Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Undeliverable Blog Post

There is a quiet, but determined assault being unleashed by the current federal government on scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences. Petitions are being written, signed, and submitted by those of us affected, but I only realized how bad things were getting when the chief funding agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC, pronounced “shirk”) sent out an email re-assuring scholars that everything was fine. Yes, they conceded, some cuts were coming, and yes, they further conceded, new funds were being earmarked for research directed towards the benefit of “business”, and yes, SSHRC would no longer be funding medical-related research in the humanities and social sciences. Of course, what else should we expect from SSHRC since its leadership has the unenviable task of representing the interests of scholars doing research in the humanities and social sciences to a federal government that has long been disdainful of its mandate and many of its members. The current president of SSHRC, Chad Gaffield, has been working tirelessly to champion our research efforts in ways that would be read more favourably by such a sceptical audience. I don’t blame anyone at SSHRC for the current state of affairs, nor their anti-Chicken Little email of reassurance. I would no doubt have written the same email should I have been in their shoes. (And I think everyone, including me, ought to be thankful I am not!) But getting that email made me feel like a coach of a professional sports team mired in a horrible losing streak who reads in the paper that his boss has given him a “vote of confidence”. Cue the fat lady; update the c.v.; call the movers. The end is nigh!

If anyone can navigate SSHRC through these troubled waters, however, it is Chad Gaffield and while I lament the business-speak that has now infested our scholarly discourse (we need to talk about “deliverables”, for example, when we apply for funding), I also understand the practical and pragmatic reasons for this. But I will not cede ground on that which I believe to be fundamental: scholarly work should make the strange familiar, the familiar strange, and always, always, should it seek and speak truth no matter how seemingly relevant or not it is to the profit margins of business.

And now, if you will excuse me, I need to go work on a deliverable so that I can affect a paradigm-shit in this knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Et tu, Iggy?

The decision to cancel the planned re-enactment of the battle of the Plains of Abraham has caused a firestorm of blustering and denunciation. Feeding this has been the media's rather lazy declarations that the reason for the cancellation was the "threats of violence" posed by "the separatists." The Globe and Mail: "Separatists win Plains of Abraham battle"; The National Post: "Quebec separatist army claims victory".

James Moore, current federal Heritage Minister re-cycled this same line of argument, lamenting the decision to cancel the event in language like this: "“I think the Bloc Québécois and those who played politics with this event …, to the detriment of recognizing a fact of Canadian history, have done a real disservice to the City of Quebec,” (Globe and Mail, 17 February 2009). His ignorance pales, alas, when compared to that of someone who ought to know better: "Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lamented the debate surrounding the re-enactment of the battle was hijacked by sovereigntists. "What I don't like, frankly, is that sovereigntists are trying to dominate a free debate. As someone who likes Canada and knows a thing or two about its history, I want to have my say," Ignatieff told reporters at a separate event in Quebec City." (Ottawa Citizen, 17 February 2009). The comments of Moore and Ignatieff have been echoed, and given a much more virulent tone, in the Comments section on various media websites where a nationwide (and beyond) public has been thundering its general outrage.

To be fair, there have been many voices speaking differently, both in the Comments section of these sites and in the media itself. As the CBC reported on its website: "However, Sylvain Rocheleau, a spokesperson for Le Réseau du résistance du Québécois, said he was not convinced by the reason given. "We were a bit surprised that they cancelled the event because of fear of violent acts," said Rocheleau. He said any threats of violence or confrontation came from a small minority of the overall movement against the re-enactment. "I think the commission wants us to believe they cancelled the event following threats from extremist movements," said Rocheleau. "[I think] they had to cancel the event because it was insulting a majority of francophones. They had to cancel it because it was a bad idea."

The free Metro newspaper ran an editorial cartoon this morning (18 February 2009) that seeks to visualize all of this as follows:

It is comforting to think that "HISTORY" and "POLITICS" are separated by some nebulous "GREY AREA" but this episode reveals, again, that HISTORY and POLITICS are always on the same bookshelf, struggling with each other for space, to have their spines prominent, their stories told. All history is political, and all politics have history. To pretend it is otherwise is to continue to re-cycle, re-circulate, and re-inscribe the wonderful, terrible subjectivity of history as objective fact. Dr. Ignatieff may know "one or two things", and in fact he knows a lot more. But he has forgotten about the present's enduring role in the past and thus he, too, seems unaware that lots of folks, self-identified "separatists" and otherwise, rejected these re-enactments because they made no sense to our efforts to forge a better collective present. The real debate here should not be about why the re-enactment was cancelled, it should be about why it was even considered.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Canada Bound May 1953

Every immigrant kid has a picture like this. Often the picture is a photograph, maybe one in a series of photographs arranged in one of those pre-digital photograph albums, trapped beneath the clear-plastic cover that was intended to shield the photograph from the dirty fingers of eager kids and the coffee and cake crumbs that always seem nearby when an album was opened up. Those big, heavy pages would be turned and each reveal would bring a new (old) story about who was in the photograph, where it was taken, when it was taken, and so forth. I don’t recall many photographs, much less an album, documenting my mother’s family emigration from West Germany and immigration to Canada but even though there were few photographs, there were lots of stories. And so long before I saw the photograph above, I knew this picture.

It is more accurate to say that I thought I knew this picture. The dark-haired girl with the pigtails, eyes cast down to the ground, is my mother. My mother was one of two people who helped me draw a picture about leaving West Germany in 1953 and coming to Canada, the other being my Opa, the man standing right behind my mother. As storytellers, they always described for me what they saw: my mother, for example, telling me stories about her impish little sister being spoiled on the steamship by the Italian crew and delighting them with her cutesy looks and behaviour; Opa telling me about the tragedy of making the decision to come to Canada primarily because of the scholarly genius already shown by their eldest daughter, Doris (back row, far right), who, only a year after arriving, died from complications resulting from a burst appendix. I heard funny stories, sad stories, exceptional stories, and everyday stories. I heard stories about all the other people in that photograph and even about the person taking the photograph, my uncle Horst. Despite all of the stories they told me, I lost track of these storytellers being in the picture, especially my mother. But there she is. In the picture.

Narrators rarely appeared in the stories I loved as a kid, especially comic books. I might have been able to read Batman’s thoughts (his doubts about vigilantism, his self-awareness of an aging body beneath the rubberized suit, his frustration when, sigh, Dick Grayson / Robin entered his life) but the adventure he was engaged in got its narrative thrust from the God-like perspective provided by the images and by the multi-perspective dialogue crafted by comic writers. Comic books shaped my earliest understandings of narrative and they also shaped the picture I made of my background as the child of an immigrant.

Very innocuously, my mother e-mailed me the above photograph asking if I had a better copy of it. A better copy?! I did not even know what I was looking at when I first opened the e-mail’s attachment, for I had never seen this picture. But there, at the top of my picture viewer, was the title my uncle Claus had assigned it when he scanned the original, taken from what was scratched and faded across the back of the original: Canada Bound May 1953.

Here was an old photograph. Here was a new picture.


Update: My mother continues to re-make the picture. She sent me a new version of my Opa's memoirs, edited by my Uncle Claus, and it included, among other things, this image:

Thanks, Mom.