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Colleagues and former students pay tribute to Geoff Smith (1941-2021)

The obituary for Geoff can be viewed here:


These are a few reflections, from colleagues and students, on the contributions made by Professor Geoff Smith  (1941-2021) to the Queen’s Department of History. 

Jane Errington (PhD 1984,  professor Queen’s History Department 1996-present)

When I first met Geoff in about 1978, he was striding down the hall of Watson, making sure that all of us high school teachers were getting to the right place. In a way that I later came to appreciate was Geoff’s generosity as well as his commitment to teaching, he had organized a  conference that brought together teachers from across the province to listen, ask questions, and debate a host of issues. I frankly can’t remember what sessions I attended, or even what the topics were. What I do recall, with great fondness, was Geoff – his enthusiasm, his determination that everyone feel welcome; and his openness to new ideas.

A year later, I arrived at Queen’s as a new MA student. Geoff as grad chair, had I think taken a flyer on letting me into the program – a history teacher from Northern Ontario, who really did not know what she wanted to do, other than see if she was capable of graduate work. Over that year, Geoff offered encouragement and fun and became a friend, as he did to so many. And then, he became a good friend, who consoled me when my first dog, Tara died, who, together with his new companion, Roberta, celebrated with me when I got a job, and who for now more than 40 years, has been a touchstone of kindness, of social responsibility and the need to speak up when things are going wrong, and of joy in life. I see him striding down the halls, or the streets of Kingston, greeting a myriad of friends; I can hear his thoughtful and often acerbic comments on political affairs, both locally and internationally; I can feel his hugs; and I treasure his smile. How fortunate I, and so many others, have been to have Geoff in their lives. I am forever grateful.


Karen Dubinsky (PhD 1991, professor Queen’s History Department 1993-present)  

This is a story I told in a speech at Geoff’s retirement party in 2006:

“I’ve known Geoff Smith since 1985, when I began the PhD program in History at Queen’s. I commuted to Kingston from Ottawa in those years,  and I used to occasionally get a ride from one of my teachers, Professor Roberta Hamilton.  Once, we were accompanied by another History professor, a man I didn’t know, her boyfriend, Geoff Smith.   While we were driving somehow the topic of a big lecture Roberta had given the year before came up.  This was an annual high-profile event, called The Webster Lecture.  In the ancient era of the 1980s at Queen’s, a woman giving a Webster lecture was a big deal;  almost unimaginable if the woman was a feminist.  So, stories of Roberta’s hard-hitting, controversial Webster lecture had made the rounds among the grad students.  Even though this event had happened before I arrived at Queen’s, I thought I knew all about it.  “Oh, your Webster lecture,” I said from the back seat.  “I heard that was where some jerk in the audience stood up and asked you if you still believed in romantic love.”

Image of Geoff smith accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award with his wife by his sideAt that point the man in the passenger seat turned around, smiling, and held out his hands.  “That was me,” he said. “You may hit me.”   And at that moment, sometime in the autumn of  1985, I realized two things about Professor Geoff Smith.  This was someone to be reckoned with; someone with whom I was probably going to have a relationship for some time to come.  And it would not be easy.”

That prophecy was true when I met Geoff in 1985, when I wrote it in 2006 and it continued to hold true until his enormous heart stopped in 2021.  Through that time Geoff went from being my mentor’s boyfriend to my friend, ally, editor,  co-conspirator,  teacher.  He supported me, my partner Susan Belyea, and our son Jordi, unconditionally.  I will always miss him.


Jacalyn Duffin Queen’s Hannah Chair, History of Medicine, 1988-2017, professor History Department from 1995-2017)

I first met Geoff in September 1988 when I foolishly believed the Gazette’s announcement that “everyone [would be] welcome” at the PhD defence of a medical history thesis. So, although I was not cross-appointed in History, I went. But as soon as I entered the room, I realized I had made a huge mistake. An awkward silence descended as a handful of profs and the nervous candidate waited for one more examiner who was late. It was Geoff of course who arrived with cheerful bluster -- and a reasonable reason for his tardiness. He conspicuously took an interest in the intruder, asking me to identify myself and enthusing over how great it was that I had arrived at Queen’s and come to the defence. At the time, I thought it was partly to deflect attention from his being late. During the discussion, he even invited me to ask a question. I could tell that his action vexed the chair…But Geoff played oblivious. I soon learned it was just the way he was.

Ever after I saw him as my buddy, a fearless hero who took big bites out of life, rejected pomposity, and did not take academe too seriously. His students loved him and he loved them back. He had remarkable verve -- his photography, his paintings, his gardening, his travel -- and his genuine affection and enthusiasm for people, ideas, and politics big and small. 


Sandra den Otter (professor Queen’s History Department 1992-present)

The irrepressible energy and spirit of my friend and fellow-historian Geoff Smith came along with a self-reflective thoughtfulness.  He was a gifted writer (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) and astute commentator on public affairs and he brought to both his research and teaching an over-arching commitment to the public good.  A champion of the unexpected (dressing up as Evelyn Waugh’s Lord Sebastian Flyte, Aloyius the bear in hand, to enliven a lecture and departmental meeting), he was an inspiring lecturer, and engaged students to tackle big questions.  I heard from many students how much they remembered his courses and office-hour conversations long after their time at Queen’s, Image of Geoff Smith smiling with a cameracarrying with them his disposition to question and to challenge, and also his many acts of kindness.  He was incredibly open-minded, and would engage anyone in thoughtful discussion, no matter how much their thinking was at variance with his own deeply-held convictions. 

The welcoming warmth of supper gatherings at Geoff and Roberta’s Barrie Street house, then William Street and also the Island were a touchstone in my early days at Queen’s and then later for my family.  My children had a special connection with Geoff.  His perceptive photographs and their own memories are a lasting chronicle of that connection.  We will miss his ability to make us see in more vivid colours the world around us.


Mary O’Riordan  (MA 1983)

The only downside of knowing Geoff Smith is losing him.

Forty years ago, he was provocative and outrageous. He was also welcoming, reassuring and playful, and so clever and fast with words that I thought of him as writer and editor as much as historian. He was known and loved for being entertaining at lectures and generous with the time and energy that students so greedily sponge up.

Geoff was an imposing figure. I speak from experience when I say that not all historians have athletic ability, or an engaging speaking style or artistic talent. Not all historians embrace the role of mentor, or understand that at its best, teaching is coaching. It takes commitment to lead or push a student into doing better research, better thinking, and better writing.  Only the best teachers give that to their students; they share resources and celebrate the achievements of others. Geoff had those talents and I think that he was willing to share them because, and I hesitate to say this, he believed in the possibility of redemption.  If we just tried harder, got up earlier, showed up at the gym, perhaps having first found the gym, we’d be ‘better’ historians. Practice makes perfect. Geoff’s public persona was his trademark, but his quieter self, less well-known and celebrated, made a lasting impression. Remembering the essay drafts with his comments and corrections in that even, controlled handwriting makes me smile now. I think he even read the footnotes.

Geoff worked hard at life. In retrospect, the best lesson he taught was to simply embrace life. If we ever prove to be the people that Geoff, athlete, historian, and friend said we could become, then the spirit of Geoff Smith has safely moved on to the next generation.

Dissent will soon follow.


Helen Davis (BA, 1988)

In 1985, in my second year at Queen’s, I took Professor Geoff Smith’s Conspiracy and Dissent in American History course. I chose it based on the intriguing description and didn’t know of its iconic status until much later. I remember writing to a friend attending another university about this amazing Professor Smith and explaining that he had ignited in me a passion for history I didn’t think possible. His engagement with American history, his ability to challenge the way we viewed things, to make us think critically, and his absolute interest in us as students was unlike anything I had ever known. He was also one of the wittiest people I have ever met, and it wasn’t long before he and his course became my favourites. I never missed a class. It was because of him that I took a medial in English and history rather than the English major and history minor I had planned. He remains the best professor I have ever known.

Image of Geoff Smith smiling with a studentBecause I ended up staying in Kingston after graduation, I was able to build a friendship with Geoff over the many years afterwards. He was a kind and generous friend and his spark remained bright all the years that I knew him. As an English teacher at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, I invited Geoff to deliver a background talk to help my grade 12 IB English students understand The Great Gatsby in the context of America in the 1920s. I purposely told my class little about Professor Smith and let his magic unfold before them. What a treat to see their reactions! What a treat for me to be his student once again. Geoff’s force and passion were as dazzling as ever, and my students were enthralled. They often talked afterwards about how much they were looking forward to going to university. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that Geoff was a rare gem; I hope their future professors weren’t too much of a disappointment by comparison. The grade 12s often tried to find ways to have Geoff return, so we invited him back to discuss the 1950s as a background to our study of Sylvia Plath. He did not disappoint. Geoff returned to KCVI for many years. I looked forward to those annual visits and cherish them now as golden memories. On one of Geoff’s last visits, he so impressed one of my students, that the student asked to have his photo taken with Geoff. Geoff was a star, and the world is dimmer without his bright light.


Kate Barker (BA 1990)

Geoff was the best prof I ever had. He changed my life quite literally. He talked an editor at The Whig Standard into publishing an essay I wrote for his Sport and American culture class. It was my first published piece and the reason I became a professional writer. Geoff opened my mind to cultural history and he is why I pursued that at grad school years later. He was a wonderful teacher and inspired so many. I will never forget him. Roberta, I am so very sorry.


Kevin  Brushett (MA 1992 PhD 2001)

Geoff will always be remembered as one of a kind, maybe because no department could ever survive with two bigger than life personalities like him.  Geoff was big man with a booming voice.  You always knew when he was stalking the halls of Watson Hall or hosting office hours for the hundreds - yes hundreds - students who flocked to his courses every year.  

Geoff was not my supervisor and unfortunately, I never took classes with him. He was however, my teaching mentor back in 1996 when we were paired together to teach his infamous Conspiracy and Dissent in American History course, a course I also had previously TA'ed for him. Geoff and I were the guinea pigs in a department initiative, probably to save money, but on the surface to provide "teaching mentorship" to PhD students.  At the time I was the president of the Grad History Students Association and there were pressures for me to refuse assignment because of the reduced pay that came with not teaching a course of my own. I took the position in large part because I knew what a chance working alongside Geoff would be. 

Geoff was a master in the classroom.  His lectures not only captivated students but fundamentally challengedImage of Geoff Smith on a boat in the summer them.  He wanted people to think, not just absorb, to debate, not just argue.  Geoff was not the lonely Maytag repairman prof.  There were always lineups outside his door - even on a Friday afternoon when there was no one else around - profs and students included.  Some days he challenged them to a game of golf down the long narrow hallways of the 2nd floor Watson.  "Left, left it's curling left!!!!!!"  

Throughout that year Geoff gave me all kinds of advice and opportunities to shine.   But my favourite Geoff story was the day we covered the Beat Generation in class.  Geoff turned out the lights in the lecture hall and hid behind the movie screen. When it was time for class to start he emerged with a flashlight up to his face, stripped to the waist reciting Ginsburg's infamous poem Howl.  Of course, I was sitting in the front row completely unaware of what Geoff had planned for everyone that day!  Students turned me unsure of what they were witnessing and whether I had advance knowledge of what was happening.  

Geoff's sense of humour like this kept everyone on their toes, but he also drew in those around him.  His passion for history, for teaching, and for life was captivating.  But even in all of his antics he was a deeply genuine person - you always knew where you stood with Geoff.  You knew that once he was in your corner you would have a friend and confidant for life.  

My thoughts go out to Roberta and Geoff's sons, daughters and grandchildren - all of whom meant the world to him and who were so lucky to have him at the centre of their lives.


Bay Ryley  (BA 1993 MA 1995)

Geoff had a huge intellectual impact on me. The sign of an exceptional teacher is that you recall their words and analyses - and the way they were articulated - even decades later. I can’t watch a movie or read something about America between 1945 to present without recalling what Geoff had said, or know what he would say, on the matter!

These past few months lead to many parents doing some home schooling. Another mom on our street and I made up some “classes” for our sons. I was in charge of “social sciences” and so created a “Geoff Smith-like” curriculum for the boys. I knew that through sports we can make sense of how power systems operate.  And boys tend to like sports! So, we covered the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick, Ali Mohammed Ali and more. The boys read articles and watched some old and new videos, and we discussed the themes.

A teacher once told me that the goal is to place “time bombs” of knowledge in students that will go off throughout their lives. A lecture is a moment, but a good one lives on as waves way into the future. I know Geoff was able to teach in a way that “got through” to all the Queens students who otherwise would not have listened. And I do believe he therefore lives on.


Stephen Wilks BA 1994

While I’m saddened that Geoff Smith is no longer with us, I am eternally grateful to him for all he did to shape my trajectory as a lawyer, activist, and academic. At various stages of my career, I've found myself making choices that turned out to reflect his influence: Sharing salary information with female colleagues to promote pay equity; humbling myself to learn from other equity-seekers whenever their voices might otherwise have gone unheard; and summoning the moral courage to speak truth to power at times when doing so posed risks to my own career advancement. All of this came from Geoff, who also helped me refine the skills required to navigate academia through effective teaching, research and service. I wouldn’t be where I am now without him. 


Lloyd Rang (History MA 1994)

Image of Geoff Smith walking through a classroom at KCVII was in the program from 1989-1991. I didn't have Geoff as a Prof, but that didn't stop him from being influential. He'd often stop me in the hall to talk about whatever current issue was burning, and to regale me with stories. And we played lunch-box basketball from time to time along with Akenson and a few others. 

Two incidents have stayed with me.  The first was Geoff showing up at a meeting wearing a rubber Gorbachev mask. I have no idea why he did it, and he didn't say why he had done it, but he wore the mask for the entire meeting like it was the most normal thing in the world. 

The second was a time that I was standing in the hall talking to Russ Johnston, a fellow student. Geoff walked by, pointed at me and said to Russ: "The guy is a legend. a LEGEND." And walked away. To this day I have no idea what the heck he meant.    RIP Geoff. 


David Seglins MA 1995

Geoff Smith was an iconoclast, a shit disturber, and slayer of sacred cows.

He was one of the most popular undergrad lecturers of his time who encouraged a generation of privileged Queen's kids to think critically about the world.   He poked a stick at - and helped young minds  challenge- assumptions about some of their most cherished beliefs - from nationalism, to pro sports, to the military-industrial complex - through the lenses of race, class, gender.  

For me, he encouraged me in my MA study of the history of hockey in Canada - taking a dagger to masculinity, violence and fighting in the game.   Another sacred cow.

I - and hundreds of students like me - will always cherish his encouragement, his smarts and his humour.


Will Katerburg (PhD 1996)

I was not a student of Geoff’s but he made a strong impression on me.

I TA’d for Geoff one semester in his sports history class. He’s was an entertaining and smart lecturer. I remember his occasionally flamboyant solution to being hard of hearing, seeing him get from behind the lectern (and off the stage, I think) and walk over to the student and ask her or him to repeat the question. At least once, sitting down in the open seat beside the student.

He did not take himself seriously, or academic niceties seriously, but he took writing and teaching seriously. His book on the far right in the 1930s influenced some of my own writing on anti-immigration movements. Taking the subject matter seriously, but not yourself became my habit in the classroom. 

My most poignant memory of Geoff was when I graduated in the spring of 1996. My advisor, George Rawlyk, had passed away just after I defended my dissertation. After the graduation ceremony, Geoff went out for a meal with a bunch of us now former-grad students to celebrate. He pulled me aside and told me that he was sorry that George had not  been able to be there and said that George would have been proud to see it


Ross Fair  (PhD 1998)

I wasn't a student of Geoff Smith's while a grad student in the History Department from 1993-98, and it took some time before I formally met the professor I had heard such great things about from his students, both graduate and undergraduate. In fact, I'm pretty certain it was Geoff's dog, Tuborg, who finally introduced us to each other.

Tuborg knew me from his independent wanderings through Watson Hall, which sometimes included coming into my shared office for a quick hello and head pat before heading out for someone else's attention. Once, when Geoff and Tuborg were walking across campus, Tuborg came over to me and Geoff and I finally introduced ourselves.

When it came time to defend my doctoral dissertation, Geoff volunteered to be on my committee. Though his area of expertise was far removed from my study of colonial Canada, his participation was no token effort. During the defence, he asked some of the most probing, but supportive, questions. After the defence, Geoff handed me his copy of my thesis, copy-edited thoroughly. He had read every page in detail, right through to the last entry of the bibliography.


Ross Cameron (MA 1998)

That voice! That laugh! That presence! I first met Geoff as an MA student in his US State and Security class in 1996-97. Not only did I find an engaging scholar but a supporter and mentor for the years that followed in my time at Queen’s. He was in my corner from the outset and never, ever left. He took me to a conference that first year, and introduced me to senior scholars whom I had only read and who intimidated the hell out of me. But Geoff was there with encouragement and confidence in my as he was throughout my time at Queen’s and after, as our friendship developed. Image of Geoff Smith wearing an Einstein t-shirtThough his style was not one for emulation - not by me anyway - I continue to find his touch and influence. I found myself just last week paraphrasing him in a meeting, the way he would refocus on the topic at hand from one of his meandering, entertaining, and illuminating digressions: “ ‘Get back to the lecture!’ he heard someone say.” Things weren’t linear but they built up piece by piece. Always more to learn, to discuss, to share. The enthusiasm! The irreverence! But mostly the support, the encouragement, the belief in me to be as good an academic and as inquisitive a person as I could be. My life is so much richer for my time around him.


Michael Budd (History 1999)

I remember the seminar in Professor Smith's 20th Century American History course when we arrived to a dimly lit classroom, decorated with candles and a small novelty toilet that made flushing sounds. Geoff wasn't in the room yet, but his entrance would be unforgettable.

Clad in a bathrobe, he bounded in and took command of the lecturn with a recitation of Ginsberg's Howl that was mix of slam poetry reading, feverish religious incantation and absurdist performance art. For effect, the novelty toilet would be flushed (not with his hand, but by his foot) at moments that demanded particular emphasis. After the reading was done, the robed figure exited in a whirl, leaving the class to wonder what had just happened. It was his introduction to our exploration of the history of the 1950's beat and counter-culture movements. I suppose he could have just assigned Howl as a reading, but his way was far more fun...

This was part of the genius of Geoff Smith. He understood better than any teacher I've ever met how to grab the attention and wonder of his students, using experiences and passions from his life. His example inspires me every day in my practice as an educator. I am truly grateful to have had him as a teacher, mentor and friend.

Rest in power, Professor Smith.


Robin Bates (BA 2002, MA 2004)

Writing my first essay for Geoff Smith, while suffering from an acute case of an ailment I can only call “frosh brain,” I somehow contrived to misspell the man’s name on the title page. “An unpromising start ...” he noted wryly in red pen. He was not wrong. I really had no idea what I was doing in that first year at Queen’s. Thankfully, Geoff would take me in hand. By turns encouraging and exacting, he took it upon himself to make me a better writer and a better thinker – whether in meetings during his official office hours or just when I would see him walking around town, always ready to drop everything to address any uncertainty I might be feeling that day. At the time, I took this constant access to the professor rather for granted. Now that I’m teaching classes of my own, however, I can better appreciate how much of himself he gave to his students. And I am grateful.

Geoff was a huge influence on me. I remember spending hours upon hours in Stauffer Library, poring over the massive reading list for his course on Conspiracy and Dissent in 20th Century America – from Richard Hofstadter to Tom Engelhardt to his own To Save a Nation. To read these books was to discover Geoff’s utterly brilliant, completely idiosyncratic, view of political culture in the US. Back then, I never suspected that, in the future, I would go on to live in that country, where I have now been for seventeen years. And, as I try to make sense of the latest developments from my perch in Chicago, my thoughts still turn back to Kingston and to Geoff.


Amy Bell (PhD 2002) 

Geoff was a person of radical generosity and outrageous warmth. He was not my professor, but as a dear friend to my advisor, Prof. Sandra den Otter, he invited my starving grad student self to lunch to talk about my research. He and I talked for hours about how the London Blitz compared to 9/11, especially how survivors embraced life all the more fully afterwards. After that we’d meet regularly to talk history and tell stories. He mentored me through my dissertation, talking through my ideas, encouraging me to make my writing less boring, and being a ridiculously fun person to spend time with. He and Roberta showed me not just how to do good work as an academic, but how to be a good person in academia: to be kind, to be generous to junior scholars, and to make everybody feel welcome. I will miss that big smile and that cheeky wink! 


Danyal Martin (BA 2004, MA 2012)

I was so sorry to hear of Geoff’s passing. I was taking Geoff’s class on Conspiracy and Dissent in 20th Century America in fall 2001. When September 11th happened, I remember all of us - plus many students who weren’t in the class - crowding into Dunning Auditorium. There were hundreds of people in that room and Geoff approached the situation with tremendous compassion and yet still a critical eye to the situation and its context. Our class took place the next day and I remember that I was struggling to process what happened and what it meant. I remember that I was shocked when Geoff stood at the front of the room and asked us to reflect on what might have led to this and whether the emerging narratives, so grounded in patriotism and calls for retaliation, were entirely accurate – it was so different from what I was seeing in the news reports that seemed to play endlessly on every channel. And yet, Geoff was also deeply aware of the impact of this event on students – there were microphones set up throughout the room and there was plenty of time for students to ask questions and express their shock. I remember Geoff hugging a student from Boston who was openly weeping. It was a complicated and profound day, and one that has stayed with me, all these years later.  

Geoff was a character - an odd duck at times, but passionate about his field and about students. When news of Geoff’s death began to spread, I was struck by how many of us have memories of Geoff’s kindness or examples of his creative and enthusiastic teaching style. He had an immense impact on everyone he encountered, and he will be sorely missed.  


Patrizia Gentile (PhD 2006)

I have so many memories of a person who navigated a world thatImage of Geoff Smith smiling holding coffee on a deck was too small for him. While people experienced Geoff Smith as larger than life, which he was, I also knew him as an extraordinary intellectual who despite the significant and award-winning contributions he made in his field was, at his core, a humble and loving man. He went to great pains not to take himself too seriously, for example, as Mr. Fix It or by keeping a toilet bowl piggy bank in his office that made flushing sounds or going to departmental meetings wearing a Hawaiian print shirt in the middle of January ‘to make a point’, as he told me once. Yet, he had every reason to be taken seriously since his work on US nativism published in 1973 continues to be considered one of the foundational treatments on the topic. His academic contribution was not limited to the lecture hall; he was a public intellectual not because he knew a little about a lot. Instead, Geoff’s public persona was anchored in an intellectual reach that felt like a massive hug because he was a deep thinker and wanted with all his heart to help his community resolve political and social challenges. Geoff played a major part in my own intellectual growth and training but he was also a central player in my teaching journey. I knew how powerful he was as a researcher, thinker, and teacher when I would sit in his undergraduate lectures to watch him teach. I remember one evening when he delivered a lecture on Richard Nixon the lecture hall was at capacity (300 +) but students kept arriving and had to sit on the stairs and on the floor at the front of the room literally surrounding his lectern. I remember thinking, ‘why did the department allow for this many people to register for this course? This is a fire hazard!’ but then I realized that these ‘overflow’ students were not registered; they just came to his class because they wanted to. They wanted to hear what he had to say; they wanted to learn the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the world that affected them by listening to a person who treated them like they mattered and that they could grasp the complexity of the past as a conduit to learn about their present and future.

While I was at Queen’s, I had the privilege to study closely with Geoff and I spent a considerable amount of time with him. We often walked through the streets of Kingston together and I saw first-hand how students rushed to greet him and how genuinely happy he was to see each of them. Remembering his sincerity and sense of collective care is really what brings me to tears—not out of sadness but because even though I won’t hear his booming voice say “What a bonanza!!” every time he saw me (which I absolutely loved), the lessons I learned from him will live on.


Jennifer Susan Marotta (PhD 2006) 

I was at Queen’s from the late 90s into the mid-2000s. While I regrettably never had a class with Geoff, I was lucky enough to be his TA for a few semesters. Whether it was dismantling conspiracy theories or waxing poetic on drug cultures (sometimes literally) he was a riveting lecturer. Scholar, performance artist, activist—his lessons had students, and TAs, fully engaged and enrapt. His bon vivant personality and generousity of spirit always made running into him a special event. At every book launch, history social, or house party, he would make a beeline to every new guest, make them laugh with a clever or biting anecdote, and then move on to bring a little joy to the next person. I still have the supportive and enthusiastic message he sent after I secured my full-time job at Humber College. I will remember him most for these small kindnesses.   


Geoffrey Smith

Department of History, Queen's University

49 Bader Lane, Watson Hall 212
Kingston ON K7L 3N6




Queen's University is situated on traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory.