that sport that I love so much which is riding horses. I’m like, “If you really love horses, wouldn’t you prefer for them to be free and happy, without having to carry humans around on their back—humans that very often mistreat them?”
I also don’t want to enter that entire horse economy which treats these beautiful beings as commodities. I’m profoundly against that. At the same time, I love them. I want to be with them, and spend my free time with them. It’s hard to do that without entering that economy. I haven’t found a good way of doing that yet.
I don’t think I could have my own horse unless I have my own stables. But that requires way too much money that I’m never going to have.
Anyway, ‘no’ is the short answer. (laughs)
TR: I had rats. And I had them free-range, no cage. When I moved to Switzerland, I shipped my rats here, because, you know, I couldn’t leave my rats. They’re people. They don’t live long. Definitely not as long as horses. But they’re empathetic, intelligent little beings. If you take the time to interact with them on their level, within their boundaries, they’re incredible. They’re little spheres of personality, full individuals. I understand those relationships that you can have with them.
CH: I think all animals. Cats are the same. Dogs are the same. Birds are the same. All animals are like that.
The only kind of animals I haven’t really had a connection to yet are fish—I find them fascinating, but it’s hard to communicate with them in the same way. (laughs)
Snakes scare me a little bit.
I try to love all insects, but I really hit my limits with mosquitoes. (laughs)
TR: (laughs) Especially the one at night in your ear.
CH: Fruit flies… (laughs) I try to love them all. It’s difficult sometimes.
We didn’t have animals at home and nobody else in my family rides. I don’t know where that comes from. My family, they weren’t very wealthy—and I always loved horses….
I didn’t cry a lot as a child. I was a weird, spaced-off, sing-song-y kind of child, but I didn’t cry a lot. The times that I cried were, obviously, when I was hurt very badly, and when a horse came by my window, and I couldn’t touch it and be with it and ride it. That would break my heart, every time.
When I was seven, my mom was like, “I’ve had enough! I don’t know what to do with you anymore!” (laughs)
TR: Riding lessons!
CH: (laughs) She brought me to the nearest barn and there they were, like, “Oh, she’s too young to ride still, but she can do de la voltige”—which is like gymnastics, but on a horseback. I did that until I was nine and was finally allowed to start riding lessons. …
First it was one lesson per week. Obviously, that wasn’t enough very quickly. So, I struck a bargain with the barn owners and said, “What if I come and clean the stables so I can ride for free?” They said, “Let’s do that.”
That was the beginning of a very intense riding career. I was really glad that my mum finally gave in! (laughs)
TR: That’s really sweet.
CH: Whenever I hear people say stuff like “Animals are really like humans,” I’m like, “Really? You haven’t realized that before?” What the fuck took you so long to realize that animals have feelings? That they’re intelligent? That they can interact? Why does it take us so long? Why are we always so surprised when we realize how clever beavers are? Of course, they are! How arrogant of us to not think any different!
TR: The thing that gets me is when I think about how much space rats actually need and how they’re kept in labs. Shoeboxes.
CH: Do you still have them?
TR: No, they passed away. I needed to just stop myself because I go overboard. They take over the house, and I’m home-making them organic food. I loved them so much. I don’t think I loved anything as much as my rats. Don’t tell my partner.
CH: (laughs) Your secret is safe here.
CH: A few months ago, we voted on whether we wanted to get rid of all animal experiments in Switzerland. Did you follow that?
TR: No, I didn’t; but I remember hearing about it.
CH: Exactly. I talked to friends about it who are biologists or who work as scientists. And I was like, “What do you think of it?” They’re like, “If that vote comes through, I’m going to be jobless very quickly.” They’re like, “It would put Switzerland back into the Middle Ages when it comes to medication, beauty products, etcetera. It would really not be good. And it wouldn’t just be that in Switzerland we couldn’t have animal trials, it would mean that we would not be allowed to import products from abroad that have been created based on animal trials, so that would cut us off completely, etcetera.” I’m like, “I don’t care! I vote yes! Let’s do this! We’ve got to find another way!” (laughs)
TR: Did it pass?
CH: No, of course not. (laughs)
TR: (laughs) … The industry is huge….
CH: The pharma industry in Switzerland is way too massive for that kind of thing to pass. Way too massive. I mean, we have, what? Three or four of the world’s biggest pharma industries, here, in our tiny, tiny country. It’s ridiculous.
TR: Not to mention the reputation of beauty products overseas. I know of one company that ships massive amounts of product to China. That’s basically their entire business. Everyone wants Swiss beauty products, apparently.
CH: And here people can’t even afford them. (laughs)
TR: No, of course, not (laughs). Okay, I think I’m going to stop the recorder.
CH: You have enough material?
TR: Oh, yes, I think so. We’re good.
Thank you, Cécile, for taking the time to speak with me. I definitely enjoyed it, and I think our readers will as well.