Congress 2010, day two

Half the fun of Congress: random reunions.


This morning’s plenary panel for ACCUTE featured three speakers on the complex relationships of First Nations students and scholars to the university in general and English literary studies in particular. Len Findlay moderated and I’m always amazed how eloquently he mixes vernacular and learned language: he described three “frames” of discourse now “re-confining” Canada’s First Nations as “mess up, dress up, and ‘fess up” (referring to the continuing crisis of FNU and the truth & reconciliation procedures taking up the legacy of residental schools, for a couple of examples). Author Warren Cariou advocated “more comprehensive, embodied attention to orality in university literary curriculum” as a means to foster “more genuinely intercultural analysis.” Film-maker and scholar Tasha Hubbard reflected on the complex lived ironies of “indigenous grad students as pioneers” in academia, and very usefully detailed the responsibilities, priorities, and anxieties that First Nations grad students — most of whom come to grad school later in life — must work through while navigating an academic environment too often rife with misunderstanding and racism. Daniel Heath Justice made an impassioned case against chronically “low expectations” for First Nations students: “when you expect the best of people,” and establish a setting in which they can succeed, he said, “they rarely disappoint.” He also gave one of the most plain-speaking rationales of English literary studies I think I’ve ever heard:

Books saved my life. … Literature has changed my life. It initiated my cultural recovery. It didn’t start at home. It started in the academy and it brought me home.

Had lunch with Ben Lefebvre, a grad-school peer from Guelph, now a leading L. M. Montgomery scholar. Then I visited the people at AU Press to find out about open-access publishing: that is, releasing a free electronic edition alongside the for-purchase print edition. U of Ottawa P and maybe WLU P also do this, though AUP introduced OA publishing to Canada.

Paying more attention to Congress-wide events, I went to Ed Broadbent’s talk this afternoon. Watch an archived video of his talk here.

Ed Broadbent addresses Congress. Photo courtesy of Boundry.


He compared the “Golden age of the common man” — the thirty years after World War Two — with the “new barbarism” that began its ascendancy in the hard right turn of the 1980s. Broadbent stressed that social and economic rights (materialized in policies like universal health care, old-age pensions, and other “social safety-net” policies) are legally required in Canada, under section 36 of the 1982 Constitution Act and under Canada’s commitments to the UN (whose foundational 1948 declaration of human rights, he reminded us, was drafted by a Canadian, John Humphrey).

Amidst his more pragmatic, policy-oriented criticisms, Broadbent also supplied a useful interpretive tool for decoding the claims and arguments of neoconservative politicians and ideologues: “when a party advocates slashing housing, health and other benefits, they are assaulting our social and economic rights.” And he made a plug for reading too, encouraging everyone to read The Spirit Level. The authors studied dozens of countries to conclude that more equal societies (those that deliver social services to honour UN and constitutional commitments to social and economic rights) are more stable, just, healthy — better off in every way. Significantly, the USA and the UK ranked at the bottom of the authors’ scale; as Broadbent put it, “unequal societies are not only unfair, they’re dysfunctional.” And he noted that Canada’s ranking somewhere around the middle, but “is becoming more unequal more rapidly than other developed countries.” “It’s time to reverse the trend to growing inequality,” he declared, and cited a survey from the Manning Institute, of all places, showing that 82% of Canadians believe government should play a role in reducing poverty and inequality.

Makes me wish 82% of Canadians would turn out to vote.

The Q&A was feisty, as it kicked off with an NDP hater who seemed keener to rant than query; Broadbent gave just as feisty a retort about the quesitoner’s premises. Nice to see some crackin’, heckle-filled, hot-blooded debate, a welcome change from all the “I’m wondering about…” that’s more typical in my area.

Broadbent's Congress audience. Photo courtesy of Boundry.

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