Contesting Canada’s Future

It’s a thing worth noting when a small town opens its doors to the world. On May 21-23, 2015, right here in Nogojiwanong, almost 200 attendees joined a stellar lineup of international academics, cultural workers and activists at a banquet of presentations on Canada’s past and future identity, its culture, and its environmental and political challenges. With so many concurrent and idiosyncratic panels, it was an embarrassment of riches – I found myself wishing the conference could have been spread out over a week and filmed for posterity. Trent University’s 50th anniversary international conference, entitled Contesting Canada’s Future, was an ambitious and, in this time of research muzzling and threats to funding for Canadian organizations who challenge the status quo, a courageous one; the conference’s name itself implies that the skirmish is well underway.

Art, academia and activism have always been strange but necessary bedfellows – each essential to confront the heinous game of brinksmanship playing out on the ecological and social stages of this newborn century. We need scholars to expose revisionism and misconception, artists to illustrate, interpret and kindle that knowledge, and activists to rebalance power and manifest change.

In the keynote address, Knowing Canada: Past, Present, Future, Brownwyn Drainie spoke of embracing the indefinable “crazy quilt” that is Canadian culture. Jane Moss (Center for Canadian Studies at Duke University) remarked that, despite defunding by Canada, there is tremendous interest by the U.S. in its northern neighbour as a post colonial and multicultural case study, and noted the many Canadian academics who go on to work in the U.S. Bryan Palmer spoke of the golden age of the 60’s in Canada, that spawning ground for Trent, when we disentangled ourselves from U.S. and British colonialism, and when higher education, unions and social programs flourished, many of which have been dismantled. Mark Starowicz (Canada: A People’s History) painted a picture of our “cranky” Anglo-Franco alliance and the never-ending struggle for identity in a country built on wave after wave of refugees. He asserted that a Canadian Studies program is critical to our future, as is the need to fight for our cultural institutions, noting that none of the political parties appear to have an arts platform for the upcoming election.

The iconic activist Maude Barlow moved me to tears as she spoke of the insanity of amendments to the Navigable Water Protection Act which left 98% of Canada’s lakes and rivers without federal protection; of the 28,000 rivers gone from China’s landscape due to unregulated extraction and climate change; of the privatization of water which leaves not just third world countries, but present day citizens of Detroit and Baltimore with no access to water; of the dire situation of 20 million people in Sao Paulo who may be months from running out of water due to Amazon deforestation and drought.

Many of the conversations revolved around updating and decolonizing our identity and grappled with the gnarly aspects of multiculturalism. In Reclaiming Canadian Bodies: Visual Media and Representation, Karen McGarry spoke of how an ice skater’s identity was exploited and corrupted by corporate sponsorship. Lynda Mannik’s presentation focused on how easily imagery and language in media can politicize and characterize refugees as other. Caroline Langill, part of the panel for Proposition for Decolonizing Canada, entertainingly described the colonial underpinnings of curation and display in Western galleries and museums, the good, bad and ugly of contextualizing, our assumptions of accountability in connection with public spaces, and an emerging trend towards quirky private collections. Trent alumnus Andrea Fatona spoke of her launch of The State of Blackness, an interdisciplinary conference which took place at Harbourfront in 2014 in association with OCADU, to counter the invisibility of black diasporic arts (which in turn masks unresolved struggles over aboriginal land) and to revisit culture through an intentionally uncomfortable lens.

It was the subtle things that hit home. A librarian comments that she can no longer request inter-library loans from Canada’s Archives. The panel on Canadian Cultural Diplomacy featuring Elizabeth Diggon, Sarah E.K. Smith and Jeffrey Brison discussed the uptake of our cultural wealth in diplomatic shell games, as when Canadian External Affairs quietly funded the non-commercial 49th Parallel gallery of the 1980’s in NYC to advance a more “serious” international profile; or the New Deal origins of the Canada Council; or the contemporary wars fought on a cultural battleground such as ISIS’s destruction of and profiteering from priceless antiquities; the co-opting of cultural events by corporate sponsors – Nuit Blanche, the Giller Prize, The Toronto Jazz Festival; the importance of reframing our culture as collective capital as opposed to individual or state commodity.

Peter Raymont (Shake Hands with the Devil, The Border, West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson) explored the power of film making as a passport between cultures and tells of the story of the Inuit who refused TV until 1980, when they had their own Inuit-language television network. Playwright Judith Thompson reminded us that a scream is an expression of social outrage, an act of penetration, a way of saying no, and stated that “I’m not proud anymore to be Canadian.” Duo Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge gave a rousing and critical overview of the historic interface between art and politics in Canada, decrying the diminished support for, and increasing privatization of art and culture in the current political climate.

Conference delegates engaged with the local arts community in a reception and talk by Métis/Polish/Ojibway artist Dayna Danger at Artspace, a reading by author Miriam Toews at Market Hall; and for Roughing it in the Bush, a panel of local cultural pundits.

“[Peterborough] has in fact grown to become its own uncanny, modest basin of culture,” Trent Professor Emeritus Michael Peterman reminded us as he took us on a journey with the intrepid author, artist and settler-icon Susanna Moodie.

For years I’ve enjoyed the versatile work of self-taught performance artist Hilary Wear. She calls herself “a metisse”, “a mut,” who found herself in the Canadian Studies program 25 years ago and was surprised by the intellectual stimulation, creative opportunities and collective support from the native and non-native communities of the region. Lack of funding, however, has restricted her ability to collaborate as much as she would like.

EC3 Chair and Public Energy founder Bill Kimball was transplanted here during the Vietnam War era, only to discover a vital visual art and performance scene, brimming with potential and impossible to ignore. Part of the formative years of Artspace and Market Hall alongside Dennis Tourbin and David Bierk, Kimball noted the many luminaries who call this region home – Michael Fortune, R. Murray Schafer, Dorothy Caldwell, Drew Hayden Taylor, Bill James.

Debra Soule (Arts, Culture and Heritage Development Officer at City of Kawartha Lakes) spoke of the shift to acknowledge culture as a key component of the economy and the need to unlock the wealth of heritage, festivals and authentic culture that drives local cultural tourism.

AGP Curator Fynn Leitch’s presentation touched on the evolution and importance of maintaining a diverse ecology of local arts, with “multiple points of access,” as well as the distinction between imitative, reactive provincialism and healthy, generative regionalism.

The voice of 23 year old indigenous leader  Erica Violet Lee, one of the founders of  Idle No More, still echoes. A student at University of Saskatchewan, and a natural born storyteller, she gave her insights into reclaiming space; the value of land based education; the power of language and iconography; indigenous identification with the land as part of oneself and not as a location or a resource to be used; how the murdered and missing indigenous women have become a metaphor for the attempts to obliterate the sovereign nations that exist fluidly within and without our borders. The crowd gave her a standing ovation – a settlers’ gesture of great respect.

Trent’s insularity of the last few years seems to be lifting like a morning fog on the Otonabee. The university is after all one of Peterborough’s greatest resources – a stunning campus, an interdisciplinary curriculum respected particularly for its political, indigenous and cultural wellsprings – and the “Mecca of Canadian Studies,” as delegate Paul W. Bennett of Saint Mary’s University tweeted. Many Trent graduates settle down in Peterborough, bringing their savvy, independent know-how to the regional economy, which in turn is a welcoming environment for new, socially conscious ideas. Trent and Peterborough can only benefit from this symbiosis.

As Mark Starowicz commented, the battle for Canada’s future must be “fought in the arts and not in the political elite.” The conference left me hopeful that Trent can hold true to its feisty, optimistic beginnings, with Canadian Studies as a crucible for unfettered education, responsible, inclusive government and cultural vitality.

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