Congress 2017: An Introduction
Once a year, straddling the end of May and beginning of June, the majority of social sciences and humanities discipline associations converge on a Canadian university for their annual meetings. This year, there were 70 associations and approximately 9,000 academics attending Congress 2017 at Ryerson University in Toronto.
I don’t like Congress. It’s too big; there are far too many things going on and I. often end up pushing my body a little bit too hard due to FOMO.
What is of a greater concern is the fact that it’s far too expensive: early bird registration for students was $79.10 (including HST) while registration after April 1 was $101.70 (faculty was $203.40 and 242.95 respectively). But on top of that is your association’s conference fees: this year mine would have been $64 for the student rate. Had I presented outside of my association, I would have had to pay for those rates as well, ranging from $10.00 to $120.00. On top of that, you have to be a Member of the association(s) you’re presenting at, which for me meant the general association membership ($50.00) plus at least one of the other associations in the umbrella (here the range was $5.00-31.50). In total, the privilege of going to Congress would have cost me $198.10. This was in addition to flight, ground transportation, hotel, and food.
That’s not the point of this post, but I wanted to reiterate how difficult it is to be expected to participate in academic activities when you’re more or less working the Ivory Tower equivalent of the gig economy.
Congress 2017: Months Leading Up
In June of 2016–shortly after that years’ Congress–the Congress 2017 website went live. The theme, the June 2016 newsletter from the Federation of the Social Sciences and the Humanities was “The Next 150.”
In February, one of the associations I follow indicated that the Congress theme had recently been changed. It had become “The Next 150, On Indigenous Lands.” Most of the associations attending Congress would have had their calls for papers closed for several months already at that point. It seemed very odd to me to change the theme four months before Congress was to start when Ryerson had been announced as hosting the 2017 Congress in 2015.
I checked the Federation’s newsletters from July 2016 to January 2017 and none of them indicated that there had indeed been a change in theme – something I thought would have been mentioned somewhere. Finding no information in the newsletters, I checked the Congress 2017 website and saw that, yes, the new theme was up.
Congress 2017: The Website
Looking at the design aesthetics of the website, “On Indigenous Lands” looks like an add-on. Not only is it written in a different font than “The Next 150,” it is also different than that of the 2017 Congress logo. As best as I can tell (I am not a graphic designer nor do I know a lot about fonts and their names), “On Indigenous Lands” looks like it’s written in Times New Roman that his been bolded and italicized. In addition, there is a rather large space (on my laptop, the space is the width of my pinky) that separates “The Next 150” from “On Indigenous Lands.” Considering that the punctuation is a comma and not a colon (which is what I had assumed) this spacing seems even more strange. Speaking solely about aesthetics here, it looks like the website design was hastily done. Aesthetically, I’ve said my piece (it’s ugly): but I think there are greater implications here than website design alone.
My interdisciplinary academic training (sorrynotsorry) interprets both the large space and the different fonts as a way to continue constructing Indigenous peoples as Other. First, Indigenous peoples are established as dissimilar to “us” (that is settlers) because the stylistic difference in the fonts acts as a signifier of cultural difference, maintaining a binary opposition between Indigenous peoples and settlers. In short, they look different than us, therefore their differences make them deficient in comparison to us (and our Eurocentric standards of knowledge, beauty, governance, etc). Though “The Next 150” and the Congress logo are also different fonts, they are paired together in a complementary style and design. “On Indigenous Lands,” as said above, just seems out of place.
Second, the physical (graphical? website-y?) space between “The Next 150” and “On Indigenous Lands” functions as a reminder that Indigenous peoples should be kept out of settler spaces. Donald discusses the separation of Indigenous peoples and settlers using the analogy of the fort, where walls were used to keep Indigeneity out. This separation of peoples also manifested through the forced removal of First Nations on to reserves (among other examples) as part of Canada’s nation-building practices: Indigenous peoples were removed by law from their territories and forced to live on government-allocated sections of land in order to make way for settlers.
Third and finally, the combination of differences mentioned in (1) and (2) illustrate that Indigenous peoples do not have a place in the Ivory Tower alongside and/or equal to settlers. There is too much of a difference, too much of a divide; decolonization and/or reconciliation are academic buzzwords more than they are something the academy, and a great number of academics really, truly, wants to change. This becomes pretty clear when examining the “On Indigenous Lands” theme in more detail.
Congress 2017: Reconciliation
Considering the Federation had featured Indigenous speakers in some of their larger events at Congress 2016 at the University of Calgary, and had made a media release the year prior (May 31 2015) about being committed to reconciliation in the academy, the move seemed somewhat peculiar to me at the time.
However, later, I recalled that despite there being overlap between Congress 2015 in Ottawa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Closing Events, Congress did not actively promote any of the TRC’s events on their website. For example, the delivery of the TRC’s Final Report on June 2, 2015, at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa is not mentioned on the Congress 2015 event page. To my knowledge, there was nowhere on the University of Ottawa campus that was livestreaming the event for a large group of Congress attendees to watch. Simply put, it was an appalling oversight by both the host institution and the Federation. This is especially so since the TRC Final Report event had been scheduled ahead of time: it was something that had been in development for months at that point, not something announced weeks or even days before that would be hard for organizers to accommodate. This lack of inclusion–which borderlines on erasure–speaks volumes to me about the Federations priorities.
Last year, the Canadian University Association of Teachers developed a brief guide that outlines the traditional territories of the Indigenous peoples on which each university in Canada stands. As Métis academic Chelsea Vowel points out, territorial acknowledgments are not the solution needed to achieve reconciliation, but rather one small step in the right direction. With “On Indigenous Lands” being purported as the theme for Congress 2017, one would hope that territorial acknowledgments would be an important aspect of Congress 2017, not only for the Federation but also all of the attending associations as well.
On Indigenous Lands: The Associations
As mentioned prior, there were 70 associations that were scheduled to be attending Congress 2017. Of those, 13 (18.57%) had a territorial mention on their website and/or their conference program. These associations were
- The Canadian Society for Studies in Education
- Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies*
- Film Studies Association of Canada**
- Association for Canadian College and University Teachers of English
- Canadian Historical Association
- Canadian Society for Socialist Studies
- Canadian Sociology Association
- Canadian Association for African Studies
- Canadian Association for Women and Gender Studies
- Canadian Society for the Study of Adult Education
- Canadian Society for Digital Humanities
- Sexuality Studies Association
- Canadian Disability Studies Association – opening with an Elder in program but no formal mention of territory
Sixteen associations, despite having panels on colonization and/or Indigenous peoples, did not include a territorial acknowledgment in their program or website:
- The Association for Canadian and Québec Literatures
- Canadian Society of Church History
- Association des professeur.e.s de français des universités et collèges canadiens
- Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science
- Canadian Comparative Literature Association
- Canadian Society for the Study of Names
- Canadian Philosophical Association
- Canadian Political Science Association
- Canadian Association of Social Work Educators
- Canadian Theological Society
- Canadian Communication Association
- Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada
- Environmental Studies Association of Canada
- Canadian Association for Food Studies
- Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians
- Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies
Those that made no mention or I could not find a mention ( n = 41) included
- The Canadian Society Studies in Higher Education
- Canadian Society of Biblical Studies
- Canadian Catholic Historical Association
- Folklore Studies Association of Canada
- Canadian Association of University Teachers of German
- Canadian Association of Hispanists
- Canadian Industrial Relations Association
- Canadian Association for Jewish Studies
- Canadian Linguistic Association
- The Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics
- Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies
- Canadian Society for Patristic Studies
- Canadian Peace Research Association
- Canadian Population Society
- Canadian Society for the Study of Religion
- Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies
- Canadian Society for the Study of Practical Ethics
- Canadian Association of Slavists
- Canadian Association for Information Science
- Canadian Association for the History of Medicine/Canadian Association for the History of Nursing
- Canadian Society for Studies in Cooperation
- Canadian Association for Learned Journals
- Canadian Association for Rhetoric
- Canadian Association of Chairs of English – website not updated since 2016
- Hungarian Studies Association of Canada
- Finno-Ugric Studies Association of Canada
- Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing
- Canadian Association for the Study of International Development
- Canadian Society for Aesthetics
- Bibliographical Society of Canada
- Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture
- Canadian Association for Translation Studies
- Canadian Evangelical Theological Studies Association
- Canadian Society of Medievalists
- The Canadian Association for Applied Literature – Conference Canceled
- Canadian Association for Applied Linguistics
- Canadian Jacques Maritain Association
- Association canadienne d’études francophones du XIXe siècle
- Canadian Association for the Society of Book Culture
- Canadian Association for Game Studies
- Canadian Association for Nonprofit and Social Economy Research
A large majority of these 41 associations acknowledged the conference theme “The Next 150, On Indigenous Lands” but did not engage with it. In doing so, this further erases Indigenous peoples (histories, knoweldges) from the academy.
Though some associations would probably say that they don’t need to acknowledge Indigenous lands because they ‘don’t study that stuff,’ Canada is still a (white) settler colonial nation-state. As a result, settlers continue to have privileges that Indigenous peoples do not on their own lands. This hypothetical argument would also be contrary to the Federation’s desire for reconciliation in the academy.
Now, there may have been territorial acknowledgments not in the programs and said orally at the opening of the conference or AGM instead. Admittedly, checking websites and conference programs is not a sound methodological practice. To be fair, this also isn’t research, and I wasn’t paid–in an hourly position or through a large research grant–to write this. Nonetheless, what I have (hopefully) illustrated in this piece is that an awful lot of change needs to happen yet, and the Federation can’t expect to model ideal practices if they don’t realize that what they are doing is problematic as well.
On Indigenous Lands: The Federation
On the Congress 2017 website, the theme is described as follows
The Next 150, On Indigenous Lands
Canada’s sesquicentennial offers an important opportunity to critically reflect on the nation’s past and seek to build a better, more inclusive and just future. Congress 2017 invites participants to acknowledge the country’s colonial past and present practices, and forge new relationships towards positive change and reconciliation. Building upon the insights, contributions[,] and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Congress 2017 theme “The Next 150, On Indigenous Lands” aims to mark the achievements and character of all peoples in Canada. Toronto is a vibrant microcosm of Canada’s diversity — and Ryerson University is a metropolitan university within that microcosm, committed to promoting equity, diversity and inclusive programming.
“The Next 150, On Indigenous lands” honours Canada’s rich history, a history that predates 150 years, and is inclusive of different ideas, geographies, cultures, countries, schools of thought and disciplines. The theme encourages reflection on our national identities, as well as cross-collaboration and an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences and humanities.
As we celebrate the history, legacy and achievements of Canada in the last 150 years and those of the peoples and territories, we anticipate the next 150: a time of changing demographics, urban challenges, social justice and equality, new beginnings and boundless opportunities.
You will see that not once does the Federation make mention of Tkaronto, a meeting place where Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples met within the shared Dish With One Spoon territory. Moreover, the Federation does not mention the Mississaugas of New Credit: this band filed a specific claim over the unlawful signing of the Toronto Purchase (1787) in 1986, which the government of Ontario agreed to pay compensation for in 2010. The Federation also failed to (as did Ryerson University) problematize the work of Egerton Ryerson, the University’s namesake – Ryerson was also instrumental in the development of the Indian Residential School system.
This isn’t reconciliation: this is “reconciliation.” This is what people do when they want a pat on the back for trying. This is contrary to the 94 Calls to Action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is wearing a pink t-shirt to stop bullying: it acknowledges there is a problem but does nothing to acknowledge why there is a problem, how the problem came to be, what the implications of the problem are, or how to stop it.
I am by no means saying that territorial acknowledgements will bring settlers into a space where restitution can begin to happen. But Congress this year was a big hot (white settler colonial
clusterfuck of a) mess. And this is just judging by the Congress website: this does not even begin to account for any of the issues that happened to Indigenous peoples who were there.
Next year, Congress will be held at the University of Regina, and I hope that the issues I’ve pointed out above are not repeated. The Federation especially has a lot of work to do to improve.
* This acknowledgment only mentions one nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Seneca, whose traditional territory is in New York state. Moreover, it mentions the Petun First Nation, whose traditional territory was the Georgian Bay area until they merged with the Wyendot. In short, it is HIGHLY problematic. It appears to be from U of T.
** Again the Petun are named.