Daniel Sherwin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and one of this year’s Trudeau Centre Fellows. He is a non-Indigenous settler living and working on Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe territory, in the area covered by the Dish-with-One-Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant (the Gdoo-naaganinaa). His PhD research on settler colonialism, Canadian political development, and the treaty constitution with Indigenous Nations has been supported by SSHRC and OGS scholarships. 

Interviewed by Drew-Anne Glennie, 3rd year PCJ Student


Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Daniel Sherwin. I live in Hamilton with my partner (wife? We were planning to get married this summer, but had to postpone the wedding). I’m a PhD student at the University of Toronto, where I also did my master’s degree in Political Theory. Before that, I lived in Halifax for undergrad, and I grew up in Ottawa.

Why did you choose to apply for the PCJ fellowship?

A friend recommended it, and I heard that the students and the program had a growing interest in reconciliation and justice in Indigenous-settler relations in Canada and had organized a conference and seminar on the topic. I thought that was exciting and a good fit with my research.

What drew you to political science?

The diversity of approaches, and the ability to engage in questions of pressing social relevance.

What motivated you to continue your education after your undergraduate and subsequently your graduate degrees?

I almost didn’t; I worked at a few different jobs and I applied to law school at the same time as I applied to grad school. In the end, I think raw curiosity drew me; I knew that the freedom to spend my days learning about topics that I thought were interesting and important would be hard to find elsewhere. I also love teaching, and felt excited about the idea of a career as a university instructor.

I feel like a lot of students are considering pursuing a PhD in the future- can you tell us a bit more about what it is like?

It’s a lot like what you might imagine, I guess. During the pandemic, it’s a lot of sitting in front of a computer, reading, and writing. But before that, I would say some of the best parts of the job are engaging in seminars and conferences and having informal conversations with other students and faculty about their research. I don’t do field work as part of my dissertation, but for many, travel, interviews, and so on is a big part of their life. There’s a lot of freedom and flexibility to shape the experience in the direction of your interests. For me, I also spend my time following, learning about, and supporting Indigenous activism, like the Tiny House Warriors, the Unist’ot’en camp, or most recently the 1492 Landback Lane.

Can you tell us about your dissertation research?

Sure. The dissertation asks, what kind of relationships to land have treaties enabled, and what does that tell us about the prospects for using treaties to achieve reconciliation? It starts from the premise that there are very different ways of thinking about treaties. People usually say that there are two ways, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but I argue that there are  three – settler, imperial, and Indigenous – and that the conflicts between these different interpretations have shaped how treaties actually work. The difference in interpretations reflects differences in how three political orders think about how human beings should relate to land. So the settler, imperial, and Indigenous orders have been trying to use treaties to establish relationships to land as a commodity, a territory, or a relationship, respectively. My dissertation examines how those struggles played out.

A lot of the scholarship on treaties is focused on the treaties in Western Canada that Canada made  after Confederation, but my research focuses on Ontario, Upper Canada, during the early 1800s. That’s when these three political orders were all still in contention, before the imperial order dropped out, and it shaped treaties into the complicated political institutions that Canada then used to colonize the prairies. Going back to that history helps us to get a better handle, I think, on what it might mean to ‘honour the treaties’ or achieve reconciliation. In particular, it helps to show why honouring the treaties doesn’t only involve transforming relationships between settler Canadians and Indigenous people, but more fundamentally challenging Canada’s colonial-capitalist economic system and the way we relate to the earth.

Part of what motivates this argument is a sense that these apparently moderate or conservative ideas – reconciliation, honouring the treaties – actually have quite radical implications.

What sparked your interest in Indigenous peoples, societies, relations, etc. as your principal area of study?

It was a gradual process, I would say, and a combination of life experiences and scholarly interests. Before I started my PhD, I worked and volunteered with an activist filmmaker who had a long-term collaboration with an Indigenous community in Northern Ontario. That experience left me with a lot of unanswered questions – about history, about justice, about my role as a non-Indigenous person in challenging (or upholding) injustices, and so on – and so during the first couple years of my PhD I found myself spending a lot of time reading and thinking and talking to people, trying to answer those questions. I was also, at the same time, really interested in academic work that was seriously engaging with traditions of political thought and political theory outside of the Western cannon that I had studied through my undergraduate and graduate degrees. The intersection of those two things meant that I spent a lot of time reading Indigenous political theorists and scholarship on settler colonialism, in Canada and elsewhere, and the dissertation grew from there.

What are your other research interests besides your dissertation?

I’m interested in comparative political theory, meaning broadly political theory from outside the Euro-American tradition, and anti-colonial theory. I’m also interested in Canadian politics, and especially the way Canadian institutions have developed over time.

What are you most looking forward to regarding being a PCJ fellow?

Engaging with curious students.

Learn more about Daniel here.