so much depends upon
an ocean of harm
(the UCP motto)
Mark Smith & too many fellow UCP candidates are Human Dog Whistles.
A phenomenon: They walk. They talk. They signify the degradation of others to the delight or complicity of UCP voters.
The UCP outbursts of bigotry – of homophobia or racism or misogyny – appear as a backlash against justice-seeking accomplishments. Yes.
But this hate is both undertow and backlash. The undertow, so very powerful, sweeps us deep into the currents of history while revealing what remains.
Pulled below, we gasp for air.
We peer into the icy depths of this ocean of harm.
What do we see?
A freefloating punishment of victim/survivors in shape-shifting communities.
We see the criminalization of queer life – the lives ruined in workplace firing, public shaming, murder and exile. The bodies mocked and beaten and criminalized. The lack of care for the diseased. The suicides of those coming of age and aged. Generations of suffering.
We witness the internment of citizens. The enslavement of blackness. The racist orientalization of otherness. The Head Tax separating families for generations. The state theft of property and livelihoods. The disenfranchisement. The suicides of those coming of age and aged. The demonization of immigrants. Their crowded open boats on a rough sea. In this country, the frozen figures stagger into view. The many and the one at a time. Generations of suffering.
We see the genocide of Indigenous peoples – the killing of culture, language, spirit, body – perpetrated by the state, carried out by settlers. The kidnappings, disappearances and murders. The suicides of those coming of age and aged. The disenfranchisement and prohibitions. The mass incarceration. Generations of suffering.
We witness the institutionalizations of those with different bodies. Their diminishment. The elevated rates of rape and assault. Their vulnerability through impoverishment.
We see the sterilization of women. The rape and murder of women, the disenfranchisement, the prohibition from education, from participation in the public sphere. The traffic in women. The language of degradation feminized. The indignities of objectification, a body drawn in parts.
We witness the trans flow and blur of gender catastrophized into murder, dehumanization, excision from the public sphere.
Strange City, Day Six: a surprise invitation during a month-long visit.
In this whitest of American cities, the women are friendly and warm to me and I’m told I have a Canadian accent. I am white enough in a room full of white women and enmeshed in a naturalized pallet: “Whiteness …scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness. ‘Color blindness,’the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.”
The leader of Saturday’s historical architecture tour kindly writes to invite me to attend his noontime talk at a private women’s club in a 1920s building that is on the US National Registry. Designed by architect Folger Johnson, the impressive structure, now almost a century old, is filled with carved ceilings and elegant rooms, handsome wooden engravings and fantastical wallpaper. The website promises “a women’s private club where friendships are nourished, dignity and graciousness are expected and beauty has been preserved.”
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.
And grass, snow-scarred scrap.
(improvisations with thanks to Margaret Christakos)
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.
Two events in the past week remind me of the strength in collective action. This is one of them and the most significant in terms of public awareness.
A demonstration in 23 different centres from coast to coast to coast across Canada began with plans for a demonstration April 2 in Edmonton in front of the law courts where the trial of the accused murder of Cindy Gladue had ended in a shocking acquittal.
Gladue, an Indigenous woman, mother of three and sex worker, had bled to death in a bathtub in the Yellowhead Inn, a hotel in north Edmonton along the route from Saskatoon to Jasper, named for explorer and fur trader and explorer Pierre Bostonais nicknamed “Tête Jaune” for the blond streaks in his hair. has become a symptom of the contempt for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. So many of the signs “Colonialism kills” “We are human” etc. addressed the dehumanizing and deadly process of systemic racism. And this deep analysis of how this trial could come about in 2015 was there on the tip of everyone’s tongue. As the 1000 or so demonstrators headed south to Jasper Avenue from the Law Courts en route to City Hall, three Asian pedestrians approached the throng eager to cross the road.
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.
One of the first things I noticed on my earliest trip to Canada in 1998 was the presence of remarkable Aboriginal art in so many public places. For years after that I admired and bought gifts of Canadian Aboriginal art as the most appropriate Canadian souvenir. As a tourist to Canada, I knew about the historical and contemporary injustices that the Aboriginal people have been subjected to, but my first real life brush with the harsh urban reality of the Aboriginal experience came a week after I officially became an Indo-South African-Canadian.
I live next door to an Aboriginal family with fourteen children, and several grandchildren. They are renting in this very middle class neighbourhood in the eastern part of Edmonton, where the houses are owned by a huge variety of people ranging from professionals to tradesmen.
I moved into my house in the Fall nearly two years ago and for months never saw or made acquaintance with any of my neighbours. Ironically, it was not until my dogs arrived from South Africa that I felt ’visible’ in the neighbourhood with people smiling or stopping to chat to my oversized pups.
Shortly after, the Aboriginal family moved next door and this led to even more neighbourly interactions for me. People began making complaints against the Aboriginal family next door to the police, the bylaw offices, social services, among other places. They complained about noisy trucks, unsupervised children, and delays in cleaning snow off the side walk. The tenants before them did the same things but were Caucasians and nobody came to me to ask me to file complaints against the former tenants.
I was beginning to resent the pressure that I felt to file complaints against the family next door. Not only did it feel hypocritical and clearly discriminatory, it also made me feel that it prevented me from having a normal sociable relationship with my next door neighbours. For instance, if the kids were noisy or broke something in my yard, I felt awkward to approach them fearing that it would seem like I had joined the vocal minority that clearly wanted this family out of the neighbourhood. Living alone and working from home only made this situation worse for me and I was seriously considering moving elsewhere.
Out of an innocuous Friday morning breakfast get together with colleagues, came a suggestion that was extremely useful. I learnt about the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre (MRJC), which provides assistance for conflict management for individuals and groups. The very helpful staff told me that I need to get all the parties to agree to come to the table for it to be an effective process. So I wrote the letter below to my neighbours and distributed it door to door.
In the past little while we have experienced some disagreements regarding our expectations of peace and propriety in our neighbourhood. I am concerned that these disagreements should not lead to a situation of conflict in our peaceful neighbourhood. Our houses are very close to each other and we all have a stake in making sure that we live as a harmonious community of people.
We have had several formal and informal complaints going back and forth in the past few months. However, the outcome has been unsatisfactory for all involved. It is my humble opinion that we have not had an open channel of communication to resolve our problems.
I am no expert in mediating or negotiating but following the advice of my colleague, who is a law professor, I contacted the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre for help. This centre can provide professional facilitators to help us resolve our problem as amicably as possible.
I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to phone the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre at 780-423-0896 (Extn. 200) to speak freely about the problems you are encountering in the neighbourhood. Please quote the reference number xyz for the sake of continuity in our conversations. Once they have heard from some of us, they will decide about how best to facilitate mediation.
Their hours of operation are:
9 – 4.30 (Mon, Wed, Fri)
9 – 7.30 (Tue, Thu)
In the best case scenario, we will be able to resolve our differences and continue to live in our quiet and harmonious space. In the worst case scenario, we would have at least tried to resolve our differences in the most civilized way possible.”
Before I handed out the letter, I approached my next door neighbour to find out if he would be willing to participate in such an intervention. We had often exchanged pleasantries and once I had reluctantly told him about some broken solar lights in my yard, but this was the first time we had a proper conversation.
I told him that the mediation will only be effective if both sides can have their say and thus he should not hesitate to state his complaints too. He told me that the reason he has chosen to bring his family to live in this neighbourhood is so that they can see that another life is possible. He was determined to give his children a fighting chance in a place where check-out clerks can choose not to serve him and get away without any censure; where he gets shadowed and watched suspiciously as soon as he enters a store; where people pull their children indoors if they see them playing with his grand kids; where the police surrounds his house in the middle of the night because some neighbours complained about loud music but the party was happening in the house across his back alley. I was struck by this man’s humility and generosity when he said that he will be happy to talk to the MRJC staff but that he had nothing to complain about from his side.
The timing of this conversation was very significant for me since it had been exactly one week since I had taken my oath of Canadian citizenship in what proved to be an emotionally wrenching experience for me. I found the ceremony my most intense first-hand experience of the power of symbols, identity, and boundaries. My grandparents had fought for the independence of India, which made this a very poignant moment for me. Although I know the difference between identity and citizenship and have struck deep friendships and relationships in my new home, at that moment I could not shake off the feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and the loss of generations of belonging.
During the ceremony, I was sitting next to a woman from Sierra Leone who was brimming with joy since now she can try to bring her five children who were still trapped in a conflict zone to Canada. It was a profound and timely reminder of the value of this country called Canada that jolted me out of my personal angst. The incidence in my neighbourhood similarly revealed the juxtaposition of the inherent good and bad in all our experiences.
When the issues started to emerge in my neighbourhood, I was struck by the verbal and emotional aggression in the conversations I witnessed. People denied equally vehemently that they had any racial prejudices, while at least one person suggested that I must have a higher tolerance for such nuisance because of where I come from. There was clearly a class dimension too, adding to the ’othering’ of the Aboriginal family, since they were renting in this street of home-owners. I suspected that I was relatively more acceptable to my neighbours because of what I do, despite ‘what’ I am. To put it mildly, this was an awkward situation where I found myself warding off the pressure to complain on one hand, and on the other hand feeling indignant for myself and the Aboriginal family next door.
I was sceptical about the impact of external mediation, but I was wrong. Very few of my neighbours phoned the MRJC staff and the most vocal voices actually chose not to engage with MRJC. According to the MRJC staff, the ideal scenario would have been to get everyone to talk face-to-face in a session facilitated by a professional mediator. Despite their best efforts, only one person was willing for such a session and another was willing to talk to the neighbour directly.
However, there were a number of indirect benefits of the involvement of the MRJC. I heard back from some of the neighbours who spoke to the MRJC staff and it was clear that they were seeing their perceived problems in a very different light. Aside from the conflict management tips provided by the excellent staff at the MRJC, I believe that the very idea of external mediation gave them a reason to pause and reconsider the source of their annoyance. The failure of the more aggressive people to engage with the process exposed their unwillingness for any solution other than the removal of the Aboriginal family. This clearly separated the majority of the neighbours who were now willing to reconsider their previous position on how bad the situation was and prepared to take their issues directly to the Aboriginal family, as opposed to the small minority whose prejudices have been exposed and who have retreated into a sulky silence, for now.
This may not be a dramatic victory of multiculturalism in a tiny suburb of Edmonton, but there are a number of lessons that are worth sharing. Firstly, we need to admit in this so called post-industrial society that there are many tools of ’othering’ which are used to essentialize difference, and serve to create and maintain hierarchies of humanity. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is constantly being redefined through real or perceived ethnic, socio-economic, and other differences. However, this is not just happening in North America, but also in European countries, South Africa, India, China, nay all over the world. Secondly, being a disengaged bystander is not a choice and does not absolve us from the responsibility we bear as members of a community to stand up and speak out against an injustice. Most importantly, it is vital to remember that we are not alone when we do choose to wade into such a battle. There are wonderful people – friends, colleagues, neighbours – and institutions like the MRJC within the system that can offer help and guidance.
Finally, perhaps the person was right in noting that my country of origin had something to do with how I handled this situation. I was born in India whose images of grinding poverty and dense population are well known. What is not so well known to the outside world is the fact that it is also home to all the major religions of the world; it has more than two thousand ethnic groups; it is a country that is more diverse than Europe in terms of linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity; it is also home to the world’s largest middle class, which has learnt to survive and thrive despite the murky politics, archaic institutions, and corruption that permeates everyday life. South Africa, my second home, has also taught us that it is possible to confront the truths of our histories and policies and move on to become a Rainbow Nation.
Multiculturalism is not an essentially North American phenomenon; there is a much longer history of nations managing their deeply vibrant and significantly multiple ethnic demographics all over the world. None of these experiments are perfect, but the long histories and unfolding stories of places like India and South Africa can only enrich our understanding of multiculturalism in North America.
For now, our little suburb is quiet again. I have no illusions of permanent peace or battles won, but the incidences of the past several months were a catalyst for revealing significant aspects of the people and the place I have chose as my new home. It also got me closer to understanding what I try to learn and teach as I traverse the fledgling field of Global Studies. Right now I feel cautiously optimistic.
Meenal Shrivastava is an associate professor and the Academic Coordinator of Global Studies and Political Economy in the Centre for Global and Social Analysis at Athabasca University in Alberta. This was originally posted in the FedCan blog as part of the Equity Issues series on ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.
Lizzie arrived at our house the week we moved to Cape Town. Our twins had just turned two, Thomas was three, and our furniture, to the best of our knowledge, was still at sea. Lizzie came as our housekeeper, and within minutes of introducing herself she pulled an apron from her purse and got down to scrubbing our empty home.For the past three years, several days a week, Lizzie has left her own house in a nearby township and come to work at ours. She has told me of her childhood in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where she carried her own slate and chair to school each day — on her head. She has tried to explain her culture, Xhosa, and teach me its language. We’ve discussed politics from Zuma to Obama, and compared our styles of cooking cornmeal, or as it’s called here, “mealie meal.”
Mostly though, Lizzie and I have talked about motherhood. Lizzie has four children, now grown adults, but her tiny house is far from empty. Lizzie, now a grandmother, also cares for ten adopted children under the age of sixteen. Our conversations are usually spontaneous, informal. But one morning we sat down with coffee to discuss being a mother in a city as violent as Cape Town.
If we had a choice, our sexual histories would remain our own, the mistakes and that adventurous, experimental phase. Sexual partners would keep to themselves those private moments of exposed vulnerability. Unfortunately we sometimes don’t have a choice, especially if you happen to become a public figure. Your history is a matter of debate, another forum to learn of your moral choices and perhaps predict how you’ll lead society, based on your wardrobe choice in college.
Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia, Krystal Ball (who admits her father made an ill-advised choice in naming her) had to confront that past when Republican opponents pulled from her Internet-documented history a few photos of Ball in a scantily clad situation. Dressed as a sexy Santa with her husband, a dildo-adorned reindeer, Ball knew what she was dealing with. “They wanted to make me feel like a whore,” Ball would write later, as a response to her accusers. In Ball’s case there was no instance of infidelity, as her husband was a full participant, no indiscretions involving young pages or interns, simply a photo at a party in her youth.
At the age of 28 Ball was one of the younger candidates, but also one of the more promising. She was listed in Forbes magazine as one of the top 25 most powerful women in the midterm elections and was endorsed by the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. But qualifications could not save her from overt photos of her sexual history. After losing the election to Republican Rob Wittman, Ball wrote a response published in the Huffington Post, stating, “Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere.”