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Revisiting the Open Society: A Canadian View

I am so deeply honoured to accept this award, not least because I hold such admiration for the fine scholarship being done at Linnaeus University and for the openness colleagues here have shown to me, a visiting scholar and collaborator from another society.

As a literary critic, I always look at words and the stories they tell. So I start today with the puzzle posed by the open society—the theme of this Linnaeus lecture series this year. My research leads me to wonder: Can there be such a thing? The open society only takes on meaning when contrasted with a closed society. Yet are not all societies closed in some ways, and differentially open in others? Openness is a matter of degree, not identity. To be meaningful, it must always be open to challenge, and hence to the possibility of revision. Openness cannot be fixed; it must be an ongoing process. At the same time, for a society to be a society, it must have a sense of itself and a sense of who belongs to its imaginary—and who does not. Who is inside and who is outside? What makes this society different from other societies? Where are the borders and who inhabits the borders? Borders block and they also link. So where are the linkages between this society and others? Finally, the absolute nature of that definite article “the” gives me pause. Can there be only one open society and if so, who gets to determine its openness? Whose interests does such a descriptor serve? Would not the indefinite article, “a”, serve us better in describing the nature of societies and their relations with each other?

From my work in postcolonial and decolonial studies, I have seen the damage caused by a single civilizational ideal imposed on others. As a student of globalization, I see how the world has moved from the bipolarity of the Cold War era into the unipolarity of US dominance. That era now seems to be over. We are now shifting into a dynamic and unstable multipolar world. Within that world, competing models of openness seek to win our loyalties. The most dramatic oppositions may be between two starkly opposed models with very different starting points and views of what is at stake. One links societal openness to ethical calls to welcome recognition of our interdependencies with others, human and nonhuman, and to respect our co-dependencies. The challenges energizing but also to some extent blocking such initiatives come from climate change and migration as well as from the second model, which seeks to expand neoliberal capitalism further into individual lives and the global governance system. This second model links openness to those calls from business communities and their allies to embrace so-called free trade deals or lose our global competitiveness.  Both versions claim ownership of true openness yet differ on their understanding of the goals and natures of society. Each model offers a different view of how its open society might operate globally. The first imagines a world of no borders for people in a world where “no one is illegal.” The second imagines a world of complexly negotiated borders, in which goods, ideas, capital, and a privileged class of global elite might circulate freely but in which others remain ideally confined to the place of their birth.

Is either model truly feasible on a global scale, and if it were, would that necessarily be desirable? The answer depends on how each version of the open society were to be defined and implemented. The first version of a global open society is associated with organizations such as The World Social Forum and the second with the World Trade Organization. A third attempt at a middle way between the two might be linked to the Soros Open Society Foundation. It works “to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.” Its beliefs in “fundamental human rights, dignity, and the rule of law” and “in encouraging critical debate and respecting diverse opinions” place it firmly within small l liberal traditions of democracy promotion. As a Western feminist myself, I find these ideals appealing yet I am also aware of how regularly they are seen in other parts of the world as an alibi for imposing a colonizing and Christianizing agenda on alternative modes of defining these value concepts. Each of these terms, human rights, dignity, and the rule of law, are highly disputed and carry problematic histories that cannot be forgotten. One group’s common sense contradicts the experiences of others. There is a huge literature within postcolonial studies pointing out the difficulties with these discourses that I do not wish to go into here because my main point is simply that none of these categories can be taken for granted and their meanings are not transparent.  The open society is no different. It follow that our key task is to continually test and negotiate the meanings of these practices, working our way toward shared understandings of their value and the best way to implement them within our communities.

I believe our current models of international and global relations are flawed and it will be important to rethink how people might reorganize our efforts within the global arena differently. At the same time, however, I think the best ideas for rethinking the global are more likely to come from a coalition of bottom-up initiatives rather than from above. As a starting point for discussion,  I do not believe that versions of the open society implemented in one nation-state can usefully be imposed or even borrowed to work within another polity nor can one model usefully be  scaled up to operate unchanged within the global arena. When Will Kymlicka, for example, suggests that Canadian multiculturalism might offer a model for finding unity through diversity to other nations across the globe, I think he underestimates the specificities that render Canadian multiculturalism a model unlikely to travel well. Even within Canada, multiculturalism remains a debated concept and Quebec has offered interculturalism as a preferable alternative. It follows from this that Canada and Sweden can learn from each other but we each need to find our own way that will be true to our needs and our own evolving sets of values as we renegotiate our national imaginaries for a global era defined by time/space compression, continual rapid change, and associated growth in precarity.

In my classrooms and research teams, we look at a variety of stories from around the world and from different disciplines to think about what they can teach us about living together and living well. Stories told from within a variety of epistemic communities, whether these be place-based, discipline-based, or anchored within any interest-based community, can in the situated experiences they create, help those of us who think about them with “critical intimacy” learn more about what it feels like to open oneself to other realities. By “critical intimacy,” a phrase I borrow from Gayatri Spivak, I mean a way of opening oneself imaginatively to the experiences created by a story, with a generous willingness to take its premises seriously enough to consider them thoughtfully. For a long time, literary criticism was dominated by a lopsided focus on critique, which culminated in a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  Now critics are moving away from that automatic suspicion toward more balanced engagements with the richness of story. “Critical intimacy” restores balance to the act of literary reading, providing room for the kind of intimate engagement that open up to a text’s difference without sacrificing the kind of careful examination we associate with the exercise of reason. If we can encounter stories in that spirit, then interpreting them can help us both appreciate their complexity and work through that complexity to achieve greater clarity.

If you are not a literary critic, that may sound rather abstract. I will offer two stories, one fictional and one non-fictional, to show the value of stories about the productive frictions generated by encounter. The first works as a “thought-experiment” (as described by Ursula Le Guin) and the second as “a kind of intellectual travelogue” that engages in contemporary debates about “how to approach diversity and disagreement” (Fraenkel).

First, science fiction author, Le Guin, imagines a type of open society operating across the Universe as an ever expanding federation of planets in The Left Hand of Darkness. Her envoy from this Federation (called the Ekumen) has been sent to the remote planet of Winter, where he experiences severe culture shock in attempting to communicate with these new peoples and then again when after three years, he reunites with others from his Federation. The major stumbling block for him arises from the people of Winter’s alternatively gendered embodiment and resultant behavioural norms. The story focusses on two nations on the planet Winter that are both open and closed in radically different ways and the confusions and political machinations that block the alien envoy’s route to establishing relations with these new peoples. Different ideas about governance, the rule of law, the economy, and the nature and values of community, of public and private, dignity and honour, distinguish these two Winter societies from each other. But what unites them, and differentiates them from the envoy, is what we would call the transgendered and fluid nature of their embodied identities and the associated roles they perform. These people are neither male nor female, and therefore not transgendered either in the ways we understand that term here on Earth today. Each person can fulfil the biological functions we conventionally associate with both male and female here and they can move fluidly between these roles. As a result, they do not think in binary gendered categories. Their freedom from that interpretational grid continually puzzles the envoy, and forces we readers to stretch our imaginations along unfamiliar lines.

Le Guin’s alternative societies with their alternative biology, offered as a “thought experiment” in 1969, remains a challenge for how to think about the implicitly gendered and potentially problematic nature of what is being promoted by Western nations and their foundations as the open society today. The fact that so many controversies arising from immigration and refugee resettlement seem to centre on gender relations reminds us of how important it is for any theorizations of open society to address these deeply ingrained biases. Readers of Le Guin’s text are allowed internal access to what it feels like to live such an alternatively gendered life and to the revulsion and fascination felt by the envoy, at first to the manifestations of such a different way of being in the world, and then later, to his alienated disgust at seeing his own people, and feeling his own embodiment, as if through the eyes of another.  Such an experience allows readers to open their imaginations to alternative possibilities, stretching our abilities to question even the most deeply ingrained prejudices and assumptions that currently govern our thinking.

My second set of interconnected stories comes from philosopher Carlos Fraenkel’s book, Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy for a Divided World. He explains that the impetus for his project, documented in this book, derives from the fact that values embedded in a culture that shape our identity and norms may remain “hidden and inarticulate” under normal circumstances. This is what Le Guin’s envoy learns at the deeply intimate level of bodily experience and close interactions with others. Given that situation, Fraenkel argues that we “should welcome the disruptions that compel us to confront them.” This may be a painful process but he believes we can emerge stronger as a community by engaging in what he calls “the open-ended culture of debate.”  What he means by this label is “the dialectical skill of engaging in a joint search for the truth.” His advocacy of this position comes from his personal experience as a child of Jewish Brazilian immigrants who fled the dictatorship to live for a while in Germany, and then returned to Brazil when he was a young boy. He now teaches philosophy at McGill University in Canada. What I find most valuable about this book is the individual case studies he narrates of his extended personal and professional encounters with different communities around the world to engage in this kind of debate around the issues most immediate to their situations. Through the stories he tells of the workshops he ran, he hopes to “show by example and argument that making philosophy part of our personal and public lives is something worthwhile.”

He makes some bold claims: “Can philosophy save the Middle East? It can.” Through a seminar he co-teaches at Al-Quds University, the Palestinian university in Jerusalem, he hopes to raise questions about philosophy, politics and religion that might open “a new perspective on the Middle East.” He expects the texts to resonate differently there than with his students in Montreal, and they do. With two professors in the classroom, in this case with different religious identities and backgrounds, it becomes easier to dramatize the value and procedures of open-ended debate. He speculates that the “permanent state of collision” that characterizes this environment might stimulate closer attention to the urgency of inquiring into questions of “justice, rights, and power” than does the situation in the West, where there is more complacency about these concepts. His method is to help his students “rediscover the wide variety of positions that were defended in the history of Islamic thought,” thereby opening discussion beyond what Vandana Shiva calls, in a different context, a “monocentrism of the mind.” For Shiva, this phrase describes the authoritarian blindness that drove the Green Revolution and its destruction of seed biodiversity and local seed sovereignty in favour of bioengineered and expensive seeds owned by a corporate monopoly. Gayatri Spivak adapts the phrase—monoculture of the mind– to describe the denial of difference within social, economic, and political spheres. It has become one of my favourite metaphors for the closed society.

With each community in which he holds his seminars, Fraenkel builds on an aspect of his experience that most closely connects with theirs and through their interactions the discussions take forms best suited to their own immediate preoccupations. From the Middle East, he goes to Indonesia, then a Hasidic Jewish community in New York, a public high school in Salvador, Brazil, and finally Akwesasne, one of the largest Mohawk reserves in North America, just outside Montreal. These latter two raise the citizenship questions that most interest me. In each, he takes his workshops beyond a university setting into versions of the public sphere.  “Citizen Philosophers in Brazil” raises questions about how to achieve equality in one of the world’s most unequal societies and “Word-Warriors: Philosophy in Mohawk Land” considers the challenges of designing self-governance for a community of roughly twelve thousand Mohawks whose territory is “crisscrossed by five national and provincial borders: Canada, the United States, Quebec, Ontario, and New York.” In addition to these jurisdictions, there are two officially recognized governing bodies and two traditional Mohawk governing bodies that carry authority with the people but not with the Canadian or American governments. Given the community’s long history of colonization, Fraenkel explains: “some of the most fundamental questions require new answers: how to reconcile modernity and tradition, what it means to live well, who should rule, and who counts as a Mohawk.”  In both places, the value of what he is trying to do is questioned, especially by those whose authority would be undermined by an open culture of debate. In Brazil, he is challenged by both elitist academic philosophers and by pragmatic teachers who teach to the tests that govern students’ life chances in a system where access to good higher education is limited and mostly denied to the racialized poor. In Akwesasne, his motives for approaching their community are challenged as is the value of the discussions he can offer. But in both cases, interesting discussions are recorded although no conclusions are reached. Fraenkel concedes that philosophical discussions “are often inconclusive.” What he offers are some of the tools for arriving at decisions and for revising them as times and needs change. Those tools are what we in the university community can offer to the shaping and conduct of our respective national debates.

The strength of Fraenkel’s book lies in its individual case studies of debates he guided with a range of communities, each grappling with issues most central to their own sense of identity and communal needs. Most of the societies he engages might be described as among those least open to the rest of the world yet his stories of their discussions show the value of open debate in those contexts. He concludes people today are lucky that globalizing processes are making it impossible for people “to avoid exposure to beliefs and values different from our own” because this situation puts us all “under pressure to justify what we think and do.” He admits that “diversity and disagreement on their own” are insufficient. His argument is for fostering “a culture of debate—an institutional framework in which diversity and disagreement can be transformed into a joint search for the truth.” For Fraenkel, philosophy can provide the models, the metaphors, and the vocabulary for engaging in such discussions but the groundwork for developing such a culture would need to be developed in the last years of high school. What he wants to see is training in “techniques of debate,” how to clarify one’s views and meet possible objections, and training in the “virtues of debate,” that is, “valuing the truth more than winning an argument.” I would argue that most disciplines have developed their own ways of teaching these principles.

Fraenkel’s stories are good to think with. It may be that the kind of discussions he documents work best within small group contexts or within societies where these techniques and virtues of debate have been widely inculcated. Could they be adapted to calm fears and encourage resiliency on the larger scale of nation-wide discussions?  He believes that “If we can transform disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.” This may be too optimistic in all circumstances but such a culture could surely contribute to that end.

For example, despite a lot of ugliness, anger, and uninformed commentary during Canada’s recent federal election, when Prime Minister Harper sought to make the niqab an election issue and promised to set up a hotline on barbaric cultural practices, there were also many principled interventions from a variety of perspectives that enriched understanding and ultimately, I think, contributed to strengthening our varied modes of expressing our equally strong convictions about the equality of women as understood in the distinct, yet overlapping societies of Canada and Quebec. News from Sweden about the refusal of a politician to shake hands with a woman carries the potential to start a discussion in Sweden about the values and necessary limits around what we in Canada call “reasonable accommodation” of practices that fall outside established hegemonic societal norms. The politician in question suggested another substitute gesture that did not carry the same implications of intimacy for him. In response, we heard another politician insist that Swedes shake hands. What is at stake in this exchange, reported in a piecemeal fashion in the global media? To an outsider without all the facts, it seems that shaking hands in this instance stands in for much more than a mere gesture of politeness. It is being asked to carry a burden of cultural beliefs about gender equality that might benefit from further articulation.

Fraenkel’s ideal of an “open-ended culture of debate” allows people to change their minds if they find it desirable after careful examination of the issues, and it also allows for the possibility of achieving greater clarity about why certain values matter and what is at stake in defending them. Before it was defunded in 2006, the Law Commission of Canada performed a similar function, consulting widely on emergent issues of concern and making recommendations on necessary updating of the law to take account of changing circumstances, needs, knowledges, and social norms. After consultation, it recommended legalizing same sex marriage and the government of the day then followed through on that recommendation. If the rule of law is to maintain its legitimacy and hold respect, it needs to work to bring itself closer to ideals of justice. It is in this sense that Fraenkel too believes that through informed discussion, people can progress.

Fraenkel offers a spirited defence of why his views are not blindly ethnocentric but rather represent a “critical ethnocentrism” that refuses the two extremes of either coercion or relativism. Freedom of expression is essential to his project but as long as a society ensures that freedom, he thinks the culture of debate could flourish in many different kinds of society and not just a liberal democracy. In this talk, I have found myself engaging in my own debate with his ideas as I try to imagine what an open society might look like.

If you search for the open society on the net, chances are that Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and its Enemies, will pop up first. I find this wording counter-productive. Fortunately, we have the freedom to determine our own way of framing the issues. In Western democracies, we are conditioned to value openness. But given that bias, it is harder to see the limits to our own openness, the places where less visible blockages continue to exist, and the places where despite ourselves we may find unexpected closures occurring. With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify some of the ways in which self-identified open societies in the past were far from completely open. Through comparing one society to another, we can see the varieties of openness within each as well as the many different ways in which openness is understood in practice and mobilized for causes both good and ill.

For example, 17th century philosopher John Locke defined North American indigenous nations as static closed societies. He came to these conclusions without ever visiting the continent or studying their thinking and their practices. A whole system of colonial governance was built on Locke’s false premises that we are only beginning to dismantle today. From studying history and listening to indigenous peoples themselves, we now know that they were much more open societies than that of the British who colonized them. They had protocols for defining belonging and enabling adoption and they initially welcomed the settler/invaders to share the land with them according to the laws associated with the fundamental openness built into their societies. Their original openness is now being advocated by Canadian intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul as a model on which the Canadian nation can build a better version of its own claim to openness. Such examples from the past advise caution when making assumptions about what is open and what is closed today.

It is possible that given its history of blatant misuse, before and especially after the events of 9/11, the open society as a concept may inspire more cynicism than idealism. Words get damaged when misused and sometimes we need to renew them. I was part of an inspiring project called Building Global Democracy that sought to bring together academics, activists and policymakers from around the world to advance knowledge and practice for greater public participation and control in the governance of global affairs. I believe in this ideal, and the word democracy, in some contexts, can still inspire fear in dictatorial regimes. At the same time, the history of so-called democracy promotion, has also inspired cynicism, perhaps especially among formerly colonized nations where many see it as an alibi for continued colonialism or Christian conversion. Partly in response to such considerations, I prefer to talk about self-determination and autonomy, the rights of a people to govern themselves—not as a unit cut off from the world but as a community that recognizes both how it is connected to a larger world and the ways in which it is distinct. Naming matters. A recent Canadian book, by indigenous scholar Lisa Monchalin, renames what used to be called “the Indian problem,” by labelling it instead, The Colonial Problem: an Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada. That kind of shift in perspective can jolt readers into alternative ways of framing discussion.

Many formerly colonized countries, once labelled Third World, then underdeveloped, and now the Global South, reject the stories that development studies tells: stories that the West holds the only keys to modernization and has charted the only route forward for any society seeking to improve itself. Without necessarily opening themselves entirely to Western ideas, they also refuse Western beliefs that they are closed societies and that the only way to become an open society is to emulate the West.  Such challenges to Western definitions of the open society can help us, in Sweden and Canada, to redefine what an open society is and what it could be. Development still locates its centres of value within the global North, which it presumes both defines and leads modernity. Yet the darker, colonial side of that modernity needs to be addressed, and development discourses and their associated practices need to be decolonized. To what extent, as some theorists argue, has Western development actually itself developed the underdevelopment that justifies its continued interventions? And to what extent does the current refugee crisis owe its impetus to that history? We can all see that globalizing processes, mostly economic, are opening borders to goods and ideas while closing them to the movements of people.

It was once predicted that globalization would hollow out the nation-state. That has not happened. Instead, nation-states are changing their functions, slowly losing control over their decision-making capacity in areas governed by so called “free trade” deals, but maintaining the right to control immigration and confer citizenship. These free trade deals advocate a dangerous version of openness that will in fact close down a democratic society’s right to determine its own directions. The problem comes through the trade deal advocacy of ISDS, an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism inserted in deals such as NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and substantially strengthened in the proposed TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) and CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) between Canada and the European Union. These agreements would allow corporations to sue governments for damages when laws or regulations were enacted that they believed could damage their profitability. With this example, we can see the kind of Orwellian double speak that disguises itself as openness while strengthening closure. Part of the problem with these deals is that they were negotiated in secrecy, thereby pre-emptively silencing the kind of open debate that I am suggesting is necessary here. The insights offered by the two texts I have discussed today suggest that it is premature to believe that the stark choices insisted upon by promoters of these trade deals, between open and closed, are the only options before us. What feminist economists such as J.K. Gibson-Graham suggest is that there are alternative theorizations and practices of economic engagement that have yet to be fully explored.

And so to my conclusion, which invites future engagement. In this talk I have suggested that to be met effectively, the challenges I have outlined here require, first of all, a decolonizing perspective that defines openness as the fostering of “multiepistemic literacy” capable of learning and unlearning to dialogue effectively “between epistemic worlds” (Kuokkanen cited in Sundberg); and secondly, a commitment, in Juanita Sundberg’s words, to taking “responsibility for the epistemological and ontological worlds we enact through the paths we walk and talk” (40). I see an interesting link between Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of community as something that transcends the place-, identity-, and interest-based assumptions of the past by stressing instead a “being-with” and the Zapatista’s “respect for the [reciprocal] multiplicity of lifeworlds” that they define as “walking with” and “asking as we walk” (Sundberg 40; 39), a process that moves away from the universality implied by the open society toward the pluriversality of many worlds, at once singular and overlapping in their relations. Mario Blaser defines the pluriverse as “an experiment in bringing itself into being” (55).  “Pluriverse,” being with” and “walking with” are emergent philosophical constructions that fit well with the idea of concurrences as developed by the Concurrences Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies here at Linnaeus University, with which I am privileged to work. These concepts enable different disciplines to open to one another to share their archives and open conversations across their research worlds without collapsing them into a monocentrism of the mind. I look forward to many more years of fruitful walking and questioning together.

Works Cited

Blaser, Mario. “Ontology and indigeneity: on the political ontology of heterogeneous assemblages.” Cultural Geographies (2014). Vol. 2 (1): 49-58.

Fraenkel, Carlos. Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy for a Divided World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Gibson-Graham, J.K.. The End of CAPITALISM (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. With a New Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007.

Kymlicka, W. Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: ACE Penguin, 1969; “Introduction” 1976.

Monchalin, Lisa. The Colonial Problem: An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Popper, Karl. R The Open Society and Its Enemies. New One-Volume Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Saul, John Ralston. “Canada’s multiculturalism: a circle, ever edging outwards.” The Globe and Mail. Friday April 2w2, 2016.

Shiva, Vandana. “Monocultures of the Mind.” The Vandana Shiva Reader. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,

Sundberg, Juanita. “Decolonizing posthumaist geographies.” Cultural Geographies (2014. Vol. 2 (1): 33-47.


What Does it Take to Decolonize a Country? Celia’s Song revisions a West Before the West


In The Truth about Stories, Tom King suggests that indigenous writers have usually avoided historical fiction, largely turning instead to the present and the future to articulate their visions of an alternative and indigenous world view.  He speculates that given the dominant negative stereotypes promoted by colonialism, indigenous writers have felt themselves lacking access to a usable discursive past capable of forming a basis for an indigenous-centred historical fiction. Since King’s lectures, Joseph Boyden has attempted historical fiction in The Orenda to mixed reviews. I hypothesize in this paper that options for engaging the past in alternative ways are opening up beyond those prescribed by a Eurocentric focus. If history as a discipline and particular orientation to the past has been contaminated by the biases of colonialism, then the more viable solution may be to turn, as King himself does, to the creation stories for an alternative starting point. In Green Grass Running Water, he pairs this approach with a deconstruction of the mythic stories told by the colonizing Europeans and their colonial descendents. Yet King has also criticized postcolonial theory for beginning its critique of colonialism with first encounters rather than recognizing the long histories of indigenous occupation and theorizing through stories that preceded that encounter. This paper is interested in the alternative approach to those pre-encounter worldviews as enacted in Lee Maracle’s novel Celia’s Song, her sequel to Ravensong.

First of all, Maracle refuses to situate those pre-encounter worldviews solely in the past. For her and her people, what mainstream History terms the past is not over.  It lives on in the present in at least two ways. Firstly, because colonialism is a structure and not an event (Wolfe), colonial structures remain, sometimes in adaptive ways, to organize people’s lives. Secondly, by beginning with her own culture’s understanding of time, rather than accepting the linear, Eurocentric view, Maracle can show how the past lives on in the present through ancestral voices, visions, and dreams and mythic incarnations. This is an approach to decolonization that refuses to situate the decolonizing project within a linear view of history. It must involve the ancestors if it is to succeed.

The last few years have seen several indigenous writers look further back into the period before colonization to imagine a usable past, derived from “a West before the West” on which to build a West after the West. Yet to use the language of before and after in such a way is to misrepresent how these writers approach the concept of time. Maracle, for example, implicitly challenges the Eurocentric separation of past from present and future, by inscribing alternative understandings of time in which the dead are neither powerless nor ghosts but rather ancestors whose spirits survive into the present and continue to make claims on the present. This conference’s title plays on the multiple significances of the West in the colonial imaginary. From a postcolonial perspective, the West is understood as a relational category, inscribing the orientation of European powers who assume the right to name the rest of the world from the place where they begin. In naming the Orient as their East, as Edward Said explained, they also named themselves, in relation, as “the West.” In that sense, the West named a geopolitical category that functioned as a geographical imaginary and generated a cognitive framework through which the world was viewed. In the same way, confusingly, in turning their gaze westward, Europeans named North America a different kind of West, as a new world and a frontier for their explorations, often stereotyped as “the wild West.” In that sense, the West was both civilization and its opposite, the wild that civilization feared and opposed, which it located outside itself yet often feared could be found within itself. That West, as King explains, was mythologized in many Hollywood westerns, describing an invented tradition for the settler societies of Canada and the United States. Those stereotypical cowboys and Indians created a view of a settler-invader West that remains difficult to dislodge. That mythic West, in turn, further marginalized the indigenous cultures of the far western edge of the continent, the place of Maracle’s two novels.

King’s answer to the dilemma of how to write oneself out of the dominant colonialist mythologies was to turn to alternative creation stories and to challenge the colonial stories head-on, especially in Green Grass, Running Water. In Cellia’s Song, Lee Maracle moves one step beyond King, bracketing the colonial period as an interlude in a much longer understanding of deep time beyond that of the human Anthropocene. The two-headed serpent protecting an abandoned house front asks itself: “How long in human time have we been here?? (10).  The novel slips back and forth between their time, and significant moments in human time, with the conversations and actions of all participants, human and non-human, witnessed by the shape-shifter mink, whose voice opens and concludes the novel. If readers still think of British Columbia as the West, then Maracle writes this West as a West simultaneously both before and after the West of the colonial imaginary.

There are at least four distinctive and interlinked elements of Celia’s Song that serve productively to start the decolonizing process. Each happens simultaneously so they cannot be labelled as first, second and third. One is the novel’s insistence on redefining beginnings and orientations to start with indigenous namings, stories, and theorizings, moving out into the world from there. Another is the route it chooses for decolonization through a focus on the embodiment of visions and dreams. Finally, because there is always a danger that such a strategy risks recuperation into inappropriate categories derived from other experiences, the novel resists recuperation into the “postcolonial exotic” (Huggan) or depoliticized versions of magic realism by highlighting the cognitive dissonance that it insists separates indigenous from non-indigenous readers. Finally, there is a grim recognition of the very real and horrific damages wrought by the colonial system that is accompanied by the insistence that the best way forward for the indigenous community will be to take responsibility for dealing with these damages on their own and in their own way. Maracle’s insistence on indigenous autonomy is the most interesting and potentially most troubling dimension of her work for the non-indigenous reader, a reader she insists on naming in colonial, racialized terms as white.

My interest in her work comes from my thinking about the inter-related violences of colonialism, particularly its epistemic and cognitive injustices. For a reader like myself, wondering what cognitive justice might look like and how it might be achieved, Celia’s Song reads like an experiment in imagining some answers. Why talk about cognitive justice instead of justice pure and simple? For at least two reasons. Understandings of what justice is can be culture-specific, so that to move toward achieving any kind of full justice, it will be essential first of all to understand the kinds of cognitive justice that came with settler colonialism and continue within institutional structures today. Taiaiaike Alfred asserts “Without a substantial change in the circumstances of colonization, there is no basis for considering the historical injustice. The crime of colonialism is present today, as are its perpetrators, and there is yet no moral or legal basis for indigenous peoples to seek reconciliation with Canada” (170). That basis must come, he argues, from a recognition of the fundamentally different models of governance and value generated by indigenous worldviews, and by subsequent moves toward restitution for the destruction of the economic and cultural logics of those alternative systems. In arguing against reconciliation, Alfred argues that “restitution is the real pathway to justice for indigenous peoples” (165). But the case for restitution can only be made once indigenous peoples free themselves from what Leanne Simpson describes as the prison of cognitive imperialism.

In Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, Simpson explains that indigenous peoples, because they are “cognitively locked” into “the lens of colonial thought and cognitive imperialism,…are often unable to see our Ancestors” (15).  She describes cognitive imperialism as a vat in which indigenous peoples are immersed, a box in which they are trapped, and a poison for which they need to seek the antitidote. For Simpson, the key task is to create “free cognitive spaces” (34) through reclaiming, transforming, and rebuilding inherited and inherent indigenous imaginaries through story and ceremony (17). Maracle actualizes this process, enabling her readers to hear the ancestors (through the grumbling of their bones, some recent and some ancient), through the efforts of natural forces such as cedar to communicate, and through the witnessing of mink, whose words are italicized to distinguish its perspective from that of the narrator. The two-headed snake emerges from the gateposts of the house to take corporeal form in the shape of two quarelling heads, Restless and Loyal, each seeking recognition from the community in their individual ways. Maracle only allows her hereditary seer, Celia, fleeting intuitions and glimpses of the presence of these claimants to her attention. Celia sees in fragmentary flashes, but as mink observes, she is not a listener. In a similar fashion, Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen enables the brothers Okimasis, not to see, but at least to hear echoes of the shaman ancestor Chachagathoo, who remains in their northern lands long past her physical death, but of whom they are ashamed and afraid until late in their story when they have finally begun to learn how to re-see Chachagathoo for the powerful, decolonizing challenge she embodies.

Maracle’s vision, like Alfred’s, is more uncompromising than that provided by King or Highway. By uncompromising, I mean that she is less interested in explaining her culture to others than in mourning what was lost and regenerating what can heal. This is a question of emphasis and address. Like Simpson, she returns to the original creation stories of her people to theorize resurgence from within her own cultural paradigms rather than in dialogue with the colonizing forces. Like Alfred and Simpson, she is wary of the potential power imbalances in ideas about reconciliation if it is defined from the abuser’s perspective alone, with an eye to moving on without truly addressing what is at stake in this current moment within the long history of settler colonial structures. Whereas Kiss of the Fur Queen celebrates cultural survival and revival after the residential school experience, Celia’s Song is “Dedicated to all those children who were removed from our homes and who did not survive residential school.” There is a strong element of elegy and loss in Maracle’s text that is not present in either King or Highway. The emphasis, then, is different but each of these creative texts shares with The Truth and Reconciliation Report on the Residential Schools, a definition of settler colonialism as “a structure and not an event” (Wolfe). As such, settler colonialism cannot simply be left behind. It lives on into the present in various institutional incarnations and in the modes of thought that legitimate them.

The structure of settler colonialism is inscribed in the institutions (legal, medical, civic, educational, and business) that organize people’s lives, perpetuate forms of cultural genocide, and impose themselves on the land through the demarcation of lived space that physically separates the two communities and through the transformation of a lifestyle based on wood into one organized around electricity and oil. Traffic moves both ways across the bridge over the water that divides the village where the action takes place from the city of Vancouver but accommodation is difficult for members of both groups because those colonial structures are also inscribed in their minds and even their bodies. Ravensong had focused on Celia’s older sister Stacey and her movement out from the village into the world of white schooling, a movement offset in that novel by a devastating epidemic that came from that world into her own. Celia’s Song is set many years after the destructive impact of that epidemic and its action occurs almost entirely within the world of the indigenous village.

This is a fairly closed society into which some whites have moved through the establishment of affective and affiliative relations with individual indigenous people, but whose acceptance there remains uneasy. There is a character always named through her place of origin as “German Judy.” Like Judy, Stacey’s partner, the doctor Steve, needs to continually earn her trust and that of her family. Stacey’s difficulties when he proposes (in Celia’s Song) show the huge gap that separates them, as they move back and forth between an un-crossable distance and the promise of some kind of nascent understanding. Stacey thinks: “Living with him would require extra care; he’s white, different. She has no way to frame that difference without offending him and jeopardizing the future of the relationship…. There would have to be a separate world and a together world, which means life with him would be complicated. He has no idea that it would be this complicated, and she is not sure she can deal with it” (186). Nonetheless, as the text proceeds, together they do start to deal with it, Steve risks his career to help her family deal with a crisis their way, and there is some fragile hope they can learn to live with their differences. Helen Hoy has sensitively documented the destabilizing impact that Ravensong exerts on non-indigenous readers. She explains: “Making white culture marked and Native culture the standard foregrounds and calls into question the very naturalizing of normative cultures” (136). Celia’s Song continues that process.

In Celia’s Song, challenges to the structural incarnations of the settler colonial system take form on two fronts: the institutional and the mythic. Institutionally, Celia and her family refuse the aid of the Canadian medical and legal establishments when confronted with the child who has been violently sexually abused by one of their own. They determine to keep her at home and heal her themselves, despite the severity of her injuries, and they decide to judge and deal with the perpetrator, Amos, themselves, according to their banned pre-contact rituals. Amos, initially uncomprehending, appears to have at least implicitly assented to this procedure. The process of his dancing to his death is described as profoundly liberating for him, as he relives and then sheds his own experience of sexual abuse at the residual school and its toxic aftermath (254-255). The reader is told that eventually “Redemption comes as his ancestors reach for his dancing body” (255).

Nonetheless, this communally sanctioned death, presented here as a voluntary, ritual suicide, challenges Western condemnations of capital punishment, as it meant to do. The willingness of Steve to condone these decisions as an act of respect for the autonomy of Stacey and her community is the price he must pay for their acceptance of him, and, it is implied, such respect must be the pre-condition for any kind of reconciliation between the two cultures. The novel thus raises the important question: what are and should be the limits to indigenous autonomy and self-governance at the communal level? Could these incompatible systems function concurrently within the same state without the secrecy necessitated by the current state of affairs as depicted in Celia’s Song?

The novel presents these actions as important steps toward regained self-confidence and agency among the indigenous community actors. Through mink’s witnessing and access to the internal thoughts of each of the main characters, the reader is immersed in their worldview and our sympathies are engaged. Much of the story involves the destructive aftermath of the Canadian government’s banning of ceremonies meant to honour the dead and meet their communal contractual obligations to the two-headed snake. These entities demand their due: respect and ceremony from the people. The refusal of Western mindsets to understand such relations and to acknowledge such presences is mocked in the single scene set outside the village. Four scientists who “don’t know their lab is smack dab in the middle of Musqueam territory” (14) debate how to interpret a mysterious shadow that seems to mar their film. They cannot accept that it might depict the two-headed snake that mink has already seen slip its moorings. Only one of the three is ready to admit that “’We aren’t the only people who know things’” (18). But mink and the reader hear this lesson.

My original idea for this paper involved comparing these experimental dimensions of Maracle’s text with those employed by Australian Waanyi writer Alexis Wright in Carpentaria and The Swan Book, to situate their turns to alternative space-time imaginaries derived from local place within concurrent turns within Western theory toward nonhuman and critical posthuman imaginaries. This move will be important because I see Maracle and Wright’s texts as important theoretical and aesthetic interventions into current Western theoretical discussions too often deaf to indigenous alternatives. Parallel discussions about how to inhabit the world are occurring among mainstream academics and among indigenous writers but there is little interaction between these two epistemic communities as yet. Texts such as Dancing on our Turtle’s Back or Celia’s Song, when classified as Native Studies or Fiction, are not recognized for the full extent of the challenges they pose to the entrenched cognitive imperialism of the academy, which includes the ways in which it infiltrates disciplines and shapes the kind of stories that resonate with different audiences. Through highlighting moments of cognitive dissonance, when alternative ideas about rules and consequences clash, Celia’s Song reminds its readers that decolonization has barely begun and will not be easy.

Works Cited

Alfred, Taiaiake. “Restitution is the Real Pathway to Justice for Indigenous Peoples.” Web.

Highway, Tomson. Kiss of the Fur Queen. Toronto, Anchor, 2005.

Hoy, Helen. How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

King, Tom. The Truth About Stories. Toronto: Anansi, 2003.

Maracle, Lee. Celia’s Song. Toronto: Cormorant, 2014.

—. Ravensong. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1993.

Simpson, Leanne. Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creeation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: ARP, 2011.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Toronto: Lorimer, 2015.

Wolfe, Patrick. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native.” Journal of Genocide Research (2006) 8 (4): 387-409.

The Politics and Poetics of Public Sphere Witnessing: Dionne Brand, Samantha Nutt, and Sheila Watt-Cloutier

A paper being offered Speaking Her Mind: Canadian Women and Public Presence  20-22 October 2016
University of Calgary

Abstract: Working at the intersection of postcolonial, feminist, and globalization studies, this paper addresses the rhetorical strategies adopted by writer-activists Dionne Brand, Samantha Nutt, and Sheila Watt-Cloutier to speak their minds on issues such as global violence, environmental destruction, and global citizenship, matters of central concern to the twenty-first century and Canada’s role within it. These women are public presences who have made a difference yet who are seldom discussed as public intellectuals. What can their work tell us about public sphere politics and poetics?

Description: This paper considers the literary contributions of three Canadian women who have functioned as activists and witnesses to injustice in ways that locate the Canadian public sphere in its historical and global contexts. The paper addresses the pressure these women differentially put on conventional notions of the public intellectual through discussion primarily of their published works and the reception they have received. Working at the intersection of postcolonial, feminist, and globalization studies, I will address the rhetorical strategies these writers have adopted to speak their minds on issues of central concern to the twenty-first century and Canada’s role within it. Texts to be discussed include Brand’s Inventory, Map to the Door of No Return, and essays; Nutt’s Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid; and Sheila Watt Cloutier’s autobiography, The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet. Their work addresses key contemporary concerns, yet their contributions to shaping public debates have not yet bshmeen accorded the attention they deserve. In seeking to rectify that situation, this paper will also seek to understand it.

CSSHE Panel. The state of internationalization on Canadian campuses: Results from Univcan’s institutional surveys.

Some questions derived from reading the results
I am grateful to the AUCC, now Universities Canada, for compiling this survey and enabling us to get a snapshot of the national picture of internationalization in Canadian higher education in our times. Internationalization research often addresses what is happening within the transnational higher education regime with a focus on developments within national or regional systems that have much more centralized degrees of control. The Canadian system, with its strong role for provincial direction, is something of an outlier when studied in comparison to Australia, Europe, or the UK. We need to understand the ways our developments are matching these developments elsewhere and where we are diverging from them. The survey is valuable and it is fascinating. The information it provides and the gaps it identifies require our attention, as does its silences in certain areas. Sponsored by Universities Canada, it is written from the perspective of this constituency, with a representative on the Advisory Committee from the International Association of Universities, the American Council on Education, 2 university Presidents, 1 professor and department chair, and one manager of an office of international relations: Rhonda Friesen, the chair of this panel today. This is a good range of representation and a sensible committee size for getting things done.
But I wonder: Would consultation with other organizations that have internationalization committees have made a difference in the framing and conclusions of the report? I am thinking here of faculty-focussed associations such as the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Canada. These are all bodies that represent the faculty investments in internationalization. Their perspective could valuably enrich the institutional and administrative view privileged in this report. Furthermore, would consultation with the three federal granting councils have helped round out some of the areas where information is currently scanty? I ask these questions because research seldom gets the attention it deserves in discussions of internationalization. The focus more often falls on student recruitment, mobility, and dollars—the issues my colleagues on this panel are addressing.
My presentation considers Chapter 4, on Teaching, learning, and faculty engagement, and Chapter 5, on International research collaboration. These are two parts of the survey where information is scanty and more research needs to be done. I will raise questions about faculty engagement in internationalization in relation to research partnerships and transnational collaborations, curriculum development, and pedagogical innovation and I will raise faculty concerns about the ways in which internationalization is being used to support measurement and impact assessments that seem to reduce individual faculty and program autonomy.
Chapter 4 reports that “In line with competency-based learning models, some universities are defining relevant learning outcomes related to international competencies that all their undergraduates should achieve.” However, currently “50 % have no such plans.” The report does not address faculty concerns with these initiatives, although they have been expressed for years by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), particularly in relation to establishing benchmarks and identifying generic competencies across disciplines, institutions, and countries. Although the survey does not mention the OECD AHELO initiative specifically, this initiative seems relevant to what is being envisioned here. The AHELO initiative, you may remember, “was set up to compare learning outcomes in different fields in different countries” (Altbach 1). Some refer to it as PISA for universities. The pilot was deemed a failure in 2012, but in 2015, it looks as if it is about to be revived. The instrument used, “based on the US Collegiate Learning Assessment” (Altbach 1) would impose a nation-specific methodology onto an international system. The cost for such an imposition, many fear, is not just local autonomy but also essential elements of distinctive forms of knowledge and learning.
Crucially, the UC survey does not know how such goals for achieving international competencies are being envisioned, administered, or assessed in the ten per cent of Canadian universities who have actually defined them, or in the 32% currently working to define them in terms of learning outcomes, The survey states that “Just how this assessment is being done within universities and what outcomes are being attained is an important question for future study, if internationalization efforts are to be measured in part by their impact on students” (29-30). I agree it is an important question for future study, but I question that proviso. Impact on students is important, but by moving immediately to the student experience, this paragraph ignores the impact on what is being taught, how it is taught and how learned, and how this focus on measuring outcomes may impact genuine learning. What will happen to dimensions of learning that are not amenable to coordinated measurement across diverse systems? The report mentions that “Workshops on global learning assessments have been offered at 8% of universities” (30). I would like to learn more about the subject matter and structure of such workshops, and what constituencies they were meant to serve. Are they designed for university administrators or for faculty who are incorporating international dimensions into their teaching and research?
The survey usefully acknowledges that “Faculty willingness to undertake efforts to internationalize teaching and research is partly related to the institutional incentives for doing so” (30). Currently, only “6% of universities have institution-wide policies” (30) in this area. Just as important as the absence of clear incentives for faculty to internationalize, are the many currently existing, and growing, institutional disincentives for doing so. Not only are there very few rewards for working internationally, but speaking from my own experience, I see many barriers. We are told that “80% of Canadian universities…are actively supporting faculty efforts to incorporate an international dimension to their work and teaching,” but we are not given specifics as to how this support operates or what it involves let alone what principles guide it. Given the survey’s findings elsewhere about faculty and student preferences for shrinking internationalization into largely transatlantic engagements, any global forms of internationalization still seem remote from realization. The gap between two statements on page 30 of Chapter 4 is puzzling. Eighty per cent of responding institutions are “actively supporting” internationalization but at the same time “87% have no formal guidelines” in this matter. In other words, much of what is happening remains ad hoc.
The recognition of barriers emerges most clearly in Chapter 5, in relation to research funding and institutional support, especially in relation to different risk profiles and overhead costs. These may be related to the increased bureaucratization and institutionalization of internationalization more generally.
I am disappointed that “the survey was unable to gather useful data about the financing of international research efforts.” Although they asked, they received few answers. The survey therefore lacks a comprehensive aggregate portrayal of international research funding at Canadian universities. This is a big gap. As the authors conclude, “it would be desirable to track this financial data for an overall picture of this dimension of internationalization in Canadian universities” (34). What does it tell us when this information is not readily available? Three case study examples are provided of some of the international research collaborations currently underway in lieu of the larger global picture. These are partnership and network projects built around an interdisciplinary inquiry conducted across national borders. We know such projects are underway in many places but we still have no information for contextualizing them within the Canadian higher education frame.
In concluding, I am especially interested in the frameworks assumed by the survey and the ways in which those frameworks shape the directions identified for future developments and research. In 2005, Jan Aart Scholte concluded that “Most accounts of globalization have been silent on its consequences for knowledge frameworks” (Globalization :27). This 2014 survey concludes that much the same may be said today about the consequences of internationalization initiatives for knowledge frameworks, knowledge production, and knowledge sharing across borders. The question of knowledge frameworks is not raised as an issue here except to reassure readers that “core academic values, quality and equity remain paramount considerations” (40). As a postcolonial scholar working with a project on Ethical Internationalization in Higher Education, I am interested in challenging the idea that internationalization is equivalent to homogenization according to a Western and Anglophone model.
The survey indicates that student and faculty continue to share a largely transatlantic imaginary, focused on Europe, in contrast to administrations that put China and to a lesser extent India at the top of their priorities. Ironically, Canada’s decentralized university system has led to a much greater homogenization in the setting of priorities than more centrally managed systems achieve. Almost every university administration in Canada identifies increased links with China as a priority but that priority is not reflected in faculty engagement within curricular, pedagogical, or research internationalization initiatives. The survey correctly sees this as a problem. I am arguing it is an even deeper problem than is recognized here.
My reading of these sections of the survey leads me to raise the following questions. How are internationalization learning goals currently being set? How are they currently being evaluated? How best should they be evaluated? The survey asks if these should be assessed at the program, curriculum, or pedagogical level (30). But it does not fully consider the criteria for such assessments. For example, the map used to illustrate global connections is still biased toward the trans-Atlantic –as are student and faculty goals (p.32). How might the map be altered to privilege trans-Pacific connections instead? How might criteria for assessment be similarly de-Europeanized and de-colonized?
What are the disincentives for faculty to engage in internationalization initiatives? What, if any, are the rewards? In the institutionalization and bureaucratization of internationalization initiatives, is there a discrepancy between the rhetoric and the reality? The survey notes that international research remains a big gap in the data (34). How might that gap be filled? The report relies on university administrators for its data. How might this informant pool be broadened?
The survey ends with a boxed statement that seems meant to be reassuring but that raises alarm bells for me on two fronts. The final words promise: “While strengthening international linkages will continue to serve a range of interests among various stakeholders, all parties will want to ensure that core academic values, quality and equity remain paramount considerations” (40). This statement implicitly recognizes some Canadian fears that our quality might be diluted or threatened by some internationalization initiatives. It assumes that we know what these “core academic values” mean and how they are best ensured and measured, so that internationalization will function as a useful add-on to a stable system and provide a new source of funds while core business remains unchanged. But there are other ways of understanding internationalization. These other ways seek to redefine what the university means by quality and equity through expanding our knowledge frameworks beyond those determined by an Anglocentric West. For example, there is a debate as to whether internationalization should mean more foreign languages or just more English. Many reports on internationalization equate it with universities outside the Anglosphere offering more courses in English. Such a view downplays the values such universities might bring from within their own cultural knowledge systems. The language question is hugely complex but it is easier to grasp than other questions about the frameworks that determine what value and equity mean, and what they could mean. Such questions need to be addressed if internationalization initiatives are to meet their full potential.
Works Cited
“Canada’s Universities in the World: AUCC Internationalization Survey 2014.
Altbach, Philip G. “AHELO: the myth of measurement and comparability.” 15 May 2015. University World News Global Edition Issue 367.
Accesssed 5/18/2015.

Canada in the World Today: Insights from the Humanities


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.


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.
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.

Review of “Maroon Lives” and “Revolution as Poetic Inspiration”

Jacqueline Sample asks, “When is art revolutionary? Why does it appear, at critical times, that there is an irresistible attraction between the work of artists and revolutionaries? How do nature and humanity inspire and benefit from art, literature, and revolution?” She goes on to offer a detailed review of the book Maroon Lives–Tribute to Maurice Bishop and Grenadian Freedom Fighters by Lasana M. Sekou, which also includes the essay Revolution as Poetic Inspiration: Grenada in ‘Maroon Lives’ by Fabian Adekunle Badejo. She also describes the role of Jason deCaires Taylor’s haunting and inspiring undersea sculptures to illustrate many of the book’s concepts.

Repeating Islands


Jacqueline Sample asks, “When is art revolutionary? Why does it appear, at critical times, that there is an irresistible attraction between the work of artists and revolutionaries? How do nature and humanity inspire and benefit from art, literature, and revolution?” She goes on to offer a detailed review of the book Maroon Lives–Tribute to Maurice Bishop and Grenadian Freedom Fighters by Lasana M. Sekou, which also includes the essay Revolution as Poetic Inspiration: Grenada in ‘Maroon Lives’  by Fabian Adekunle Badejo. She also describes the role of Jason deCaires Taylor’s haunting and inspiring undersea sculptures to illustrate many of the book’s concepts.

Writers Lasana Sekou and Fabian Badejo may only give cause for more questions to the above with their revisit and treatment of the Grenada Revolution in the new title from House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP). However, the book includes color photos of extraordinary undersea sculptures by Jason deCaires…

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Mobile Localities Beyond Monocultures of the Mind


Abstract Employing insights from contemporary postcolonial, decolonial, and indigenous theory, this article argues that home, identity, and the politics of naming “here” are emerging as complex “mobile localities” with implications for how a globalizing world is understood. The Cartesian reasoning that enabled Eurocentric perspectives to lay sole claim to universality is now being challenged by decolonizing views that understand locality through a framework more closely attuned to what Boaventura Sousa de Santos calls “an ecology of knowledges.” To hold to a single definition in a globalizing world increasingly marks a failure of imagination: a “monoculture of the mind” in a multicultural world. For many, locality may now be a form of translocality, in which alternative understandings of space and time co‐exist, sometimes only concurrently, and sometimes mingling to form emergent understandings. The paper interprets two contemporary Canadian texts involved in renegotiating urban civic space‐‐Cree poet Marvin Francis’s City Treaty: A Long Poem and Trinidadian‐Canadian Dionne Brand’s What Localities We All Long For: A Novel –with the aim of providing a revised model for understanding locality in a globalizing world. Revisions of the local such as those offered by Brand and Francis reveal the potential for understanding locality as a living, moving, metamorphizing space rather than a determinant place of origin.

The full paper is published in Localities Vol. 4, 2014, pp. 7-49 

A Link to the open access document is here.