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Canada in the World Today: Insights from the Humanities

2015/04/23

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I wish to begin by congratulating my fellow honorees, and thanking the Canada Research Chairs programme and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the ongoing funding that made this research possible, as well as the R.H. Institute Foundation for their generosity in funding this Bowman award, the Faculty of Arts for nominating me, and the adjudication committee for awarding me the John M. Bowman Memorial Award for 2014. This recognition honours not just me but also my colleagues and students and the entire research community, local and global, on whom I rely in shaping my individual and group contributions.

As is now customary, I also wish to acknowledge, with deep respect, that we are meeting tonight on Treaty One territory, at the crossroads of the Anishinabe, Métis, Cree, Dakota and the Oji Cree nations. This ceremonial acknowledgement constitutes an important step toward decolonizing our imaginations, rethinking our local and national history in its colonial, capitalist, and global interactions, and learning to respect the value of story, and of ceremonial performance, not just within indigenous knowledge systems, although that remains central, but also for the enrichment it can bring to the lives of each of us who find ourselves at this crossroads today.  The historical reality and the rich symbolism of the crossroads resonates deeply within the materials I study. The crossroads, the horizontal meeting place of roads from many places and the vertical meeting place of earth and sky in Vodun ceremony, symbolizes the catastrophe and new beginning that 1492 brought to the Americas, bringing indigenous imaginaries into dialogue with Christian and African spiritual systems, and enabling potentially happier ways of imagining how to live together in our differences in the future. The Forks, Confusion Corner, and the University of Manitoba itself embody some of the challenges and potential of the crossroads as places where differences may collide and connect. In thinking through the crossroads, we must not shirk the difficult forms of knowledge that come from a history of violence. But we can work through that violence through stories that imagine beyond their reach.

So tonight I want to think about crossroads, stories, and decolonization. They are the routes through which I can share my research with you, and they come together in this ceremonial acknowledgement of our own Red River Valley crossroads. This acknowledgement is a first step toward imagining the goal of decolonization. If we can take the time to listen to these words and learn from the respect and reciprocity they enact, then we can see that these words perform a story about this place and our history in the place that differs from the older stories of explorers, pioneers, and settlers. I have heard jaded reactions to the performance of similar acknowledgements of aboriginal priority in Australia where the initial promise of decolonizing initiatives implicit in that acknowledgement was later betrayed. The words will seem empty unless they lead to other, more difficult changes. Still, I value them as a beginning for how we Canadians can start living a different story together.

Thomas King reminds us that “the truth about stories is that’s all we are” (2). He asks what kind of world we create with the stories we tell; what kind of world we might have if we take responsibility for the stories we tell;  and he asks where we would be if we can learn to listen to others’ stories, and through that listening, begin to question the tyranny of the single story.  J. Edward Chamberlin, in his important book, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? takes his title from the indigenous challenge issued to British settler/colonials who claimed this land by over-riding the claims of its original inhabitants, Chamberlin stresses the world-making power of stories this way. He writes: “In many ways, home is an image for the power of stories. With both, we need to live in them if they are to take hold, and we need to stand back from them if we are to understand their power” (77). King and Chamberlin write for general audiences but these are also the methods of academic work in literary studies, combining deep intimacy with critical reflection. Not only letting go of oneself to inhabit another’s world, in humility, without appropriation, but also standing back to contemplate how that experience has changed us.  In Inventory, Dionne Brand describes this critical receptivity as the task of the poet in global times. Confronted by the horror of the daily news, her witnessing speaker takes a visceral inventory, explaining:  “there are atomic openings in my chest / to hold the wounded’ (100). Poetry is not a helpless witnessing; it performs its own engagements and problematize what is too often taken for granted.

I try to follow that lead. As a Canadianist, I ask what it means to make your home at the crossroads of cultures. As a student of decolonization across the old British empire, I know that all cultures are formed at the crossroads but some places strategically forget those origins, and genocides can be born from denying them.

For tonight’s talk, I have struggled to find an appropriate way to convey my life’s work. Stories can seem harder to grasp than ice or manure. I learned this during our first Visionary Conversations evening, depicted here. Maybe “grasp” is not the best metaphor for me to use. Ice is cold and manure is messy.

But people can see them clearly. Stories are elusive and changeable.  They are not things; they arise from relations. I study stories, and I tell stories about stories, and the ultimate goal of my research is to advance understanding of the power of stories—for good and for ill. Some stories need to be decolonized. Other stories need to be heard. Stories need to be refreshed, recreated in dialogue with their times. We can learn from the so-called creative genres of story, from poetry, fiction, film, and video games, but we also need to attend more carefully to stories that deny they are stories: stories that claim to be merely the facts and what everybody already knows.

I have written about some of the stories told about globalization, and the teams with which I have worked have challenged those who argue that globalization in inevitable, unstoppable, nation-state destroying and globally flattening. In these interdisciplinary teams addressing Globalization and Autonomy and thinking about Building Global Democracy our teams have struggled with two big challenges: how to tell a truer story and how to find a story that could enable ordinary people to reclaim and exercise self-determination to shape a better world for themselves and their descendants.

This kind of work seldom leads to immediate conclusions, except perhaps within certain case studies. For that reason, we chose case studies as our methodology, and we remained cautious about deriving larger conclusions about the applicability of our findings beyond those specific cases.  Nonetheless, a certain composite picture of the changing dynamics of globalization and autonomy across various sites of investigation does emerge. Eight volumes have now appeared in the Globalization and Autonomy series and the global democracy publications are underway. My point here is that the larger questions we were asking need to be revived to meet the demands of changing situations. In retrospect, I can see that the “Globalization and Autonomy” project, which began in 2001, took its founding questions about autonomy from the demands of Quebec within the Canadian federation and concerns about the Canadian economy arising from NAFTA, Mulroney’s North American Free Trade agreement. It haunts us still. The project looked at globalization through a specifically Canadian lens.

“Building Global Democracy,” begun in 2007, sought to address the very real problem of global governance in a world where many life-changing decisions were being made without any democratic input and beyond the control of individual nation-states and of the United Nations system. This project brought academics together with civil society practitioners and policy makers from around the globe to think about how to advance knowledge and practice for greater public participation and control in the governance of global affairs. We did not find many answers but we did get a better sense of the problem. What stands out most strongly for me from this work is the continuing dominance and power of the colonizing Western perspective to determine which stories get heard and to shape how those stories are told. Project participants were selected in an effort to circumvent that power but the effort to bring more voices from the Global South to the table failed for several reasons. Even participants from the Global South had been educated within West, and more surprisingly, even though participants were selected to represent different regions of the world, what happened was that many of these participants now lived outside their place of birth, and in fact, several of them turned out to be living in Toronto. This is a clip from us at the World Social Forum in Dakar.

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What I took from these team encounters was a revised way of asking my research questions, which are returning me to the core questions of literary studies.  How are meanings made? Values negotiated? How can the imagination be freed from the “mind-forged manacles” that lock us into accepting an unfair world? The answers will be specific to each time and place, but there may be elements they share with places elsewhere. These are cross-disciplinary questions that seem particularly acute in a settler-colonial immigrant society such as Canada.

Research finds its way through asking questions. Literary critics ask: What kind of thing is this? What form does it take? How does it work? What does it mean? Who is it for? How do ideas travel? For me, these questions come together in versions of Northrop Frye’s question, “where is here?” What are the stories of this place? How they can they help us learn from the past, live in the present, and imagine better futures? I have written two articles exploring Northrop Frye’s question, “where is here?” It is more complex than it seems. This picture shows Frye’s statue on the Victoria College campus in a shared moment that documents the changing nature of shared space.

For Dionne Brand, ‘Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest’ (“On Poetry”:183). For Ojibway and Anishinabe “here,” is called Turtle Island. Turtle Island creates a strong visual image, referring to an origin story that links this place to other peoples and stories within the ocean of stories, and to the ecosystem of knowledges that feeds that ocean. That name, “Turtle Island,” recognizes other histories and other origin stories, beyond those told about European Discovery, Conquest, or Development. For example, the shape-shifting mink narrator who witnesses part of the story that Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle tells in her novel, Celia’s Song, refers dismissively to the white scientist Frederick as “one of the hopeless who now inhabit Turtle Island” (19). In that expansive sense, Turtle Island gives life to Thomas King’s latest novel, The Back of the Turtle. King implies that all of live on the back of the turtle, in forms of relation and reciprocity whether recognized or not, with other living beings, even those we consider to be inert or non-sentient. For King, this becomes another way of describing our home, and the novel tells of how badly our civilization is treating that home today.

Other origin stories from other peoples and places shape local stories of belonging that have been similarly adapted to explain national and global interconnectedness in current times.  I think here of Bill Reid’s famous sculptures, “The Raven and the First Men,” and Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” which political scientist James Tully used as the cover and animating metaphor for his influential book from 1995, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. For Tully, the national boat holds a diversity of occupants. For globalization and climate change theorists, that boat becomes an image for precarious survival on the planet itself. As in the story of Noah’s Ark, the boat can function as either an inclusive or exclusive vision of community, putting animals and humans in the same boat but also excluding others from participation in the voyage. I think of the drowned refugees lost in the Mediterranean. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women whose stories are now being reclaimed and whose names are remembered. Naming matters. Posters across our campus show us how such naming matters through K.C. Adams’s Perception Project.
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For Tomson Highway, ancient Greek, European Christian, and Cree cosmologies are all mythologies that shape understanding of the world through story-telling. I prefer, however, to follow Lee Maracle, in describing the stories that embody these systems as theories, in order to stress their legitimacy as knowledge-producing systems. To attend seriously to these story-theories can take us beyond the limitations of “superpower parochialism” (35)—the wonderful term Rob Nixon uses in his book, Slow Violence: The Environmentalism of the Poor, beyond what Vandana Shiva and Gayatri Spivak call a “monoculture of the mind.” These terms question the assumption that Western knowledge systems alone can claim to be universal, confining other forms of knowledge to the merely local. To “decolonize the mind” (Ngugi), scholars will need to deparochialize research away from this “superpower parochialism” that ignores the wisdom generated beyond the limits of its imagination. For these reasons, I welcome the questions the University of Manitoba is beginning to ask about what it might mean to decolonize the university. This is a challenging task and there will be disagreements about what decolonization could mean, how best it might be achieved, and how we will know when the decolonization process has achieved its goals.

After a lifetime of searching, I feel I have found a place that takes these questions seriously in a university-wide way.  I began my career seeking a comparative context for understanding Canada within the Australian experience. I located different dimensions of Canadian national imaginaries within colonial, postcolonial, and globalizing contexts, and analyzed Canadian contributions to current cultural debates. From focusing on Canada in trans-Pacific contexts when I was based at the University of British Columbia, I moved to analyzing Canada’s place within the Americas, focusing first on the Caribbean and then on Brazil. With the move to Winnipeg, I became interested in Canada’s Northern identity and began collaborating with colleagues in Sweden. Each of these comparative contexts have moved in recent years from being seen as peripheral to global centres toward assuming new significance within the changing, multilateral global system. Australia is not only a boom and bust resource economy but also a leader in the commercialization of global higher education and a laggard in addressing aboriginal inequality and refugee rights. Brazil is reducing poverty but still struggles with massive inequality and corruption. It has a long history of slavery, exploitation of indigenous peoples, and faces its own multicultural challenges. Sweden, long seen as a leader in ethical internationalism, is confronting its role within Nordic colonialisms and the challenges of integrating immigrants into a relatively homogeneous society. Like Canada, these countries face inequities within their own internal Northern and Southern regions. Each offers different models of engagement with indigenous and immigrant populations, and the knowledges they bring to educational programs. They provide distinctive models for managing dominant settler/indigenous and multicultural relations; and different ways of dealing with English as a dominant academic and business language. How each negotiates their national position within global imaginaries can help Canadians clarify what is at stake for us in globalizing trends.

I called this talk “Canada and the World” because I don’t believe you can understand this country without understanding the many ways in which it is enmeshed within larger global systems and always has been.  Climate change brings this awareness most clearly to our attention but it should not obscure the many other ways in which Canada has been shaped and has participated in shaping the world around us. How we understand our past shapes our ability to imagine the spaces open to our agency, now and in the future. If we cannot imagine beyond the limits of our present, we will not be able to shape an alternative future. Imagination is key.

My inspiration comes from creative writers, artists, and the work of many scholars across the disciplines. Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank’s 2005 book, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination details the entanglements of local and global in ways that reveal “how porous knowledge practices are” (10). Cruikshank explains how many terms Western-educated scholars assume are self-explanatory are in fact highly contested. Her examples include “land,” “hunting” “resources,” and “property” (11). In my own work, I am especially concerned with the different resonances attached to the word “home.” Rights is another contested term that seems to be proliferating everywhere. In The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet, Sheila Watt-Cloutier argues that “a human rights-based approach [to climate change]… refocuses the debate on humanity rather than solely on economics,” a shift in rhetoric she hopes could “save the planet.” She explains “Everything is connected through out common atmosphere, not to mention our common spirit and humanity. What affects one affects us all. The Arctic, after all, is the cooling system, ‘the air conditioner,’ if you will, for the entire planet.” She concludes, “The future of Inuit is the future of the rest of the world—our home is a barometer for what is happening to our entire planet.”  These are compelling images. As a Winnipegger, I appreciate the rightness of insisting on the “right to be cold” in the face of dominant dismissals of our home as Winterpeg. Our city has also embraced human rights as our official story. But there are limits to making this our single story.

For some critics, human-centred worldviews have caused the problem and so cannot be counted upon to solve it.  Some argue we need to expand our concept of rights to include the rights of Mother Nature, as the Bolivian constitution recently has, or even more dramatically, we need to move beyond human-centred views of the world entirely, to recognize the sentience and the agency of all matter. Still others argue more pragmatically that in practice, a human-rights-based focus can actually block a quest for justice.  As Arundhati Roy explains, human rights do matter but “they are not a good enough prism through which to view or remotely understand the great injustices in the world we live in” (2014: 34). What could it mean to shift the framework from rights to justice? This question motivates my current research and teaching.

I have published recently on how contemporary Canadian texts renegotiate urban civic space, looking at Cree poet Marvin Francis’s City Treaty: A Long Poem, set in Winnipeg, and Trinidadian-Canadian Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For: A Novel, set in Toronto. With the aim of providing a revised model for understanding locality in a globalizing world, I argue that these texts reveal locality to be a living, moving, changing space rather than a determinant place of origin.

Forthcoming work includes a collaboratively written account of Canadian and Quebec postcolonialisms for The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature; an article on Canadian public poetics; and another on the evolving dialogue between settler colonial studies and human rights studies. A work in progress, “Reading Across the Pacific, Reorienting ‘North,’” asks “What would it mean for North American literary studies to shift our gaze from still dominant transatlantic imaginaries toward the transPacific?” This article is part of a larger project investigating literary experimentation developed out of non-metropolitan contexts in dialogue with alternative understandings of the earth, the world, and the globe. As I write the entry on “Globalization Studies” for The Blackwell Companion to Literary Theory, I am acutely aware of balancing the need to tell the official stories against the many efforts to give breath to alternative stories.

All this work recognizes that stories need readers and listeners to bring them to completion, and to carry them into public voice so they can enter and shape the public sphere, and in their turn, be reshaped by interaction with it. All kinds of readers, and listeners, are necessary. Specialists have an important role to play, perhaps especially to show the ways in which particular texts weave themselves into larger patterns of experience and expression. But the wonderful thing about stories is the ways they find to reach us all.

Drew Haydn Taylor begins his book, The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel, with a story about a terrible fight between two wolves, each inhabiting the same body. When the child listening asks: “Grandfather, which wolf will win? Which one is stronger?” he is told: “the one you feed” (v). We all face that choice.

Lee Maracle tells a similar story in Celia’s Song, which is dedicated “to all those children who were removed from our homes and who did not survive residential school.” She tells the tale of a two-headed sea-serpent, Restless and Loyal, who pull against each other, creating devastation because the people have failed to feed them through honouring the dead. The balance between the two has been destroyed and the restless, voracious, destructive serpent head runs rampant until the villagers learn to stop feeding it and begin to heal themselves. Each story is directed first of all to an indigenous readership but creates space for a widening circle of reception and engagement.

The University of Manitoba is a wonderfully supportive environment in which to work, and I am so grateful to my colleagues from all across campus, and most especially to my students, who continue to inspire me with hope for the future.  I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canada Research Chairs program for funding much of this research and to the many colleagues whose work has enriched my own as we struggle to grapple with our changing world and the role of the humanities within it. Finally, I thank all of you, who have come out here tonight to join in celebrating the research of everyone honoured through the Bowman awards. Research is a community achievement and it’s your support that helps make it happen. I hope you have questions.

 

Works Cited Brand, Dionne. Inventory. —. “On Poetry.” Bread Out Of Stone. Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Alfred Knopf, 2003. Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver, UBC P, 2005. Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada.” In The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, ed. Carl F. Klinck. Toronto: UTP, 1965. King, Thomas. The Back of the Turtle. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014. —. The Truth about Stories. Toronto: Anansi, 2003. Maracle, Lee. Celia’s Song. Toronto: Cormorant, 2014. –“Oratory as Story: Coming to Theory.” Nixon, Rob Slow violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2011. Roy, Arundhati. Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Chicago: Haymarket, 2014. Shiva, Vandana. “Monocultures of the Mind” Trumpeter. 10.4.. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization. Harvard UP, 2012. Taylor, Drew Hayden. The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel. Toronto: Annick Press, 2007. Tully, James. Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. 1995. Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet. Penguin, 2015.

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