While Notre Dame burned

A reflection on internalized colonialism

While Notre Dame burned

Lately, I have been on a quest to consume more art by people of colour. I have also been listening to a lot of French music and fangirling over Shawn Mendes. Am I a hypocrite? But I feel guilty about it. Is that worse?

On April 15, the Notre Dame Cathedral burned and I was moved to guilty tears. For the sake of arts and literature, and not religion — or so I told myself — I welled up. For the sake of Quasimodo’s haven and the beautiful architecture. At least, that was my justification. I actively pursued the news minutes after the story first broke. I began to read hourly updates. “Notre Dame may not be saved.” People sung hymns on their knees. Then I turned to Twitter. After my tears had subsided, they were replaced by a wandering thought: what kind of tragedy is this? Some people on Twitter said that this was a religious tragedy, but I’m not so sure.

I read a tweet that said, “A 23-year-old white man destroyed three Black churches in Louisiana last week. The 800-year-old Keriya Aitika mosque in China’s Xinjiang province was also razed to the ground by the Chinese [government], the latest in a string of historic mosques destroyed. Pray for these histories, too.” I liked the tweet, but with a shadow of guilt. I do not follow the news of mosque razings, because they are not actively present in the media. I have always been wary of the Eurocentrism of the media, and I have felt uncomfortable when terror attacks in France made Muslims around the world akin to folk devils. I have chastised the way that the mainstream media covers issues in Palestine or Pakistan with very little nuance and inspection. And still, the destruction of multiple important Black churches has barely been discussed in the way that the burning of this French Catholic institution has.

I’ve been moved to shakes and tears over Black and Brown and European deaths. The difference might be anger. I am angry when Black and Brown people are killed. When Muslims are killed, I feel fiercely protective of my Muslim family. I do not need to make classifications, but I make them because even death has become a politicized deed. I must critique and analyze death in the same way that I would with news or literature.

To explain my sadness about Notre Dame, I start by thinking that Paris has always been among my dream vacation destinations. I have never travelled outside of my home country, Canada, except for a few days in New York, but I used to Google the street views of Rome and Paris during the summer and lust over the visual spaces of Call Me By Your Name. Notre Dame has become another place that I will never get to go. Everyday things are changing, and Paris itself is not the same city that I once dreamed about. But it is there, in the songs, in the literature, in the art, new and old. Images of Paris permeate culture and media institutions across the globe. The idea that there was something out there that was always waiting for me was a comfort, but it is one I now have to release. I always assumed the stagnancy of things, places, and people. This time it burnt down. For me, this was an awakening.

It’s somehow poetic to say that “Notre Dame is burning.” It has a magic poignancy that the Christchurch headlines did not have. On a macro-level, everything about Christchurch on the news was ugly. But then there was the vigil held in our city of Toronto, in our Nathan Phillips Square. As soon as the presider started reading the introductory du’a, I cried. That is another place I will never get to go. I don’t think I have ever been a good Muslim. I do not pray five times a day and I do not feel legitimized by other members of the Muslim community. But I still feel the effects of Islamophobia. I still feel angry when it touches my life.

In different ways, Islam and Christianity have wounded me. Christianity underwrites most public television, either explicitly or implicitly, which frustrates me. The frequent villainization of Islam injures me, but somehow I feel conflicted. I wonder if it’s not my right to grieve, not my right to share this pain. But I am mourning today for that feeling of being left behind. This, I think, is not a political issue. But that irks me still, that I would brush away politics in favour of emotions. Was my crying at the vigil for Christchurch political? It has to be.

White Parisians did not drop to their knees and pray whenever Muslims were attacked in their country. France has a terrible track record when it comes to its treatment of Islam and forced religious assimilation; we all know this. We have given them more empathy than they have given us. The Catholic struggle has been privileged over any other religion’s and the white struggle over any other race’s or people’s; we all know this. We have given them more attention than they have given us. This empathy and attention needs to redirected. That does not mean that marginalized communities shouldn’t attend to the feelings of Parisians and empathize with their situation. It just means that we need to acknowledge that our communities have suffered deeper losses, both historically and contemporarily. People may equate marginalized communities’ reactions to Notre Dame as inhumane or unfeeling, but it is simply a reaction to a system of oppression that has left people of colour in the dark. These are valid emotions.

The main structure of Notre Dame has been saved while most of the tangible history and beautiful architecture has been burned to ashes. The collective pain surrounding this event serves mainly as an expression of the loss of European history and a symbol of Catholicism. Of course I feel for the pain of the French people and Catholics all over the world. But my eyes remain dry because European history is an erasure of Indigenous and non-European cultures as well as the birth of colonial and neocolonial forces that impact our lives everyday. That can never be burned away. How do I reconcile this with my almost-tears? Do I choose not to feel anything? Or maybe the indicator is my lack of actual crying. My sobbing for the attacks on Muslims and people of colour is another indicator. The difference between these is mourning a story and mourning a flesh wound.

And so what if I am always checking myself? Checking myself is a small way of decolonizing my consumption. My tears are political, even if I don’t think they are, and even if they are in private. My emotions are an expression of my social learning. The magic of Paris is a construct perpetuated by the media, but it manifested itself in my soul, so it has splintered my heart slightly. But my heart is not broken.

To be on the brink of tears for a social emblem that I do not actually relate to is a strange sensation. I have started to embrace the guilt, to take care of it, and to understand why my sadness feels so unnatural. That pang of guilt is a way of moving toward deconstructing the deification of white colonial structures, both physical and cultural.

UC administration under fire for scheduling convocation on a religious holiday

Convocation scheduled for June 10

UC administration under fire for scheduling convocation on a religious holiday

University College is under fire after scheduling its convocation on a Jewish religious holiday. Set for June 10, the ceremony conflicts with the Jewish holiday Shavuot, which stretches from June 8–10. Students of Jewish faith are frustrated and are calling upon university administration to make reasonable arrangements and prevent similar conflicts from happening in the future.

Hillel U of T, a chapter of the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, told The Varsity that the conflict is disappointing for the university’s Jewish community and for graduating students.

“Hillel is troubled by this scheduling conflict. Unfortunately, this means that Jewish students will be forced to choose between attending their convocation and observing an integral Jewish holiday,” wrote Director of Advocacy for Hillel Ontario Ilan Orzy to The Varsity.

“We have raised this concern with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students and have asked them to consider rescheduling the convocation to a different date.”

According to university spokesperson Elizabeth Church, further accommodations will be made for students who are impacted by the scheduling conflict.

“We do our best to avoid conflicts with all dates of religious observance when planning convocation ceremonies,” she wrote in a statement to The Varsity.

Due to tight scheduling, the university will be holding 31 ceremonies over 15 days. Students have the option to attend a separate convocation ceremony due to religious observance.

“Graduates who choose to attend another ceremony because of religious observance are placed with others graduating with their degree, and they are presented, walk across the stage and collect their diploma in the same manner as other attending graduates,” wrote Church.

Under Governing Council’s Policy on Scheduling of Classes and Examinations and Other Accommodations for Religious Observances, the university acknowledges that a student should not be disadvantaged for observing religious holidays.

“It is the policy of the University of Toronto to arrange reasonable accommodation of the needs of students who observe religious holy days other than those already accommodated by ordinary scheduling and statutory holidays,” it reads.

Students, however, have the responsibility of informing administration in a timely fashion of any upcoming religious observances that may be in conflict.

The Vice-President & Provost is responsible for handling such policy, as well as for publishing information regarding anticipated annual religious holidays. However, there is no guarantee that there will not be important academic dates scheduled on those dates.

Orzy assures that any students who are negatively affected by the scheduling conflict can contact Hillel U of T to express any concerns to the administration there. University College has historically had a large Jewish community, since it was the only U of T college that was openly accepting of Jewish students until the late 1970s. Victoria College’s convocation is also scheduled for June 10.

The Varsity has reached out to Victoria College for comment.

Story Nations

Documenting and digitizing Anishinaabe resistance from 120 years ago

Story Nations

In the summer of 1898, Frederick Du Vernet, an Anglican missionary from Toronto, left the city to travel west. Travelling by train, steamer, and canoe, Du Vernet journeyed to the grassy banks of the Rainy River. The long and slow moving river forms a part of the border between what is now northwestern Ontario and Minnesota.

Along the Canadian side of the river, Du Vernet met and spoke to the Anishinaabe — the region’s Indigenous residents — and recorded the encounters in his diary.

In doing so, Du Vernet documented a period of intense colonial expansion, as Canadians settled on Anishinaabe territory and illicitly claimed it as their own. Yet Du Vernet also recorded moments of Anishinaabe agency and resolve against the colonial order. Taken together, his diary unwittingly tells the stories of these people and their land on Manidoo Ziibi — the Rainy River.

The project

Du Vernet’s diary was stored for decades in a Toronto church archive. Today, it’s the focus of a collaborative project in digital storytelling called Story Nations. Students and faculty from the University of Toronto are working in close consultation with the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre of the Rainy River First Nations to develop an edition of the diary that’s annotated, online, and available in text and audio format. Many members of the team have visited the Rainy River several times and continue to receive tremendous guidance and insight from Rainy River elders and community members.

I became involved with Story Nations just over a year ago, through U of T’s digital humanities Step Forward program. At the time, I knew little about Canadian history and much less about the Rainy River. To introduce me to the topic, the program director, religion professor Pamela Klassen, and its manager and web designer, doctoral student Annie Heckman, handed me a transcription of the diary with one or two supplementary readings and asked for my thoughts.

Thrust into the foreign time and place of the diary, what immediately stood out to me were the human characters that inhabited its pages. Du Vernet jotted down the stories of Anishinaabe weighing, on a daily and individual basis, the hodgepodge of Christianity and colonialism with their own traditions and faith. Many Anishinaabe protested Du Vernet’s presence as a Christian zealot on Anishinaabe land. Taken individually, these protests often amounted to seemingly little more than a woman refusing to be photographed by Du Vernet or even the slamming of a door. But stringing these moments together generates a larger mosaic of Anishinaabe opposition to the colonial order.

Those involved in the Story Nations research project visited the present Rainy River. Photo Courtesy of Keith Garrett.

Multiple spiritual worlds

The actions of other Rainy River natives defied strict categorization. Some Anishinaabe moved fluidly between Christian and Indigenous spiritual worlds. Out of frustration, Du Vernet wrote at one point that they were “facing both ways.”

Du Vernet described such a case when writing about Kitty, a young Anishinaabe woman from the Manitoban mission of Jack Head. Kitty had been baptized but later returned to Anishinaabe spiritual practices. She became fatally ill and one night prayed with Mary Johnston, the wife of a Christian missionary. “Oh God come and take me,” she prayed. She passed away the morning after. Johnston insisted on giving Kitty a Christian burial.

Du Vernet himself became a part of the spiritual interaction he observed. Returning from a walk along the river bank, Du Vernet heard “the sound of incantation” and followed it into a tent, where an Anishinaabe ceremony was taking place. Du Vernet noticed his presence was not welcome, but he nonetheless remained transfixed by the unfolding ceremony. Even though he thought “it was all such a fraud,” Du Vernet could not help but stand with an “uncovered head and a feeling of reverence.” He was both deeply moved and viscerally repulsed by the Anishinaabe spiritual world.

Collecting and telling stories, episode by episode

I found the little stories Du Vernet recorded to be the most graspable aspect of the diary. Looking at it all together, I saw the diary not as one long narrative, but as a collection of vignettes told to Du Vernet by the people around him. I proposed organizing the digital edition around this concept. Professor Klassen approved my idea, and together we grouped the diary into 20 ‘episodes.’

Each episode works like the chapter of a book, having a title and its own self-contained narrative. The episodes vary thematically, with some, like “Photographs After the Storm,” meditative and pastoral, and with others, like “The Story of Kitty,” tragic and solemn. The episodes tend to follow the rhythm of the Rainy River itself — calm in one moment, stormy and climatic in the next.

The episodic format renders the diary more digestible to the lay reader, but it is also appropriate culturally: stories figure prominently into Anishinaabe life. Elders pass down knowledge and history through oral storytelling. As the late Anishinaabe elder Basil Johnston wrote, “It is in story, fable, legend, and myth that fundamental understandings, insights, and attitudes toward life and human conduct, character, and quality in their diverse forms are embodied and passed on.”

While Du Vernet’s diary is a decidedly colonial artifact, using Anishinaabe storytelling conventions helped ‘Indigenize’ the document and its presentation. In line with this, each episode is accompanied by an oral reading. Also, Du Vernet’s stories are presented alongside videoed stories told by today’s Rainy River Anishinaabe.

 

Du Vernet documented examples of Indigenous Resistance in his diary. Photo Courtesy of Keith Garrett.

Continuing Story Nations

After my initial work on Story Nations, I continued to work on the project during the summer through the University of Toronto Excellence Award, and I now work on it as a research assistant. My tasks have centred around annotating the diary. Du Vernet references a slew of historical people, places, and terms that are unfamiliar to the modern reader. My job was to research these ambiguities and provide a short annotation or sometimes a longer article explaining them.

My regional and historical knowledge developed as I wrote these annotations. My work was much like exploring an unfamiliar region. The annotations served as familiar points of geography, like a raised ridge or a strange rock, and it was my job to map out everything around them.

Many of these annotations contextualize Du Vernet’s language. Sometimes, an annotation would explain what treaty money was or where the Lake of the Woods is located. Other annotations, however, contextualize Du Vernet’s language. Throughout the diary, he used derogatory terms to describe the Anishinaabe people and their ceremonies. The annotations work to explain the forces of colonialism, racism, and Christian supremacy that underlie these words and indeed much of Canada’s history.

Decolonizing ourselves

At this stage of the project, the biggest challenge is ‘decolonizing’ how I write — a concept Professor Klassen introduced me to. By this, she meant expunging artifacts of colonial thinking that linger in historical accounts. So, for example, at the start of this article, I wrote that the Rainy River is in “what is now northwestern Ontario.” A year ago, I would have been satisfied with just Ontario, but ‘Ontario’ is merely a small segment in the human history of the land. For much longer, it has been the land of Indigenous peoples and continues to be so today.

As I continue to decolonize my writing, I realize it is not out of a duty to apply, as some might think, ‘politically correct’ terminology. Rather, it is about writing history from an objective and accurate standpoint.

Still, much of the scholarship I use to research the Rainy River area, unknowingly or not, relies on colonial conventions that sanitize the real history. For instance, in researching the Cree community of York Factory — in what is now northern Manitoba along the shores of Hudson’s Bay — many histories of the site ended when it was ‘closed’ in 1957 and its people ‘relocated.’ No further explanations were offered. As I later learned, this version of the story, with a few austere sentences, left out the far uglier reality: the government forcibly moved Cree families from their homes and onto much poorer land. Some Cree today occasionally visit the old site of York Factory and their childhood.

A similar fate awaited the Anishinaabe of the Rainy River. In 1913 and 1914, just over a decade after Du Vernet’s visit, the government illegally amalgamated the seven Anishinaabe reserves along the river into one, forcing many of the people Du Vernet met to leave their homes and heritage.

Today, the Rainy River First Nations are in a long-term process to regain their land. In 2005, they agreed to a $71 million land settlement with the Canadian government that identified land for future reserve creation. Following a court order in February 2017, the governments of Ontario and Canada, together with the Rainy River First Nations, announced the creation of some 6,000 hectares of new reserve land.

As the Rainy River Anishinaabe continue to fight for a relationship of reciprocity and respect with the Canadian government, stories remain as vital as ever — for both remembering the past and for creating a better future. Du Vernet’s diary, while steeped in flaws, is nonetheless a part of those stories.

Streeters: are evolution and religion compatible?

Students weigh in on the roles religion and science play in their lives

At a meeting of the British Association in 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, and T.H. Huxley, a proponent of Darwinian evolution, engaged in a heated exchange about the validity of evolution.

The incompatibility of evolution and religion has had a long history. As science explains it, evolution is the process by which populations undergo genetic change over time. One of the agents of evolution is natural selection, which acts on the variation within a population. This variation must be heritable
(transmitted from parent to offspring) and must affect an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a given environment. 

Individuals with beneficial variants produce more offspring than those with deleterious ones because they are better able to survive and reproduce. Over time, the number of individuals with beneficial variants increase relative to those with deleterious ones. As a result, the population becomes better suited to its environment.

This week, The Varsity asked members of U of T to comment on whether evolution and religion are compatible. Here is what they said:

“From my perspective and knowledge regarding the subject matter, I am… confident to say that religion and evolution are intimately related to each other. They are simply different manifestations of the exact same phenomena that happened on earth a few million years ago. Looking back at every civilization, religion has always been around to serve as guidance for people as lost, and to offer an explanation for the magic of creation. On the other hand, evolution is the human way to regard this exact topic by crowning Homo sapiens at the top of the food chain. People could view this subject in whichever way that they are comfortable with, because the ‘truth’ shall never be altered [regardless of who] believes it… ” 

— Jessie Gao, third-year physics and math student

“Religion and evolution are completely compatible. Scientific evidence need not conflict with religion. Science and religion answer completely different questions. Science answers the ‘how and when’. and religion answers the ‘who and why’. A creator can therefore govern over evolution and have a hand in these processes. Nothing should surprise God, so when we discover a distant lineage of life that has implications for humans, that should not overturn religious doctrines but rather enable us to interpret them in new ways.”

— Adam Varro, fourth-year ethics, society, and law student

“For many Christians, it would never occur to them that a model for explaining nature’s development would be incompatible with a commitment to the truth or religious faith. The support for science and university, longstanding in the church, rises from conviction that there is one God and truth is united in him. That implies, however, that the Christian does not believe the universe is without a source or that life can be reduced to the physical realm and stripped of meaning and purpose.  For the believer, it is a fuller and truer description of life as we know and experience it.”

— The Rev. Canon Dr. Dean Mercer, instructor, Wycliffe College

“If, as many faiths teach, there is an all-powerful, omniscient Creator, the unfolding of scientific understanding can be seen as part of the divine plan and of the process of divine revelation, even if new scientific information — as in the developing study of evolution — challenges and transforms some previously-held beliefs.”

— The Rev. Andrea Budgey, Humphrys Chaplain, Trinity College and the University of Toronto

“Evolution as a theory was devised as a tool for us to … understand the world. It is supported by … evidence, but we are far from being able to claim that evolution is an accurate representation of the reality. In fact, no scientists claim their theories to be absolutely correct. That being said, sciences are not dogmas. Although the Bible may conflict with Darwin’s theory, this does not prevent religion from coexisting with sciences.”

— Dominic Li, third-year math and statistics student

“What does it mean to be compatible? In my personal opinion, if people are able to accept both religion and the theory of evolution then, by definition, the two are compatible. Nowadays, religion and science play two different roles in people’s lives. The primary role of a religion is more to give people comfort and relief. Before, people may have turned to religion to find the ‘truth’, but now that’s the role that science takes. If science and religion play two different roles in our lives, why shouldn’t they be compatible?”

— Mike Park, third-year math and physics student