Notes from and of ‘the field’

A Northern Ontario small town, late fall 2023

After my meeting with AB at her office, I had settled in a coffee shop nearby to finish my notes on our conversation. It was lunchtime and the place was quite packed, being the only downtown location of this popular and cheap coffee-and-donuts chain. The staff was busy pacing back and forth, trying to keep the queue of people by the counter and the one of cars outside on the drive-through lane flowing as smooth as possible. Eastern-European geopolitics was the topic of discussion among the elderly men sitting at the table across the aisle. From the window I could see the parking lot, cars passing through, and a newly constructed city square that, based on what I had heard, divided opinions among locals as to whether it was a welcome effort to make the downtown urban space livelier and safer or a waste of money that could have been used for something else, such as tackling the issues of addiction and homelessness in the city. I turned back to my notes, marked a couple of things I might still have to double-check with A to make sure I had got them right, closed my notebook and stuffed it in my backpack.

As on many other afternoons, I headed to the public library a few blocks away, debating if I should use the few hours before closing time for going through the bunch of scans of old newspaper clips covering a crisis regarding provincial child welfare funding in the late 1970s or continue reading a recent book discussing politics of reconciliation in Canada. On the way I tried to call BC, a family service worker in another community to ask about potential timing for a meeting that we had been talking about earlier. No response – I left a voicemail, knowing that they must be busy. Once arriving at the library, I had a quick call in the hallway with my husband back home seven time zones away before heading in. At the entrance, the heart-shaped ‘Every Child Matters’ installation from the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was long gone and another one of wartime photos and letters had been set up for the upcoming Remembrance Day.

The above passage has been edited based on a few separate excerpts from my field notes, with some more descriptive details added to provide a typical snapshot of my ‘everyday life’ in the field.

While writing this text, I am approaching the end of the second one of my two fieldwork trips to Canada and have earlier this year passed the half-way post of my part of this project (funding).

The original idea behind returning to the field for a few more months after the initial eight that I spent here last year was both to help maintain relations formed during that first period, and to be able to revisit the field with ideally a clearer picture of what exactly to focus on and what I would still need to learn more about.

However, while setting the focus as indeed felt smoother this time, I also feel that the more I spend time in the field the more aware I become of how much more there would still be to learn and understand of both my research context and topic. At this strange and somewhat chaotic stage of simultaneously still being in the field, working on the analysis and getting started with writing, there are (often!) days when I feel that I am only now starting to have gained a comprehensive picture enough of ‘the field’ to be able to start drafting a research proposal. It is a very valid question how big part of this is about normal characteristics of ethnographic research versus a result of having chosen a topic that matches uneasily with the combination of my positionality and the methodological traditions of my discipline.

My research, to put it very broadly, concerns realities of and aspirations for systemic changes in child and family services for First Nation families in Ontario, Canada. This topic situates in the contexts of continuing legacies of earlier settler state policies and practices of removing Indigenous children from their families, communities and culture, and of the current political era where reconciliation has been declared as the guiding principle to be pursued in relations of the government and other settler institutions with Indigenous peoples. My focus has been particularly on perspectives of those working on these changes regarding child and family services ‘on the ground’; either through their own First Nation, an Indigenous or non-Indigenous child welfare agency or another family service provider.

Myself, I am a non-Indigenous scholar coming from another country, with no experience of child welfare system neither in personal nor professional sense. This setting very obviously entails certain limits as to what kind of social spaces and knowledge are accessible to me as a researcher, and the need to remain aware of those limits in the field to approach the topic in a respectful and non-intrusive way. That is, this topic is not really one about which a person of my background would be in a position to draw interpretations based on observation of everyday life of a community it concerns, unless building such study on an existing strong and confidential relationship. In addition to awareness of the limits my positionality sets for approaching this topic while in the field, it requires staying mindful about the inevitable limits of my knowledge and perspective when writing about it.

A great deal of this fieldwork – now talking about my fieldwork experience as a whole and not only this ongoing trip – has been about learning. I have had the honour to get connected with several people with extensive experience of the work towards just and culturally grounded services for First Nation children and families in their respective communities. These people have, by sharing their experiences and knowledge, helped me to deepen my learning about the broader historical and local contexts of Indigenous child welfare and to adjust my focus accordingly. Another aspect of this learning has also been looking at the ideas and structures that the child welfare system as it exists today has been built on, and how these have changed over time: from familiarizing with provincial child welfare legislation and discussing it with people working under it to hours spent in several different archives looking at various kinds of policy documents, reports and proposals from the decades past.

Spaces and moments of this learning process have been diverse, extending from face-to-face encounters to archival documents to online sources. While conducting fieldwork in a specific area in North-Eastern Ontario where I have purposefully spent longer stretches of time within the past year-and-a-half, this fieldwork has still been of rather sporadic nature instead of full-time immersion into everyday life of a specific community. That is, my explicit engagement with the topic through interviews, discussions or participant observation has been limited to specific occasions, such as meetings with child and family service providers and visits to relevant public events.

People in orange shirts gathered in front of a large brick building
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation at former Shingwauk Residential School (today Algoma University), Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Photo: Hanna Rask, 2023

I thus find that the concept of ‘patchwork ethnography’ introduced by Günel, Varma and Watanabe describes my engagement with the ‘field’ better than the idea of linear, long-term fieldwork. Instead of detailed documentation of first-hand experience of day-to-day life in a particular fieldwork context, my research has rather turned out to draw from bits and pieces from a bunch of different sources from encounters and discussions in the field to archival documents and news content.

However, this is not to say that the overall experience of spending long stretches of time in the fieldwork area would have been useless; while most of the ‘everyday encounters’ in the field have not necessarily touched directly upon the research topic, many of them have helped me to make sense of its broader local, historical, political and socioeconomic contexts. This is why what I have found relevant moments in the field also include things such as walks in the town paying attention to presences and absences of references to the Indigenous history of the area; getting shocked by prices of groceries or housing; eyeing through microfilms of old newspapers at the local library; or listening to locals of different backgrounds and generations talk about the history or demographics of the area, or social divisions in the city while they were growing up.

Books in a shelf

This ‘patchwork’ of mine does not by any means make up an in-depth study of understandings and awareness of colonial history in this particular location. However, what I nevertheless hope it can give to study of (settler colonial) institutions and expectations and challenges in changing them is to suggest an approach that pays attention to particular local contexts where institutions such as child welfare operate.

Politics of kinning and de-kinning: Conjunctions of kinship, care and the state

Our project participated at the Finnish Anthropological Society’s conference Relations and Beyond, which took place in Rovaniemi on March 21-23, by organizing (together with PhD candidate Anna Pivovarova) a panel entitled Politics of kinning and de-kinning: Conjunctions of kinship, care and the state. The panel sought to explore kinning, de-kinning and re-kinning as processes through which kinship and the state are co-produced, emphasizing in particular the way kinship accumulates and dissolves through time, as well as the relational acts of nurture and neglect by which kin relations are constructed and confronted. The papers we received approached the political processes of kinning from a number of perspectives, highlighting, for instance settler colonial de-kinning, the kinning of labor relationships, state recognition of relatedness in terms of creating papered kin or of categories of motherhood and the citizenship of stillborn children, and the temporalities and memories of kinship of children in institutional or foster care. Our three presentations addressed these concerns from the following perspectives:

Hanna Rask:
Resourcing of child welfare services as a site of settler colonial de-kinning: Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case on First Nations child welfare 

This paper focuses on funding of child and family services on First Nation reserves in Canada as a particular site where politics of kinning and de-kinning play out. The paper examines the 2016 and 2019 decisions of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal concerning discrimination of First Nation children in the child welfare system. In these decisions the Tribunal ruled in favor of a human rights complaint filed by two First Nation organizations against the Government of Canada, stating that underfunding of preventive child welfare services on reserves contributes to disproportionate apprehensions of First Nation children. Examining discussion in the decisions on the nature and scope of the harm caused by the discriminatory funding practice, the paper discusses how they suggest a particular kind of interpretation of state-sanctioned de-kinning. In its arguments of defense, the government had challenged the complaint particularly for vagueness of the alleged connection between the funding of on-reserve child welfare services, apprehensions of children through those services, and harm caused to individual children and families. The Tribunal decisions, however, address the funding framework and its impacts in the light of a broader history of settler colonial state intervention on Indigenous families and kinship relations. The paper discusses these decisions as an example of how politics of de-kinning can be viewed as not necessarily entailing direct involvement of state authorities in severing of kinship relations but as operating indirectly through processes that involve multiple institutional actors and extend relationally and temporally beyond an individual case of child apprehension. 

Saana Hansen:
Kinning by other means: registering citizens by creating papered kin among Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa

This paper investigates birth and death registration simultaneously as acts of kin and state. It draws on ethnographic research on the economies of care among low-income Zimbabwean migrants, injivas, who return from South Africa. The paper expands the term ‘kinning’ from Signe Howell (2003, 2006) to make sense of the creative ways through which people whose life-worlds are embedded in the context of endemic crises and state-produced undocumentedness, have responded to such conditions. The paper zooms at the tactical ways people, in relation to various bureaucratic agents, seek access to citizen certificates primarily to secure their national belonging and access to citizenship and protective migrant status. However, through such acts, people also get entangled with papered relatives and kin networks both in South Africa and in Zimbabwe. I show how the credibility of ID documents are socially constituted via the creation of a convincing ’make believe’ narratives (Navaro-Yashin 2007) having intended and unintended impacts on people’s social worlds, that need various de- and rekinning practices to be repaired. By so doing, the paper contributes to the literature on bureaucratic documents by bringing at the fore the ‘generative capacity’ of documentation (Hull 2012) that brings into being new, often unintended forms of relatedness and belonging to both state and kin networks.

Katja Uusihakala:
Temporality and ambivalence of kinship: Politics of kinning in the lives of late colonial British child migrants

This paper examines political processes of kinning and de-kinning from the perspective advocated by Janet Carsten, namely that anthropologists should pay attention to the “thickening” and “thinning” of kinship over time, stressing state engagement in such processes of kin-making. The case I examine concerns a child migration scheme, which selected, shipped and permanently relocated white British children to colonial Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) between 1946 and 1962. What characterizes kin relations among the former migrants is their fragmentedness – they are permeated by abandonment and absence; loss of kin connections, memory and a sense of belonging; and, at times, by the obscurity of documented relatedness. Such processes of kinship are not solely intimate, emotional and experiential family affairs. In this state-supported project of social engineering, active forms of de-kinning and re-kinning were very much orchestrated by the state. State actors and child emigration societies legitimated children’s de-kinning from their families with the principle of “children’s best interests”, acting to ensure the production of proper citizens, re-kinned as wards of the colonial state. Thus, the politics of “children’s best interests” were intrinsically linked with political ideologies and processes of nation and Empire building. This draws attention to the fact that forms of relatedness – and memories of those relations – are inalienable from wider political and historical contexts in which they occur. It further underlines that kinship and the state need to be analyzed as intertwined and mutually constitutive, and that ethnographic attention should be paid to political implications of forms and processes of relatedness.

Limitations of saying sorry: the Pope’s apology for Canada’s Indian Residential Schools

At the beginning of April 2022, tireless advocacy of Indigenous organizations in Canada finally bore fruit as Pope Francis apologized for the role of “a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities” in the harm caused to Indigenous peoples in the country through Indian Residential Schools. The apology took place during the visit of an Indigenous delegation to Vatican that had been planned since the discoveries of unmarked graves at several old residential schools in the summer of 2021. 

The residential school system was operated jointly by the Canadian government and various churches from the 1880s until the late decades of the 1900s, with the purpose of assimilation of Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian settler society by removing them from the cultural influence of their homes. 

The grave findings in the summer of 2021 were followed with public reactions of shock, sorrow and anger, accompanied by calls for accountability of the state and the churches responsible for the operation of the schools. Spotlight hit particularly on the Catholic Church, the only one of these entities that by that time had not formally apologized for its role in the school system.  

How does an institution apologize

Representatives of residential school survivors and Indigenous organization in Canada have been calling for an apology from the Catholic Church already for years. A call for an apology was also included in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released in 2015, specifying that the Pope should deliver an apology on Canadian soil. 

In response to the news of the first grave findings at the beginning of the summer, Pope Francis expressed his sorrow for the findings but still did not offer an apology. This withdrawal from apology evoked strong condemnation from several directions, from representatives of residential school survivors and Indigenous organizations to the Canadian government. Also individual Catholic bishops and priests in Canada have called for a papal apology. The Pope has previously commented that he is not able to personally apologize for the role of the Catholic Church regarding residential schools.  

Discussing political apologies for history of colonization, Tom Bentley (2016) reminds that an apology performed by the leader of a political community or institution should not be confused with an expression of personal guilt. In their comments on the Pope’s statement at the wake of the grave discoveries, several Indigenous leaders accordingly stressed the Pope’s obligation as the head of the Catholic Church to respond for wrongs committed under the institution.  

Embracing or delimiting responsibility?

When the Pope finally delivered the apology this month, it evoked mixed reactions. 

While the apology was welcomed by several Indigenous commentators as a significant acknowledgement and a step forward with repairing relations with the Catholic Church, it was also heavily criticized for not addressing the institutional role of the Church in operating residential schools.  

In the apology, the Pope acknowledged the damaging impact of colonization on Indigenous peoples, including intergenerational harm caused through residential schools to wellbeing of families and communities, cultural identity, and transmission of knowledge and language from one generation to another. However, the apology pointed at wrongful actions of individual members of the Church as the source of that harm and thus carefully avoided admission of any kind of institutional responsibility. 

This illustrates a common observation within scholarship on political apology : while apologies are powerful performative acts that affirm responsibility of an institutional actor for wrongs committed in its name, they may also delimit that responsibility by covering only certain aspects of a complex, systemic injustice (see e.g., Bentley 2016, Uusihakala 2019). 

After the apology: figuring the next steps

When interviewed by CBC on his view of the apology, residential school survivor and a former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine reminded that it is up to each survivor to determine what they make of the apology.  

However, what appears to be largely agreed upon is that apology alone bears little significance if it will not be accompanied by concrete actions. The Indigenous delegates who received the apology also had several other issues on their agenda, including the incomplete contribution of the Catholic Church to financial compensation of residential school survivors and other means by which the Church is hoped to address its role in colonization, such as land returns. 

In any case, as spoke persons of the delegation and several residential school survivors have underlined in their comments, the apology is only the start of a long journey. The next step of it will be seen in July, when the Pope is expected to travel to Canada to visit Indigenous communities and possibly expand on the apology. 


Bentley, T. 2016. Empires of Remorse. Narrative, Postcolonialism and Apologies for Colonial Atrocity. London: Routledge. 

Uusihakala, K. 2019. Revising and Re-voicing a Silenced Past: Transformative Intentions and Selective Silences in a Public Apology to British Child Migrants. Suomen Antropologi 44 (1), pp.51-69.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.