The pitfalls of counter-representation

From Indigenous reconciliation to free speech advocacy, we must cautiously examine how challenges to the status quo are portrayed in the post-truth universe

The pitfalls of counter-representation

Representation is necessarily misrepresentation. When an elite claims to reflect the complex interests of whoever they deem to be ‘the people’ — a people imagined to be singular —  institutions of power frame, define, and pursue the populace’s interests. Representation, in this sense, means simplification, homogenization, and reduction.

By creating a singular imagination and truth, representation marginalizes narratives that dominant groups find uncomfortable, and centres that which is palatable and affirming to the people.

The popular imagination of Canada — which is portrayed as a nation of diversity, openness, and tolerance — is one such representation that now faces challenges to its rhetoric in the form of counter-representations. In an era where governments are now speaking openly and frequently about reconciliation, the most relevant source of counter-representation is that of Indigenous peoples.

At the University of Toronto’s Art Museum, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibit told some of the stories that were necessarily lost in the forging of a Euro-Christian imagination. Whereas the nationalist celebration of Canada points to 150 years since Confederation this year, Monkman starts our story from 300 years ago and examines the colonial history of Canada from an Indigenous lens.

Paintings like “The Subjugation of Truth” and “The Scream” were among the exhibit’s dark, absurdist, and poignant animations of residential schools, urban violence, and land dispossession, demonstrating the intergenerational persistence of colonialism that continues to this day. These counter-representations remind us that the birth of Canada has two legacies: one that celebrates the creation of a Canadian identity, and the other that mourns the erasure of Indigeneity from the landscape.

To look past the singularity of representation and truth is to challenge the status quo and demand change. Fortunately, at U of T, Indigenous cultural counter-representation is more visible than ever. Re-Indigenized street signs, the REDress Project on campus, which draws attention to the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the Powwow and Indigenous Festival are among the most conspicuous examples. President Meric Gertler’s public embrace of the 32 Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations for the university in January projects bright possibilities for reconciliation.

One should, however, be hesitant to conclude that we are now moving past representation and embracing truth in its plurality — in its counter-representations. Quite to the contrary, the new culture of counter-representation can be used to obfuscate the persistence of representation and its colonial functions. For instance, Indigenous visibility at the university is meaningless if Gertler continues to refuse to divest from fossil fuels, since that refusal sustains the drastic impact of climate change and undermines the environmental stewardship worldviews that underline Indigenous self-determination.

In a recent CBC piece, Clayton Thomas-Müller defines “redwashing” as the process by which corporations and banks sponsor Indigenous visibility in the Canadian imagination to overshadow the destructive initiatives that they impose upon Indigenous lands. In other words, we now face the appropriation of Indigenous counter-representation to advance the original project of colonial representation.

This space of plural truths, and the perverse contribution of counter-representation to the advance of representation is not just exclusive to the Indigenous context. Around the world, the cascade of disillusionment with the status quo and elitist establishment has emboldened self-proclaimed alternative political movements that claim to speak for a majority of people.

However, rather than empowering marginalized narratives — like the colonized Indigenous do through counter-representation — the idea with these movements is that the majority identity narrative is itself marginalized and needs revival.

Enough analysis has been conducted about right-wing populism in the form of Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen. However, its local replicas on campus are worth noting as part of the broader pitfall of counter-representation. This is especially true for figures like Professor Jordan Peterson and former Reboot candidate Micah Ryu: although they hold different levels of power, each has exploited counter-representation to advance the original intent of representation, which is to exclude and erase marginalized narratives.

Peterson occupies a high level of power on campus as a tenured professor. His conflation of gender self-determination with totalitarianism this year is well-noted — but it remains staggering how his counter-representation narrative frames the fact that the majority is allegedly marginalized and needs protection. The staunch opposition that he faces from the transgender community and their allies has been framed as an assault on free speech rather than a defense of human dignity.

Indeed, by many proponents of free speech he is lauded as a hero, earning him thousands of views online and numerous media appearances, more than doubling his income, and exporting him to other university campuses like McMaster and Western.

Peterson finds himself connected to a transnational, trans-campus free speech movement, where the refusal of campuses to host the exclusionary vitriol of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos grants the movement legitimacy by an ironic claim of victimhood. It is an infectious phenomenon, by which views that uphold the colonial status quo representation — whether it be the gender binary or the Muslim ‘Other’ — are framed as counter-representation, resistance, and freedom. Indeed, the loss of the right to oppress has now become oppression in and of itself.

Likewise, in UTSU student politics, Reboot presidential candidate Micah Ryu led a campaign that used this growing anti-establishment “outsider” framework to advance exclusionary politics. His criticism of student politics as the domain of an elite group of insiders is ostensibly consistent with the exclusivity of representation. However, his solution via austerity measures that would have cut down and decentralized the UTSU as a means of accountability only sustains the status quo de-politicization of the organization.

In fact, We the Students presidential candidate Andre Fast condemned the suggestion that the UTSU should remain distant from equity issues, and pointed out that, disappointingly, the union has become depoliticized this year. He stated that the union “does have a really big role to play on issues of social and environmental justice, on affordability issues” — all issues that matter most to marginalized students.

Ryu’s personal Queerphobic comments in light of this year’s gender identity controversy, and his campaign’s hostility toward the Black Liberation Collective’s condemnation of anti-Black racism within the UTSU only further demonstrates the bankruptcy of this anti-establishment narrative.

What’s more, in response to the accumulation of demerit points that led to Reboot’s eventual elimination, some students reacted in a way that suggested that this allegedly anti-establishment party was a victim and martyr of the establishment — inadvertently excusing Ryu’s otherwise inexcusable behaviour. Yet, Ryu’s exclusionary behaviour and pledges to de-politicize the UTSU under an anti-establishment outsider narrative have hardly helped the most anti-establishment outsider students on campus — Black, Muslim, and Queer folks — all of whom need more support from the student body given the events that occurred this year.  

What we can take from this is that it is necessary to challenge dominant narratives that become culturally objective, to shed light on marginalized narratives, and to turn discomfort into productive change. Indigenous resurgence on campus reminds us that counter-representation is possible and powerful.

However, we should also be wary of certain counter-representations that insidiously uphold and even deepen oppressive structures of power that correspond to the original exclusionary logic of representation. In this era of alternative facts and multiple truths, we should fight for a future that captures the imagination of the heretofore unrepresented.

 

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears every three weeks.

A commitment to reconciliation

Advocating for an Indigenous content requirement at U of T

A commitment to reconciliation

The curriculum of British Columbia’s grade 11 social studies classes involves learning about Canada’s past relations with Indigenous peoples. A large segment of this topic is dedicated to the discussion of residential schools and their impacts on Indigenous people in Canada.

I grew up in BC and I very much recall this section of the course: my teacher told my class that residential schools had all closed by the seventies. Knowing this to be false — as the last school closed in 1997 — I corrected him. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he qualified his statement by saying, “All of the bad ones closed well before then.”

This statement implies there was such thing as a ‘good’ residential school, which is clearly not the case. All residential schools removed children from their families, communities, culture, and languages. Indigenous people who did not attend residential schools are experiencing the lasting intergenerational impacts of this system, including poverty, alcoholism, family breakdown, and systemic violence.

This statement also illustrates the lack of knowledge that many high school teachers have about Indigenous issues; these misrepresentations of the truth only serve to perpetuate stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.

A mere 13 per cent of elementary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools consult with Indigenous communities — Indigenous peoples have little influence on the information being taught about their cultures. 

According to the 2016 People for Education Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools, only 31 per cent of elementary schools and 53 per cent of secondary schools provide professional development opportunities for staff in the area of Indigenous cultural issues — just under half of secondary school teachers are not provided with up to date information to adequately instruct their students on these topics.

Additionally, only 29 per cent of elementary schools and 49 per cent of secondary schools bring in Indigenous guest speakers. A mere 13 per cent of elementary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools consult with Indigenous communities — Indigenous peoples have little influence on the information taught about their cultures.

Given the lack of meaningful Indigenous education at the high school level, education on Indigenous issues should be incorporated into every student’s university education. Several Canadian universities have already implemented an Indigenous content requirement in order to make up for these gaps and to introduce international students to the problems faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is now time for the University of Toronto to do the same.

In January 2016, the university announced it would convene a committee to review the recommendations made by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that they would implement any recommendations found relevant to the university. Through this commitment, U of T demonstrates an interest in reconciling with Indigenous peoples. In following through with this interest, the university should feel an obligation to ensure that all of its students understand the realities of colonization, residential schools, and the impacts that have followed for Indigenous peoples.

Although not expressly laid out as a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, implementing a mandatory Indigenous content requirement would ensure that all U of T undergraduates have such an understanding upon completion of their degree. Then, students would be able to bring this understanding forward to enlighten other members of the population on these issues.

Some of those opposed to such a requirement suggest that this information should be taught in high school. The reality is that the majority of high school teachers do not have the knowledge to accurately teach about Indigenous issues, if they teach about Indigenous issues at all.

Many people in opposition to a mandatory Indigenous content requirement have a problem with any mandatory courses at all, arguing that university is a paid educational experience and students should be able to take what interests them. Rather than requiring specific courses like many other institutions though, U of T breadth requirements ensure that students are well rounded while still able to maintain their freedom of choice with respect to course selection.

U of T can simply implement this requirement in a similar way to the University of Winnipeg, which incorporated a multitude of Indigenous studies courses from which students can choose. Indigenous content could be fused with program objectives, which would allow students to learn how these issues impact all fields and ensure all students graduate with knowledge of such issues. Indigenous students could be included in designing and facilitating courses, ensuring accuracy and giving them influence on what is taught.

By implementing an Indigenous content requirement, U of T has the potential to effectively address the marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.

At U of T, this requirement could easily be incorporated into the current breadth requirement system, by designating any courses providing sufficient information on Indigenous issues as a breadth category and including completion of a credit in this category as a graduation requirement. The university can also avoid increasing the number of breadth courses students must take by granting credit for the Indigenous requirement in addition to any breadth categories the course currently fulfills.

By implementing an Indigenous content requirement, U of T has the potential to effectively address the marginalization faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. Prioritizing Indigenous content will empower students to understand their position in Indigenous matters and acknowledge any related privileges they may hold. It will also give Indigenous students the opportunity to see their culture embraced by the university, creating a more inclusive, engaging environment. This is an important step that the university should take, if it truly wants to commit to reconciliation.

Madeleine Freedman is a third-year Innis College student studying Canadian Studies.

Conscious learning

Wab Kinew's lecture event highlights the importance of indigenous education

Conscious learning

This year’s Indigenous Education Week on campus rightly emphasized the need for U of T to play its part in the reconciliation process in Canada. Notably, writer and broadcast journalist Wab Kinew spoke last Wednesday about improving the dynamics of indigenous-settler relations, especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report released last December.

It is unsurprising that, at a university, Kinew focused on the importance of education for social change. Specifically, he advocated for curriculums and pedagogies that are more inclusive of Indigenous worldviews and history. For instance, healthcare professionals should be taught about the specific social determinants of health that affect indigenous people, such as intergenerational trauma from residential schools.

These changes would not only be of practical use — in this case, improving a doctor’s chances of accurate and effective diagnoses and interventions  — but also reaffirm the principles of equality and reconciliation. Though some may argue indigenous studies are not relevant to their field, Kinew suggested that indigenous knowledge and presence is integral for understanding Canadian history. On a larger scale, it is relevant to any person who chooses to live in Canada. The word ‘Toronto,’ for instance, is derived from an Iroquois term meaning ‘where there are trees in water.’

Kinew noted that these educational changes can and should occur through mandating indigenous studies courses at U of T. Both the University of Winnipeg and Lakehead University have already adopted this measure. U of T’s Native Students’ Association (NSA) has been circulating a petition calling for a mandatory Indigenous studies credit. In a meaningful gesture, Kinew added his own name to the NSA petition onstage at the end of his talk.

if years from now you are asked what you personally did while injustice took place around you, what will you say?

If, as members of the U of T community, we can agree that a university education should train students to be well informed and actively engaged members of society, then it’s time for more students to support the NSA’s efforts. Education for reconciliation is as much about understanding this country’s present and future realities as it is about acknowledging Canada’s past, as Kinew made clear when he cited examples of structural inequality affecting Indigenous communities today. Among other things, he pointed to the underfunding of schools and child welfare services on reserves, the latter of which the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently found discriminatory.

Certainly, it would be reductive — and dismissive of the powerful work of Indigenous activists in Canada — to suggest that taking a single indigenous studies course would enable all U of T students to understand the complex problems resulting from centuries of colonial governance, which continue to define indigenous-settler relationships today. Still, it can provide an important foundation for raising awareness of our colonial history and consequent responsibilities. As such, education can open up the possibility for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to combat the enduring realities of systemic inequality in Canada.

In turns graceful, devastating, and funny, Kinew’s talk painted an appropriately multifaceted picture of what reconciliation might look like moving forward at U of T. The talk remembered the injustice of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people, past and present and honoured the resilience of the communities that have endured and survived. Above all, it stressed the importance of working together now to build a more positive and more equitable future.

As we await the results of the U of T-wide steering committee on the TRC, let us remember to reflect on what it means for each of us to be Canadian citizens in an era of reconciliation. As Wab Kinew pondered: if years from now you are asked what you personally did while injustice took place around you, what will you say?

Rusaba Alam is a third-year student at Victoria College studying English.