June 2nd, 2011
Fredericton, New Brunswick, is a forest. I have been here all week for the annual—and 80th—learneds congress for the social sciences and humanities. Media coverage of the rich menu of offerings has been slight beyond the region. Journalists are probably tired of running across the country after politicians, but it’s too bad there isn’t more of a national lens on the presentations and speakers at congress. There are so many missed opportunities for reporters, but these are papers falling in the forest, I guess. Fortunately, several thousands of us are hearing them.
Most of us who have been attending what we call the Big Thinking lectures, for instance, are pretty stimulated from the diversity of views about arguably the biggest social challenge Canada is facing: Aboriginal youth. Congress has deliberately featured a number of high-profile speakers who have been coming at the challenge from overlapping but distinctive places. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is in full swing and is, in many ways, informing the conversation here. Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild was the first headliner early in the week. He spoke passionately from deep inside the activities of the TRC, mapping out the past history of profound abuse suffered by Aboriginal peoples as a result of the Indian Residential School legacy. Non Aboriginals—the vast majority of those attending congress–likely have some modest knowledge of that history, but it is quite another to be directly confronting the sheer scale of injustice suffered by so many people—all around us, beside us, but somehow invisibly so.
Imagine an entire people being wrenched from each other, children forced to leave their parents, drawn to alien worlds, alone, compelled to drop their language—in effect, to abandon their identities, their cultural affiliation. We are all living with the effects of such an evil, if well-intentioned idea, today. Littlechild set the stage for much discussion here. Among other moving comments he made, people are still talking—and smiling–about his wry admission that he was, in fact, a doctor, lawyer, and Indian Chief.
He was followed a day later by Chief Shawn Atleo, CEO of the First Nations, who holds a daunting and impressive responsibility, but one on which Atleo clearly thrives. His message was blunt but hopeful, seeing the possibility of his peoples emerging from cycles of deprivation and neglect, education being the key to social improvement. As a living example of the benefits of education, Atleo is an astonishingly accomplished figure, a highly educated overachiever with a naturally positive disposition who commands an entire Assembly of First Nations, not to mention a vexed relationship between that Assembly and Canada.
Yesterday we all had the privilege of listening to author, former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, public intellectual, activist, James Bartleman. The timing of his talk was fortuitous, because his message was a sobering antidote to what he called the “jolly” view of the future that Chief Atleo had just delivered. More grounded in the hard facts of Aboriginal youth suicides rates, visibly weary of having listened for decades to empty promises of change, Bartleman said he was definitely a glass half-empty guy, discouraged but not totally defeated. Those of us who have been listening all week to descriptions of how badly Canada has handled Aboriginal problems, Bartleman’s presentation—dignified, quietly raging, forceful in its contained passion—implicitly challenged all of us to stop listening and talking and start doing. He is also full of good ideas. He wondered, for example, why all 95 Canadian universities and colleges could not contribute about $32,000 each to set up summer camps for Aboriginal youth, sites where university students could serve as role models, encourage literacy, build confidence. As with Littlechild and Atleo, his personal path to real possibilities led directly through education, through language and culture, and through healthy social exchanges. Bartleman’s story is no fairy tale, however. His autobiographies detail his painful struggle to confront depression and resist suicide, a choice far too many youth have been taking for far too long. How do you find hope, however, when all around you is evidence of hopelessness?
Yesterday we also heard from Memorial’s own Beverly Diamond who has made such an enormous difference to our campus—through her research projects, her mentoring of students, her academic citizenship, her examples of service and community engagement. Bev, as we at Memorial know her, spoke about two of her research projects in particular, one aimed at understanding Aboriginal relics, these usually encased in museum boxes, often without context or obvious meaning. Bev’s work has been dedicated to uncovering their meaning for Aboriginal history and culture and, by so doing, to reclaiming their importance as objects of ritual and cultural continuity. Another project looks closely at how music is being mixed and, more importantly, remixed by Aboriginal performers who, especially through new technologies, are playing with the musical past to reanimate the present. Bev’s presentation embodies the possibilities of scholarship that connects with and gives life to that which is often not seen—or heard—around us.
When we emerge from a week of such presentations and discussions we are changed. The small, self-absorbed world we inhabit in the day to day is necessarily opened up to much larger issues demanding our attention. We are so busy focusing on recruitment and internationalizing our student body, on building excellence and marking our superiority, that we tend to ignore the most pressing matters staring right back at us, only a few feet away. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.