Canada in the World Today: Decolonizing Stories
I will start by acknowledging that we are meeting today 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 role of a national literature within such contexts is contested. Today, I will introduce some of the discussions that currently circulate around the questions of Canada in the world today and ideas about decolonization. This talk focusses on English-Canada from an Anglophone perspective and is designed for an English-Canadian audience. I recognize that I cannot do justice to the full history of Canada or of Canadian literature in both official languages nor to the rich traditions of writing in French from Quebec, Acadia, and francophone Ontario and the West.
Can some stories decolonize? If they can, how do they do it? Should other stories be decolonized? What might that mean? Canada, as an official nation-state, began its history 150 years ago as a colony of the United Kingdom. How has it moved from colony to nation? What kind of a nation have our writers shown us? What kinds of futures do they imagine for us?
As a way of introducing this lecture series, and my talk today, I will loosely organize the talk around the four questions that President Barnard suggested that our university community consider this year. He borrowed these from Senator Murray Sinclair. These are:
Where do I come from?
Where are am I going?
Why am I here?
Who am I?
These identity-based questions are different from the questions we ask of a literary text. However, we can ask somewhat related questions about literature. We can ask about the traditions out of which it emerged (where do I come from?); about the meanings we derive from it (where is it going?); about its apparent purpose (why is it here?); and about how to categorize it generically (what is it?). We also ask: what does it mean, in many different contexts, to different audiences of readers? How does it make its meanings; how does it work? Who is its intended audience? To this last question, few authors would claim to write for a national audience alone. These are all valid questions to help us understand a text but they may not be the most interesting questions we can ask about literature. That’s because literature is above all relational. It is less about “I” than about “we.” Each literary text calls its readers into relational being with the world it creates. Together, stories and readers engage in world-making practices, which can operate on many scales from the local, through the national, to the supra-regional, and the global. The two concepts of “I” and “we” are entangled, interdependent, and co-constructing. To focus on one at the expense of the other may be to miss much of the picture. Literature is co-created by writer and reader in dialogue with their respective communities and with the fictions the texts enact and the worlds they create. What unites literature and ideas about the nation is the vitality of the imagination as a force in social life.
At one time, people thought of the imagination as secondary to actual, real life; as an imitation or a reflection of the material world; or at best, as something invented that could illuminate real life in ways that helped us understand it better. The idea that what is imagined is by definition not real still holds some sway. At the same time, however, many academics, not just in literary studies, now think of the imagination as more powerful than that, as carrying a force and vitality of its own that interacts with material circumstances in often unpredictable ways to shape how people make sense of their world. The role of the imagination in social life is what makes nationalism so powerful. The state without the nation attracts the loyalty of very few, but when a state can call on a nation to inspire loyalty and even love, then the combination of nation and state is very powerful. As Benedict Anderson explains, the nation is an imagined community. Looking at the nineteenth century origins of the nation, he sees media such as the national newspaper and the novel interacting with institutions such as the census, the map, and the museum to make the imagined nation a material reality, a materialized community, and something that people would be willing to actually die for. New media may complicate his analysis, but if anything, they seem to be reinforcing the important role of the imagination in shaping social life, both its unexamined assumptions and its articulated views. Nation-building exercises such as CBC’s Canada Reads build on Anderson’s analysis when they try to identify one book that every Canadian should read, as if national cohesion can be strengthened by enabling everyone to share in the same imagined vision of a particular text. In similar ways, literature can enable a settler and immigrant population to make claims to the land they have chosen to make their own.
Critic Margery Fee in her study, Literary Land Claims: The “Indian Land Question” from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat, revisits the history of Canadian literature from 1812 to the present, to document the ways in which Canadian identity and Canadian land claims were justified through literary texts. As she explains, the ideas about Canadian nationalism promoted by writers such as Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye are deeply infused with Romantic ideas that link the nation to nature and to the landscape in particular. Those ideas still claim much of the popular imagination and official representations of the nation, yet they have always been challenged by very different indigenous ideas about the land and the relations of human beings to it. Those Indigenous views are now prompting scholars such as Fee to re-read Canadian literature for more respectful ways of engaging First Peoples and their world views. I assigned Leanne Simpson so we could think about some of these issues in more detail today. Fee suggests that “The decolonization of Canadian literature will require a new genre of academic writing,” possibly linked more closely to indigenous “story theory” (223) because in our time, “Story is being retheorizaed and the land restoried” (224). Simpson’s text shows us how an Anishnaabeg perspective performs this rethorizing and restorying through reclaiming the language in all its nuances. For Fee, as for Simpson, ultimately, “The issue is how to share land” (226). The two texts I suggested we read for today, Lawrence Hill’s Some Great Thing and Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, address that question of sharing and reciprocity from multiple angles.
With this introduction to the scope of my talk in mind, then, I turn in the next sections to introduce myself, my research, and the perspectives I bring to the study of Canadian literature, global contexts, and ideas about decolonizing stories. Throughout the talk, I will problematize what is meant by Canada, by the world, and by decolonization, set in dialogue with these two texts. I will conclude with some questions we could consider together as we move into our formal discussion period. But please note that I am happy to stop at any time to address questions you might want to raise during the course of my prepared talk. Interruptions can be productive, so please don’t hesitate.
In suggesting that Canadians begin with the question, “Who am I?”, Senator Sinclair and President Barnard break with Canadian literary tradition as established by Northrop Frye, who argued that Canadians are more engaged with the question of “Where is here?” than they are with “Who am I?” Earlier in my career, I was impatient with this question, arguing we should ask instead “what we are doing here?” “How will we imagine our future in this place?” But now, I see the complexity and importance of Frye’s question and the urgency of addressing it first. In fact, Fee’s book starts with Frye’s question. Many of Canada’s indigenous people might argue, with Simpson, that the two questions are deeply entangled, to the extent that land is identity. To understand our country and its literature, we need to start with where we are. I have taught Canadian literature in different parts of the country—in Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver, Kitimat, Ottawa, Guelph, and London, Ontario. From each location, the country and its literature looks different and is taught in different configurations.
I began this talk by referring to Winnipeg specifically, and Canada more generally, as a crossroads where many people and cultures meet. This has been true historically, and remains even more the case as globalization ensures greater mobility of ideas, people, and goods, both within and across the borders of the nation-state. With Brexit and Trump, there are efforts to close borders against people, and in the case of the US, against goods and ideas as well, but both the UK and the US are now finding how complex it is to try to cut off connections in our interconnected world. I hold a Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Cultural Studies, which is enabling me to study these criss-crossing relations across both literal and figurative borders. What people often fail to realize, however, is how long such globalizing processes have been in effect. Literary scholars in particular are quick to point out the long history of such interactions. When we study the history of literary cultures globally, we learn that people have been travelling and trading since the beginning of our civilizations. Despite the difficulty of travel in earlier times, the mobility of people in earlier centuries is often astonishing to those of us, like myself, who find air travel challenging enough. We know that officials of the British Empire travelled extensively for their work, moving from Australia to the West Indies to India, for example; and we know too that traders, soldiers, sailors, and many other workers, and even recreational travellers, were almost equally mobile.
I have chosen the image of the crossroads to indicate the intersecting lines and entanglements that characterize human history and the history of our own nation as we are coming to understand it today. At the time of Confederation, Canada was understood as an English-dominant colonial state with a significant French fact. Indigenous priority was recognized, and recognized explicitly in the earlier Royal Proclamation of 1763, but was nonetheless downplayed and diverted into the signing of numbered treaties until recent years. As we now know from the diligent work of the TRC Commission, the Indian Residential Schools were deliberately set up for the purpose of a cultural genocide project, “to kill the Indian in the child.” As a nation, we are only beginning to deal with that legacy and we have a growing number of novels, poems, and autobiographies to help Canadians understand the full dimensions of that history. The genre of the residential school text now holds a recognized place in our literature.
Many of the recognized features of the modern nation-state came late to Canada. Canadian citizenship was not established until 1947. Before that, residents were British subjects. Canada adopted its own flag in 1965. Canada patriated the Constitution in 1982. Official bilingualism and biculturalism came relatively late, with the Official Languages Act passed in 1969. Official multiculturalism came in 1988. Many of you may remember those nation-defining moments.
More recently still, Canadians are coming to recognize the wrongs done to indigenous peoples through a history of colonialism represented by the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop that followed their closures. After the release of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating the residential schools and its many recommendations for redress and reconciliation, the country is on the cusp of learning more about the cultures that the schools sought to eradicate and some of us are seeking answers in our Canadian literary traditions. The national self-image is shifting yet again to recognize Canada as the result of founding partnerships between English, French, and indigenous peoples, however unequal such partnerships were in practice. In light of these shifts in consciousness, John Ralston Saul revisits Canadian history to argue that Canada has in fact always been a Metis nation. This is a well-meaning revision but it carries problems of its own, especially if it encourages glossing over many of the difficult facts in our history and the very real differences between the cultural views of the many different people now inhabiting this country.
Given this history, what do we mean when we commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday? What is the Canada for which this date can mark a celebration? We know that in 1867, Manitoba was not even part of what constituted Canada at that time. Part of what is now Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870. Yet, we can accept this symbolic date as the beginning of something new. At the same time, Canadian literature as a discipline does not restrict itself to literature written after 1867. Stories and writing long preceded the establishment of the state. When the Canadian state finally became a nation, pulling together different groups of people into a common sense of identity and purpose, is even harder to determine. For certain parts of the country, regionalism may remain a more potent focus of identity. For others, the Quebec nation or their particular First Nation, may remain the first point of identification within the federation of the Canadian nation-state. Part of Canada’s identity as a nation is its ability to accommodate these other nations within its federation. Literature is entangled with all these nations, and we can think of literature and the nation as co-constructing one another. At the same time, literature is not restricted by the borders of the nation-state. Canadian literature can be set anywhere in the world and it finds its readers everywhere. We may argue that Canadian literature is anything written by a Canadian or more nebulously, that wherever it is set, it is both shaped by and shapes a Canadian sensibility or perspective on the world, however hard those are to pin down in reality. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what appears to be the United States of the future, and many Americans assume this is an American text, but we Canadians claim the book as ours and there are good reasons for thinking that it presents a Canadian-based view of the world and gender critique.
Scholars look to the written accounts of early explorers and creative writers and to indigenous oral narratives for insight into early, pre-Confederation encounters and how they were perceived at the time. Contemporary creative writers continue to revisit these earlier stories to discover new insights into the past. Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers, for example, incorporates earlier explorer journals of the doomed Franklin expedition into a rich re-imagining of how indigenous peoples and their visitors understood the land, their relations to it and to each other, remaking their encounters into an ecocritical parable for our times. In The Man From the Creeks, Robert Kroetsch (who lived here in Winnipeg for many years) imagines a novelistic backstory to Robert Service’s famous poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Kroetsch brings late twentieth century understandings of gender into dialogue with the nineteenth century Gold Rush story dramatized in the poem. Creative writers such as George Elliott Clarke have published anthologies and critical studies of black Maritime writing going back to the 17th century. In a similar effort, Karina Vernon, a critic at the University of Toronto, has compiled an anthology of black writing going back to earlier times from the Canadian prairies. Both authors employ an expanded definition of literature to include sermons, political speeches, diaries, and even pioneer cook books. Similar anthologies may be found for many other immigrant communities of long and more recent standing. Such work documents a long, multicultural history of people living, interacting, and writing in this country before Confederation and certainly before the official launch of a federal multicultural policy. Our literature is constantly revisiting and rethinking the meanings of our past as a set of interlinked communities sharing in this land.
So 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. Nalo Hopkinson’s speculative fiction, Brown Girl in the Ring, is an exciting example of how such symbolic systems may be grounded in the physical architecture of contemporary Toronto in an imagined futuristic society, which has lost its way but can be saved from a dystopian future by remembering and renovating spiritual traditions of the past, both those indigenous to this place and imported from abroad. As such texts teach us, in thinking through the crossroads, we must not shirk the difficult forms of knowledge that come from a history of colonial and capitalist expansionist violence. But we can work through that violence through stories that imagine worlds beyond their reach.
So today 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 the ceremonial acknowledgement of our own Red River Valley crossroads, with which I began this talk. 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 revisiting the stories of our past and imagining a different story together.
From this perspective, the 150 year anniversary of Canada’s official beginning as a recognized nation-state within an international system can seem somewhat arbitrary. The land designated Canada pre-existed Confederation; so did the people. What we inherit by living here has a much longer history and a longer record, in writing and in oral tradition. We need to remember that this is not the only possible beginning, while also recognizing the genuine achievements and serious errors made since 1867. This date does not mark an end to colonialism but perhaps it can mark a turn toward decolonization.
In The Truth About Stories, Thomas King claims 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 critical mediation on stories from around the world, told from his Canada-based perspective, in a book called, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?, takes his title from the indigenous challenge issued to British settler/colonials in Canada 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 out of their research-based knowledges, employing methods of academic work in literary studies, which combine deep intimacy and simple language with critical reflection. Letting go of oneself to inhabit another’s world, in humility, and respect, without appropriation, and also standing back to contemplate how that experience has changed us. In her long poem, 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 problematizes 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. I see what King is getting at when he says that stories are all we are. The stories we tell, and the names we choose to give things and experiences matter. But I think we also need to pay attention to how some stories are heard and others are not; why some stories do not find readers or listeners and other stories do. All stories, written or oral, require validation, repetition, negotiation, and interpretation through institutional structures, whether those be the listening contexts authorized for performing and receiving indigenous oral stories or the publication, distribution, and reception networks set up for written texts. A prairie classic such as Sinclair Ross’s novel As For Me and My House sold fewer than 50 copies on its first appearance. It is the institutions of Canadian literary studies and the university study of national literatures that have enabled this text to survive and eventually find the readers it deserves. As I ponder the recent Canada Reads experience, I think we are still struggling with how to hear certain stories.
Stories are elusive and changeable. They are not things; they are processes arising 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 theatre, 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. Many of the common sense stories about Canada need to be rethought, which is why come commentators resist the celebratory nature of this year’s approach to our past. During the Australian centennial celebrations of the arrival of the first fleet, many indigenous people and their supporters coined the phrase, “What’s there to celebrate in 88?” For 2017, in similar rhyming fashion, we might ask: “2017? What does it mean?” We don’t yet know the answer to this question. What will we make it mean for our future?
Literary texts ask us to confront such questions. How are meanings made? Values negotiated? How can the imagination be freed from what Blake called 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.
Dionne Brand provides one answer to Frye’s question, Where is here? For Brand, ‘Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest’ (“On Poetry”:183). For many indigenous peoples, “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. Turtle Island gives life to Thomas King’s latest novel, The Back of the Turtle. King implies that all of us 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. Leanne Simpson’s story- theories in Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, similarly embrace that founding story to launch an enquiry into the language and stories of her people, which might serve as a resource for cultural resurgence.
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 with the humans on the upper deck and the animals below, as in Timothy Findley’s novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage, and also excluding others from any participation in the voyage at all.
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 Sto:lo author Lee Maracle, in describing the stories that embody these systems as theories, rather than myths, 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, and 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. In my view, decolonization is not the same thing as indigenization. Both projects may be necessary; they are related; but they are not identical.
Part of the difference may be illustrated by thinking about Senator Sinclair and President Barnard’s first question: “Where do I come from?” When asked of another, “where do you come from?”, the question takes on new resonances depending on the context in which it is asked. It is the first question that indigenous peoples ask when they meet someone new. It is part of their protocol for politeness. Yet when white Canadians ask this question of racialized Canadians, it can cause hurt and resentment. It seems to imply that they are not really Canadians or don’t really belong. These are perceived as “loaded questions for people of colour born or raised in Canada” (Palmer v). Underlining this point, Hazelle Palmer calls her anthology of texts addressing the complexities of this question, “…but where are you really from?” Stories of Identity and Assimilation in Canada. The humour and the hurt attached to this question is well dramatized in the early scenes of Lawrence Hill’s Some Great Thing. After a Prologue introducing the hopes the protagonist’s railroad porter father holds for his new-born son in 1957, the novel proper opens in 1983 with the newsroom speculating about what his unusual name, Mahatma Lennox Grafton, might say about who he is and where he is from. They settle on Pakistani (a comic choice in itself given that Mahatma is named for Gandhi, a Hindu, and Pakistan is an officially Muslim nation). When the African-descendent Canadian, Mahatma, arrives, he is put through the usual routine that so many racialized Canadian writers rehearse in their texts: “’where are you from, anyway?’ Mahatma tried not to stiffen… “Winnipeg. The Wolseley area.” Ben frowned. “Yes, but your nationality?” “Canadian.” “Yes, but you know. Where were you from? Before that?” “Before that?” … “You know. Your origins.” (10). “Origins,” Mahatma repeated … “I originated in Winnipeg. Misericordia Hospital.” (11). In Part Two, another reporter asks him the same question, and the reader is told that “Mahatma fielded this question ten times a week” (50). A few pages later, it happens again, with two new twists, shifting it from its racialized focus on black Canadians to stereotypes of Winnipeg in the rest of Canada: “Winnipeg, he’d tell them. Ah, Winnipeg—that explains it, they’d say” (63). In such contexts, to ask another person the question, “where are you from,” is not an innocent question
Yet it is a question we can all ask ourselves and Hill and Simpson each ask it in different ways. Hill, through a set of loosely connected characters from different backgrounds, and Simpson through recounting her own efforts to learn her language and community stories from the elders. When I taught Hill’s novel a few years ago, different students in the class identified with different characters in the text, partly because of their own life experiences. When I taught Simpson’s text this year, a few students were puzzled as to who her intended audience might be and who was included in that reference to “our turtle’s back.” If some of you have had a chance to read these books, I would be interested in hearing your responses.
As for myself, I was born in Hamilton and attended the University of Toronto to study English at a time when Canadian literature was still not taught for credit within the English honours program. 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. Until the recent coup, Brazil was 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. Its current government seems determined to turn back the clock, freezing education, health, and social expenditures for the next 20 years. Sweden, long seen as a leader in ethical internationalism, is confronting its role within Nordic colonialisms and the challenges of integrating many immigrants and refugees 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. These nations 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 in 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,” and how it connects to the idea of rights.
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 our 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. The climate change story is a good example of a story that has particular resonance for people in the Arctic, for Canadians, and for the globe. It is both a national story for many peoples and a global story as well. How best literature can tell this story is a conundrum. Watt-Cloutier’s memoir is fascinating for the ways in which it combines her remarkable personal story with the details of what it means to work as a public intellectual and policy activist in a world still dominated by men and by a global North that marginalizes the Arctic. It is notable for the ways in which it insists that the personal is political and for the ways in which its reception seems to show that not everyone is willing or able to value a book that seems to fall between the two stools of telling a personal lifestory and making the climate change case as a policy activist.
In my view, the story-theory, alternative-vocabulary, and discontinuous but linked narratives provided by Simpson and the dramatized, multi-voiced group narrative provided by Hill work more effectively to encourage readers to open themselves to alternative perspectives. But I am curious to hear your views about these texts and the issues they raise for us as readers in our current moment. Hill’s book is set, primarily in Winnipeg, but also briefly in Cameroon, over the course of a year from July 1983 to July 1984. It addresses such Canadian questions as the relationship between French and English, minority rights, stereotypes of natives, hockey violence, poverty and welfare, the charter of rights, border politics (in the context of Canada/US relations and First World/Third World relations), journalistic ethics, systemic sexism and racism, racialized representations in literature, and how to address them in school settings, These are all just as topical today as when the book was published. Listed like that, it sounds like too much. But each of these questions is entangled with the others; they are complex and Hill provides them with the nuance they deserve. His characters are multi-dimensional, flawed and human, alternatively comic and sometimes tragic. Winnipeg itself is one of the book’s characters: its roads, buildings, and monuments and its history traced with care, and its controversies presented as part of a global dialogue.
Simpson’s text starts with her people reclaiming a street and their own, Anishnaabeg name for a place that is officially called Peterborough. She writes out of her own community’s understanding that, in her words, “the Nishnaabeg have been collectively dispossessed of our national territory; we are an occupied nation” (12). Positioning herself as a learner rather than a teacher, she seeks to free herself from what she calls the “cognitive box of imperialism” (81; 148) by creating and reclaiming “free cognitive spaces” (34) through storytelling. Her book proceeds through a series of embedded stories from which she derives sustenance for her quest to decolonize and imagine “transformed realities” (35). Throughout the book, she performs through her storytelling her view that “imagining aligns us with the emergent and creative forces of the implicate order” (146). While Hill wrote at a time when Canadians were seeking reconciliation between English and French, Simpson writes at a time when reconciliation is being proposed as a route forward for indigenous and settler-descendent and immigrant Canadians. Like most indigenous thinkers, she is suspicious of reconciliation, proposing instead her own vocabulary of re-creation, resurgence, and a new emergence. Both books teach us that language matters; vocabulary, naming, and translation matter; and that negative stereotypes can be destructive of respectful communal relations, both within and beyond our borders.
These stories 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 a 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.
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