by Deborah Melman-Clement
Ask Sarah de Leeuw about her achievements and she'll tell you it was all about time. "Living in Kingston, you have the luxury of time," she explains. "I could never have done it in Vancouver or Toronto or Montreal, which were my alternatives."
De Leeuw embarked on a tour in support of Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, her first book of creative non-fiction essays, worked on a second book and maintained a rewarding volunteer job -- all while pursuing her doctorate in Geography with a focus on cultural and historical geography.
Having grown up in northern British Columbia, de Leeuw had a lifelong interest in relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. She was drawn to geography as a means of deepening her understanding about these relationships. "Geographers study space and place in creative ways," she says. "I wanted to see how the atrocious treatment of Aboriginal peoples could be understood through fine arts."
So why travel halfway across the country when her subjects were so close to home? "I was impatient to find a program where I could engage in rigorous study," de Leeuw explains. ""I chose Queen's because I wanted to work with Audrey Kobayashi. She has such a wonderful reputation and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work with her. I also had the pleasure of working with Anne Godlewska in geography. " Also working in the school's favour was Kingston's size and its easy access to wilderness."
I didn't know what to expect from Kingston," de Leeuw says, "but what I found was a phenomenal community and an incredibly stimulating environment. Over my lunch hours, I could wander over to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. It kept my brain alive. It was also nice to be able to head downtown to Pan Chancho for a pain au chocolat or go to Wolfe Island for a long bike ride." And when even those distractions weren't enough, Toronto, Montreal and Bon Echo Park were all just a short drive away.
Of course, the main attraction was the Geography department, a place that allowed de Leeuw the freedom to pursue her studies in the ways that made the most sense to her. Because she also has a background in writing and the fine arts, including some study of theatre and visual arts, de Leeuw wanted to focus on the creative works made by students in Aboriginal residential schools.
It was only natural, then, for her to venture into the Department of Art. "I don't think I would have found the support I did at any other school than Queen's," she says. "I was able to take a complex project and really run with it."
Another attraction for de Leeuw was one of Kingston's most famous features, its prisons. She managed to find time to volunteer with the Elizabeth Fry Society and Isabel MacNeil House, providing counselling to women who were getting ready to reintegrate into society. "I had the lovely luxury of volunteering at places that brought incredible contentment to me," she says.
She also had the luxury of being able to write poetry. Her first book of creative writing was published in 2004, shortly after she started at Queen's. Because the essays dealt primarily with local subject matter, her book tour took place entirely in B.C. "It was an overwhelming period in my life," she recalls. "I was taking my courses and touring the book at the same time. It was a nightmare, but a really good nightmare."
Once she recovered from the tour, she began work on a volume of poetry. "It was all possible in the framework of Kingston. The department supported my volunteering and my writing. I didn't have to relinquish my passions."
"They were busy times," she says, "and I really don't believe I could have done all of this if I didn't have Lemoine Point in the evening and a lovely two-bedroom house with a garden and space for my cats. That kind of lifestyle just isn't available in bigger cities."
Thanks to the accommodating conditions, de Leeuw found time to complete her doctorate while indulging her passions, all the while attracting the attention of her peers. She was offered two tenure-track positions before she finished her degree. She accepted both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) scholarship for post-doctoral studies at the University of Arizona.
She has since moved closer to home, accepting a faculty position with the Northern Medical Program at UNBC, the Faculty or Medicine at UBC. She is still a geographer at heart and maintains an affiliation with the Department of Geography at the University of Northern British Columbia.
She's kept up her writing too. Her essay, Columbus Burning, won the 2008 CBC Literary Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Her second book, Geographies of a Lover, the poetry volume she started while at Queen's, is slated for publication by NeWest Press in 2012.