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.
Mothering, interracial, adoptive,
an origami fold,
of our undying days,
live-long years together,
this rapport between
a 65-year-old mother and
an 18-year-old daughter unfolds.
the wear and tear of
in our bones
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 –
(without the punctuation)
on the beach
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,
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
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
and everywhere top heavy chef hats working
alongside friendly name-tags of aproned maids
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
we know and not
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
hand-woven blankets, t-shirts that name this place
for almost nothing.
Thinking 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….
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.”
In memory of Bella Laboucan-McLean.
In mourning with her friends and family.
Too many women. Dissent. Descent. Misattributed homonyms: a writing day filled with missteps, false starts. Thinking about a young woman’s body falling through space. Almost no one notices. Plummeting for no good reason. The rage that arises in thinking about the mystery of her descent. Or as the Prime Minister says,”It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
Those who know her climb out of immobilization and despair, writing beyond themselves to change the world.
“The day I found out that my sister Bella had been found dead on the terrace of a high-rise condo near Toronto’s waterfront, without an explanation of why or how she fell, was the day I understood what it feels like to grieve so deeply and so immensely that nothing else matters.
It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness.”
Naomi Klein’s haunting tribute to Bella was first presented at a public event supporting the #mmiw (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. Klein writes how Bella’s death went unreported and it remains a mystery undocumented by the five witnesses. A shameful absence of police protocol and documentary testimony:
Five people, other than Bella, in an 800-square-foot condo. All of her belongings still inside: Purse. Wallet. Shoes. Phone. Yet no one in the apartment calls the police. It is not until 12 hours later, when the cops are going door-to-door trying to identify the body, that one of those five people picks up the phone to report Bella missing. Everyone who was there claims they saw nothing. Knows nothing. No one will be a witness.
Despite finding these accounts questionable, the police put out no media advisory. It was two weeks before a single story about Bella’s death appeared in the local media. “I can’t make anybody talk,” the investigating detective told the Toronto Star.
Bella’s story and the title of Klein’s tribute – “How a Cree woman fell to death, and no one saw anything” – rehearses the theme of Canadian settlement with its near genocide of Indigenous peoples. The destructive historical and ongoing actions are twinned with the travesty of silence and complicity – the inaction and perpetually wilful blind eye that ignores the suffering of individuals and communities on reserves, in villages and cities.
British cultural critic Sarah Ahmed reminds us that many racialized women like the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada live in a world where everyday life is at risk while others take for granted not having “to be inventive to survive.”
When a whole world is organised to promote your survival, from health to education, from the walls designed to keep your residence safe, from the paths that ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even as birth rights. Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus: “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (2007: 28) Being poor, being black, puts your life at risk. Your heath is compromised when you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill-heath, for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.
Last spring I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Alberta National Event in Edmonton. The moving testimonials, conversations, and displays drew our attention to the hundred-year deadly history of Residential Schools. And we encountered the individual stories and collective grief in first-person accounts by the now aged survivors, once vulnerable school children, who suffered brutality and abuse often followed by many decades of traumatized silence. But we also learned there is too little funding available to complete the documentation of these events and no federal will to follow up with action. Beyond apology and story, reconciliation demands an accounting. And that takes insight and leadership. And I encountered many Indigenous people who refused to take part in the event, overwhelmed by grief and trauma of their own history and/or resistant to a collective process that did not insist on accountability and redress or an effective reconciliation.
I got a strong sense of the sorts of things mainstream people think about Native people especially after Oka. In this, that we really matter, politically but are so fundamentally unsettling we have to be further managed and in the neoliberal double-edged sword, as individuals somehow do not “deserve” the opportunities that we have earned, that we do not work, etc., or that we do not exist. Or that we are fundamentally “difficult.”
As well, there are specific stereotypes and expectations that attach to us depending upon what nation we are and where we are from. As Mohawk (and in this, Haudenosaunee) people we speak from the long history of relationship to territory and to others in our homelands, and are compelled to speak clearly and truthfully, from minds unencumbered by grief or pathos. And also, to listen to others. So I always found it ridiculous that we, especially we would be perceived as people that do not act or speak according to principles of fairness and reason.
…Now that I teach in the ’States there is the overwhelming and almost hegemonic idea that we are dead! So my very presence upsets and defies that idea but my teaching and research also reveal in a scholarly manner, where these ideas come from and how they are used to undermine indigenous agency and sovereignty.
The active presence of this exceptional scholar in the university is a kind of auto-critique, a reminder of how Indigenous women are perceived and excluded. Simpson spoke about “The Two Bodies of Theresa Spence” at the fourteenth annual Critical Race Conference in Edmonton this past fall. Her talk reminds us that the response to Bella’s death, the delay, the mystery, and even indifference, is no accident no matter the cause. No one noticed. No one reported. Still there is silence. And proud public indifference on the part of our federal government. This deadly colonial nation state is maintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but through their disappearance and death. Simpson reminds us how indigenous governance was transformed beyond recognition when women were disqualified by the Indian Act. Cast out and diminished, they had to relinquish the leadership roles they had assumed, a leadership with key powers. And she reminds us that this early promotion of female leadership in indigenous communities that empowered women was so radically different from the exclusively male governance in colonial and European governance that is perpetuated to this day in Canada federal government where mainly white women politicians tend to be fewer in number and demeaned in the public sphere. (More on this coming soon…still writing this section.)
We need to hold those who perpetrate violence against women accountable. There are at least 1,200 Indigenous women that have been murdered or gone missing. There is no denying that if 1,200 white women were missing or had been murdered there would be uproar and Harper’s approach would be instantaneous and dramatic. … a far cry from his current response.
A better approach would be to support spaces for healing from the legacy of trauma instead of continuing the victim-blaming narrative that we see from the conservative government and the RCMP report from earlier this year.”
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to be accountable so recommendations don’t just stay on the table. And investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to listen to the community. Melina Laboucan-Massimo notes: “Whether called an inquiry, commission, or “action plan,” this process must first and foremost take its direction and leadership from the families of MMIW” and from “community leadership.”
[And this effort must] “not be tokenistic, as it often has been in the past….An inquiry shouldn’t just focus on confirming what we already know – that there is a problem. It is families and communities of MMIW who best understand the breadth, depth, and root causes of this issue and what solutions could and should look like.”
Indigenous governance and justice systems need to be foundational. If there is an inquiry, it is also necessary to inspect how the police are dealing with the cases of MMIW and to require that the RCMP and local police departments share their files with families, especially when cases are unsolved and are idle like my sister’s case. It is imperative that we develop and implement policies that prevent inaction on these cases, which makes the police complicit in allowing the numbers of MMIW to grow.
What we do need recognition of is that violence against Indigenous women has systemic causes that are colonial in nature. The Harper government needs to recognize the impacts government policies have had and continue to have on Indigenous communities that leave Indigenous women in precarious and vulnerable positions in society.
“Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women.”
Both Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Naomi Klein link the Harper government’s wilful blindness to more than a thousand women’s deaths with its blindness to the poisoned land and Indigenous communities. Melina writes “Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women. The two are linked” And Klein agrees:
The greatest barrier to our government’s single-minded obsession with drilling, mining and fracking the hell out of this country is the fact that indigenous communities from coast to coast are exercising their inherent and constitutional rights to say no. Indigenous strength and power is a tremendous threat to that insatiable vision. And indigenous women are, to borrow [Toronto City Councillor Adam] Vaughan’s phrase, “the heart and soul” of these movements.
Naomi Klein comments on her participation in the July 2014 Healing Walk around the Tar Sands at Fort McMurray.
Two weeks before Bella died, I had been in the tar sands with Melina at the annual Healing Walk. The gathering is like nothing I have seen anywhere: Hundreds of people walk in silence for an entire day through an unimaginably scarred landscape – by the sprawling open-pit mines, by the massive tailings ponds that kill ducks on contact. Stopping only for prayer and ceremony.
The fifth annual Healing Walk this past summer like all the others that have come before maps out a dead zone in the embodied time of footsteps, a putrid sensual immersion in a poisonous dump of chemicals and unreclaimable wasteland. This annual walk transforms our understanding of this place that is often represented by aerial photographs that accompany popular news and magazine stories of the Oil Sands/Tar Sands.
For this industrial site is often appreciated from afar in popular media stories that hire fly over photographer’s at work. The gorgeous large-format camera landscapes of Edward Burtynsky have been widely admired for their visual power. And they work to envision a vision of aesthetically beautiful patterns at a distance from the The artist writes:
“these images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
However some have noted the limits of this bird’s eye aestheticization of this wasteland into Burtynsky’s artistic image of “reflecting pools of our times” that abstracts us from the embodied experience of the place. The Healing Walk of lung-filled stench and dystopian apocalyptic visual field up close are a counterpoint to the photograph’s “remote sensing and setting up an aesthetic encounter of ‘disinterested contemplation'” (Karen Lang quoted in “Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands.”)
The Healing Walk and the kind of public inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Women envisioned by Melanie both refuse “disinterested contemplation” at a distance. The Idle No More movement invited us to public healing circles and demonstrations in shopping malls and city squares in the dead of winter. Chief Theresa Spence who maintained a diet of fish broth for weeks made her own body vulnerable in our names in her unanswered plea for dialogue with the Prime Minister.
Each of these actions, Healing Walk, hunger strike, inquiry linked to accountability and action, requires us to not only empathize with the trauma and narrative line of Indigenous women’s deaths and impoverished communities but to link our embodied witnessing with investigations and actions that change the world and all our relations.
Five witnesses continue to refuse to speak about the indigenous woman’s body falling from a Toronto condo balcony. Disinterested and distant, their silence seems cynical and even culpable. Our collective refusal to join with the family’s of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women echoes a similar comfortable disinterested distance that projects the trauma and suffering elsewhere rather than on our complicit silence. Similarly Canadians disengagement and distance from an awareness of the devastation at the source of our Tar Sand’s energy plan The political voice of Idle No More has identified over and over again the struggle. And we murmur agreement or turn our wilfully blind eyes.
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with “root causes” – a concept that our Prime Minister disregards as “doing sociology.” Like George Bush, Stephen Harper likes to think with his gut – an anatomical organ that other Stephen – Colbert – reminds us has its own lethal illogic. In his brilliant in character evisceration of George Bush in his presence at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Colbert developed this theory in relation to Bush’s record:
We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.
Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.
And here we are reminded that our Prime Minister Harper eschews any facts in favour of fiction, ideology in lieu of scientific evidence, wishful thinking in lieu of thoughtful policy.
How many hands do you have to hold over your ears to make yourself deaf to the voices. Our federal government’s law and order policies and policies are not just ideologically misguided, they are lethal.
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with the misery of increasing numbers of women’s lives spent in prison – 24% of Canadian prisoners are Indigenous though they make up 4% of the population. (And the stats in the prairie provinces are especially appalling: 80% in Manitoba, 60% in Saskatchewan, and 50% in Alberta.) Ask Omar Khadr, another racialized Canadian citizen, imprisoned unjustly over more than a dozen years since his capture, imprisonment and torture in Bagram, Guantanamo and a series of maximum and medium-security federal prisons in Canada.
My shift to another story of injustice with international dimensions is intended to expand our understanding of what is at stake not to avoid a national conversation demanding a response to the missing and murdered indigenous women here. But the worst federal government in our history has a single virtue – a transparent consistency of the most deadly dimensions. And we need to make links between the local and the global to understand the underpinning principles and bigotry that guides our government here and abroad.
Last summer we witnessed the bombardment of the Palestinians in Gaza – another Indigenous people – by a government championed by our own federal officials. While missile guidance systems targeted children in UN safe zones in the most densely populated urban area in the world, the landscape was reduced to uninhabitable rubble. While the cries sound over Palestine, our government leaders clink glasses and reaped awards at elite gatherings with Israel state officials – our leaders symbolic public legitimation of the Israeli assault. These gilt chambered events gave us a vivid glimpse of the radical chasm that separates us from the shattered destitution of city as bomb site.
During the bombing of Gaza, a Mohamed Omar, an editor at Huffington Post Canada asked about the silence of Stephen Harper and John Baird: “Why Aren’t Harper And Baird Angry About Dead Babies In Gaza?” The answer is that Palestinian lives matter less. Philosopher Judith Butler opens her study Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? with this telling observation: “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living.” Their lives are less grievable like the missing and murdered indigenous women who are always already more zombie-like living dead than fully human. Facebook cats command more interest.
And the powerful movement that emerged after the recent police killings of black men in the U.S. led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Hundreds of thousands of people raised their hands saying I testify – I stand in this place bearing witness to injustice and demanding change.
None of us escape the lethal plot of murdered/missing women and environmental destruction. We suffer the shame of silence. Too many Canadians remain unengaged and apathetic, complicit. Or outraged and stymied about what to do. Our inaction seals our collective fate.
Last month the Burnaby Mountain gatherings risked arrest and caught international attention. And it stopped the drilling by Kinder Morgan – a blow to the pipeline plans of the government. We need hundreds of thousands of Canadians raising our hands in solidarity with the Indigenous people in our country. We need to forge alliances and engage in the coalition politics and thinking that link up our individual local interests with larger interrelated networks of connection so that all Canadians see the big picture of international connections and domestic atrocities.
I was spurred on to write this short essay by a number of events including:
Attendance at the 14th Critical Race Conference in Edmonton a few months ago while listening to faculty, students and other young people recount their encounters with racism. And I was reminded again of Audra Simpson‘s“The Two Body of Theresa Spence” outlining how Bella’s death is symptomatic of a lethal pattern, no matter the cause. No one in the condo noticed, it was alleged. No one reported for some time. Still there is silence. The colonial nation statemaintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but their disappearance, demonstrates a lethal indifference.
Reading about the case of Steven Salaita – a young Palestinian American scholar denied his job at the University of Illinois ostensibly because his twitter feed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was “uncivil”. Salaita works on Indigeneous people and settler narratives in North America and Palestine. Thinking about the silencing of dissent reminds us that settlement stories on many continents connect us with the violent dispossession, the incarceration and violence against African Americans, the regular intermittent bombardment of Palestinians, and the unmarked category of Whiteness that enables some of us to feel safe and above the fray.
And my own contribution to the #beenrapedneverreported twitter storm following the CBC-Radio host Jian Ghomeshi harrassment and violence against women scandal.
I composed a series of tweets with the #beenrapedneverreported hashtag one late afternoon and called it “writing what matters for our daughters. Before I even finished sending out each individual tweet, a journalist called to see if he could interview me. What a powerful technology and what a quick response was my first thought. And then I reflected on who wasn’t tweeting and who might not be listened to.
A few weeks later, an Edmonton Journal journalist followed up with a short article about local twitter stories. As well as my story, the reporter featured the #beenrapedneverreported tweets of a police woman whose silence was informed by her inside knowledge of how rape victims who report are treated in court: “They’re the ones on trial….So you can see the reluctance of a lot of women to put themselves through that.” The article ended with this:
“Bringing rape to light is a good thing, Williamson says, but she really worries about those voices that aren’t being heard on Twitter. It’s partly why she has used her experience to continue the call for an inquiry into missing aboriginal women.
“Who is doing the tweeting, and who is not doing the tweeting,” she asked. “The women who are definitely not tweeting are those missing indigenous women.”
Today’s writing is provisional and ongoing. A sketch really after a dry spell of teaching and doing other work. So much more to to listen to, to say, to read, to write. Please reply with suggestions, responses, objections and corrections. Dialogue keeps us in community.
For further information, see THIS IS BELLA’S STORY on The Support for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s website.
About fifty AAS:UA members (Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta) attended Dr. Len Findlay’s “piss and vinegar” talk (his words) on a recent May afternoon. This fraction of the four thousand plus membership didn’t fill the large theatre, but my appeal to attendance is no more than an ironic pause to reflect not only on our frantic disciplined pace but on our collective demoralization, topics investigated by our speaker. Findlay, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Chair of the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), ended his talk by inviting us to consider the contributions of the indigenous Idle No More and Quebec student’s Red Square free-tuition movements.
“The anxious academy means the death of pleasure,” announced Findlay reminding us about the changing university and the tendency to encounter bitter competition over collegial well-being in a new world of academic stars and scarce resources. He voiced the collective “metastatic self-loathing and performance anxiety across the faculty” and the extraordinary demands for increased productivity where nothing is ever enough. He spoke of the discourse of marketplace. And today’s model of student consumer shopping for grades and credentials came to mind. He also advised the faculty members vulnerable to corporate expectations to not confuse filling out the ever-changing SSHRC electronic cv with living a life. “We need a life as well as a cv,” he urged us.”Recover your swagger.”
When Findlay tracked the growth of the neoliberal university and Canadian state, I became a time traveller reflecting on how dystopian the academy would appear to my earlier academic self who remembers Findlay’s talks from thirty years ago, experienced first as a graduate student and then as a faculty member always uplifted by his eloquent hilarity, piercing wit, and spirited critiques. Upon reflection, I feel most distressed that my junior colleagues, the diminishing numbers on tenure-track and the increasing contingent of limited-term and temporary intellectual labourers, will never experience a university workplace that, while not ideal, offered possibilities of genuine collaboration and collective engagement beyond today’s idealized and individualized competitive trajectories in our increasingly corporatized education machine. The “fracked university”
The violence and resource economy of Findlay’s image of “the fracked university” seemed especially fitting here in Petrostate Alberta where the government sucked post-secondary funds out of twenty-six institutions across the province only to reinject money on their terms under the homogenizing umbrella of a master narrative called “Campus Alberta” that intentionally confused varieties of education from technical training to liberal studies. Findlay described “The Lukaszuk” as a magic sleight of hand that makes theft look like a gift. Remember that long winter, spring, and summer of our discontent when the government eviscerated post-secondary education of $147 million – almost a third of it from the University of Alberta – only to advocate skills training and cherry pick where to reinsert the money: first $42 million was allocated for a new University of Calgary Engineering building along with other targeted reinvestment that challenged the autonomy of post-secondary institutions. Shortly thereafter, UofA’s fundraising began for a Leadership Institute named after a PC Premier, an initiative that has become the mysterious legacy of our university President.
Recent conversations by the Provost about the possibility of creating American-style autonomous colleges (Read: the Leadership Institute) point to how corporate funding can be funnelled into specialized areas in lieu of generalized operating grants, once again leaving many key areas of the university like the Faculty of Arts struggling in our educational work. Note here also how corporate rather than public interest shapes our educational priorities.
It is no small irony that this high-flying North Saskatchewan River-side Leadership Institute residence results in the destruction of the charming shabby heritage home that housed the Faculty of Arts Parkland Institute, the productive critical space inspired by engaged political economy and the Alberta-wide research network that “exists because of wide-spread concern about rapid changes within Alberta’s and Canada’s political and economic culture…. The language and assumptions of the marketplace have expanded corporate power and challenged the role and ethos of the public sector and the commons.” Director Trevor Harrison explores”Who Controls Knowledge” here. The Parkland Institute, long known to have been a thorn in the side of our President, lost a home and gained two sub-first floor rooms in the Humanities Centre next door.
Our Dream Queen President has for some time been one of the most highly paid university administrators in Canada, moonlighting for years on the board of a Canadian bank and recently appointed to the board of the Canadian corporation Magna International Inc. No matter, the higher she flies, the more money she costs, the more advantageous her reflected glory as we hang onto her gilt coattails. Oxygen thins up here.
The appeal of high salaries in the neoliberal scheme of things was underscored by Findlay. And later while writing this, I looked up Canadian university president salaries. In 2011, the Canadian university administrator with the highest base salary at $1,041,88 went to David Johnson who would be plucked from the University of Western Ontario by the Harper government to the ether heights of the Governor General of Canada. Aside from GG Johnson’s many other excellent qualities, was his top-dog extraordinary salary a decisive prestige factor in the eyes of our federal Prime Minister who operates our country like a CEO managing consumers not citizens?
Drawing on comparative data from the long course of his career, the now retiring CAUT head James Turk concludes that the collective abilities of the Canadian university presidents at this moment of inflated financial compensation add up to less talent. And in this era of corporatized market inflation, Findlay provides an accounting of the exorbitant costs of internal university senior administrators and the parallel sky-rocketing costs for their external consultants. Reading from one of the consultant publications – a small thin $75 booklet – Findlay illustrated the expensive transformation of snake oil into banal bullet-points of Canadian-Tire-like “tools” and how-to lists for university improvement. The account reminded me of the way the neoliberal project infects institutions on many continents. Last year Tarak Barkawi wrote a short Al Jazeera article that outlined some effects:
The upshot is to soften the resistance of faculty to change, in part by making people fear for their jobs but mostly by creating a generalised sense of crisis. It becomes all the easier for some academic “leaders” to be drawn up into the recurrent task of “reinventing” the university.
Here is the intersection with neoliberal management culture. Neoliberal managers thrive not by bringing in new resources – since austerity is always the order of the day – but by constantly rearranging the deck chairs. Each manager seeks to reorganise and restructure in order to leave his or her mark. They depart for the next lucrative job before the ship goes under.
One consequence is the mania for mergers of departments and faculties in the US and the UK. In both the university and corporate world, mergers are not only demoralising for staff, but they also break up solidarities and destroy traditions and make staff much more amenable to control from above.
Such projects have little to do with academic excellence or even purposes, and often are self-defeating as the managers and the quislings among the professoriate who assist them have little idea what they are doing.
When I posted an earlier version of this article, news broke about the scandalous firing of the University of Saskatchewan Dean Robert Buckingham Executive Director of the School of Public Health for criticizing the academic plans of senior administrators. Frustrated by months of fruitless internal debate and muzzled Dean Buckingham dared to write a letter to the government “The Silence of the Deans” to protest his muzzling: “Her [the University of Saskatchewan President’s] remarks were to the point: she expected her senior leaders to not ’publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUS’; she added that if we did our ‘tenure would be short’.” His concern was the University of Saskatchewan’s new administrative shuffling that reorganized his highly regarded and accredited programme into an administrative area without accreditation. Buckingham’s critiques make good sense and point to Turk’s point that more money poured into costly and expanding senior administration along with their expensive external consultants isn’t reflected in superior decision makers.
But Findlay’s address to the AAS:UA before the Buckingham affair occurred identified some of the problems: “the sad coercions of strategic planning; the venality of internationalization; and imminent intellectual desertification…in non-compliant and/or unprofitable places.” He pointed to the limits of recommendations by the Univeristy of Saskatchewan consultant Robert Dickeson “and his ilk”: “Academic economism and “program prioritization…eat academic value hitherto preserved and producesd as diverse, independent inquiry, distinctive teaching, dissemination and outreach.” And he ended this part of his commentary with the University of Alberta biblical motto Quaecumque vera “Whatsoever things are true.”
Suffocation. When we ask our administrators how to reallocate funds to support our programs that don’t have Petrostate street cred, our corporate overseers respond with the arrogance of late night TV hucksters. Findlay outlines how university collegial governance has been replaced by presidential declarations that “emanate by fiat.” Here at UofA, we were invited to drift on for a few years into the fantasy world our President where our sacrifices in the pursuit of “excellence” would be worthwhile when we assumed our rightful position as a top-twenty world university by 2020. Sloganeering like “Top 20 in 20/20” endlessly proliferates, in Findlay’s words, “mediating hype and cosmic aspirations.” Nowadays interchangeable publicity brands “insult our intelligence.” Rather than “punching above our weight” as the remarkably strong Canadian prairie public university we have been, the rhetoric of hubris steered us into the shoals of international ranking and we plummeted on some scales.
Though for what it is worth, my Department of English & Film Studies is one of two University of Alberta departments to score very high on some international rankings: #22 of the best of all international university English departments as determined by our peers in one influential ranking system. And we are the second or third top English department in Canada. But even if you succeed as top dog, you may fall prey to the limits of this competitive model of academic ranking, and substitute “culture” in the illusory road race of excellence, a strategy condemned by the late Université de Montréal comparative literature professor Bill Readings in his posthumously published The University in Ruins that published almost two decades ago.
A few months ago, at a sparsely attended public address by the UofA President, the incoming chair of our department Peter Sinnema reminded her that while EFS had done what the UofA proposed and edged towards that 20/20 cosmic height in ranking, we have been decimated in the recent budget cuts that especially harmed the Arts Faculty that includes humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. Peter asked how she accounted for the shifting fate of our department. According to the script of competitive excellence we should be on a winning streak. But paradoxically in the recent round of endless cuts, we lost the most faculty of any department in the improvised shock doctrine of Voluntary Severance retirements last year. In response, the cash-strapped Faculty of Arts promised us one new replacement appointment leaving significant holes.
In response to the incoming EFS chair’s question,the UofA President raised her hand, flicked her wrist, and gestured to the Provost to respond about the mechanics of education. The UofA Provost described his last year of travel to three continents investigating how to reply to just such a query. Then he said with a flourish more or less the following: Dream on. Find the funds yourself.
Always ready to take up an imaginative challenge, I conjure up fundraising plots and plans. Imagine Coleridge’s Cave in the fourth floor Humanities Lounge in our English and Film Studies department – once a rare and ideal classroom for informal educational seminars and writing workshops – now redeployed as a meeting room for administrators in their ever-expanding need for space. After-hours after-class Coleridge Cave absinthe could be sold to visitors so stoned that while reclining on repurposed Value Village floor cushions they won’t notice we’ve sold the desks and chairs. Or we might float the idea of a William Burrough’s shooting gallery to appeal to gun-champion Albertan hunters. Or a new “Day and Night” in-house factory commemorating the great almost-forgotten Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay. From midnight to eight in the morning cultural labour could be supplanted by the made-in-Canada manufacture of loot suits for the carefully appointed university president to enhance the 1% status of University of Calgary President recently given a raise. Or why not transform our faculty and departmental offices and those spaces vacated by the budget-cut evacuation of key support staff? Or we might design a literary puppy mill, naming the poodles, the beagles, and mutts we raise after lost authors. Every pooch purchase arrives with a rare first edition or popular bestseller according to your cultural inclinations.
Why not multi-faceted representations and mappings of the indigenous sites and stories that lie buried beneath our institutional cellars as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation meetings held in Edmonton last month? This is a collaborative multi-media teaching project I’ve just begun with a colleague. But unfortunately for my department’s economy, my entrepreneurial imagination specializes in educational engagement best constructed beyond simple market terms. We are a public institution.
Over and over we are told how our universities vacillate between market forces and corporate models and metaphors. On the promise of high-paying international student as funding sources, Findlay notes that universities promote and students target only certain disciplines and professional programs making recruitment “a homogenizing revenue stream used to remake priorities, redistribute resources.” All business and no time to play with social science, humanities, and arts ideas. “Consumer sovereignty and market logic as the new chronotype in the global present where institutional memory and collegial governance used to be,” says Findlay.
And what is more important to our future than an educated youth? Our students, impoverished by tuition costs in a rich country, should be supported by the state. Findlay points to the way Danish left and right political parties see their country’s free university tuition as sacred. Elsewhere University of Saskatchewan anthropologist (Sandy) M. Ervin also makes an eloquent argument about student debt and, “the elephant in the room….Solidarity with the young is needed more than ever. We have unloaded enough on them with climate change and toxic wastes without adding debt feudalism that only benefits the banks further restraining our young people.”
And Findlay reminds us we’re watching the reinvention of a public university as the site of bifurcation: privileged spaces for corporate funding and other thinking spaces as expendable dumping sites. Findlay spoke of a recent University of Saskatchewan event where corporate donors from a mining company shunned an indigenous woman who queried the ethics of their mining practices. How do we insist on genuine philanthropy beyond the corporate strings that demand too much of public institutions?
Findlay reminded us of UofA’s first motto Lux and Lex – light and law – and the centrality of knowledge and its shaping. He might also have addressed the University of Alberta’s most recent university “promise,” a phrase lifted from a speech by the university’s first president Henry Marshall Tory. “Uplifting the whole people” is abbreviated from the sentence: “The people demand the uplifting of the whole people.” Note the change trajectory in the truncated slogan: the phrase transforms the public agency of “the people demand” to an act of charity in the “uplifting” university. The university website insists this “promise” “is not a temporary marketing slogan but an enduring expression of who we were are, and aspire to become” but its origins might be just that. In searching for the institutional promise, one stumbles across the work of former Procter and Gamble “top brand builders” Edward Burghard whose goal is to be the “spark that reignites the passion in the global business community for Brand America.” He goes: “In simplest terms, a brand is a promise, it sets an expectation of a benefit. The dynamics of the brand promise are charted by the promise gap: “Brands with positive promise gaps exceed their customers’ expectations, while those with negative promise gaps let customers down.” The UofA promise gap may be negative as the impulse to “uplift the whole people” – an appeal to Albertans – occured around the intensification of the rhetoric of internationalization that tended to undervalue domestic international students.
Nowadays “the people” – the public citizens who fund us find little reflection of themselves here at the University of Alberta. Canadian Studies erased. Canadian historians disappeared – 3 or 4 of them gone. Canadian literary scholars in my department decimated over the years and more recently by the mismanagement caused by voluntary retirements, a program that pretends ravaging the curriculum at the university stands in for management and planning. And almost no hirings in sight. Nowadays our department doesn’t define all-American Studies symposiums as “American Studies” – the specification seems redundant in the absence of much curricular or faculty exploration of our Canadian location.
At this AAS:UA gathering, we ate together, we listened, we laughed, we talked. Then I went to my office to finish some thinking work on a presentation about women public intellectuals in Canada. I wanted to scream for more public rabble rousing among faculty. Findlay insists on the importance of the “non-binarism” at the heart of activism and excellence and reminds us that if the university can be an object of study, the work we perform about the university in our professional associations and elsewhere also constitutes intellectual work that matters.
A collective of sometimes competing interests, the AAS:UA represents a university transformed into tenured academic faculty, academic librarians, contract teaching-focused staff, sessionals and other temporary employees, research academic officers, and faculty service officers – seven groups in total. Findlay exhorted all of us to “intergenerational politics” wherein we “make allies of our students” and find common cause to make change. The bifurcation of the university into competing interests – exploited consumer students, expensive indulged faculty and the exploited untenured – eliminates the contribution of intellectual labour to the university, the , the critical engagement of students, and the centrality of education to the mission of the university. Look how infrequently “education” appears in the public documents produced by universities, Findlay advises.
I could expand these notes by recounting how the speaker linked the university to the values of the neoliberal Harper government, but my note-taking stopped at this point as details of this sorry revelation are too familiar. So I conclude by reading a poem that begins: “Hurled his roadster straight through the great books / of his country….” right through to its end…”He was no bean-shooter, no dope fiend, / no bindle-punk. Just a hep cat with healthy hungers. Regular citizen with dreams of berries and bim.”
Thank you Len Findlay for your insightful rabble-rousing. Thank you for your poem Jeannette Lynes. And thank you Carolyn Sale for engineering this talk.
“Talking to my son about the scandal over Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea” TheTyee.ca
Like the four million others who had purchased Three Cups of Tea, I was moved by Greg Mortenson’s story of how he came to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Back in 2007, the book’s focus on cross-cultural understanding and forging strong grassroots relationships with local communities seemed to provide a much-needed counterweight to news stories about the Taliban, suicide bombers, and realpolitik manoeuvring by western states in the Middle East and central Asia. In view of increasing troop deployments to Afghanistan, and mounting combat and civilian mortalities with no end in sight, Mortenson seemed to offer a higher-minded, peaceful and effective strategy to address the roots of terrorism.
I read the kids’ version of the book, Listen to the Wind, to my son several times while he was in kindergarten. The picture book version depicts Mortenson’s journey to the impoverished community of Korphe, where he is nursed back to health after a failed mountain-climbing venture, and where he decides to build his first school. My son had heard about the war in Afghanistan and had asked about the reasons behind the conflict and the casualties. I wanted him to have a more balanced, complex view of the situation that would go beyond media stereotypes of intolerant hostile religious fanatics or passive, hapless victims. The book showed him that there were children just like him living in that part of the world, who had parents and leaders that deeply valued what education could bring to their communities.
Letters From the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery (Athabasca University Press) won the 2011 Alberta Readers Choice Award. (See her acceptance speech below).
“Since receiving her Ph.D in French Literature, Helen Waldstein Wilkes spent 30 years teaching at every level in Canada and in the U.S. Her research interests include cross-cultural understanding, language acquisition, and neurolinguistics. Now retired and living in Vancouver, she is actively examining her own cultural inheritance and its impact.”
About the book: “On March 15, 1939, Helen Waldstein’s father snatched his stamped exit visa from a distracted clerk to escape from Prague with his wife and child. As the Nazis closed in on a war-torn Czechoslovakia, only letters from their extended family could reach Canada through the barriers of conflict. The Waldstein family received these letters as they made their lives on a southern Ontario farm, where they learned to be Canadian and forget their Jewish roots.
Helen Waldstein read these letters as an adult―this changed everything. As her past refused to keep silent, Helen followed the trail of the letters back to Europe, where she discovered living witnesses who could attest to the letters’ contents. She has here interwoven their stories and her own into a compelling narrative of suffering, survivor guilt, and overcoming intergenerational obstacles when exploring a traumatic past.” (Athabasca UP)
On June 9, 2011, Mary Woodbury spoke as part of a panel discussion about “Women & writing: right on track… or backtracking? — an event organized during Women & Words: Summer Writing Week. This annual series of June writing workshops and readings is in its eighteenth year of programming by the Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta. What follows is Mary’s talk:
It started in the fall of 1974…. I’ve got one advantage over the other panelists, I have more years of experiencing the rise and fall, rise and struggle, rise and shine of women in the last two thirds of the 20th century. I was born when girls couldn’t bounce basketballs more than twice because they might damage their feminine organs. When I told the Continue reading “Mary Woodbury tracks her writing history at Women & Words”→