Narratives of Citizenship Conference

Mack and I attended the Narratives of Citizenship Conference this weekend, put on by the Graduates Students of English Association at the University of Alberta. The conference was divided into three sections – academic, artistic, and communal, though really, the concentration was on paper presentations.

We were originally asked a few months ago to be a part of the latter focus in the form of a community roundtable session, but when we were also extended an invitation to attend the rest of the conference as guests, I was excited. I am always on the hunt for professional development opportunities (related or not to my current job), so I have been looking forward to this weekend for a while.

The keynote that began the conference on Friday evening was titled “Imposing subCitizenship: Canadian White Civility and the Two Row Wampum of the Six Nations,” presented by Daniel Coleman of McMaster University. It turned out to be quite an interesting history lesson for me, as he talked about the current Haudenesaunee land claim dispute in Ontario and the events that led up to that. The most interesting idea from his talk had to do with a dichotomy I hadn’t really thought about before – of how a policy of inclusion (his example was of Native enfranchisement) could function as well as ill-recognition of one’s sovereignty and independence and hence, encourage a right to be excluded.

Saturday offered a plethora of sessions on citizenship – everything from dual-citizenship to forgotten citizens to multiculturalism and nationalism. For the better part of the day, I tried to construct a clever metaphor to capture the day’s experience, but the closest I came was something about only being able to eat the bread of a sandwich, never quite able to reach the filling (yes, a terrible comparison). It’s ironic that at a conference where one of the explicit themes was belonging and acknowledgement of citizenship, that I could possibly feel like an outsider. This is not to say that my fellow attendees were in any way exclusive or unwelcoming – on the contrary, those to whom I spoke were very nice and open with sharing their research. However, having only ever taken one course in post-modern English, I just didn’t have the background necessary to process all of the knowledge, and many of the theories and citations were clear over my head. More than that, I found myself asking often what the ultimate point of this research was – how could it apply to real life?

That said, I did enjoy Lily Cho’s plenary talk that morning (or at least, the 40% that I managed to comprehend). She did what all of the other speakers I watched didn’t – actually discussing her thesis without reading word for word off of the page. Though I still can’t define diasporic citizenship or affect theory, she had some interesting thoughts related to racial melancholia, specifically about how racial communities are connected through a collective grief that cannot end until that community is able to translate that grief into grievance.

Two other papers I found intriguing had a more literary basis, using text as a starting point to discuss greater social ideas. Jennifer Delisle’s “A Citizen of Story: Confederation and Wayne Johnston’s Newfoundland,” used two narratives as a foundation for the argument that inhabitants of Newfoundland have been dealt a double-wound in the last half century. Between losing a connection with the “Motherland” and an increase in out-migration, citizens of Newfoundland have lost their sense of identity twice. Secondly, Elyssa Warkentin’s “The Marginalized Female Citizen: Dangerous Femininity in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger” was a fascinating study of a narrative based on reports on Jack the Ripper. Of all presentations, Elyssa’s was by far the most logical, providing enough details from The Lodger for those unfamiliar with the text, and as traditional English papers do, used evidence to thoroughly support her argument. After a long day, her paper was much-needed and refreshing.

This was my first time at a conference of this nature, and as such, I have a few observations from green eyes:

  • In stark opposition with my experience at Northern Voice, there were no laptops! (Yay! I belong!)
  • All of the conference attendees were very supportive, encouraging, and appreciative of one another. During post-presentation discussions, everyone preceded questions with something along the lines of the ostensibly polite, “Thank you for the great paper…” Moreover, whenever anyone ducked out during the talks for any reason, they always took the time to publicly apologize for their absence after.
  • As with any other specialized field, name dropping was rampant. But in this case, it was not only appropriate, but necessary, as the presenters were citing authors and their original ideas.
  • The conference was essentially a forum to flesh out ideas – like the best kind of English class, and the ones professors always want to have.

During lunch, I mediated over frozen yogurt to somehow make the content relevant to my current stream of work. Modest thoughts only, but I harked back to an e-mail requesting statistics for those immigrants who self-identity as health care professionals but are not practicing at the moment, and came up with a stream of questions. Keep in mind they are questions I can’t answer, and don’t know if I will come back to answer, at least not right away:

  • What good is self-identification without recognition, acceptance, and a right to practice?
  • Can one still self-identify without actual practice? (and the idea of borders as barriers to legitimizing identity)
  • What of those who are forced to give up on that identity for whatever reason to adopt another profession, thus altering how they relate to and identify with others (status, class, professional relationships, etc.)?
  • Is this double-wounding of identity, with not only a physical diaspora occurring but a professional extinction as well (as so frequently asked of those we meet, “Where are you from? What do you do?”)? And if this is the case, not discounting family, personal will and the holistic view of an individual, what is left?

Although I had every intention of attending the artists’ gala on Saturday, by the time we had finished dinner, I was more than spent. Luckily, our roundtable wasn’t until 3pm the next day, so I was able to sleep in.

The “Community Education and Translation of University Knowledge” roundtable was great – I got to hear about other programs I didn’t know about before, and received updates on those that I hadn’t heard from in a while. There were several “dignitaries” present, including the Mayor and MLA Raj Pannu, but their remarks missed the mark in terms of relevance to the session’s objective. While we couldn’t be sure whether or not it was a failure on the part of conference organizers to accurately inform the dignitaries in advance, or the failure of the dignitaries to put together an appropriately-themed speech, I must admit I remained respectfully silent through Mayor Mandel’s digression of needing to increase Edmonton’s film industry, and MLA Pannu’s dissemination on the importance of climate change awareness.

Needless to say, by Sunday evening, I was exhausted. Overall, it was a good weekend – it was definitely a new experience for me, and it is always invigorating and inspiring to be around those who are passionate about their work. Congratulations to the conference organizers for a successful event!

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