Book Review: Surviving Canada

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Published Saturday July 29th 2017 in the Winnipeg Free Press.

On June 29, in the days leading up to Canada’s mega-hyped sesquicentennial anniversary, a “re-occupation” ceremony unfolded on Parliament Hill in which a teepee was erected by protesters led by Bawaating Water protectors from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., in order to remind Canadians that their capital city sits on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory.

In much the same way, Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal is an effort to “re-occupy” the Canadian mind, especially our public discourses concerning not just Indigenous issues but the very nature of our country.

Through an eclectic and highly provocative collection of essays, speeches, poems and multimedia (including tweets) from the country’s leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, thinkers and creators, this book challenges the reader to look beyond the anniversary and to question almost everything we’ve ever been taught about the origins, actions and moral foundations of the Canadian nation-state.

With this latest release, Winnipeg’s ARP Books — which also recently published Aqueduct by Adele Perry and the edited collections The Winter We Danced and The Land We Are — strengthens its reputation for publishing some of the most significant literature on Indigenous-Canada relations.

The editors are both with the University of Manitoba. Kiera Ladner (Cree) — who previously edited ARP’s 2010 book This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades — is an associate professor in political studies who has since 2011 led the university’s Mamawipawin, or Indigenous Governance and Community Based Research Space. Her co-editor Myra Tait (Anishinaabekwe) is a master’s student in law and member of Berens River First Nation who is also associated with Mamawipawin.

Ladner and Tait have assembled an impressive and diverse array of contributors whose 42 pieces fill more than 460 pages. A review such as this is scarcely adequate to describe the scope and content of the material in Surviving Canada. However, the book’s cover — which depicts an inverted maple leaf flag — is an apt metaphor for its purpose: any self-aggrandizing notions the reader might hold regarding Canada’s history are swiftly disabused.

Surviving Canada may already be best-known for its inclusion of the incredibly powerful poem, Canada, I Can Cite for You 150 by Christi Belcourt (Métis), which has been widely shared online. But all of its entries are equally potent.

Among the book’s most provocative essays: Jeff Corntassel (Tsalagi [Cherokee]) and Christine Bird (Anishinaabekwe) accuse Canada of being a “serial killer” and all of us complicit in its crimes against Indigenous peoples, in particular women, girls, Two Spirit and queer people; James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson (Chikasaw and Cheyenne) explains how the confederation we know as Canada illegitimately assumed authority over — but then proceeded to ignore — Indigenous treaties with the British Crown dating back to 1621, resulting in “intractable gaps in (our) constitutional narrative;” and Jana-Rae Yerxa’s (Anishinaabekwe) disturbing creative non-fiction piece Her in which she describes rooms of white people haunted by a laughing spectral Indigenous woman with a noose around her neck.

Non-Indigenous authors include Louise Mandell, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, who compares Canada’s dehumanization of Indigenous peoples to that of the Nazis against the Jews, calling both “radical evil;” the University of Manitoba’s Adele Perry, who offers a one-chapter treatment of her book Aqueduct detailing the century of legal and environmental injustice inflicted on Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in order to provide Winnipeg’s drinking water; and University of Guelph political scientist David MacDonald writing about most Canadians’ studied ignorance and amnesia about the genocidal foundations of their settler state, calling instead for open commemoration of this genocide.

While Ladner and Tait encourage the reader to approach the chapters in any sequence they wish, it might have been equally interesting had they organized the readings thematically. As well, it’s unfortunate that the book’s contributors and their backgrounds are not described in a dedicated section as is customary for edited collections. Instead, one is referred to the publisher’s website for their biographies — fruitlessly, as it turns out.

Small matters such as these cannot, however, detract from the gut-punching impact of Surviving Canada. By turns eloquent, scholarly, bitter, profound and angry — yet at times hopeful — this is a deeply discomfiting and significant book.

Tipis on Mars: Considering Canada’s Cultural Appropriation Controversy Through Futures Studies

Upon learning of Hal Niedzviecki’s appalling Write op-ed introducing a special issue of Indigenous writing (in which he exhorted his fellow [presumably non-Indigenous] authors to appropriate other cultures for their own writing), I immediately recognized that the controversy had implications for my own work. At the end of this month, at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) I will deliver a paper based on my recent article “Seeing the Forest for the Trees on Mars: Locating the Ideology of the Library of the Future” which was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship. The paper relies heavily on Niedzviecki’s 2015 book, Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future  for its analysis, but in light of the controversy, and as a non-Indigenous librarian responsible for Indigenous Studies collections and services, I felt my use of his writings was now rendered problematic to say the least.

My concerns only deepened in the following days as many leading voices in Canadian journalism (including Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC’s “The National”) tweeted their support for Niedzvecki, and even pledged their own money to fund an actual “cultural appropriation prize.”  Niedzvecki, to his credit, disavowed this Twitter campaign on his Facebook page, writing, “calls for an actual ‘appropriation prize’ are extremely unhelpful. They do not represent me in any way.” On CBC’s The Current, Niedzviecki also apologized, admitting,

I invited Indigenous writers into my house, so to speak, and I insulted them and I absolutely apologize for that. I didn’t mean to insult them. That wasn’t my intention at all. But I did. I offended them. And I have had to think a lot about why that happened and how that happened.

Nevertheless, Niedzviecki’s op-ed unleashed a cultural firestorm that will surely be recognized for years to come as a turning point in Canadian letters. The negative reaction to his words was – to all but himself apparently – unsurprisingly swift, particularly from several of the Indigenous contributors to the special Write  issue itself. Niedzviecki was called out online for his ignorance in treating the issue of cultural appropriation so glibly, when for Indigenous peoples — who have endured not just cultural genocide but have had their cultures both belittled and casually strip-mined by non-Indigenous artists, writers and designers for aesthetic or fashion statements – it is a matter of their very survival. As Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe) argued in the Globe and Mail,

For native people, art and culture are not separate. The art of the West Coast carver is inseparable from their heritage. Same with Inuit sculpture and Cree beading. Anything that infringes upon our art can be considered a direct threat to our culture. So understandably, Indigenous people react. The charge is cultural appropriation. For us it’s a matter of cultural preservation.

The fallout from the Twitter campaign was if anything even more fierce and compelling. Shree Paradkar, writing in the Toronto Star argued that we all need to care about cultural appropriation calling it a “medium of oppression.” While some (mostly white) critics bemoaned the debate as a PC-run-amok attack on freedom of expression, Scaachi Koul writing at Buzzfeed condemned the conflation of literary imagination with appropriation:

I can’t believe I have to f****** say this, but no one, in the history of writing books, has ever suggested that white people are not allowed to write thoughtful portrayals of Indigenous people or people of colour, namely in fiction. Frankly, we encourage it. …Abstaining from cultural appropriation wouldn’t stop you from writing thoughtfully about people who aren’t white. It does, however, stop you from ripping off people of colour, or pretending like you understand their stories intimately. It does preclude you from taking a culture that was never yours to begin with — a culture that might have made the lives of the people born with it harder in white Canada, or might mean they don’t get the same opportunities and privileges — and turning a profit.

Write contributor Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) stressed that the elite class claiming  the right to “free speech”  in the matter were deliberately ignoring the brutal context of Canada’s suppression of Indigenous people:

[F]orgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don’t have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn’t…They don’t live with its intergenerational trauma the way we do. They never will.

Veteran journalist and teacher Andrew Mitrovica was equally outraged, saying that these journalists had “besmirched their work, reputations and cultural heritage, and made it plain to future generations of Indigenous and minority journalists where [their] allegiance lies.” At times, the response was also heartbreaking. Indigenous critic Jesse Wente (Ojibwe) blasted the “remarkable arrogance” of the journalists tweeting their support, and broke down in tears saying,

These things can’t happen again. This absorbs so much energy, it causes so much pain in our community, to have to re-argue for our value as human beings, on our own land? In a foreign language as I do to you now, one that was imposed on us? Please. What are we talking about in 2017…If anything this proves our strength as a community and our endurance. Don’t mistake my emotion here, or my civility anywhere, as weakness. This is our strength, this is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me. I hope to never do this again.

As the scale of this national debate expanded, I felt a particular and urgent need — and responsibility — to address this controversy, before I could presume to privilege Niedzviecki’s ideas in a scholarly forum. To do this, I would like to use several theories from futures studies that Niedzviecki would have been wise to have included in Trees on Mars.

In my essay and upcoming conference paper, my use of Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars focuses largely on his discourse analysis in the fields of education and economics; that, in his view, our culture’s anxiety-ridden obsession with the future is all about the individualized (rather than collective) goal of shaping, owning and seizing the future through “disruptive” entrepreneurial innovation, with the concomitant belief that we must do away with anything that impedes access to the future.

While I noted in my CJAL article similarities between this discourse and much of the LIS literature regarding the “library of the future,” what struck me as a major blind spot on the part of Niedzviecki was that never once does he use the term neoliberalism when so much of what he discusses is clearly consistent with this ideology. Since writing the piece I have further come to realize that he also appears to have embarked on his inquiries without the necessary theoretical grounding in futures studies itself, with the result that he was unable to sufficiently situate his analysis — or, more significantly, recognize the implications it should have had for his editorship of the Indigenous issue of Write.

For example, futures studies scholar Barbara Adam  writing in the journal Twenty-First Century Society observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world,

we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112).

Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else, and therefore requires an ethical stance (88). It also changes the very nature of the future, emptying it of content and precedent, where exchange value is paramount:

The underlying principle of the pervasive change is to replace contextuality and embeddedness with decontextualised and disembedded relations in order to create a world of pure potential that is subject to human design and where anything is possible (55).

Another futurist,  Islamic scholar Ziaudden Sardar recognizes this as a colonizing force in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182).

For someone who devoted so many pages in Trees on Mars to critiquing a discourse of owning and seizing, Niedzviecki was stunningly oblivious to how appropriation also a form of taking. As Kate Taylor observed in the Globe and Mail,

Niedzviecki [is] guilty of the same kind of privileged creative assumption: that there’s a vast sea of images, ideas, stories and experiences out there and imaginative voyagers should be encouraged to pluck from it whatever flotsam they please. 

When Niedzviecki wrote that there was “nothing preventing us…from incorporating a culture’s myths, legends oral histories and sacred practices into our own works” he was essentially stating that the sacred knowledges of the world’s Indigenous peoples can be treated, as Adam and Groves put it, “as a resource for our use in the present [to] transform…to our will and desire [and] shape to our designs and intentions…as a realm of pure potential.” Indigenous knowledge, literature and culture may be reduced to its exchange value, stripped of context and embeddedness, and placed in whatever context may be imagined for it — tipis on Mars, if you will. That this appropriation would be at the hands of unfettered non-Indigenous writers with no relationship to such knowledge can only accelerate what Sardar calls the “built-in western momentum” of monocultural, colonized thought.

Yet, such efforts at disembeddedness run contrary to the very essence of Indigenous knowledge. At a Walrus magazine event over the weekend in Surrey, lawyer and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar Alan Mills (Anishinaabe) affirmed this view, saying:

No one can appropriate my stories,…Not because I’m an Indigenous man; because of Indigenous law. You have no relationship with my stories. They’re of my relatives – humans, animals, plants, spirits; all alive. They’re not part of an intellectual commons just waiting to be brought to life by your particular unique imagination. To be able to tell the story is a beautiful gift and if it is given to you, it’s because it is already known that you will be grateful, that you will reciprocate.

Mr. Niedzviecki’s epistemological shortsightedness in both Trees on Mars and his Write op-ed was that he was relying on his own “particular unique imagination.” Had he read deeper into theories of futures studies before he wrote an entire book about it, he might have gained some pretty clear insights into his own positioning as a non-Indigenous creator with power over others, and the jarring irreconcilability of his notions regarding appropriation and the vitality of Indigenous writing. That much of Canada`s literary and journalistic intelligentsia followed his misguided call so enthusiastically reveals the extent to which they are profoundly steeped in colonial values and culture, and suggests that the pathway to our country`s own reconciled future will require very different cultural leadership.

Coda

On Wednesday May 17th the Globe and Mail  reported that a crowd funded literary prize for emerging Indigenous writers launched in response to the cultural appropriation controversy had raised more than $30,000.

On the same day, it was also announced that Steve Ladurantaye had been “reassigned” from his responsibilities at “The National.”

Literature Cited

Adam, B. (June 01, 2008). Future matters: futures known, created and minded. Twenty-first Century Society, 3, 2, 111-116.

Adam, B., & Groves, C. (2007). Future matters: Action, knowledge, ethics. Leiden: Brill.

Sardar, Z. (April 01, 2010). The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?. Futures, 42, 3, 177-184.

Algorithms Don’t Think About Race. So Tech Giants Need To.

Recently, during a presentation to an audience of library professionals — all of whom (including myself) happened to be white — regarding subject access concerning gender and sexuality, I demonstrated variations describing major North American racial categories across three databases.

One of the participants spoke up. “I find those offensive,” she said. “Why do we need to think about race? I don’t think it’s relevant!” I was a bit taken aback by her response, as both the previous speaker and myself had addressed the theme of intersectionality — how we’re not just men, women, trans, white, black, Indigenous, able-bodied, straight, gay etc. but that we’re all combinations of all of these factors. Several other audience members joined me in pointing out that many people are directly and negatively affected because of how society responds to their race, so yes, it is an important factor that we need to discuss. Indeed, argued one participant, the very absence of diverse faces in the room was likely a symptom of structural racism.

“I just don’t get that!” She countered. “I don’t think about race, I just don’t. It’s not important!” The conversation continued for a few minutes and I managed to steer the presentation back to the slides I’d prepared, but the woman — still clearly agitated – -got up and left shortly afterwards.

Her response isn’t unusual: any open discussion of race is often met with hostile reaction from whites who counter that merely raising the issue is itself racist. I realized afterwards that what I should have more clearly articulated is that the intention of such a discussion is not to accuse anyone of being a racist, but rather to acknowledge that because we are all socialized within a structurally racialized system, we are all affected by race whether we say we think about it or not. Having just discussed it earlier, I should also have in particular referred back to Sanford Berman’s work on Library of Congress Subject Headings to show how structural racism in the real world can get reproduced in the language of library catalogues, databases and search engines.

This latter phenomenon has gained increasing attention over the past year as journalists and activists have documented apparent bias in mainstream search engines. In the middle of 2016, a viral YouTube video demonstrated how a search for “three black teenagers” resulted primarily in pictures of criminal suspects, while the same search for white teenagers showed happy, well-dressed young people. In a related story from later that year, a British journalist named Carol Cadwalladr typed in the start of racially-oriented questions into Google and got appalling results from the site’s auto-complete feature:

[Google] offered me a choice of potential questions it thought I might want to ask: “are jews a race?”, “are jews white?”, “are jews christians?”, and finally, “are jews evil?” Are Jews evil? It’s not a question I’ve ever thought of asking. I hadn’t gone looking for it. But there it was. I press enter. A page of results appears. This was Google’s question. And this was Google’s answer: Jews are evil. Because there, on my screen, was the proof: an entire page of results, nine out of 10 of which “confirm” this.

I decided to try some related searches myself, and was equally disgusted with the results:

google_blm

bing_blm2At the same time, I was working on updating my University Library’s research guide on Race, Racialization and Racism, and decided to link to some recent video content regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Heading over to YouTube, I typed in “Black Lives Matter” and was soon shocked at what I saw: page after page after virulent page of videos — most of which featuring white speakers — that were blatantly anti-BLM, calling it “hateful” the “new KKK,” “racist” and a “terrorist organization.” (I am deliberately not providing links to these videos).

The prominence of such content in Google’s and YouTube’s search results is based on algorithms predicated on popularity and the needs of advertisers, not relevance, accuracy or reasonableness. While such results may be considered by users to be authoritative and “the truth,” as media and cinema studies scholar Safiya Umoja Noble writes,

[i]t is dominant narratives about the objectivity and popularity of web search results that make misogynist or racist search results appear to be natural. Not only do they seem “normal” due to the technological blind spots of users who are unable to see the commercial interests operating in the background of search (deliberately obfuscated from their view), they also seem completely unavoidable because of the perceived “popularity” of sites as the factor that lifts websites to the top of the results’ pile. Furthermore, general belief in myths of digital democracy emblematized in Google and its search results means that users of Google give consent to the algorithms’ legitimacy through their continued use of the product, despite its ineffective inclusion of websites that are decontextualized from social meaning, and Google’s wholesale abandonment of responsibility for its search results.

The potentially lethal consequences of this kind of abandonment were made starkly clear following the trial of Dylann Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering nine people in the hope of launching a race war, when it was revealed that his goal was set in motion by his immersion in racist Internet articles:

Roof’s radicalization began, as he later wrote in an online manifesto, when he typed the words “black on White crime” into Google and found what he described as “pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.” The first web pages he found were produced by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a crudely racist group that once called black people a “retrograde species of humanity.” Roof wrote that he has “never been the same since that day.” As he delved deeper, because of the way Google’s search algorithm worked, he was immersed in hate materials. Google says its algorithm takes into account how trustworthy, reputable or authoritative a source is. In Roof’s case, it clearly did not.

Facebook, too, has run into trouble for its reliance on algorithms, with the result that users are faced with ubiquitous “fake news” originating on the far right, compounded by its decision to eschew a tag for Black Lives Matter:

While Facebook has attempted to profess that algorithms are somehow neutral, many people have pointed out that an algorithm also represents an editorial decision—the instructions that coders pour into it are just as subject to human values and bias as other choices.

In much the same way that accusing individuals of racism misses the larger point, we need to recognize that tech giants such as Google and Facebook aren’t deliberately, consciously racisthowever, by basing their operations on supposedly “neutral” algorithms that don’t account for structural racism in the broader society, they can’t help but occasionally produce racialized results — with sometimes deadly consequences.

To address this, more curation is required on the part of tech companies. Search engines should not be auto-suggesting racist search queries, negatively portraying racial groups with image results, front-loading blatantly racist videos in response to a general query or immersing users in racist content without balancing results from anti-racist websites. Just as claiming one doesn’t think about race is in fact a decision to think a certain way about race, so too are claims of algorithm neutrality.

Book Review: Twenty-Six Seconds

At a time when horrifically violent footage of beheadings, school shootings and acts of terrorism can go viral within hours, it may seem difficult for some to appreciate the seismic shock of the gradual, decades-long release of the Zapruder film.

From its appearance as selected still frames in the pages of Life magazine the week following former president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to its television debut 12 years later on Geraldo Rivera’s show Good Night America, to its climactic role in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second 8mm home movie is not only a hotly contested touchstone for analyzing the assassination, but a culturally significant landmark in its own right.

Released for the 53rd anniversary of the events in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Alexandra Zapruder’s new book is not just the poignant story of one man’s reluctant place in history but a fascinating and often profound exploration of artifacts, visual culture and the esthetics of violence that goes to the heart of understanding how the mysterious death of the 35th president forever changed American society.

Formerly an educator and researcher with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Zapruder is the award-winning author of 2004’s Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. As she writes in the opening pages of her new book, she grew up knowing about her grandfather’s famous film, but it was rarely discussed, an uncomfortable family history she only began to uncover for herself in 2010.

Zapruder’s account is at once personal, historical and critical, to say nothing of the fact it’s beautifully written. Even without her family connections to the subject matter, the book would be a valuable contribution to the assassination literature.

After all, despite its two-generation remove, Twenty-Six Seconds presents the perspective of a family so inextricably linked to the events of Nov. 22, 1963 they were paid $150,000 by Lifebefore Kennedy was even buried, $85,000 by Oliver Stone in 1990 and a further $16 million by the U.S. government in 1999 to compensate them for formally “taking” their film, once the Assassinations Records Review Board determined it to be an official assassination record.

Despite her unique vantage point to this vital assassination artifact, Zapruder was, by her own admission, almost completely unfamiliar with the assassination itself until she started working on the book. Through interviews with her family, participants in the film’s complex chain of possession and conspiracy theorists (her use of the term is respectful and non-pejorative), as well as her unprecedented access to the Time-Life archives, Zapruder recounts the film’s traumatizing genesis, as well as the many crucial years it spent under the tight control of Time-Life, which did so much to contribute to the growing suspicions of a coverup through the 1960s and early 1970s.

Public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s “lone assassin” conclusions would become almost mainstream once Rivera broadcast his bootleg copy of the film on TV, and grew so insistent following its use in Stone’s JFK that Congress passed the JFK Records Act in 1992 and created the review board, which would lead to years-long negotiations to buy the film back from the Zapruders.

Zapruder raises a host of compelling questions about institutions of memory and the right to know: Should a government be permitted to retain ownership of artifacts when they raise troubling questions about that government? Is there a danger in conflating a record of an event with the event itself? What is of greater value — the content of an image or the physicality of the media on which it exists? Can an artifact be of such unique public interest it should be considered public domain?

There are some questions, however, she refuses to consider, namely those relating to the film’s authenticity: Zapruder repugnantly dismisses long-standing claims of alteration in the extant film, in particular those which see her grandfather colluding in the coverup. Viewed along with accusations in the media the family unduly profited from the tragedy, it becomes clear that from the moment it was exposed, the film was always a terrible burden haunting Abraham Zapruder and his family, one which his granddaughter’s eloquent prose can only partially exorcise.

Twenty-Six Seconds is therefore not just of interest for its history, but for what it tells us about ourselves: given the prevalence of smartphone cameras and the news media’s increasing dependence on citizen-generated footage, all of us have, in a sense, become the heirs of Abe Zapruder.

Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film
By Alexandra Zapruder
Twelve, 472 pages, $35

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, November 19th 2016

Book Review: A Field Guide to Lies

In a U.S. election cycle already replete with outrageous claims from the Donald Trump campaign, the tweet by Trump’s son Donald Jr. was particularly egregious: the now-notorious image of a bowl of Skittles representing Syrian refugees accompanied by the claim that three of them would kill you.

While many criticized the callousness of the metaphor, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out that to have a shred of comparability for the individualized risk implied, the bowl would need to contain 10.9 billion skittles.

It is illogical arguments such as this that McGill psychology and behavioural neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin seeks to debunk in this useful but disappointingly apolitical new book A Field Guide to Lies. Serving as a sort of companion to his 2014 information overload corrective The Organized Mind, (reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press August 23rd 2014), the Field Guide provides the tools needed to critically evaluate dubious claims, both numeric and verbal.

For Levitin, the failure to question what we read (especially online) combined with poor statistical literacy and an overconfidence in our own knowledge can lead us to make poor decisions, draw the wrong conclusions, and misestimate the actual risk of activities (e.g., flying).

The first third of the book introduces the reader to numeric and statistical claims by explaining the slippery definitions of “average,” how to understand different types of probabilities and the many ways in which graphs and tables can be manipulated to convince the unwary. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, notoriously concealed dropping quarterly iPhone market share in 2013 by charting cumulative sales on a graph with no numeric value scale, leading analysts unsure if it referred to millions of phones or thousands.

In the second part, Levitin looks at the rhetorical claims and logical fallacies perpetrated by experts and others in the media who often cherry-pick their data, erroneously imply causation or fail to inform their readers or listeners of reasonable alternative explanations. The six-fold rise in autism diagnoses between 1990 and 2010, he argues, can be much more readily attributed to greater awareness and wider definitions on the part of professionals, than it can to GMOs, wi-fi or vaccines.

The final and by far weakest part of the book are “case studies” intended to illustrate how to apply these critical tools, but which gets bogged down in a tiresome analysis of the extreme feats of illusionist David Blaine, leaving far more pressing issues unexamined.

As was the case with The Organized Mind, Levitin’s excellent grasp of analytical tools and rhetorical logic are undermined by a curious lack of political sophistication. Most of his examples are hypothetical or else attributed to unnamed “lying weasels” and “unscrupulous hucksters” while avoiding anything that might be potentially partisan (Trump and Hillary Clinton are each referred to only once).

This is unfortunate. He could have easily delved into the emerging psychological research revealing how political ideologies shape our receptivity to information, such that liberals and conservatives when faced with the same sets of facts will often reach completely different conclusions – a discussion that would have been exceedingly timely.

Instead, Levitin’s political myopia is so jarring it threatens at times to undermine his entire project.

For example, the disparity between (low) official estimates of civilian deaths in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when compared to those of third-party observers is owed by Levitin not to political expediency but to calculating an unknowable quantity, while the Bush Administration was simply “mistaken” about the presence of WMDs in Iraq, rather than engaging (as many critics allege) in a deliberate campaign of deception.

In the book’s most jaw-dropping passage, he casually brushes aside the countless discrepancies in the official account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by likening these to the occasional headache accompanied by blurred vision: probably not an indication of anything serious.

While A Field Guide to Lies may help readers make better sense of news reports and be wiser consumers, Levitin’s failure to situate his book in the contemporary politics of “truthiness” dramatically diminishes its value – and relevance. As a result, it unintentionally demonstrates that, absent an understanding of ideology and power, no amount of statistical literacy and formal logic will help you recognize that you are being lied to.

 

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
By Daniel Levitin.
Allen Lane/Penguin/Random House, $20.00. 292 pp.

 

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 15th 2016

Book Review: Indigenous Writes

In 2013, the Thompson Citizen shut down its Facebook page to deny a platform for, in the words of editor John Barker, “anti-aboriginal racists and haters (to) spew their evil.” Similarly, in late November 2015, the CBC suspended all comments for articles and features related to indigenous issues, citing the frequency of “hateful, vitriolic (and) ignorant” comments. (For its part, the Winnipeg Free Press restricts commenting privileges to subscribers only).

In the face of this public bigotry and ignorance, Chelsea Vowel wants to help shape our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians by engaging us in a badly needed, non-confrontational and — most of all — respectful conversation.

 

In her meticulously organized and highly accessible new book Indigenous Writes, Vowel, a Cree-speaking Métis writer and educator based in Montreal, both addresses and demolishes the many myths, misconceptions and stereotypes that have for so long poisoned public discourse and done endless harm to indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Writes is the latest release in Portage & Main Press’ Debwe series edited by the University of Manitoba’s Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair. While her title is a play on words which can be read several ways, it powerfully underscores Vowel’s agency as an indigenous author, which is consistent with Debwe’s mandate.

Over 31 brief chapters, Vowel maintains a personal and frequently humorous tone as she engages directly with non-indigenous readers (such as this reviewer) — or, more accurately, those “who form the European-descended socio-political majority,” with the recognition that the descendants of African slaves cannot be seen as “settlers.”

Such concern over naming might seem pedantic, but it is this care in establishing the basis for the conversation at hand that characterizes her thoughtful approach in responding to the misunderstandings over which our nations-to-nation relationships have foundered.

Many of these, she is quick to point out, are not entirely our fault: Canada’s history of colonization and assimilation through unequal treaty-making, unjust legislation, obfuscation and racialized oppression is bewilderingly (and in her view, deliberately) confusing. Much as she does on her outstanding blog, âpihtawikosisân, issues such as status and non-status Indians, “blood quantum,” the treaties, indigenous identity, cultural appropriation, rights and legal decisions on aboriginal titles are explained and clarified, often by contextualizing these within the legal foundations and rights enjoyed by non-indigenous Canadians.

More importantly, a host of pernicious myths are assiduously debunked, chief among them that aboriginal people pay no taxes. As she makes abundantly clear, the Indian Act tax exemption for on-reserve income and property is enjoyed by a mere 192,000 people, or 0.5 per cent of the population — hardly an undue burden on non-indigenous taxpayers who have, needless to say, benefited beyond all conventional financial measures from access to indigenous lands.

Significantly, she counters not just the common bread-and-butter arguments of misinformed anonymous commenters, but the writings of well-known Canadian media personalities such as Conrad Black, the Province’s Gordon Clark and public intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul.

Fortunately, Vowel is able to call on her law degree to provide easily understood explanations and contexts for the general reader, supported by extensive lists of recommended reading.

Yet it is all accomplished with such disarming informality and even nerdiness (she is a fan of Canadian science-fiction author Rob Sawyer and the Civilization video games) that the book is unabashedly engaging. In a brilliantly satiric turn, she even adopts the rhetoric of the online trolls themselves to demonstrate the colonial vapidity of the arguments so often made against inherent indigenous rights.

While subtitled A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada, it would be a mistake to see Indigenous Writes as a book primarily about indigenous people. Instead, it is much more about all of us — our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians, and how it has been shaped (and misshaped) by the historic and contemporary governance of these issues.

For any Canadian who wishes to have an informed opinion about the country that we share — or, more to the point, publicly share that opinion — Indigenous Writes is essential reading.

Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada.
By Chelsea Vowel
HighWater/Portage & Main Press, 240 pages, $22

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday September 24th 2016.

Book Review: “Everything Explained That Is Explainable”

 

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The notion that one would physically house all the world’s most essential knowledge at your own house in dozens of identical-looking books would probably strike members of the 21st-century’s “iGeneration” as a tad presumptuous — even ridiculous.

Yet, for the better part of 244 years — from its first edition in 1768 until it went solely online in 2012 — this was the role of the venerable and massive Encyclopaedia Britannica, as indispensable to everyday information-seekers as Google is today.

Of its 15 editions, the most famous is the 1910-1911 11th edition, notable not only for being the first multi-volume encyclopedia to be published as an entire set simultaneously, but also for the literary quality of its entries, written by the leading minds of the day including Darwinian biologist T.H. Huxley, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Where the previous edition’s 17,000 often book-length entries had required considerable studiousness from its readers, the 29-volume 11th, under the editorship of journalist Hugh Chisholm, instead featured 40,000 shorter entries, making it the first truly modern encyclopedia. In fact, so well-regarded is the 11th edition that in 2006, tens of thousands of its articles were uploaded to Wikipedia to augment the online encyclopedia.

In this meanderingly entertaining (if misleadingly titled) book, Denis Boyles recounts the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras of the Britannica, with a focus on the personalities behind it, as well as its publication by the equally venerable newspaper the Times of London before Boston’s Cambridge University Press would take over the reins for the 11th.

A France-based journalist and regular contributor to the National Review, Boyles is best known for writing travelogues and compendiums of miscellany and practical advice aimed at primarily male readers, as well as for his conservative polemics Vile France (2005) andSuperior, Nebraska (2008).

Perhaps attracted to the subject matter by his apparent fascination for trivia, Boyles draws colourful portraits of the Americans who would reinvent Britannica, and in the process revolutionize book marketing: Horace Everett Hooper and fellow bookseller Walter Montgomery Jackson, as well as ad man Henry Haxton.

Boyles’ narrative of the Americans’ audacious 1898 scheme to recruit the troubled Times to reprint and dramatically discount the decades-out-of-date 9th Edition is particularly enjoyable, especially the attention he lavishes on Haxton’s obnoxiously verbose and relentless advertisements — one example, reprinted as an appendix, runs a full eight pages.

The ads may have been annoying but they were wildly successful, making Britannica a household commodity and rescuing the Times from insolvency.

In devoting so much attention to the ninth and 10th editions of Britannica, Boyles adheres surprisingly closely to Herman Kogan’s classic 1958 history of the encyclopedia, The Great EB, which leaves precious little space to devote to his book’s ostensible focus. In fact, the story of the 11th Edition really only gets underway on page 233, occupying the final third of the book.

Boyles shares the conventional understanding that what makes the 11th edition so particularly valued 100 years on is its singular world view born of imperial hubris — that of universal, rational and technological Anglo-led progress — an illusion that would be so decisively destroyed, only a few years later, on the battlefields of Europe.

Yet this sense of a decisive purpose is notably missing from Boyles’ own book, which lacks a formal introduction and devotes two chapters of questionable relevance to various behind-the-scenes machinations at the Times, which actually had nothing whatever to do with publishing the 11th edition.

Everything Explained would also have benefited from a stronger sense of critique. While Boyles acknowledges some of the 11th’s more offensive entries (the shockingly racist “Negro” being only the most notorious), he puts forward no particular perspective or argument of his own, beyond admiration for its literary excellence.

At the same time, his remarkable conclusion that “we can’t say exactly how the Eleventh’s world is different from ours” is belied by his admission that its offences are apparent only in hindsight — which is to say, from the vantage of a postmodern, post-colonial and nominally progressive, yet fragmented, polarized and increasingly fact-averse world, one its authors would hardly recognize.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911.
By Denis Boyles.
Knopf, $36.00. 464 pp.

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 6th 2016.

Photo: Paul Friesen

Book Review: The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.

“Information wants to be free” goes the slogan of the so-called “free culture movement,” encouraging file sharing, open source software, and a permissive legal environment for modifying and distributing the works of others.

A more complex and subtle axiom offered by the Association of College and Research Libraries is “information has value”: that, as a commodity subject to copyright laws, information can bring advantage to some while marginalizing others. Users must therefore make informed and ethical choices about complying with – or challenging – copyright laws.

For the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz, concentrated corporate control reinforced by outdated copyright laws incommensurate with current technologies left him with no choice but to challenge wherever possible this private stranglehold over what he felt should be public information. Arrested for a series of brilliant and daring digital “heists” at MIT in late 2010 and early 2011, in which he covertly downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the commercial JSTOR database with the intent of distributing them freely online, Swartz became the free culture movement’s folk hero before taking his own life on January 11th, 2013.

In the hands of journalist Justin Peters, the life and death of Aaron Swartz becomes the lens for reconsidering the entire history of copyright for the digital age. An accomplished journalist best known for his technology- and sports-related writings for Slate.com, Peters is also a contributing editor for The Columbia Journalism Review and a founding editor of the archly humourous magazine Polite. Greatly expanded from its origins as an online article on Slate, The Idealist is Peters’ first book, grippingly told and with a clear-eyed view of its brilliant but flawed protagonist.

After introducing us briefly to Swartz’ legal predicament and untimely death, Peters actually leaves Swartz behind for more than 100 pages as he explains the history of American copyright legislation, the development of public libraries, the evolution of reproduction technologies and formats, notions of public domain and the quest for the “infinite library” of human knowledge instantly accessible anywhere.

Along the way, The Idealist introduces us to a number of other historical idealists, among them Noah Webster (of the eponymous Dictionary) who lobbied tirelessly (if self-interestedly) for the United States to pass a Copyright Act in 1790, and Herbert Putnam, America’s longest-serving librarian of Congress, who convened a series of copyright conferences leading up to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1909.

When Swartz re-emerges in the narrative in 2002 at age 15, he is a lauded computer programming prodigy (who didn’t actually care much for programming) who would go on to become a co-founder of news aggregator Reddit.com, a frequent conference speaker and a prolific blogger (Peters makes extensive use of Swartz’ online writing).

As well, Swartz shared in the appreciative company of such digital luminaries as World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Bram Cohen of BitTorrent fame and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. While Swartz would lend his support to a host of free culture and Internet activism projects, Peters finds he acquired a reputation for rarely finishing what he started.

Nor was the world quite ready for his ideas. His 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which called for the free distribution of entire databases worth of content in flagrant violation of copyright laws, made even some open access supporters – and many librarians – uneasy. Carrying out the Manifesto with his raid on JSTOR would result in spending the last two years of his life in legal limbo, facing a host of federal charges and the possibility of 95 years in prison, before he hanged himself at aged 26.

For Peters, the tragedy of Aaron Swartz serves to illustrate the paradox of information wanting to be simultaneously both free and expensive, and the consequent mismatch between our laws and the way most of us live online. With copyright laws extending protection ever further into creators’ posthumous futures (will Mickey Mouse ever be in the public domain?) and university libraries sagging under the increasingly crippling financial burden of proprietary databases, The Idealist challenges the reader to recognize their own place as creator, user and curator of the “infinite library” – and how it is up to all of us to choose how to fulfill equitably and ethically its limitless potential.

The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.
By Justin Peters.
Scribner, $26.00 352 pp

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, July 9th, 2016.

 

Between Not Forgetting and a Breathtaking Future: Notes from The Pathways to Reconciliation Conference

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This June I had the good fortune (and great privilege) of attending and participating in the Pathways to Reconciliation conference, an international gathering of more than 400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples at the University of Winnipeg, June 15-18 2016. A partnership between the University of Manitoba, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the U of W, Pathways was an opportunity to explore the contexts for, as well as the meanings, dimensions and implications of the idea of reconciliation. Speakers included Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia, and Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada as well as being a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council; Manitoba MLA Wab Kinew; Justin Mohamed, the Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia; Cindy Blackstock of Gitksan First Nation in BC and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci who was instrumental in negotiating the Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005.

My primary role was to present my paper A Library Matter of Genocide as part of a panel on “Institutional Approaches,” but I also chaired a session on “Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation.” As well — and for the first time — I “live-tweeted” my participation; far from being the distraction I’d assumed it to be, I found it to be an exceptionally useful and economical way to summarize, synthesize and communicate a speaker’s content, rather than just taking copious notes. What follows are some of my conference highlights adapted from my Twitter account.

In the first panel I attended, “Telling the Stories,” U of W professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Dr. Mary LeMaître spoke to the need for Dismantling Colonial Discourse,” and her research into online racist comments as a form of social discourse. As a librarian I was naturally interested in her observation that the origin of colonial discourse lies in 18th century scientific classifications and racial hierarchies. Colonial discourse, she observed, places all of us within subject-object relationships: subjects speak while objects are spoken about. Our colonial social discourse, she observed, helps make our colonial structure invisible to non-Indigenous Canadians, most of whom have never read the Indian Act. We all have role to play in shaping social discourse, she concluded, and in educating ourselves to challenge the colonial narrative.

I was also acutely aware during her talk of how my own profession of librarianship is implicated in these colonial narratives, in subject-object relationships and in the invisibility of the discursive functions of both to most non-Indigenous library users. Indeed these issues lie at the heart of my presentation 

TRC Researcher and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Paulette Regan payed tribute to and honoured the residential school survivors who have gifted us with their stories, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only captured a moment in time; it is not the last word. All of us are charged with carrying its work forward. While reconciliation must also include support for cultural and linguistic revitalization, reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the Earth – meaning Canada and Canadians must decolonize its resource extraction economy.

This I realized also resonates with the ideas around deconstructing the term “decolonizing” — that it isn’t a metaphor, that it actually requires Canada to return sovereignty over the land to Indigenous peoples.

In a sometimes emotional presentation, Aboriginal Program Coordinator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Maeengan Linklater spoke on Residential Schools, Genocide, Recognition and the CMHR, as well as his lobbying efforts to institute a provincial “Indian Residential School Genocide Reconciliation Memorial Day.” He began by expressing his gratitude to the Pathfinders who told their stories of their experiences in the schools. Linklater spoke to the controversy over the Museum’s decision to avoid the word “genocide” when describing the residential school system, but argued that critics needed to direct their concerns at the government that funds and mandates the museum, not the museum itself. Linklater had submitted a bill for an IRS Reconciliation and Memorial Act to the Manitoba government in 2015; there has been no response as yet. However, MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette is apparently going to try to present a federal version of the Bill in the near future. Linklater closed by expressing his gratitude to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for starting this dialogue.

Instituting such a holiday would be a powerful statement, one on par with the move in some American cities of doing away with Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native American Day.

In their presentation “We were Brave Children,” Dr. Rosemary Nagy of Nipissing University and residential school survivor Fredda Paul explored “childhood agential narratives” seeing the survivors’ narratives as ones of agency and resistance, rather than just of victimization. Nagy worked with Paul on his narrative; however, rather than tell his story for him, she indicated that he will be telling his own story in a forthcoming book. (Because Paul had been dismayed to learn that his TRC testimony was archived online without his knowledge, when it came time for him to tell his story I put my pen down).

The Thursday Luncheon Keynote speaker was Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, with his incredibly stirring speech “My Vision for a Reconciled Canada.” He began with an acknowledgment of — and we gave a standing ovation for — a group of residential school Survivors seated near the front of the room. Dr. Joseph then set out his vision: one in which reconciliation was understood not as a project or a goal but a core value to be embraced by all Canadians, all our lives. All Canadians need to come to terms with our collective past. Reconciliation is an intergenerational commitment; we need each other, and we are part of something great. A reconciled Canada must create modern Treaties where none exist. All Aboriginal people ever wanted, he said, was to be allowed to raise their own children; in a reconciled Canada, they will be able to once again. A reconciled Canada will have the power to change the world in what he described as “a future that is breathtaking, a shift of national consciousness – filled with a desire to be the people we say we are.”

In the Q&A after his speech, a Cree mother in the audience powerfully “called out” Canada for its child welfare genocide and Millenium Scoop that had taken her son away from her.

(One of the drawbacks of attending a conference hosted by your own university is that it all too easy to get called back the office; I was in a meeting the rest of the afternoon so missed that afternoon’s concurrent sessions).

On Friday morning the keynote speaker was former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci addressing the way forward to a new nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, which he says needs to be a joint federal and provincial project – not “either-or.” Recognition of this relationship must be on part of people and institutions, not just governments. The way forward must include change of attitudes involving education — but not just in schools – while children educated on history of IR Schools can help teach their parents. The way forward must also be principle-based, not merely transactional and include not forgetting the history of treatment of Indigenous peoples.

This essential task of “not forgetting” was the focus of the session I chaired on Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation. It featured four speakers either employed by or in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Julia Peristerakis, a Researcher-Curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, began by critiquing the modern project of museology for its long history of theft from and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. From the beginning, the Canadian Museum of Human Right sought to correct this through a “critical decolonizing” approach that integrates Indigenous voices and worldviews. The CMHR’s Indian residential school exhibit connects the schools with the Sixties scoop and current child welfare practices, as well as with other mass atrocities and moves to recognize it as genocide. Currently the CMHR is featuring temporary exhibit, “The Witness Blanket” a cedar panel monument to reconciliation. Reconciliation she said, requires reshaping historical narratives and museums have crucial role in challenging myth of peaceful settlement in Canada within framework of reconciliation.

Next, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Chair of the Memorial Para la Concordia in Guatemala spoke of interpreting and confronting memory of that country’s 36-year civil war through memorials. Guatemala’s Concord Memorial is a partnership of 10 civil society organizations commemorates the country’s Internal Armed Conflict and massacres; its process is deliberately not one of “reconciliation,” as the term implies “re-conciling”, a return to a past in which people were at peace, which in Guatemala did not exist. Rather they seek to build a “concord” between peoples, to create a new society. In addition to the construction of the Memorial Para la Concordia, the initiative includes a Memory Mapping project which documents over 500 plaques or monuments throughout Guatemala to acknowledge the conflict’s 200,000 victims, and these sites are now the location of Intergenerational Memory Dialogues. In Guatemala, reconciliation is non-ideological, bringing together people from the Left and Right, focusing on what is agreed upon, rather than on disagreement. Foppa added however that concord processes in Guatemala still need to do more to bridge racial and cultural divisions. One positive step in this direction is the phenomenal popularity of Guatemala’s all-female Alaide Foppa Orchestra (named after the speaker’s famous poet mother) which highlights female victims and role of women in reconciliation.

Foppa’s presentation was quite revelatory: I’d never parsed the term “reconciliation,” and from this perspective it would seem that perhaps Canada should have given more thought to adopting this as official terminology. There may not be an ideal previous state to which we can return, but we can work together on a concord for a better society in the future.

Another way in which women are dealing with the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war was the subject of CMHR curator Armando Perla’s talk. In the 1980’s, widows and orphaned girls formed weaving cooperatives which have been producing Indigenous textiles for stores across the country and which have garnered interaction attention. When the CMHR approached the cooperatives with the idea of creating a documentary and virtual gallery of their workshops, the women come up with a brilliant counter-proposal: that the CMHR Boutique carry their textiles. When the documentary is released visitors will be able to purchase the textiles in the Museum.

The final session I attended as an audience member was on the UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) as a Framework for Reconciliation; and it was standing room only! It featured four speakers: Judge David Arnot, President of CASHRA; Isha Khan with Manitoba Human Rights Commission; Will David, a policy analyst for the Assembly of First Nations; and Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin.

David got things off with a laugh and applause by stating that the Assembly of First Nations wants full adoption of UNDRIP. (Pause). “That’s it!” International and domestic laws he notes, have been illegitimately built on fiction of Colonial “Doctrine of Discovery“; correcting this legacy through Indigenous sovereignty will mean Nation(s) to Nation relationships – stressing the multiplicity of Indigenous cultures.

Arnot addressed the Intersections of Indigenous rights with Treaty and Human rights, which he introduced as a Venn Diagram. He began with the wry observation that a 99% rate of ignorance about Treaties on the part of non-Indigenous people doesn’t prevent 100% of them from having an opinion about them. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child stipulates right to know about rights, and on this, he said, human rights commissions have failed particularly in terms of recognizing the interconnections between Indigenous, human and treaty rights. What is needed is need K-12 education on the foundation of knowledge and understanding, hence of empathy, respect, harmony and reconciliation, which he called a Pedagogy of Respect.

Isha Khan urged the audience to  reach out to Indigenous people but not to worry so much about doing or saying the wrong thing — invite an Elder to your organization and “ask really dumb questions!”

Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin added that each principle of UNDRIP a matter of life and death for Indigenous peoples. It took 20 years to pass UNDRIP because of colonial nation state intransigence. We all need to transcend and transform the limitations of Canadian law: he finds troubling that Canada’s official wording of adoption of UNDRIP says it is contingent on “domestic law.”

In addition to my own presentation in the “Institutional Approaches” panel, Mary-Ann Clarke delivered an often devastating paper on her professional and personal experiences with Child and Family Services, arguing that CFS needs to withdraw from all Aboriginal family services within two generations, replacing its policing function with general services and supports, i.e., housing, counselling, health, mental health etc.

I was disappointed that my session coincided with that of my colleagues Monique Woroniak and Ashlyn Haglund, who reported on their experiences creating the amazing Groundwork for Change website, which offers non-Indigenous Canadians a primer on colonization, racism, white privilege and Indigenous sovereignty.

The conference as a whole was so rich and so necessary there seemed to be a general consensus among the participants I spoke with that it shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence, but rather a regular event. Joining with so many hundreds of other people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Canadians and people from around the world – was a truly transformative experience, and I’m grateful to the organizers and all the speakers for sharing so much with us. Gathered as we were for the purposes of “not forgetting” and working towards reconciliation (and a concord) — what Dr. Chief Robert Joseph described as a “brilliant future” that can “change the world” — one couldn’t help but feel a part of that future.

[Image credit: University of Winnipeg, Flickr]

“How I Became an Oxfordian”

For the past year, the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship has been running a very entertaining series, “How I became an Oxfordian,” in which their members tell their personal stories of how they came to doubt the traditional biography of Shakespeare. This week it’s my turn:

“Why would anybody believe it?” The teenaged girl’s eyes were wide, her head shaking. She’d come to the front of the school auditorium to speak to Charles Beauclerk, the Earl of Burford, whom I had brought to her Edmonton, Alberta high school as a part of his 1993 tour. Charles’ talk in support of Edward de Vere as the author of the plays and poems had totally destroyed the Stratford myth for this young woman, and her question has stayed with me ever since.