All posts filed under: CanLit

The Scandal at UBC Keeps Growing—but No One Has Been Held Accountable

Three years ago, the University of British Columbia suspended novelist Steven Galloway, who then chaired UBC’s creative writing program, following explosive allegations that he had sexually assaulted a UBC student. In response, a group of Canadian writers signed on to a movement called UBC Accountable, which highlighted the lack of due process in the proceedings against Galloway. While some members of the Canadian literary community vilified #ubcaccountable as an insult to rape victims, the movement was vindicated when the full facts of Galloway’s case became widely known. Specifically, an internal investigation by a retired provincial supreme court judge concluded that Galloway hadn’t sexually assaulted anyone. Her report, whose contents were detailed in an exhaustive Quillette investigative report, suggested that the principal complainants were either confused or malicious fantabulists. Earlier this year, the Vancouver-based university was required to pay Galloway $167,000 in the wake of statements by UBC officials that violated the former professor’s privacy rights and, as Galloway argued, caused “irreparable reputational damage and financial loss.” Yet despite all this, the university still hasn’t fulfilled the …

The Furore Over a Quebec Theatre Production Has Missed the Point

Quebec is a bastion of North American progressivism. Canada’s only majority-Francophone province is a place where postsecondary education is heavily subsidized, unions remain powerful, the social safety net is thick, and the power grid is fuelled by green hydroelectric energy. Given all this, it might have surprised some outside observers to learn that Quebec briefly played host this summer to a theatrical production described by one prominent artist as “reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows.” The controversy sprang to popular attention when Montreal’s Jazz Festival canceled the remaining performances of SLAV, in which a white star (surrounding by a largely white cast) performed songs composed by black slaves. Director Robert Lepage, a giant of the Quebec stage, denounced the decision as “a direct blow” to his artistic freedom. But activists within Quebec’s black community described the cancelation as necessary. “I am not the type to scream about cultural appropriation, but this project left me with an acrid aftertaste,” Québécois rapper Webster wrote in Le Devoir. “How many will benefit from black cultural heritage set to stage …

A Literary Inquisition: How Novelist Steven Galloway Was Smeared as a Rapist, Even as the Case Against Him Collapsed

On August 8, 2015, a day after the University of British Columbia announced the sudden resignation of its president, Arvind Gupta, UBC’s Jennifer Berdahl, professor in Leadership Studies in Gender and Diversity, published a blog post in which she opined that “Gupta lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men.” Berdahl held the Montalbano Professorship, a position financed with a $2 million (all figures Canadian) donation from Board Of Governors Chair John Montalbano, specifically focused on “the advancement of women and diversity in business leadership.” Montalbano called Berdahl directly and accused her of making him look like a hypocrite. He also told her that he had contacted her dean about the issue. Berdahl shot back with a second blog post that accused Montalbano of trying to silence her. “I have a right to academic freedom and expression,” she wrote, “free of intimidation and harassment.” On August 18, the UBC board of governors convened a meeting to deal with the controversy. As Montalbano …

Why They Hate Margaret Atwood

On March 9, a University of Alberta English professor named Julie Rak headlined a speaking event that was billed as a showdown on the issue of “bad feminism.” A promotional poster done up in a boxing motif included a picture of Rak on one side, and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood on the other. If you live outside Canada, and recognize Atwood as the author of such renowned feminist works as Cat’s Eye, you might assume that she’d be representing the side of sound feminist doctrine in this metaphorical bout. As literary critic Carmine Starnino once noted, Atwood is the “best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics.” She more or less invented the modern Anglo Canadian feminist fiction genre, specializing in what Starnino aptly describes as “salty post-Freudian satires on gender inequalities, the oppressiveness of marriage and the historical animosity of women.” In the 1980s, when I studied North American Literature as a high school elective, Atwood was the only writer with two books on our reading list. She also was the youngest writer on …

The Dishonesty of #MeToo in Canada’s Literary Scene

When I was a less experienced teacher, I made a big mistake. Students were composing essays in a computer lab, and one young man thought he would be clever. Instead of writing, he spent his time shopping for an online essay. A flash of his parents’ gold card near the end of the class is what alerted me. He let his trick be known to the students around him and a bustle of barely repressed giggles and furtive looks ensued. When he came to the front of the class to hand it in, I handed it back and then pointed to the door. I said, loudly and firmly, “This is unacceptable and I’d like you to get out of my sight.” The class went silent and I was momentarily thrilled that I’d spoken so bluntly. However, I changed my mind when that silence persisted until the end of term. Without meaning to, I’d intimidated every other student in the room, none of whom, as far as I could tell, was cheating. I’d made classroom discussions difficult, …

“Canada Has Gone Mad”: Indigenous Representation and the Hounding of Angie Abdou

Late last year, I wrote an essay for Quillette describing how the fight against cultural appropriation had suddenly gone viral in Canada—particularly regarding stories about indigenous peoples. The issue “has become the subject of full-blown social panic among the country’s intellectual class,” I argued, and would remain so until artists and authors of color themselves “eventually become exasperated by doctrines that limit the influence and reach of their [own] literature.” I’m not holding my breath. But a telling controversy involving a newly published novel by Athabasca University creative writing professor Angie Abdou does show us that even some First Nations intellectuals now are becoming infuriated by the campaign to control the permitted range of literary expression in my country. I’m hoping it’s a sign of things to come. *     *     * Abdou is one of those progressive, conscientious, sensitive white writers who dedicate themselves to all the penitent literary rituals of our age. She seems to have done everything humanly possible to make sure her new book, In Case I Go, would offend no one, …

Making a Stand for Cultural Universalism

Earlier this year, I spoke at a panel discussion in New York City to mark the unveiling of Quebec—an enormous 9’ by 10’ painting that aspires to capture the full sweep of French Canadian history on one canvas, from Samuel de Champlain to the modern age of indigenous activism. The American artist, Adam Miller, grew up in the Pacific northwest, and studied the great masters in Florence. The evening’s featured speaker was Donald Kuspit, an eminent Jewish art critic who briefly lived in Quebec, but otherwise has little connection to the largely Catholic society of French Canada. He described Quebec as a luminous postmodern take on the Baroque—a style that took definitive expression in the works of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens—and praised Miller for channelling influences adapted from the book of Genesis, imagery of the dead Christ, and Sandro Botticelli’s 15th century masterpiece, Adoration of the Magi. Which is to say, Quebec is very much part of that great cultural mash-up we call Western culture. And if Miller—who does not speak French—had engaged in …

Students, Sex, Social Media and Why the Steven Galloway Affair Is so Murky

On a frigid night a few years ago, a friend dragged me to an event at a popular Montreal bar. Students of a local graduate program in creative writing were giving a reading. My friend and I sat close to them. I watched as pitchers of beer came and went and the students danced attendance on an older man, perhaps an instructor or organiser of the event. As the night went on and inhibitions were lowered, evidence of unruly feelings became obvious. Most creative arts departments are proverbial hothouses as far as egos go and this group was no exception. They were living proof of that punk axiom: eventually, love would tear them apart. The emotions I saw guaranteed it. Although I teach literature, I’m wary of university creative writing programs: they may be prestigious and even profitable, but I suspect they are more about buying access to agents and less about incubating talent. The students I heard that night read about relationships — with some texts directed at others in attendance — and yet …

When Accusations Abound Who Will Protect the Falsely Maligned?

Here’s a snapshot of my life, taken when my stroke-afflicted mother lived with me. I’d returned from errands and was just shutting the front door when I saw her in her wheelchair. The back of it was pitched forward at a steep angle and when she shifted slightly, I knew what was coming. I ran toward her, fell to my knees, and caught her just as she started sliding down. Because of her almost total paralysis, her fall would have gone unbroken. Her head would have hit the seat of the chair first, then the metal foot brace, then the floor. Either she would have suffered a head injury or broken bones, likely in one of her hips. When I shouted for the personal support worker, I was panicked. Paralysed bodies are like dead weight — they are heavy and I wasn’t sure how long I could hold my mother up. The worker, a visible minority and recent immigrant, was sitting on the couch behind my mother and couldn’t see what was happening. She slowly …