Mary Jane Logan McCallum
University of Winnipeg
I opened my laptop over breakfast with my daughter and read a few updates by colleagues on leads for possible grave sites of missing First Nations and Inuit sanatorium patients. The usual weighty mix of feelings ensued and I was at once agitated by the history of colonial medicine; anxious about how to fit our methodology in the space and time available; grateful for relations with skilled people who also care about this matter.
Then I saw an intriguingly titled email from a colleague at the University of Alberta about Darren R. Préfontaine’s excellent new book on Olive Dickason’s impact on the writing of Canadian history and Indigenous-settler relations, Changing Canadian History, and, more specifically, his confirmation through extensive genealogical research that she had no definitive evidence of Métis heritage. More feelings ensued. Bitter disappointment and disbelief mixed with fierce defensiveness – this was a historian, a woman, and a mother who had contended with History departments and our overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class profession; who challenged the ways Indigenous people were depicted by historians in their basic tool of the trade – the history textbook; who was, until recently, the only Indigenous tenured faculty member of a History department at a Canadian university (or so we believed).
Coming a little more than three months after revelations of the fabricated heritage of University of Saskatchewan Professor of Community Health and Epidemiology and Director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples Health of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Carrie Bourassa, this news hit especially hard. I needed to reach out to colleagues associated with Dickason’s department – they are among the few people in the world with whom I could confidently jump into the middle of a highly political and contentious discussion cold, even though I have not seen them in person for more than two years. Travel restrictions, concern for vulnerable family members, and heavy workloads have made brief, often hastily written emails take the place of longer in-person visits.
Immediately after I sent my colleagues emails, two auto-replies popped up in my Inbox. I nodded and wondered if their auto-replies had triggered mine and boomeranged into a big ball of messages to each other. Yet these auto-replies are more than automated electronic refuse ready for the “deleted items” folder: they have been carefully worded and edited for professional accuracy and to address questions generated by earlier auto-replies. Dr. Sarah Nickel, associate professor in the department of History, Classics, and Religion at the University of Alberta remarks, “It strikes me that our auto-replies build in layers like our syllabi – introducing passages that, without context, seem odd, but are the result of false starts and lots of questions!” The contents of an auto-reply may at first seem trivial, but they need to engage with diverse audiences that include students, other faculty, members of the public, administrative staff, and even our bosses – and, for some of us, people requesting assistance in locating graves of lost family and community members. They need to speak supportively to students, provide a firm “no” to those who we cannot help, salute those who give us energy, and politely hold a place for decision-making that must be, for now, postponed.
These auto-replies – crafted with care, with attention to tone and content, anticipating needs and providing information, explanation, and even comfort – merit consideration as brief, automated, electronically reproduced archives that can tell us much about the current lived realities of mid-pandemic Indigenous women academic professionalism in History, and more specifically, Canadian History. Documents 1-3 below include two of the auto-replies I received and my own.
It is the use of Indigenous languages that strikes me most about these auto-replies. Each acknowledges the message and the person writing it in Indigenous languages:
Kukwstsétsemc – Secwepemc word for thank you
Yaii ts’at haįį’ – Dinjii Zhuh Ginjik phrase for hello and many thanks
Anushiik – Lunaape word for thank you
Each of these languages – Secwepemc, Dinjii Zhuh Ginjik, and Lunaape – are in different categories of endangerment, as identified by UNESCO (Definitely, Severely, and Critically, respectively), and they contain ways of seeing our realities that help make meaning of the past and use it in ways that can benefit us today. The deliberate use of Indigenous languages in auto-replies is both a skilled methodological approach to history and public engagement, and characteristic of community respect for Indigenous language learning. It also is a way to build familiarity with Indigenous languages in everyday interactions.
The auto-reply was not created for the purpose of building public familiarity with Indigenous languages. Rather, like most, I began using it as a way of letting people know I was on vacation. Increasingly now, however, I use it not when I’ve stepped away from work, but when work has amped up to a level where I use the tool as a (rather weak) way to manage demands for my time. When you receive an auto-reply like the ones above, it does not mean the academic is on vacation but something like, “Work is happening! Work is being interrupted! But we are pressing on and we still don’t want to miss opportunities!” And sometimes it means, “Work is taking an incredibly heavy toll!”
Academic positions are wonderful in that you are asked to be part of many different projects and developments both within the university and outside of it. However, this can be a double-edged sword in that your responsibilities are not well defined and never limited in any particular way except by yourself. In spite of the closures of schools, libraries, and archives and restrictions on our ability to travel and reunite with colleagues and co-conspirators, in many ways we are expected to continue as before. If anything, requests for peer review of manuscripts and grants, invitations for guest lectures and participation on projects, and pleas for Indigenous representation on University and other committees have increased. Dr. Crystal Fraser is cross-appointed in the Department of History, Classics and Religion and the Faculty of Natives Studies at the University of Alberta. In light of ongoing demands for her time, Dr. Fraser’s phrase “COVID disruptions” is an important prompt – a shorthand reminder of the range of additional demands that have profoundly challenged and changed our lives as family members and academics. Dr. Nickel counted twelve weeks last year during which her daughter was without child care, which effectively doubled her workload and the demands on her time. Many faculty members who are also parents maintained teaching and service work with relatively little disruption throughout the pandemic, while we paid the cost of caring for children during school closures with our research time. Whenever a COVID disruption happened, even though she was on leave, Dr, Nickel would add a statement about how she was in the midst of a COVID child care disruption to her auto-reply message. She did so because she wanted to make it visible that her leave was being disrupted by COVID. “The professional world seemed to continue on as if some of us weren’t spending WEEKS at home unable to work,” she recalls.
These auto-replies communicate the weight of the emotional labour of being an Indigenous academic at this particular moment in history. They also expose the time we put into marshalling, and acknowledging and challenging our multiple intellectual communities – especially as women facing double demands. In this light, an auto-reply may be a small piece in Indigenous historians’ larger contemporary project of reframing a field of study that accounts for tens of thousands of years of humanity within a discipline that only accounts for 150 or so.
The auto-reply, then, has become not just a utilitarian notice of unavailability – it is also an assertion. In the context of competing demands on our time, the auto-reply asserts the need to claim space and self-determination in the work that we choose to do and that we ourselves create.
 Thanks to Crystal Fraser and Sarah Nickel for inspiration and engagement and Adele Perry and Jill McConkey for reading and commenting on drafts.
 Darren R. Préfontaine, Changing Canadian History: The Life and Works of Olive Patricia Dickason (Saskatoon: Gabriel Dumont Institute Press, 2021).
 Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).
 Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Indigenous Women, Work, and History 1940-1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014).
 Geoff Leo, “Indigenous or Pretender?” CBC Investigation 27 October 2021, See CBC Website: https://www.cbc.ca/newsinteractives/features/carrie-bourassa-indigenous, Accessed 8 February, 2022.
 Email correspondence with Sarah Nickel, 2 February, 2022.