I recently returned home from a Canadian literature conference held in my old hometown of Toronto in a state of disillusionment, frustration, and anger. Usually I attend conferences after a long semester of teaching, looking for a glimmer of inspiration and motivation to jumpstart my research and writing but most importantly to engage with other scholars and to see what is happening in the areas that I write about and teach—in this case, Canadian literature. This semester was a bit different. I am working on a project that examines how American fiction writers perceive of and write about Canada; the motivation for this came from a longstanding interest in and commitment to exploring how Indigenous writers straddle, contest, and as best they can ignore the imposition of the Canada-US border as something that has been imposed upon pre-existing communities. All this to say, that I have spent most of my time over the last few years reading and writing about American fiction and I was eager to see what is happening in Canadian literary criticism.
The months and weeks leading up to the conference were filled with turmoil within the Canadian literary establishment. The termination of Stephen Galloway, the #UBC Accountable letter and counter-petition (the latter of which I signed), the rightful probing of Joseph Boyden’s ability to speak for and about Indigenous peoples, the recent horrifying debacle of Write: The Magazine of the Writer’s Union of Canadain which the white male editor published the work of Indigenous authors while simultaneously including an editorial that mocked the very serious questions of appropriation, without prior disclosure of the contents of the editorial to the writers being included in the issue. The one good thing to come from these events is the viral success of the Emerging Indigenous Voices Literary Award which now totals over $110,000; I was thrilled to contribute and watch it grow. So given all of the possibilities that could and might have come out of a Canadian literary criticism conference at this juncture, why was I left feeling so depressed and embarrassed by this experience.
Full disclosure: I am one of the lucky ones in spinning the roulette wheel of the job market. I am a white, middle class woman who did my graduate work at the University of Toronto with full-funding, held a SSHRC post-doc for seven months, and then received my first tenure-track job offer at UNB. I have no right to complain. I have the stability and security to do my research and teaching in a supportive and nurturing environment, to apply for grants and hire graduate researchers to help move my projects forward, as well as creative and academic freedom to teach a wide array of texts. Over my career, I served a decade as co-editor of Studies in Canadian Literature, a role in which one, like it or not, contributes to canon formation, while also hopefully making room for new ideas, approaches, and texts. In other words, I have institutional clout.
I’ve been fully employed ever since, albeit far from my birthplace and hometown of Toronto in Central Canada, a move that I made because I wanted a job but have grown from in so many ways. While the Fredericton campus of UNB is a bucolic place, as evidenced by the work of the white, male Confederation Poets, many of whom are deeply tied to the city of stately elms, I have also learned a great deal about checking my own privilege and unpacking what lies beneath those elms—deep-rooted classism and racism. I have watched my spouse struggle with over-education and underemployment in a region of Canada where work is difficult to find, resources are scarce, and the challenges faced by a small population are all too often dwarfed by the desires of Central Canada. Many of my students are first generation university goers, working multiple jobs for minimum wage, and overwhelmed by an institution that appears alienating and exclusionary; for those who leave their rural homes, coming to a city of 50,000 is a big step. I have embraced my life in Atlantic Canada and my research reflects that interest—I regularly work on, teach, and write about the rich literature from the region, including a plethora of incredible African-Canadian and Indigenous texts, many of which remain unknown nationally.
So coming to Toronto now has its own baggage for me, claiming a geographic, cultural, economic and political clout that I did not recognize or critique when I lived there. Moreover, the conference was held in Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, an all too familiar locale from my time as a graduate student, primarily because it housed a very fancy restaurant on its second floor that my grandmother treated me to several times. Built in 1919 and gifted by the Massey Foundation, its Beaux Arts Gothic Revival style is intimidatingly beautiful with Italian travertine flooring and wood paneling. The Great Hall is described on the Hart House website as the “showpiece” of the building. It was also the primary location for the majority of the conference, housing the plenary sessions and literary readings, despite the fact that it is a difficult place to hear people speaking because of grandeur of its size without renting an extensive and doubtlessly expensive sound system; to be able to hear people’s voices and see their faces is critical yet challenging and virtually impossible without extensive equipment in such a locale. Its vaulted ceiling and enormous stained glass windows are reminiscent of a church, and symbols of empire and institutional status abound, with the “coats of arms of the Royal Family and degree-granting universities of the British Empire” from the era of its construction located on the south wall. Among the decorative features of space, the north end of the hall displays “shields” representing 74 universities of nations allied with Britain and Canada in 1919” and large portraits of the Hart House wardens, as well as university chancellors and governors are visible throughout the room. In other words, the Great Hall conveys a great deal of White, male, heterosexual authority and privilege by virtue of its history and thus perhaps, could or might have been the perfect place to engage with “Literature, Justice, and Relation,” key conference themes, in new and productive ways.
Yet, institutions are notoriously hierarchical, resistant to change, and eager to hold onto established practices, often because it ensures that those at the top don’t have to surrender their power, which is all too often tied to disciplinary turf. It takes enormous courage and self-reflexivity to break free of—or into—those ivory towers and it is especially hard to do so when a conference is itself framed physically by a building that represents the very essence of empire, at least in the context of Canadian education, as an iconic building on the largest research university in the country, located in a city that has constructed itself as the financial centre of the nation. Perhaps I have it wrong, or maybe I am just misguided. Nor would I have read the situation this way had I remained in Toronto, or even another large city as a professor. And sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why conferences work or don’t, despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers. But I do believe that reflecting on what constitutes Canadian literary criticism, at least for professors, may mean stepping outside of the institutions which prop us up, whatever the level of discomfort or unfamiliarity of moving off campus. This may offer one small step toward making Canadian literary studies more accountable to those who work within and outside of academia and turn frustration, anger, and disavowal into the beginnings of new kinds of dialogues that acknowledge the ways in which institutions and those at the top (me included) all too often dictate who teaches Canadian literature, what they teach, and how they teach it.
Jennifer Andrews is Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. She has published book chapters and articles in a variety of scholarly journals including American Literary History, ESC, American Indian Quarterly, ECW, The Canadian Review of American Studies and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Her co-authored book, Border Crossings: Thomas King’s Cultural Inversions, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2003 and her SSHRC-funded book on Native North American women poets, titled In the Belly of a Laughing God, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2011.