Basic Demographic Questions

Suzanne Chew

Of course you have to ask, I was told.

It’s just basic demographics.

You need it for good research. But –


What does it mean

to do research, in a good way?


I am a non-Indigenous student from the equatorial tropics

working with Inuit communities in the High Arctic.

I couldn’t be farther from home, yet

somehow, somewhen, somewhere,

our ancestors must have crossed paths –

our faces, our skin, our eyes, our smiles

reflect so much that is strangely familiar.


Sometimes, I see my father,

passed these past few years

in the crinkled eyes beaming back at me.

Sometimes, I’m lovingly mistaken

for someone’s granddaughter

come to have tea and biscuits.


How do I ask,

Are you a parent, and if yes, how many children do you have?

I met a young woman with wisdom etched on her face –

eyes that had shed bitter tears.

Twined around her wrists,

wending up her arms,

a black latticework of fine, feathery ink –

thin lines, delicate dots and soft triangles.

This represents my son, she said,

we lost him to suicide.

This represented her daughter,

stillborn and

still loved.


How do I ask,

What formal educational level have you attained? 

When the learning that matters

can’t be measured in grades –

this deep love and wonderment,

that lets you think like the goose

you are harvesting.


A distinguished man in his fifties

made caribou stew he shared with me.

He spoke eloquently in fluent English.

They made me wash my mouth out 

every time I spoke my language, he said.

Once-familiar words and ways-of-thinking –

shrouded as if behind a slippery veil.

I can still taste the soap suds, 

as if it were yesterday.


They’re just basic demographic questions

You need it for good research. Yet –


What right have we to ask,

without trust and relationship?

This poem is printed with the permission of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, to which it was submitted for the 2022 SSHRC Storytellers Challenge.

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