BOOK REVIEW: “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir”, by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir

I awoke the morning after finishing reading this book the evening before, just before I went to sleep, with a very poignant, and powerful, scene being acted out on the movie screen of my waking mind. I saw a drunk and disheveled old Native guy, someone I hadn’t previously met, sitting alone on a bench in a city park. Normally, if I’d come across a guy like that, I would have just let him be, and gone on my way. But that’s not what happened this time.

I observed him for a while, realizing, oddly (we hadn’t previously met), that this was a guy who had many interesting stories to tell, and who was a good story-teller, and I wanted to hear those stories. I also knew that, due to the drink, and his age, and a possible desire to preserve his dignity, I shouldn’t expect that his stories would be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I wanted to hear his stories anyway, and to share a park bench with him and savour his warmth and gentle humour, so I went over to join him. I sat down, and we started to talk. Then I got up … up out of bed, that is, only because it was a workday and I had to get to work.

Critically-minded readers who read “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir” looking for just further evidence of the indignities and abuse suffered by residential school students are likely to find this book disappointing–at least initially. Augie Merasty, a survivor of nine years at the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, whose handwritten stories of his experiences at the school written over several years comprise the basis of this book, is not, as I think any reasonable person would acknowledge, an entirely reliable narrator.

Age, drink, and the fact that, at least when he began his project of recording stories from his days at St. Therese, he was likely to have been aware that he stood to gain financially by presenting a dark picture, all lend suspicion to his account. (Augie began to record his stories in the late 1990s as evidence to be used by lawyers in the first stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that led to a 1.9 billion federal government settlement package, implemented in 2007, for survivors of the residential schools.)

A further, related, problem, is that, although Augie is still alive, he apparently is now too sick (from cancer) to do television interviews and other kinds of personal appearances that could lend credibility to his case. We’re unable to watch Augie, and to listen to his actual voice, as he relates his stories–unlike when we watched, and listened to, selected survivors of the residential schools presenting their videotaped testimonies as part of the wrap-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on June 2, and knew, with certainly, that they were telling the truth and, furthermore, knew, with certainty, what a devastating experience this had been for them.

In addition to these problems related to Augie himself, there are problems related to how this book was put together. A professional writer, David Carpenter, formerly a teacher in the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan, considerably helped Augie in bringing to fruition his dream of publishing his memoir as a book. As Carpenter reveals in the relatively lengthly introduction to this slim volume (about a third of which consists of the Introduction), he had to do a great deal of editing to corral the various prose passages and letters that Augie provided, over a period of several years, into a coherent, publishable, book. A question arises, as it inevitably does with this kind of collaboration, regarding who actually contributed what to the finished work.

Often, in the main section of the book that is supposed to be Augie’s memoir, the language is jarring, not at all in keeping with how a Native guy who did learn how to read and write at St. Therese’s but who spent most of his working life as a fisherman and trapper would be expected to communicate. For example, would Augie really have referred to himself and his pals at school as “me and my fellow reprobates?” Or would he really have said of a particularly sadistic nun at St. Therese, “I cannot say enough to vilify her name”? Problems like this with the language used to relate Augie’s experiences dilute the credibility of the experiences themselves.
But, of course, if Carpenter hadn’t done a great deal of work on Augie’s ‘manuscript’ to make it publishable, including sometimes interjecting his own vocabulary, and sensibilities, this book would never have been published.

Despite these ‘weaknesses’, assuming that readers come to this book with the usual preconceptions and expectations–that its publishers, unfortunately, haven’t made an effort to discourage–I believe this book is worth reading. It’s the images that occur after finishing the book, when one’s guard is down, and the power that these images may have in helping achieve reconciliation between Native and non-Native Canadians, that may be this book’s greatest strength. Images like that of an old, drunk, Native guy sitting on a park bench, grinning warmly as you draw near …

 

BOOK REVIEW: “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People” by Michel Hogue

I came to this book with an academic background not in history but, rather, in issues associated with philosophical change in Canadian postsecondary education. One of my interests is implications for humanities research, including historical research, of postmodernism. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in Canada’s First Nations people, but mainly in the present context. (I worked for a few years for CESO on a Native youth employment program that gave me the opportunity to visit several reserves in northern Quebec and BC. The experience left a very strong impression.)

Frankly, I’m generally wary of the work of academic historians. So much of such work buys into, if not explicitly then implicitly, the binary logic that has held sway in Western universities since their inception. This system of logic no longer generally prevails in modern democracies like Canada so, at best, such work is merely outdated. Often, such work is not only outdated but also conceivably could do harm. (I could say more about how such harm may occur, but this isn’t the place for another one of my screeds about academic humanities research.)

Although Michel Hogue is a professor in the History Department at Carleton University and “Metis and the Medicine Line” is published, in Canada, by the University of Regina Press (it originally was published in the US by the University of North Carolina Press), I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian Metis history and culture and/or the history of the Canada-US border–even the academic skeptics. I also would recommend it to any culturally responsible Canadian whose knowledge of plains history is, like mine was before I read this book, basically confined to compulsory high-school history classes and watching “Dancing With Wolves,” who should know more–even if they don’t yet know it. (I saw “Dancing With Wolves” a second time, on APTN, after reading this book, and the movie was more interesting the second time around.) I also would recommend it to academic historians, regardless of their areas of specialization, as a model of how academic historical work can remain relevant, and be beneficial, in the current era.

Because of its rich detail, “Metis and the Medicine Line” sometimes can be tough reading, even for academically trained readers. But getting through the book’s densely packed pages is worth the effort. (To be fair, there are several interesting historical photographs interspersed throughout the book.) These details are included not merely to illustrate particular points but also themselves effectively comprise two central points of the book.

The first is that Metis history is much more rich and complex than has traditionally been portrayed. As Hogue recounts, when the North American plains were first being colonized, the Metis people crossed many of the conceptual ‘borders’ that the White colonists, who themselves thought in binary terms, tried to impose on them: these include ‘borders’ relating to race, culture and nationality. The second is that the development of the physical border between Canada and the United States in western North America was a more complex, and more conflict-ridden, process than is usually understood, owing in large measure to the cross-border travel in pursuit of buffalo, and cross-border shenanigans, of migratory plains people, most notably the Metis. (The meaning of “the medicine line” in the title of the book is related to some of these shenanigans. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.)

A stylistic device that Hogue employs throughout this book that helps to organize, and to bring resonance to, details he provides about Metis life and culture and Canada-US border creation issues is to follow a single Metis family, the family of the peripatetic trader Antoine Ouellette and his wife Angelique Bottineau, through the period covered in the book. It’s a very clever, very elegant, device that draws readers back in when the details may be starting to wear them down. It worked that way for me, anyway.

Because I’m not a historian specializing in Metis culture and/or Canada-US border development, I don’t know if and, if so, to what extent, Michel Hogue’s book, and his related academic work, is precedent setting. I’m curious to know. I would suggest that with “Metis and the Medicine Line”, Hogue not only has written an important book about a people that crossed racial, cultural and national borders, but also has done some significant border-crossing himself, bringing a fresh, non-traditional, non-binary, perspective to this subject. He is to be commended–as are his publishers.

A relatively minor shortcoming of this book, in my view, is that I wish that Hogue had said a little more about himself in his book, and what led him to write it. The combination of his first and last names suggests his family backgound is culturally mixed, including some French or French-Canadian. In a book like this, I think he owes it to his readers to let them know at least if he is, or isn’t, Metis. . . . Actual Metis, that is, and not just any old border-crossing, contemporary, Canadian who identifies with these border-crossing people.

Reclaiming Our Stories: Another View of Residential Schools

For a couple of years, when I was in my late teens, my family was entirely dysfunctional. Right after my mother and father separated, there was some financial hardship and the trauma of moving from a small town to the big city so my mother could go back to work as a secretary. But that was nothing compared to when my mother hooked up with an abusive, violent, alcoholic, fertilizer salesman (really), who moved in with my mother and we four girls when I was 17. Things then got completely out of control–or, should I say, the fertilizer really flew.

As the eldest of the brood, with only two years left in high-school, immediately after which I hightailed it out of there, I got off relatively easy. But I do know a thing or two about growing up in poverty with an alcoholic parent, or surrogate parent, and how this can affect kids. The kids who are especially vulnerable, because they’re the youngest, or smallest, or least developed intellectually or emotionally, are likely to be left deeply scarred, with very low esteem. As adults, unless they recognize their problems and get professionally help, or somehow work out their problems themselves, they are likely to perpetuate the pattern of abuse.

And, oh yes, I’m White. Bad stuff sometimes happens in White families, too.

I mention this aspect of my background here–that I haven’t previously publicly divulged–because it’s relevant to my concerns about dominant narratives in Canada concerning First Nations residential schools.

I personally know not just one, but two, White Canadian writers, both of whom come from, in my view, very privileged backgrounds and both of whom are strong proponents of the now-dominant view in Canada, shared by Whites and Aboriginals alike, that Canadian First Nations residential schools were basically hellholes. Although it’s not indicated in any of their published writings of which I’m aware, both received at least their secondary educations (and maybe their elementary educations, too) in private Christian boarding schools. Schools for rich kids.  (At least some of my readers probably will want to know these writers’ names. I’m sorry, but I won’t be providing that information here. You’ll have to take my word for it.)

I don’t personally know anyone who attended a residential school. However, the comments of a Native audience member, who had family members who had attended such schools, at a talk I attended in Toronto about the residential schools, back when I was a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, support my suspicions.

This Native audience member, a teacher herself, took exception to the overall condemnation of residential schools by the speaker, a White university professor. She pointed out that her aunt generally had enjoyed her experiences. Among the things she enjoyed, according to her niece, were that there were three meals a day and clean sheets on her bed once a week–things she wasn’t able to take for granted at home. Also, she developed a love for learning, that she shared with her niece, who went on to university and became a teacher.

I don’t mean to suggest that the residential schools were entirely without problems. But I do suspect that the very dark picture of them that currently prevails in Canada is due at least in large measure to certain influential, privileged, White folks projecting dark memories of their own boarding school experiences onto residential schools and their First Nations students. If one comes from a financially and emotionally stable family background, boarding-school life may indeed seem wretched compared to family life; but if one isn’t so lucky, while school may not be paradise, it’s likely to be more tolerable.

As for emotional scars having been left on former generations of Canada’s Aboriginal people by the residential schools, and these scars being the root cause of problems such as alcoholism and domestic abuse among succeeding generations, there are other ways that one, whether Native or White, can become emotionally scarred. Only approximately 30% of Canada’s Aboriginal children attended residential schools during the period that they were primarily active (between 1876, following the passage of the Indian Act, until the late 20th Century). It would be interesting to know which group, those who did or those who didn’t attend residential school, ended up better off.

Poverty, associated with the breakdown of traditional cultures, was rampant among Canada’s First Nations people during most of the period of the residential schools, and continues to be common among many of our First Nations people. To escape poverty, education is key.  Also, through education, we  can achieve greater control over our stories–stories told about us by others and stories about us we tell ourselves.

**In doing some basic research for this piece, I came across an interesting article published in The National Post newspaper last year, “Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?“, in which the author, Paul Russell, debunks various common conceptions about residential schools. While the issue of privileged White people possibly projecting their own narratives onto Aboriginal people isn’t addressed in this article, issues such as the ‘high’ rate of fatalities in the residential schools from tuberculosis and smallpox and the ‘abusive’ disciplinary practices of teachers are addressed. For anyone interested in the residential schools, I believe this article is worth a read.

Picturing Canadian Multi-Multiculturalism . . . or Fun With Flags

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Various ideas I’ve put forward in this blog regarding Canadian post-secondary education are born of my recognition that Canada is officially a multicultural country and my belief that certain educational practices are more consistent with multiculturalism than are others. Until recently, I took it for granted all Canadians possessed a very similar understanding of what was meant by ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiculturalism'; but it seems that’s not actually the case. For example, as was pointed out by Douglas Todd in his Vancouver Sun article of March 13th, ‘A blank slate, with no culture,’ some recent immigrants to Canada are under the impression that, because Canada is officially a multicultural country, in this country all cultures have the same basic status and Canada has no real culture of its own. As someone born and bred in Canada, of English and Scottish stock, that certainly never was my understanding of ‘multicultural’. Then too, as I further considered this subject prompted by Todd’s article, I realized my own understanding of ‘multicultural’ had evolved over the years.

To grasp the various possible understandings of ‘multicultural’, and ‘multiculturalism’, I find it helpful to organize the various options in graphic terms. I’ve taken some liberties with our Canadian flag (and availed myself of the nifty iPad app Brushstroke for palette inspiration) to help me better understand the options myself and, since I’m incorporating these pictures in this blog post, to perhaps help convey to my readers various possible meanings of ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiculturalism’ in the present Canadian context.  As I’m more than willing to admit, this scheme is, in some respects, very simplistic, and for some of my choices (especially colour choices), I do take artistic liberties. Nevertheless, it seems helpful–to a point.

A ‘GEOGRAPHICAL-CULTURAL’ CONCEPTION OF CANADIAN MULTICULTURALISM (WITH POSTE DE LA BALEINE/GREAT WHALE RIVER/WHAPMAGOOSTUI/KUUJJUARAPIK AT THE GEOGRAPHIC CENTRE)

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When multiculturalism first became enshrined as Canadian federal policy in October of 1971, supporters of this policy had essentially only two groups in mind: French-speaking Canadians, who predominated in southern Quebec, and English-speaking Canadians, who predominated in the southern portion of the rest of Canada. The policy basically was intended to appease Quebec francophones. Since the education system of Quebec had the same European roots as did that of English-speaking Canada, this conception of ‘multiculturalism’ did not, nor does it today, dramatically affect Canadian post-secondary education.  (Certain changes, like a greater emphasis across the country on attaining bilingualism, would be expected.)

At least since the time that I worked in Quebec’s far north immediately after graduating from McGill in the late 1970s, my own version of multiculturalism also has incorporated First Nations cultures–that seem to have increasingly gained entry into the conceptions of ‘multiculturalism’ of most Canadians through this decade. After working in a unique village on the Hudson Bay that included both Cree and Inuit people as well as French-speaking Quebecois and English-speaking Canadians from across Canada (and that is known by the four different names I’ve indicated above), my conception of Canada’s First Nations people has included two main groups, like Canadian anglophones and francophones tied largely to Canadian geography: the Inuit, who predominate in a very substantial part of northern Canada and who have a very distinctive culture among Canadian First Nations, and all of the other, more southern-dwelling, First Nations.  (I realize the latter group actually includes a panoply of culturally, linguistically and geographically distinct sub-groups.)

Thus, my basic, underlying, conception of multiculturalism, at least since the late 1970s, has incorporated four main groups, that may be thought of as Canada’s four founding cultures, each of which has laid claim to a significant geographic expanse in this country for a significant period of time. These four groups can be divided into two main pairs–hence the mainly two-colour colour scheme of the above group of four ‘flags’, representing, in total, one picture of ‘multiculturalism.’

Getting back to multiculturalism in relation to post-secondary education, this conception of ‘multiculturalism’, that incorporates certain non-European cultures and values and, thus, opens the door to postmodernism, does have very significant implications for Canadian post-secondary education in general; however, it isn’t the only possible version of ‘multiculturalism’ that may have such implications.

A CONCEPTION OF CANADIAN MULTICULTURALISM THAT STARTS WITH FOUNDING CULTURES & INCORPORATES RECENT IMMIGRANTS

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Back in the south of Canada, where I’ve lived since my relatively brief foray into Canada’s far north, it’s easy to forget how distinctive Canada’s Inuit people are, even among Canada’s diverse First Nations people.  Among we ‘southerners’–including even those of us who should know better–at least for the purpose of thinking about Canadian multiculturalism, it’s common to lump together all First Nations people, including the Inuit. The above picture thus incorporates three flags whose upper portion is Canadian red, two of which are almost identical (they share a blue lower portion) and represent Canada’s anglophone and francophone cultures, and the third of which (with earth tones at the bottom) can be seen as representing Canada’s First Nations cultures, considered collectively.

The fourth flag in this picture, the green (and blue) one, represents recent immigrants to Canada. Although recent immigrants to Canada weren’t a major consideration when Canadian multiculturalism was first conceived, ‘multiculturalism’ has increasingly come to refer to the entire range of cultures and linguistic groups from which Canadians now come. In this particular conception of ‘multiculturalism’, that is respectful of Canada’s historical origins and founding peoples, all recent immigrants, regardless of their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, are considered collectively. (This is not to say that, at other levels, distinctions would not be made.  Even in some of the following pictures, some rudimentary distinctions are made.)

AN EXAMPLE OF ONE INDIVIDUAL JUGGLING MULTIPLE CONCEPTIONS OF MULTICULTURALISM

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This third picture in the four-quadrant series of pictures in this post was produced simply by overlaying the first two above pictures–which is an easy process with digital graphics tools. I’ve included it here to suggest that it’s possible to hold at least two different conceptions of ‘multiculturalism’ at one time–or at least to fluctuate in one’s views.

MODERN CANADIAN MUTICULTURALISM INCORPORATING INCREASED DIVERSITY & WIDESPREAD ACCEPTANCE OF DISTINCTIVE, CENTRAL, CANADIAN CULTURE 

This variation of ‘multiculturalism’ is intended to suggest long-time Canadians (represented by the lower left, mostly red, quadrant) and a large number of immigrants from diverse cultural and linguistic groups (represented by the other three quadrants) living side by side, as is the case now in Canada’s urban centres like Vancouver.  (The fact that, in this picture, there are only three ‘flags’ representing these other groups is only because I’ve wanted this picture, as a whole, to basically match preceding pictures in this blog post.  I can imagine another graphic representation of this kind of ‘multiculturalism’ with dozens of such ‘flags’.)

The graphic variation in the three quadrants other than the lower-left quadrant is meant to suggest cultural variation as well as that there is variation in how these groups integrate into Canadian culture. For example, in the upper left quadrant, the maple leaf seems to be midway in a process of turning from newbie green to Canadian red.

Because of the widespread acceptance of a distinctive, central, Canadian culture, this variation of ‘multiculturalism’ is harmonious.

MODERN CANADIAN MUTICULTURALISM INCORPORATING INCREASED DIVERSITY, WITH DIVIDED VIEWS ABOUT DISTINCTIVE, CENTRAL, CANADIAN CULTURE 

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This picture, that involves the same basic configuration as that of the preceding picture, but that is a lot messier, and generally more washed out, may be seen as illustrating a situation where some, especially certain recent immigrants to Canada, believe that all cultures represented in Canada are equal and that Canada has no real culture of its own while others believe that Canada does indeed possess its own distinctive culture.

Although messy, it’s also hopeful, with a strong Canadian foundation still holding it all together.

A GRAY FUTURE?

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Taken by itself, I kind of like this picture. However, if we follow the logic of the colours and shapes their interrelationships that I introduced earlier in this piece, it actually illustrates a sad state of affairs, with very little left of an indigenous Canadian culture–with this dearth represented by gray maple leaves with only a bit of red in one quadrant.

It suggests to me a time in the future–that apparently already is here for some of us–when a view of ‘multiculturalism’ involving all cultures in Canada being entirely equal and Canada having no culture of its own wins the day, and even long-time Canadians believe that Canada has no culture of its own.

CONCLUSION

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In the past, when I’ve thought of Canada as a multicultural country, I’ve thought of it having essentially just one kind of multiculturalism.  But maybe this is now not merely a country of various cultures but also of various multiculturalisms–in other words, a multi-multicultural society.

I realize now it’s essential for arguments I’ve been making, and will continue to make, in this blog about Canadian post-secondary education that, when I discuss multiculturalism, I’m clearer about what I mean by this term.

OCAD University vs Emily Carr University: Toronto Complaining vs Vancouver Complaisance

Does anyone else find it odd that there has been so much overt controversy surrounding Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design since it was granted university status, yet so little surrounding its Vancouver close counterpart, Emily Carr University?

There have been loud complaints from OCAD staff members, alumni, and potential employers of OCAD grads since it was first decided twelve years ago to convert Toronto’s venerable old art college into a university. In a Globe and Mail newspaper article published on February 13, it was claimed that OCAD also is now experiencing serious financial problems, a declining enrollment, a relatively low program completion rate among its undergraduate students, and a great deal of internal strife. According to this article, there is even speculation that OCAD University may soon be swallowed by the University of Toronto or merged with George Brown, the downtown community college.

In the same week that the Globe and Mail article was published, it was announced by the BC government that a contract had been signed to begin construction on a new and expanded campus for Emily Carr University, with the BC provincial government investing up to $101.65 million. There hasn’t been any public complaining of which I’m aware about Emily Carr University by staff, alumni, potential employers of graduates, or by BC taxpayers in general, prior to or even after this announcement.  (Some students and ex-students have commented negatively, about which I shall say more later.)  Indeed, the BC government paints Emily Carr’s current situation, and future prospects, as extremely rosy. But this is not to say that problems don’t exist, and that the expansion and relocation of Emily Carr University may be an even bigger mistake than deciding in the first place, about seven years ago, to follow the OCAD example and turn Emily Carr into a university. It seems quite possible that similar problems now exist at Emily Carr University as those that exist at OCAD University yet, due to several significant differences between Vancouver and Toronto, the problems at Emily Carr are not being openly discussed here in Vancouver.

As a key example, faculty grumblings are less likely in the Vancouver context because there are far fewer good jobs in Vancouver in the arts and cultural sectors than there are in Toronto, so anyone working at Emily Carr now who wants to stay in Vancouver is likely to keep any misgivings they may have to themselves.  The same goes for those who don’t work there now but who may wish to work there in the future. From my own experience, I considered Emily Carr a possible employer when I first moved back to Vancouver, my hometown, after doing a Ph.D. in Higher Education at Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. This was around this time that plans were in the works to turn Emily Carr into a university and, despite my concerns, I held back because I thought speaking out could jeopardize my chances of one day working at the school.  By now, I’ve given up any hope of ever working at Emily Carr, so I’ll say what I please.

There’s also the issue of Canada’s mainstream media being concentrated in Toronto.  For example, the Globe and Mail is officially a national Canadian newspaper, yet it is based in Toronto. Toronto issues naturally get more coverage in this newspaper than Vancouver issues, or issues of special relevance to other Canadian regions.  Yes, we have local newspapers here in Vancouver; but, in my view, these newspapers tend to be extremely conservative with respect to most post-secondary education issues. The Internet does provide opportunities for voices other than those directly associated with, or otherwise authorized by, the big media outlets to enter into public debate–including through blogs like this one.  On the Internet, I have come across various complaints by students and recent ex-students of Emily Carr University relating to the transition from a college to a university.  But, of course, we must ask who is actually listening to these other, non-mainstream, voices–including, for that matter, my own.

Then there’s the issue of weather. Most of Canada, including Toronto, is still being wracked by an uncommonly cold and snowy winter. Yet, here in Vancouver, we’re already bewitched by crocuses and cherry blossoms.  Vancouver is such a pretty, pretty, city–especially this time of year. Although I wouldn’t want Toronto’s weather, especially this winter, at least in that city there is a vigorous public debate about issues such as OCAD University–and, occasionally, the debate even leads to positive change.

* * * * * * * * *

As my Twitter followers already may be aware, the basic reason I haven’t published any new material here in recent months is that my mother had a major health crisis shortly after I published my last blog post, back in November, that put her in hospital for six weeks. Besides dealing with Mum’s health problems, both during her hospital stay and since she returned home (I live with her), I’ve been dealing with strong division among family members about what is best for Mum. That’s all I can say about these issues here, other than to point out that they have preoccupied me in recent months, so that the only writing I’ve done during this period, apart from a few Tweets, has been emails to family members. It’s wonderful to have a subject sufficiently engage me that I can get away from family problems for a few hours. Also, Mum is by now almost back to her old self.

 

The Evolution of ‘Feminist’–Starting With Jian Ghomeshi

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So Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio star, minored in Women’s Studies when he was studying at York University. Maybe this had no influence whatsoever on his shocking, abusive, treatment of women, as chronicled in the Canadian media, including our social media, in the past week. But I do have to wonder if Ghomeshi could, to some extent, have learned how to abuse women through taking university Women’s Studies courses when he did. It’s an appalling idea; but, based on my own experiences with academic feminism, I can’t help but consider it.

Ghomeshi is 47 now so, according to my calculations, he would have been taking those courses around the same time that I had returned to university in my early 30s to do an MA in Education. I was then confronted by an angry, bitter, form of feminism that portrayed men in general in the worst possible light, that seemed to be a relic of the most vitriolic feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism, at least in Canada, outside of our academic institutions, had significantly evolved since then–or at least I thought it had. But, apparently owing largely to a professional interest in maintaining the status quo, those academic feminists didn’t see this–or wouldn’t openly acknowledge it if they did see it.

Even as a grad student, I was critical of this kind of feminism, and got into some trouble for it. (The most noteworthy incident is that my Master’s thesis, in which an academic publishing house initially was interested in publishing, was so strongly shot down by an academic feminist reviewer that the publishing house chose to abandon the project. The comments this reviewer had scrawled on the manuscript were just rude. Not as bad as a fist to the head, but something like it.) But then I was allowed to be critical. I was a White, middle-class, woman who grew up the oldest of five in a female-led family, with a very strong mother, and who already had some career success behind me when I went back to university for an MA, so I could afford to be critical. That was so unlike Ghomeshi’s position.

I imagine a young Iranian guy trying to fit into a predominantly White Canadian culture, who hadn’t yet had a great deal of experience of Canadian culture outside of our universities, listening to those academic feminist rants about an evil, abusive, Patriarchy, and I wonder, I just wonder, if maybe his misogynist, abusive, tendencies that have come to light in the past week were, in part, Ghomeshi’s way of fitting in. That is to say, a way of being a Canadian man, as he understood Canadian men to be, through doing that minor in Women’s Studies at a Canadian university when he did.

Before all of this Jian Ghomeshi business started, I had been planning to write a piece for this blog simply about the evolution in recent decades of the meaning of the term ‘feminist’. I’d been interested for several months in how many young women today are unabashedly describing themselves as ‘feminist’ (the British actress, Emma Watson, and the American entertainer, Beonce, are prime examples) although most older women, such as myself, are now much more reluctant to use this term. This includes even those women who, in the past, described themselves as ‘feminist’. I wanted to try to make some sense of that.

But, inevitably, I’ve also been thinking in the past week about Jian Ghomeshi and, especially after I learned that he had minored in Women’s Studies, I couldn’t write a piece about feminism without mentioning him. Maybe there is–or maybe there isn’t–a relationship between the Ghomeshi case and the ‘ENIMFIST’ anagrammatic variation of ‘FEMINIST’ from the list of variations at the top of this post. (Most, like ‘ENIMFIST’, aren’t real words, although a meaning is suggested through the meanings of the constituent parts.) I’ll have more to say about the evolution of the meaning of ‘feminist’, and those anagrams, in a later post.

 

Too Polite for Words: Missing Joan Rivers in Vancouver

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I’ve elsewhere recounted in detail a very strange experience I had a couple of years ago when I was using my then-new iPad at my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library, with free WiFi, to catch an episode I’d missed of the TV show, Smash.  The short version is that I didn’t fully push the jack of my headset into its allotted slot so, although I thought I was listening to the hour-long show through the earbuds of my headset, I wasn’t.  The audio portion of the show–including the raucous musical numbers–was blaring through the section of the library in which I was sitting, loud enough so that I could hear it clearly even with what were effectively earplugs in my ears.  But none of the twenty or so people who, during that hour, were clearly positioned to hear the din and to discern its source said anything to me–not even the young, apparently tech-savvy, guy sitting across the library table from me using his portable computer, and not even the young woman, a part-time library employee, shelving books in that section of the library.  (The actual librarians were stationed around the corner, unable to see me and probably too far away to have heard much, if anything.) Both confirmed to me, when I was packing up to leave and discovered the jack was now completely detached from the iPad, that they had heard everything loud and clear.

Out of consideration for me, as much as out of consideration for themselves and for other patrons of the library, someone should have said something to me.  It was an embarrassing situation for me, not only because I was caught in a public place partaking of one of my private indulgences (although, as far private indulgences go, this was pretty tame) but also because I had been doing something really stupid, that goes against the basic principles of public library decorum.  I wouldn’t have minded at all if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out the problem, or even if someone had told me, bluntly, to shut the hell up.  Although most Vancouverites probably would regard the latter approach as extremely rude, and utterly unacceptable, I think of it more as outspokenness for the greater good. As I see it, it does far more damage to not tell someone something they need to be told than to provide them with the needed information, even in a somewhat harsh, to the point, manner. Thinking of the library incident in particular, a harsh, to the point, approach may actually have been best–followed, of course, by a good laugh by everyone concerned.

Although there are many things I like about my hometown of Vancouver, the excessive politeness of many of its citizens, that sometimes goes well beyond reasonableness, isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if what I have in mind should even be called ‘politeness’, since real politeness seems to require empathizing with others, and it’s empathy that seems to be lacking in these situations. Maybe what really bothers me is that most Vancouverites excel in the trappings of politeness, but a willingness to actually engage with others, or at least with those with whom one is not familiar, seems to be lacking. It’s a very strange, sometimes very disturbing, combination.  Since that library incident, and thinking about what had transpired, I’ve had many other strange experiences that seem to be related.

It’s quite likely that many, if not most, male Vancouverites never have experienced anything quite like my following example–at least on the receiving end of the situation–and, therefore, will find it hard to believe; but I think probably most female Vancouverites, especially those of a certain age (maybe 50 or older), have had many such experiences, although they may not interpret these experiences quite the way I do.  The example boils down to what may at first appear to be merely a widespread ineptitude among Vancouverites, particularly male Vancouverites, in opening doors for others.  You see, if you are a woman, and especially if you are a woman of a certain age, which I apparently have become in recent years, many ‘polite’ Vancouverites open doors for you as you are about to pass through—even if you are perfectly capable of opening those doors for yourself.  It’s a nice gesture–when it is done well.  But so often in this city, I’ve had the experience of someone opening a door for me ostensibly to make my passage easier yet actually blocking my passage, with their body or even with the door itself. It’s usually men who do this, although sometimes it’s also women, usually women younger than myself. It’s so very strange.

I don’t remember any such experiences from when I lived, for extended periods, in both Toronto and Montreal–although I was younger then, and fewer people were opening doors for me.  But even in my more recent travels outside of Vancouver, I’ve never experienced this phenomenon.  It seems to be just a Vancouver thing, to be experienced mainly, if not exclusively, by Vancouver females of a certain age–and, of course, by women of a certain age visiting our fair city, although, during a short stay they are likely to have such experiences only a couple of times at most, and to dismiss these experiences as bizarre anomalies. Take it from someone who lives here year-round, it’s not just an odd anomaly. Poor spacial perception, you say? I think not.  Or maybe just distractedness in a busy, bustling, city? There are other cities bigger and more bustling where this does not occur.  The high cost of housing in Vancouver resulting in Vancouverites not being able to afford proper eye care? That may be part of the problem, although only part of it.

The main problem seems to be a combination of Vancouverites in general excelling in the outward manifestations of politeness, including usually observing the nicety of opening a door for a woman of a certain age, yet not really connecting with the other person to be able to grasp the subtleties, such as that their ‘polite’ gesture of opening the door for someone else is actually blocking their way.

What is one to say in such a situation?  When this happens to me, I’m never really impolite. Although I may be fuming inside, I usually just tell the person in a resigned tone that they’re blocking my way, and ask them to move their body, or to adjust the position of the door, so I can get through.  That could be the Vancouverite in me. What such a situation, and others like them, may actually require is the harsh, to the point, approach, sometimes including even a rude word or two, so that people here will realize that their “kind gestures” sometimes aren’t actually polite at all, but consist merely of the trappings of politeness.

A post about this issue in my blog also may help to some extent; but, frankly, I think a few choice words, repeated at regular intervals over an extended period when such incidents occur would be far more effective.  In other words, we need more outspoken dames here–like the late Joan Rivers, who surely would have had something interesting to say in such ridiculous situations.