Why Dr. David Suzuki’s UofA Honorary Degree Matter: Canadian Racism versus the Creative Imagination


Recently public comments by several University of Alberta administrators and faculty members have denounced awarding an honorary degree to Dr. David Suzuki.

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Dr. David Suzuki and his sisters, 1942 internment by Canadian government.

Our colleagues are entitled to express their opinions. However, they do not represent the views of many of us who admire the lifetime of internationally respected environmental and science education work accomplished by Dr. Suzuki.

There is a telling silence in these recent public commentaries decrying this honorary degree. Missing is Dr. Suzuki’s vitally important human rights and anti-racist work. Nor is there any acknowledgment of Dr. Suzuki’s longstanding commitment to decolonizing Canada through his support of Indigenous peoples and his condemnation of their cultural genocide in the name of Canadian nation building.

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Dr. Suzuki, a third-generation Japanese Canadian, experienced first-hand how the state can attempt to destroy racialized groups. In 1942, at six years of age, he was interned with his family for the duration of WWII along with 22,000 other Japanese Canadians – at the time, 90% of their population in Canada. Over the course of his life, Dr. Suzuki has demonstrated the remarkable resilience of our Japanese Canadian community and spoken out about the brutality of the WWII internment – what Dr. Suzuki calls “one of the shoddiest chapters in the tortuous history of democracy in North America.”

The scourge of racism continues to plague Canadian society. To honour Dr. David Suzuki is to celebrate his many achievements including his work as a public intellectual dedicated to anti-racist mentorship and education.

UofA President Turpin has supported the UofA honorary doctorate for Dr.Suzuki on the basis of academic freedom and the value of free intellectual debate: “Stifle controversy and you also stifle the pursuit of knowledge, the generation of ideas and the discovery of new truths,” Turpin said. “Take uncomfortable ideas, debate and conflict out of the university and its fundamental role in society disappears.”

Dr. Turpin also expands on the value of academic freedom and thinking beyond the limited confines of dominant discourse: “the university must give people the space and support they need to think independently without fear of external control or reprisal. Otherwise the constraint on the imagination and the intelligence will slow the speed of change and innovation, if not suppress it altogether. Our students will learn that conformity, rather than creativity and innovation, is the goal of learning and education.”

We celebrate the value of thinking beyond blinkered parochialism or the public relations protocols of Alberta’s oil elite.  Research tells us that diversity of thought and community contributes to creative innovation and change.

Likewise, imagine an Alberta where valuing our diversity of histories contributes to our intellectual life and the equitable distribution of faculty positions and resources.

Imagine aspiring to become a world that takes into account the lessons of Canadians like Dr. David Suzuki and his family in order to ensure the travesties of internment and residential schools are deeply understood and not repeated.

Imagine energy futures beyond our reliance on a single outmoded natural resource.

Imagine a Dean of Business or Engineering who champions diversity of thought and perspective beyond the bottom line.

That’s an Alberta we need to achieve.

we stood in the middle of the inbetween

(for Garry – today would have been your 60th birthday)

At Latitude 16, the moon hangs in the night sky

a crooked smile

a lunar apostrophe, a haunting.

It was edging out of dark when my daughter

and I rose at dawn to drive a winding road

through this dry land.

The inbetween awaited us.

A small boat and kayak took us the rest of the way.

We felt his presence where he had never been.

Telling stories, we remembered him, there.

How his dust to dust settles into a narrow sandy beach

that disappears during the season of tropical rains.

Remember him. His voice.

How do you imagine the dead?

A littoral place he had never been.

In the dry season, we stood in the middle of the inbetween.

On one edge of the beach, the Pacific blue ocean waves

sweep you out to sea in untameable rip tides.

On the interior inland lip of sand –

the smooth blue green calm of river-fed lagoon

stretches toward the Sierra Madres.

The inbetween awaited us.
The place where flowers walk on water.
Where birds proliferate like leaves.

How do you name the dead in the place of inbetween?

Every tall branch, a perch for Agami Heron,

Boat-billed Heron, American Bittern, Black-crowned

Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron,

Green Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Blue Heron,

Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Bare-throated

Tiger Heron, Snowy Egret.

How do you regret the dead in the place of inbetween?

On each post, a landing for Whimbrel,

Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit,

Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot,

Surfbird.

How do you mourn the dead in the place of inbetween?

You name the living.

In swampy shallows Black-bellied Whistling Duck,

Masked Duck, Ruddy Duck,

Canvasback and Redhead,

Ring-necked and Cinnamon Teal,

Mallard and Northern Pintail,

Muscovy and Wood.

Count the grief in the flap of wings,

the sound of flight.

Remember your hand on a paddle, your arm arcs above.

What arrived with your stride and hat?

You – devoted uncle and friend and lover and brother and son

your smile, wry

crooked with laughter

a lair of fun

and love, your embrace

a big hug from above

a tall man, you wore your hats tall too

motherless too young,

you taught us kindness

and play in everyday zones

like dinner and dishes

(delight staves off despair)

you taught us love of wild zones

a solitude of solitudes

of water and forest

in ice cave and the deep

long darkness of winter nights

you taught the virtue of

a light in the window

a home, to tend

to care, to mind

It was edging out of dark when we rose at dawn.

The inbetween awaited us.

We took this road to arrive.

We remembered him, there. You
Your hand on a paddle, arm arcing above.
Smile, wry, knowing. Your lair of loving fun.
On one side, the Pacific blue ocean crashes
Waves will sweep you out to sea in untameable rip tides.
On the other inland edge of the beach
Smooth blue green calm of a river-fed lagoon
stretches your journey toward the Sierra Madres.
.
Laguna de Manieltepec , Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico

six photographs of trees, a canopy for us (write/move 2/11/2017)

A fence, row of bare-branched thin-trunked trees across a field. A margin. Standing still like your underarm hair crushed in summer sweat. The fence, chain link. A tree overarching weaves out towards the frame – arms, or torqued limbs ajar. A door open. Light filtered soft and hard edge. A day of what it means to look out of focus. The tree, skin of dark shadows, awaits a poet’s fine pen. To draw.

A tree, a clearing broken open by limbs stretched out to almost touch the houses. Domestic surround and a sky so low down here to settle in – clouds almost adrift between branches. The canopy carved into this tiny fretwork of life beings wintering over. A shadow on teeth ground erases fine distinctions.

Whirling dervish of blur, the camera’s eye skirting full-blown canopy into memory of movement. Burst stretch marks of time caught up in motion rolling over to meet another branch. The space between mimics the underground network of fungal speech.

Winter storm. A clearing. The dog. Memory of bark. Claws dig into soil, uproot grass on the edge, a trunk. Spindly bark story of meadow’s surround. An upturned bonnet, the splayed branch of ventricular stretch. The writer moves forward to enter in, disappears behind a forest of limbs.

Upside of this under, a gasp of look exists somewhere between sky and canopy. The child’s memory bank prepares the writer for this moment. Return to the climb: one foot and arms limbering up. To ache for the arch of foliage.

Bird on a wire careens through the lineup. Linked layers of up. A carved out horizon stutters to the bottom of trunk.

A tree.

And grass, snow-scarred scrap.

(improvisations with thanks to Margaret Christakos)

“any step in the right direction is not a loss”

for my daughter and my mother

 I

 

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On International Women’s Day –

I read my daughter’s words

any step in the right direction is not a loss.

Witness the beauty of her precise economy

her spirit of generosity, her incisive analysis

her ethics of care, her understanding

of this flawed present, her anticipation

of a possible future.

Continue reading ““any step in the right direction is not a loss””

On Joseph Boyden and “Ethnic Fraud”


Cheval_de_Troie_d'après_le_Virgile_du_Vatican
Trojan Horse after Virgilius Vaticanus
(Note a working paper in progress – expanding & editing apr 18, 2017…pardon errors) 

At what point should Boyden’s identity quest have been identified as no more than a desiring machine?

I pose this question to myself as someone who has been teaching and writing about Canadian literature and culture over more than thirty years. Joseph Boyden perpetually posed as part Indigenous, an improvised status that afforded him access to advice, teachings, prestige and awards reserved for Indigenous persons. This is misguided and wrong.

I take little pleasure in part of this public debate. The talented and accomplished writer Joseph Boyden is suffering a serious and damaging and humiliating public critique. But I remain unflaggingly sympathetic to those who write about the losses within the Indigenous community when someone inauthentically takes up their space in the public sphere. To those writers and thinkers who already suffer the perils of a colonizing and racist nation state, the marginalization and the damage endures. And I understand the intensity of these critiques especially by those whose community identities or personal influence were particularly exploited. (The list of those active in this debate include Marilyn Dumont, Daniel Justice Heath,

Continue reading “On Joseph Boyden and “Ethnic Fraud””

The ‘Post-Truth Elevation of Celebrity Over Fact’: Deborah Palmer on the CAN LIT Letter & UBC’s Firing of Steven Galloway 

I am heartbroken that these writers, so many of whom teach, have chosen this self-serving, old boys’ club denial. Signed by writers who posted “I believe Lucy,” this letter represents the wrong side of history. It values keeping a powerful man safe when others are not. It re-shames and re-silences his accusers. It’s anti-feminist and anti-union. It would hand employers the right to publicly shame and silence employees. It makes it harder for all Canadians to come forward. In short, these writers have misused their voice and platform. A mistake of misguided friendship is still a mistake.     – Deborah Palmer

In November 2015, on the basis of a series of complaints, Steven Galloway was suspended with pay from his position as professor and director of UBC’s Creative Writing Program. And after an internal UBC investigation led by Mary Ellen Boyd, a former B.C. Supreme Court judge, Galloway was dismissed in June 2016.  The November 2016 open letter in defence of Steven Galloway was signed by some of Canada’s most famous writers is here. Zoe Todd protests the “CanLit heavyweight” lack of insight into the UBC process and the victim’s perspective  here : “Well, I hope that Canadian Literati remember the incredible burden of proof that is put upon survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and harassment or bullying in the workplace. There is a reason that up to 2 out of 3 rapes goes unreported:  https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system ” 

Margaret Atwood’s defence of the letter is here and  here.  The fact that Atwood repeats Galloway’s own self representation as a victim of a Salem witch hunt is so problematic. Additionally she dismisses women in groups who lie. This gender reversal is so offensive.

I am quite confused about why this case is so scandalous. My sense is that there was a process to determine complaints etc. and an internal process with a distinguished former judge to determine whether it was just. And now there is a grievance as per the union contract. That sounds like due process to me. There is labour law that determines you cannot harass in workplaces. Why wouldn’t a university be subject to this.

A criminal case is quite separate. In a criminal court you must determine the judgment according to the beyond a reasonable doubt criteria. In a university it can be balance of probabilities (like in civil cases – remember OJ Simpson won his criminal case and then lost the civil case.) In cases like sexual assault etc where the offence often happens in isolated circumstances without witnesses, the balance of probabilities can make use of comparative evidence between victims etc. So can the criminal courts but with the whacking of witnesses that happens there, multiple victims can be disqualified for talking with each other, for instance – in Margaret Atwood’s words, you can’t trust women in groups who lie.

Karen Connelly writes in response to Deborah Palmer’s letter below: “She asked him to retract his statement. ” nue to speak the truth and I refuse to be intimidated into silence.””

What follows is Deborah Palmer’s excellent facebook post on November 17, 2016. I reproduce it with her position. Palmer sets out the potential harm and the limits of the letter from some Canadian writers:

As a writer, a 23-year high school teacher, OSSTF Branch President and union activist, this is my reply to the Steven Galloway #ubcaccountable letter. It dismisses labour and privacy law. It insults the democratic due process of unions. It sets up a court of celebrity and demands a dangerous precedent: the release of private information that would erode Canadian rights and freedoms.

To recap: Last November, in accordance with labour law and his collective agreement, Mr. Galloway was suspended from his position as acting chair of UBC Creative Writing. In such a high-profile case, I expected a media Ghomeshi, expected Mr. Galloway, his Faculty Association, and hot-shot lawyers, to swarm the media. They did not. Instead, silence fell.
For seven months, Mr. Galloway’s case was reviewed by a retired judge, the Arts dean, and UBC president. Reviewers met with Mr. Galloway and his accusers. Some accusations were dropped. One was not. With the on-going consult of his Faculty Association, he did not dispute the report.

In June, he was fired for “Breach of Trust” as clearly defined by contract and legislation. The lack of criminal charges is irrelevant. Educators all know they are held to a higher standard. All reviewers of the evidence agreed: the breach warranted termination. The CBC confirmed it termination with cause. Without severance. Without a departure package. Neither Mr. Galloway nor his Faculty Association protested or grieved these decisions. He remained silent.

This week, UBC confirms Mr. Galloway has changed his mind and filed a grievance. Having seen many through the grievance process, I question his lengthy silence and delay, but I respect his union-won right to file at any time, just as I respect the union process that produced his dismissal. In March, his grievance will be heard by an independent arbitrator mutually chosen by UBC and Faculty Association counsel acting on Mr. Galloway’s direction and behalf. As a life-long unionist, I do not always agree with an arbitration, but I deeply respect the contractual process and the generations of unionists who fought for it for all of us.
Who doesn’t? Mr. Galloway’s friends. By no coincidence, their letter, exactly coincident with the new grievance, is signed by many of the same friends who rose up to declare his innocence before due process even began, many in the first 24 hours when the story broke last year.
Let’s be clear. No one uses the word “rigged,” but when high-profile wordsmiths call a process “unsubstantiated” and “flawed” we all know it means they disagree with the result. In hypocritical irony, they demand a new “due process,” one that would over-ride a judge and an historical and respected contractual dispute process bound by law and the Charter of Rights. They imply that Mr. Galloway is innocent. That we should value him over over his accusers. That he’s “the real victim.” That he should be exonerated, if not compensated and/or rehired. In the smug middle-class bias of the self-employed, the letter sounds authored by those who have never read, attended, fought for, or gone on strike for, a union vote, but still have the disrespectful gall to call the union process “flawed.” Aka, wrong. Inferior. Invalid.
I’m deeply disappointed by writers who take it upon themselves to decide for, and speak for, the literary community. Without permission. Without evidence. With no credentials but a personal friendship with the accused. Writers who claim to value due process did not use it. They did not draft a public petition for all writers to consider. They signed a clandestine group-mind dispatch. They substituted their literary celebrity for our democratic literary community.
Since they’re claiming insufficient evidence for a fair decision, how do they make their judgement? Based on their own celebrity. If “the stars of Can Lit” know Mr. Galloway for “a good writer and a good guy,” of course that should carry more weight than the testimony of his accusers and a seven-month union process. They don’t need a Faculty Association. Or a contract. Or decades of labour and privacy law. They call for their own new process precisely because they don’t like the outcome of union due process. Either they don’t understand it, consider themselves above it, or both.
They prove it by demanding a dangerous precedent: the release of private information. What an ill-conceived request. We weren’t there. We don’t know what transpired with students or co-workers. Nor should we. It’s not our business. It would violate the rights of accusers and accused, Such details cannot be made public unless Mr. Galloway waives his right to privacy which he has not done. With advice of union counsel, he has signed a non-disclosure agreement.
In the bigger picture, the details of any dismissal in any union in Canada, are never made public. For good reason. This privacy is a hard won right of decades of unionists. Can you imagine a country where employers could release any and all details of a grievance or dismissal? That’s Trump heaven. No one would ever file a grievance again. This is exactly the over-turning of privacy and labour law that the short-sighted signatories of this letter demand.
It must be asked: does this letter question “flawed process,” or is it designed to affect the next process? This letter comes a year after suspension and five months after firing, but coincident with the new grievance. Is it a well-timed attempt to sway its outcome? To try it in the court of public opinion first? Is it anti-democratic meddling and muscle flexing?
I hope not. I respect these writers and consider some my friends. I want to believe they are simply misguided. At best they remind me of the heartbroken Whoopi Goldberg defending Bill Cosby because she simply couldn’t believe another artist, a friend and mentor, one of her own, could be an abuser. At worst, they evoke Shaw: that patriotism is the belief that one country is the best simply because you were born in it. Canadians revile Trump, but a post-truth elevation of celebrity over fact is a step in his direction. Just ask Newt Gingrich and Mayor Giuliani. Trump can’t possibly be an abuser because “he’s a good colleague and a good guy,” and hey, they know him personally.
I am heartbroken that these writers, so many of whom teach, have chosen this self-serving, old boys’ club denial. Signed by writers who posted “I believe Lucy,” this letter represents the wrong side of history. It values keeping a powerful man safe when others are not. It re-shames and re-silences his accusers. It’s anti-feminist and anti-union. It would hand employers the right to publicly shame and silence employees. It makes it harder for all Canadians to come forward. In short, these writers have misused their voice and platform. A mistake of misguided friendship is still a mistake.
I respectfully ask all signatories to retract their endorsement of this letter. I call on all members of the literary community and all concerned Canadians to denounce it. Friends don’t let friends discredit democratic due process. Friends don’t let friends drive rape culture.

the wear and tear of this beautiful difficult sassy knowledge

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I

While writing my dissertation during the 1980s, I worked on Sounding Differences, my collection of interviews with Canadian women writers. I called them “oral essays” to indicate the way this generative exploration project worked to empower a chorus of voices – a notion . While infused with differentiated power relations, the collectivity of women I interviewed revised the canon beyond the distinguished female triumvirate of Margaret (Atwood), Margaret (Laurence) and Alice (Munroe).

My thinking was not original – but shaped by this earlier second-wave notion of difference as generative of “difficult conversations that can be life-saving” in Sara Salem’s words.

I was inspired by feminist film critic and art critic friends who introduced me to Trinh T. Minh-ha whose theoretical and cinematic work remains an inspiration. In Woman, Native Other (1989), she wrote:

“you and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in awhile, but you may also be me while remaining what you are and what I am not.”
 I may be on another hill further away. But this distant nearness of  our “intertwine” is an implication acknowledging the interior diss-identification of an origami fold. A cutting, a grafting that takes.



II


Mothering, interracial, adoptive,
reaffirms
an origami fold,
occasionally torn,
sometimes shorn,
of our undying days,
sleepless nights,
live-long years together,
daughtering,
mothering,
this rapport between
a 65-year-old mother and
an 18-year-old daughter unfolds.
with
the wear and tear of
difficult
sassy
knowledge,
an acknowledgement
in our bones
of how
lives
are lived
in this
unevenly
staged
world.
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III

 




IV

 


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On a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort
thinking of boredom of deluxe indulgence
of the first tourist t-shirt
glimpsed  on arrival –  
SUN’S OUT
GUNS OUT
(without the punctuation)

 

 



V

turquoise pools meander between
clipped fuschia & chartreuse
bougainvillea hedge funds
a watery lipless horizon
acres of white empty plates
groan stainless steel and
porcelain bowls of luscious
ceviche, salsa, guacamole,
chipolte-reddened fish
chocolate chicken mole
delicately tied tamales
steamed to perfection
ice creamed bins, farting
triple layer cheesecake
artful bamboo hidden Japanese sushi rolls
black tureened lobster bisque
careening carnivals of carved fruit
secret fish today, a sea bird tomorrow,
all day every day rainbow hilled
chopped pineapple, papaya, mango, melon
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scales

 

before bed an 8:30pm performance of Michael Jackson lip-syncing,

Aztec psychedelia and swirling moebius looped Mexican skirts
late night drunken songs of weddings
sand between their ears

 

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and everywhere top heavy chef hats working
alongside friendly name-tags of aproned maids
anonymously shy
wandering smiles of mojito-laden waiters
all for tips, given or taken away
generous with their time
in conversation, the give and take of
my stilted Spanish the limit case of
what gracias
we know and not
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meanwhile from our fake 1%er perch
atop a white wrought iron fenced stone wall
a man in a bathing suit motions to the air along the shore
and white cotton-suited men women on the beach
offer brilliant enamelled bowls, striped multi-coloured
hand-woven blankets, t-shirts that name this place
for almost nothing.


VI


IMG_5751Thinking this in response to our few mother/daughter days together in bliss and in irritation, the back and forth of our closeness, as we lie on a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort.
Where a young man drowned today of a seizure or a heart attack.
The American couple at the next table, shocked by their loss, tell us the story of his last words in the ocean. On the way back to the boat. About feeling unwell.
The shocked couple at the next table tell us about the guilt of the young male survivors, all friends, the fruitless attempt to return for him.
His lifeless body. His friends who could have done nothing to save him.
The story unfolds as though it cannot not be told.
Over and over and over and over again.
The couple at the next table tell us they are in plumbing and heating. They travel here to this resort annually. In the company of forty of their employees.
They tell us over again and then apologize. And we squeeze their hands. And they tell us again of the telephone call to the forty-year old deceased man’s parents.
That impossible conversation about drowning.
And we listen and talk in this fragility of being here now.
To sit together straining between tables at dinner talking of loss and death and love and compassion….


VII


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All tonight’s writing started with this reading thanks to a colleague. The text made me think about the necessary and  irritating and incommensurable inconsolable chasms of misunderstanding and pain that are occasioned in the gaps between us.
“This generation is told that diversity is a good thing, it shows that we don’t need radical politics anymore because equality is near. Ultimately it has acted as a very depoliticizing tool. Through certain institutions and people, including the university, the idea of difference was de-radicalized, sanitized, and turned into the neoliberal-friendly idea of diversity. Many feminists have written about the problems with diversity as a concept, including the amazing Sara Ahmed. Diversity can never be a radical notion, or even a political one. But I had never noticed this particular genealogy: that those using the idea of diversity in feminism probably drew directly from these feminists of colour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who spoke of difference.
But when these women spoke of difference, they spoke of it at two levels: the differences between women of colour and white women, which are, as Minh-ha, writes, awkward, difficult, fraught with tension. And then there are the differences among women of colour, or women of colour in the West and Third World women, or lesbian women and heterosexual women, and so on. In other words, there is a binary at play here that distinguishes different levels of difference. Not all differences are equally valuable. And not all differences should be treated in the same way. Differences between women of colour are very real, but these can act as a source of energy and inspiration. These are the types of differences that propel movements forward, that lead to difficult conversations that can be life-saving. In other words, these differences are very valuable.
This is not to say that differences between women of colour and white women are invaluable, or only cause harm. I have always believed that these differences are also important to discuss, interrogate, try to unpack. But this must be done while bearing in mind that there is a specific hierarchy always there, and not necessarily in the background. And when it is a material and ideological hierarchy, rather than simply vertical divisions, it can be difficult to unite and struggle together for the same causes.
The point is that they saw difference in a very positive light because they understood difference differently than we do today, where the term has been repackaged. Differences between women had to be acknowledged, because they were responding to first and second wave feminism that insisted on universal sisterhood. Difference was therefore something productive, a way of uniting to create a different type of society. This was never framed as something easy, or based on simplistic notions of quotas or tokenism. It was always based on radical political struggle and change. Today we have learned to assume that difference is accepted, and that it is not political. But it seems to me that returning to this more radical understanding of differences could act as a very important source of energy for critical, radical, decolonial and postcolonial feminists today.”