Letter from Toronto

I’ve spent the past week at Ryerson University, attending the 86th annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. This is Canada’s largest gathering of people with an interest in the Arts side of life – nearly 10,000 academics, graduate students, public intellectuals (both recognized and self-proclaimed), and so forth. The Congress is so big because it’s really a collection of individual societies which have agreed to hold their annual conference at the same time, in the same place, with someone else organizing it!

That ‘someone else’ is the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, or FHSS, and as I’m a member of the FHSS Board of Directors I got to go to all their meetings as well as those of my own organization, the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE).

CSSE is also an amalgam of different subgroups, so the 1000 or so educators who were there came from a variety of domains – teacher education, international and comparative education, educational research, and so forth, including the Canadian Association for the Study of Educational Administration, which is my ‘home room’ as it were. It makes for an interesting week, as it’s possible to go to sessions organized by all the various levels, from Association to Society to Federation, and to listen to papers presented by both old friends and colleagues as well as by new people whom you had no idea existed.

Each Congress is held in a different city, hosted by a different University, which limits the opportunities for a place such as UPEI. It was held here once, back in 1993, but has now grown to the point where only the larger centres can host. Although it would no doubt be a huge financial boost for the Island, I’m not quite sure where we would put 10,000 people for a week! Which leads me to a theme which I found threading through the conference – that of space, of the land.

At the beginning of each session the Chair read a ‘recognition statement’, something which has become increasingly common in Canada. At our Convocation a few weeks ago, both the Chancellor and the President began by stating that they acknowledged UPEI was on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. At Ryerson it was noted:

“Toronto is in the ‘Dish with One Spoon Territory’. The Dish with One Spoon is a treaty between the Anishinaabe (ah – n ih – sh ih – n ah – b ai), Mississaugas (m ih – s ih – s aw – g uh) and Haudenosaunee (h oh – D EE – n oh – SH oh – n ee) that bound them to share the territory and protect the land. Subsequent Indigenous Nations and Peoples, Europeans and all newcomers have been invited into this treaty in the spirit of peace, friendship and respect.”

This statement, or a similar one, was made at the beginning of the Congress and at the start of nearly every session. It resonated with many people. And yet I wonder, is this really understood,  or is it simply a rhetorical flourish? Are people really paying attention to the words, and to the meaning inherent in those words? As a country we are grappling with the 94 Calls to Action which emerged from the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These calls were accepted in their entirety by our government, and are supposed to be adopted by all Canadians. And yet we still see examples of institutional racialism, such as when a city police force can dismiss the multiple drownings of young Aboriginal men as accidents, the unfortunate but perhaps predictable result of underage drinking. How many young Caucasian men engage in underage drinking, and yet manage not to drown? Or the terribly slow progress of the Inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, which appears to be more bound to the embracing of protocol than to the exposure of some sordid aspects of Canadian life.

As I walked the city I felt conflicted. Ryerson is an urban campus and I remembered a quote I heard at the FHSS Annual Conference last year. Pamela Klassen, from the University of Toronto, said that “cities are infrastructures for memory.” It does not take much to imagine the hidden stories, the histories and mythologies of the ground beneath our feet, of those who came this way before.

But then I also remembered what John Raulston Saul said during a public session at this Congress. He pointed out that when we accept the notion that Toronto is in the ‘Dish with One Spoon Territory’ and all “subsequent Indigenous Nations and Peoples, Europeans, and all newcomers have been invited into this treaty in the spirit of peace, friendship and respect,” we are going against one of the most fundamental concepts in Canadian law – the notion of private ownership, of buying and selling (or perhaps, in Toronto, of buying and flipping) buildings and the land on which they stand. If we accept that land is collectively lived upon, but not owned, that it is shared like the air, then how can we hold title to a certain amount?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to this conundrum, but I think we ought to at least be having the conversation.

As I left the conference on the last day and walked back to my hotel, I went past a construction site. There was a man sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the fencing, his head tilted back and his eyes closed against the afternoon sun. Next to him a dog was dozing, and in front of him he had a dirty baseball hat with some coins in it, and a hand written sign noting that he was homeless and any little thing would help. Behind the fence I could see a hole in the ground, with a sign saying “SOLD OUT!” and a sketch of the 44 floor condominium building which would soon block the sun from the corner. I dropped in a toonie, and walked away.

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