Staying Soft Under the Gaze

I engaged in my first academic discussion about surveillance when I was nineteen years old and in my second year of a philosophy degree. However, I had been aware of surveillance as a constant entity in my life from a very young age. As a teenage ska:rura and Two Spirit person, I thought studying philosophy at university would teach me how to apply tact and nuance in my arguments criticizing the state. I thought I would learn about freedom and about how we could realize a future that was radically different from the past 500 years by beginning with potent ideas. I found out that it is an understatement to say that a university philosophy department is not the place where one learns about freedom.

The philosophy class I was taking was the sort of course where you were expected to read an impossibly dense book each week. One of these books was Jean Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. I distinctly remember my horror at the pages describing, in agonizing detail, the public torture and execution of Robert-François Damiens in 1757. He was drawn and quartered for his failed attempt at assassinating King Louis XV. I found it ironic that King Louis XV’s grandson, King Louis XVI, would be beheaded by guillotine at the hands of the people during the French Revolution thirty-six years later. The French monarchy had become so opulent in their lives, and made such terrible decisions in the governance of their country, that the people overthrew their rule in a violent revolution. This chapter of history feels particularly ripe for reflection in today’s political climate.

Foucault characterizes the public execution of Damiens as a tactic of state control and compares it with the ways that prisoners are surveilled through prison design and controlled by regimented schedules. The book also chronicles the different ways bodies are controlled through industrial working conditions, such as sprawling factory floors that have an office overlooking them from above, allowing whomever is up there to watch everyone work—or at the very least, to give the workers the impression that they might be being watched. It explains the similarly surveillant aspects of school classroom design: schools are run on schedules that prime children for working in industrial capitalism. Foucault’s text is essentially a master class on how surveillance, as we know it today, was designed and implemented on a mass scale as a means of maximizing the profit and efficiency of each worker, and as a means of controlling behaviour through the fear that you might, at any time, be under observation. It validated many of my experiences in institutions, which often felt controlling and alienating. It gave me the language I needed to describe what I was experiencing in these institutions, and a reference point to communicate with others about those experiences.

The university I attended during my undergraduate degree was famous at that time for having a ratio of “male” to “female” students of one to three. This didn’t feel like a burden to me as a raging queermo, but it was a real bummer when I realized that my chosen discipline, philosophy, remained a bastion of white men and the books they had written. Philosophers of colour were only included in specialty courses such as African philosophy or Chinese philosophy. Within each semester there was one course, at most two, you could take on a philosophy that was not inherently white. There was not a single Indigenous philosophy book in any of the courses that I took as a philosophy major; not even in Philosophy of the Environment. There was a professor in the department who famously had never given a “female” student a grade over 85 percent. In the course where we were reading Foucault, a class of twenty, I was one of four students who were not cis men. This was an increase in gender representation compared to my other classes.

In seminars, we talked in great detail about how bodies are controlled through the mechanisms of capitalism: by its linear, insistent, imposing time structures, by the ways we are asked to sit at desks, to either avert our eyes or make eye contact with authority depending on the context. My fellow students looked at me like I was a ten-headed monster when I brought up the concept of Indigenous understandings of time. I was told by my professor that these ancient ideas were not “established enough” to address in my term paper. For the other students in my class, discourse about Foucault seemed intellectual and theoretical; the systems he described were being analyzed for marks and grade point averages. These students were looking at the text as one in a lineage of books by white men who were all trying to intellectually best one another; they were asking if Foucault had succeeded in his intellectual project. My classmates, this almost entirely white group of almost entirely cis men, analyzed this text without turning around to look at our own straight-backed chairs in neat rows. Surveillance was not a hindrance to their own lives; one student talked at length about the comfort of knowing that the state had power and control and could intervene if “crimes” were being committed.

For me, these conversations were about survival. I was trying to find the manufacturer’s errors in the system design. The loopholes. The gaps where the light might come in. I dissected prison design and capitalist time structures as a means to study the systems of evil that had so thoroughly impacted my life and the lives of my loved ones.

My body has been an object of surveillance for as long as I can remember. By second grade, I had grown wisps of dark body hair on my arms and legs and was bigger than the other kids in my class. I remember my female-assigned body being criticized. I would later be diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Some of my earliest recollections are of these criticisms, of feeling my cheeks flushing red and my stomach turning to lava when I emerged from change rooms and was greeted by phrases like “well, that isn’t flattering,” or “it’s okay, there must be something in this store that could work for you.”

I dissected prison design and capitalist time structures as a means to study the systems of evil that had so thoroughly impacted my life and the lives of my loved ones.

When I was nine or ten at a sleepaway camp, I woke up in the middle of the night to overhear a group of three girls whispering about how they couldn’t believe how fat my legs were. As an intergenerationally traumatized and culturally disconnected white-coded native kid, I wanted to belong, to be seen without feeling constantly monitored. The world, it seemed, was more concerned with all of the things that were out of place with my furry and fat body. All these pairs of prying eyes, those of doctors and classmates and parents, made it clear that my body was a wrong thing.

As a means of coping, I learned how to package my form in different ways. Ones that would invite less taunting and teasing. I learned how to do my hair and makeup. I learned how to “dress for my shape.” I became a disordered eater, which was enthusiastically encouraged by everyone around me. By thirteen, I was being aggressively catcalled on my way to and from school. Most of the time I would hear comments in the normal range of sexualized cat-calling profanity. But every now and then I would hear a comment screamed from a car window about my plumpness. The bullying did not improve with pounds or inches lost. The thing about me that did not fit, that needed to be eliminated, was not just my physical size and its early-acquired stretch marks, but my ways of thinking about and moving through the world. It was not enough for me to be smaller, prettier, less hairy. There was nothing that could be physically done to change me enough to fit in. I spent much of the first twenty years of my life wishing I could disappear, and have spent the rest of my years since then trying not to go missing.

I attended an all-girls’ school for grades seven through twelve and became the target of a five-year-long bullying campaign. I was beaten up in abandoned bathrooms and had my journal stolen out of my backpack to be photocopied into flyers. I was outed as queer at fourteen: a group of girls plotted to have one of them make out with me at a school dance, so that they could use my participation in this make out as proof that I was gay. The next Monday a note with LESBO, scrawled in red lipstick, was in my locker. There were teachers who were extra critical of my school work, my inability to focus, who never failed to notice if I skipped an opening assembly or if a knee sock refused to stay up on my still-too chubby calf. These same teachers refused to acknowledge or intervene when death threat notes were left crumpled on my desk, or my face was scratched out of photos in school hallways.

This is a cruel dichotomy that I have seen reproduced on a large scale in my own life and in Indigenous lives in general. There is a ubiquity of surveillance in our lives, and an absence of witnesses willing to intervene or testify on our behalf. Eyes always watching when we ask them not to, but no one ever looks up when we are screaming for help. Indigenous people are far more likely to be subject to a random search and frisk, but the police have no interest in us when we go missing. A meme was circulating the internet a while ago that was a simple block quote by Peter Levine, an American clinical psychologist: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” There are many truths about trauma, and for me, this feels like an important one.

For Indigenous people, it is not just the injustices—which in and of themselves are unimaginable and in many ways feel insurmountable—that we have endured and continue to endure. It is also having thousands of people watch our suffering without intervening. There are violent and terrible things that have happened to me that have settled in my body in a softer way because someone was there to witness them, to reassure me afterward that what happened was not okay, to affirm my perception of my experience. I have very few friendships with anyone I attended middle school or high school with. Part of the reason is that my body is deeply aware that many of them knew what was happening to me for years, and no one meaningfully intervened. No one ever interrupted an instance of me being name-called in the hallway, or intervened as a death threat was passed to me in class. No one ever said, “No. You can’t treat her like that.”

As an adult, I’ve dealt with a great deal of toxic workplace surveillance, like having supervisors ask to proofread my important emails, but not anyone else’s. I eventually started tracking my daily tasks in an Excel sheet just in case I’m ever asked to account for what I’ve done with a day. Just in case. However, the surveillant entity that impacts me the most in my life now is the capitalist and productive concept of time. The capitalist clock is always watching me. There’s never enough time in this system for the work that needs to be done, and the rest that is required. I am often in a state of burnout where a two-day weekend doesn’t come close to easing my exhaustion.

I often dissociate as a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma, like so many of us trauma kids do. As a result, I am chronically late for social engagements, because my brain’s favourite moments to dissociate are: while I’m applying makeup (which has led to some extreme afternoon glitter applications); walking between locations; and when I sit down to put on my socks and shoes before leaving the house. Sometimes I’m checked out for minutes, but sometimes it’s far longer. I don’t always know where I go when this happens. It can feel like I’ve lost minutes or hours in what felt like a flash, or conversely, like I’ve lived hours when it was merely three minutes. This particular form of dissociation helps me feel like I’ve found a loophole in time. Kyle Shelby, an embroidery artist with a really great Instagram account (, often features the slogan “trauma is proof that time travel is real.” This phrase affirms ideas that I have about trauma kids being magical, with powers like time travel. It also mirrors back to me my experiences with dissociation.

It is important to name that I am a white-coded Indigenous person. I have had access to a great deal of privilege in my life, including class privilege. Regardless of whether or not I was bullied, I had access to sleepover camp, and attended schools where teachers cared about students’ performance. I had food security growing up. I accessed post-secondary education with relative ease. Those years of sitting in philosophy classrooms surrounded by white men, as harmful or alienating as they may have been, gave me access to Indigenous student centres, mentorship, and spaces of Indigenous intergenerational learning. To this day the only counsellor or therapist I have ever had a sustained and nourishing relationship with was one of the counsellors at the student centre. They used loopholes and made exceptions so that I would have access to consistent counselling for five years.

I know in my bones that I would be dead now if I had not had that support, the access to skills development that I gained in therapy, and the different frameworks that I was given for thinking about my trauma. I had access to medical care that diagnosed and treated my PCOS early enough to preserve my chances of being able to give birth to a child, should I want to. I experience relative safety from surveillance when moving through public spaces. I am not going to be the first one stopped and interrogated by the police, pulled out of airport security lines, or followed around stores. It is my work to consistently and relentlessly name my privilege and do the work of finding how it can serve my communities and those who are more vulnerable than me.

There is a ubiquity of surveillance in [Indigenous] lives, and an absence of witnesses willing to intervene or testify on our behalf. Eyes always watching when we ask them not to, but no one ever looks up when we are screaming for help.

I’m invested in finding ways to throw sand in the wheels of white supremacy and colonization. I fantasize about nationwide, continent-wide, perfectly conducted, week-long 2SLGBTQIA+ 101, anti-racism, Indigenous cultural competency, and anti-oppression trainings. I fantasize about facilitators being paid generously to design and deliver intersectional workshops that leave every participant with a deep understanding of their own social location, biases, and the work that they can do in their own lives; about workshop participants all vowing to never again call the cops and following through; or promising to never follow another customer around a store. Ever. I fantasize about entire police forces resigning and correctional officers the world over going on strike in solidarity with the inmates. I fantasize about police officers collectively donating their pensions to the families of those impacted by police brutality. I fantasize about Canada pardoning every individual imprisoned for cannabis-related crimes (not just possession), and the prison doors opening while they walk free with records stripped clean. I fantasize about prisons being razed to the ground, and the instatement of trustworthy and reliable restorative justice practices in each community.

These are fantasies and they are also prayers. Our communities have found vibrant, creative, and nourishing ways of surviving and thriving under constant state surveillance, and a near constant threat of violence, for hundreds of years. Some brave Indigenous parents are refusing to register their children at birth so that they will not exist within the bureaucracy of the canadian colonial state. These children are often called freedom babies. I am amazed at the alternative economies that flourish in Indigenous communities: trading and bartering; people being taken care of with moose meat shared equitably in a community or exchanged for swaths of fabric. Our bodies being fed and clothed with little to no money or paper trail involved.

I think our most powerful tools against invasive state surveillance are coming from our own philosophies and the ways that we conceive of ourselves and the land. Freedom babies and continuing to barter and trade are some examples of this. In Lee Maracle’s essay “Sharing Space and Time” from the book Memory Serves, she provides a brilliant synthesis of how essentially, colonization has captured our freedom of time, and our freedom of space. I re-read this collection of essays often, and most recently, “Sharing Space and Time” led me to thinking about our conceptions of time and land before contact.

I have tried hard not to romanticize and essentialize our pre-contact histories. But it is hard not to romanticize the idea that there would have been pockets of time in which all of our needs would have been taken care of. We wouldn’t have needed to be hyperaware of our use of time in relation to productive labour. We could have really and truly rested. My only comparison point for what such a sense of time might feel like comes from the times that I have spent fasting for days on the land. I am very lucky as a Two Spirit person, who lives largely in the city, to have access to Elders and land that allow me to fast. In this ceremony, my fat and my body hair are valuable and useful as a way of keeping me warmer for longer. My legs, once the subject of such ridicule, are strong enough to walk far distances carrying a fasting tent. I am not judged by the land for my earning capacity or my grade point average, but am given reassurance that there is indeed space and a place for me.

In fasting, I am not alone in my suffering. The land is my empathetic witness. The animals and I testify in unison about all that we have endured. If I cry out in the night, I know that I am heard by the land that holds me. In ceremony, I have found a way to move, both backwards and towards, a sense of time that white men cannot see.