In the winter semester of 2023, I took Assistant Professor Kristen Bos’ class, HIS255H5 — Introduction to the Histories of Extraction and the Environment. I was halfway through my second year at UTM and already questioning everything. Was a history and political science specialist the right choice? Why do I feel no great love for what I study? How am I supposed to make a difference in the world if I cannot even help myself?
I took HIS255 because my sadness and rage developed into a sorrow for the Earth, and I needed to understand it. I had read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and enrolled in an environmental studies course that year, where I learned the full extent of the human causes of climate change and its relationship to colonialism.
Still overwhelmed with what to do with the information, I found in Bos’ class a place to learn, feel seen, hope, and express emotion as a catalyst for critical thought. HIS255 taught me to be sensitive to the suffering caused by the colonial pursuit of dominion over land and its inhabitants. We read about the fur trade and the Hudson Bay Company. We learned how the Doctrine of Discovery was employed to strip Indigenous people of their humanity whilst their methodologies, people, and resources were stolen from them. We observed how resource extraction for the purpose of consolidating wealth and power has destroyed land, systems of ecology, faith, and subsistence, as well as caused nature to retaliate in violent ways that often further impacted the victims of this abuse of power.
We also observed environmental racism in depth through case studies of Flint, Michigan’s water health crisis and Shelburne, Nova Scotia’s man-made cancer epidemic. These Black and Indigenous communities were persecuted by provincial governments, which licensed capitalist enterprises to prey on their land’s resources while polluting their communities with toxic waste at no cost; in their examples, I learned of how pollution can be exercised as a form of colonization.
HIS255 taught me the importance of good historiography and research. In one of the required readings, Decolonizing Methodologies, writer Linda Tuhiwai Smith discusses how research has been historically practiced as a tool of colonization and epistemological killing to silence, omit, and construct truths that heroize their storytellers at the expense of the Indigenous people destroyed to make space for their empire.
Using research, colonists constructed — or named — Indigenous peoples as a problem before granting themselves the permission to erase them. I learned that history is often incomplete this way, as a one-sided testimony of the victors. Such accounts of history are false because their goal was never objectivity and truth — rather, it was the construction of a physical and epistemological empire.
I learned that good research can have a standpoint, a perspective informed by your identity and history in the greater recollection of our past. My standpoint as a Black, queer African drives me to investigate my history and reflect on the parts of myself that have been suppressed and erased.
As a Métis woman based in Toronto, Bos used her standpoint to enhance her teaching and advocacy. She engaged us with statistical and historical material, and presented us with in-class documentaries, podcasts, and testimonies from inhabitants of communities such as Flint, Michigan and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, residential school survivors, and even the lonesome remnants of families wiped out by pollutant-related cancers.
By studying Canada’s history of extraction, I was reminded that the Earth is a body that keeps score; if you poison her waters, she will deny you food, poison the water that you drink, and send you to an early grave. What’s sad, however, is that it is often not the people who committed acts against her that suffer punishment.
At times, HIS255 was too painful to face. I recall shaking and weeping silently several times during a lecture or tutorial. I was horrified by the extent of Indigenous erasure and dehumanization in the historical record, and even more saddened by how this racial difference had created a landscape that white capitalists and their racist allies had exploited for power and profit through the fur trade, the Klondike gold rush, the diamond trade, and Canada’s oil greed.
This class helped me grieve for the people who came before me, whose suffering paved the way for me into this world, into that classroom, where I attempted to salvage their losses from the canonical grip of history. Altogether, this class reinforced my dedication to research as a tool for emancipation — because in order for nature to heal, we must all be truly free. Since HIS255, I have had a better grasp of my purpose in research; to deconstruct the empires that bind us and release my people to freedom.
Divine Angubua is a third-year student at UTM studying history, political science, and creative writing. He is the editor-in-chief of With Caffeine and Careful Thought and a staff writer at The Medium. He is the associate comment editor of The Varsity.