Arts & Culture

Confronting Our National Demons

The anti-monarchy, pro-First Nations movement gets a megaphone

• 1,312 words

Gold survey stake from the <em>Extraction</em> exhibit”><span class=OPSYSGold survey stake from the Extraction exhibit.

On a sunny day in Venice, an unlikely sound carries  from the east side of the floating Italian city. Blasting from a set of speakers inside the sprawling Venetian Giardini, “Burn Your Village to the Ground,” a song by Indigenous Canadian artists A Tribe Called Red, fills the air. “We’re taking the land which is rightfully ours,” they proclaim. “Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes and reservations; your people will wear cardigans and drink high balls.”

The song tells the story of a rebellious, agitated Canada, previously invisible to outsiders. It’s the perfect soundtrack to Extraction, Canada’s official entry to the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture and a physical embodiment of the nation’s burgeoning anti-monarchy, pro-First Nations sentiment. This year, Canada has an opinion—a fierce, abrasive one. It’s a loud, angry outside voice, and the Biennale is its political megaphone.

Often referred to as the “Olympics of architecture,” the Venice Biennale is the industry’s foremost event, exhibition, and idea exchange, held in the city’s only green space for six months every two years. Hosted in a park built by Napoleon and visited by the likes of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, the Biennale is an inherently political space, and is now home to the pavilions of all founding member nations of the Biennale—a veritable who’s who of colonial power.

Despite the history of the venue, overt political commentaries have become scarce at the Biennale: the starchitect-studded event has a long-standing reputation for being disconnected from reality. But under the direction of socialist Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, the 2016 Biennale has made a serious call to action, and Canada has responded.

Buried strategically at the physical nexus of Canada’s historical tensions–nearly blocking access to the pavilions of France and the United Kingdom–the 2016 Canada pavilion occupies a unique and political space. Thrust into the venue’s public area—a first for Canada and for the Biennale—a white medallion embossed with a topographical map of the world announces the modest arrival of this year’s most unorthodox national pavilion.

Much smaller than its booming message, the pavilion is no more than three metres wide and a centimetre tall. A comment on Canada’s global dominance in the exploitation of natural resources, Extraction is sunken below-grade and obtrusively placed at the centre of a gathering space. Unlike its sixty-one neighbouring national pavilions, guests cannot walk inside Canada’s pavilion: it’s closed this year for renovations. Instead, visitors are invited one at a time to kneel atop the map, lean into a golden oculus, and watch an 800 second video featuring 800 curated images designed to explain Canada’s history of resource extraction. By allowing only one viewer at a time, the curators hope to “elicit a deeper discourse on the complex ecologies and vast geopolitics of resource extraction.” In a nod to Canada’s First Nations, the oculus (or survey stake, in geological terms) is inscribed with the words summa virtus terra est: “the greatest power is land.”

Curated by Pierre Bélanger, Landscape Architect and founder of OPSYS (a nonprofit landscape urbanism consultancy), and commissioner Catherine Crowston, Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Extraction does not treat the pavilion as a physical space, but instead explores Canada’s intangible role as the largest resource-extraction economy in the world. As Bélanger notes, through a complex set of laws built in favour of mining corporations, more than 50 percent of all global mining and prospecting companies have their headquarters in Canada. “Seen geographically and understood politically,” says Bélanger, “the process of extraction is a profound and deep-rooted ideology, exercised through forceful penetration, both overtly and covertly.”

The pavilion tells the story of extraction in Canada, beginning 800 years ago with the Magna Carta. Established by King John of England in 1215, it divided surface and mineral rights for land, and placed the ownership of valuable mineral commodities firmly in the hands of the Crown—a property grab with lasting consequences. “Our criticism is focused on the ideologies in between the lines of the law and buried deep in the histories that affects lands and territories across the country for which most Canadians are unaware,” says Bélanger. “To a certain extent, the project is holding up a mirror to the country. Its image is very different than reality on the ground.”

In a nation where 95 percent of the land is legally owned by the Crown but historically occupied by First Nations people, Extraction is a poignant response to one of Canada’s most pressing dialogues. Highlighting a dichotomy all too familiar to Canadians (but unbeknownst to most Europeans), Extraction explores the brutal territorial relations between Indigenous people and the federal government of Canada, delving into a centuries-long history of natural-resource harvesting in exchange for meagre tax benefits and reduced land rights for First Nations people. Citing conversations with members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Bélanger explains: “It is the struggle and fight of First Nations’ and Indigenous people resisting extraction for the past two to three centuries that has led to this project.”

In 2016, on the eve of Canada’s 150th Anniversary of Confederation, Bélanger argues that the Crown’s role in the ownership of the Canadian landscape has extended beyond the extraction of minerals, creating a realm of power that exceeds the reasonable amount wielded by a national government. At its inauguration in Venice, held during Canada’s Victoria Day weekend, Bélanger ventured that Canada’s 149th year as a nation might be its last as a constitutional monarchy, to which he received mixed reactions from the largely Canadian crowd.

It is worth noting that Extraction, as with all Canadian Biennale entries, receives a significant portion of its funding from the the Government of Canada. Despite its rejection of the monarchy, Extractionhas forged ahead with its state-funded sponsorship. On the subject, Bélanger says, “the Canada Council for the Arts chose difficult, contested and charged subject matter to represent in Venice, which is a strong indication of the oceanic turn that the Council is taking towards matters of social and environmental justice. This is a level cultural leadership and curatorial audacity that is unprecedented.” Echoing Bélanger’s sentiment during his speech on behalf of the Government of Canada at the pavilion’s inauguration in Venice, Canadian Ambassador to Italy Peter McGovern added: “Under new federal leadership, Canada has a renewed interest in the arts, and in the Venice Biennale.”

Although its subject matter is dense, Extraction ultimately tells the story of a Canada that has grown restless under the burdens of monarchical and capitalist influence. A Canada that has begun to protest the exploitation of its resources and the mistreatment of its First Nations people. A Canada, in the eyes of Bélanger, that has legislated away the sanctity of the land and its historical owners in favour of commercial gain.

The collective message of Extraction is a complex call to action: Canadians should no longer tolerate the continued profit-and-politics-driven extraction of resources nationwide. “The exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture is the beginning of a conversation abroad first, then at home second,” says Bélanger.

For many Canadians, a mainstream group with a distinct lack of interest in confrontation, Extraction is decidedly uncomfortable. But it evokes a jarring, critical, and ultimately necessary response to an issue that is, at its heart, a political commentary on the state of the relationship between the Crown and Canada’s First Nations people. When faced with our national demons, we are forced into a moment of unease and introspection, challenging us to consider our landscape, our resources, and our ancestors. Bélanger’s version of our history may be exactly what Canada needs.

Finn MacLeod is an architecture writer and historian. He currently works for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago.


When Tenure Never Comes

Academia has become a high-stakes gamble—and the losers can barely afford pants

• 1,761 words

Ivelin Radkov

The Walrus / Ivelin Radkov

Last Thursday, I lost my job. Despite conversations with over thirty colleagues who professed support for the renewal of my contract, the Deans at the university where I’ve worked since 2008 weren’t listening. Like a piece of once-glistening pork left out on a counter, I’ve expired. Of course, I know I’m already well beyond my best-before date. That date was somewhere around 2011, the five-year mark of the completion of my PhD. At this point, I’m supposed to be tenured or long gone. Instead, I’m a “contingent academic.”

The phrase has sprung up as an umbrella term to describe people in my situation. Scholars who’ve trained for the professional life of an intellectual, teacher, or researcher but remain second-class citizens without a tenure-track position: adjunct, sessional, or contract faculty. Contingent academics are hired for three-month courses at a time, or a nine-month replacement, or even a two-year “limited” contract. There’s no question this kind of casual employment can be beneficial to both universities and academics. It gives graduate students a means to support themselves while looking for a permanent position. Such gigs, however, become demoralizing when they turn habitual; when a university department or program continuously hires you on short-term rolling contracts, without any intention of making you an “honest man,” as my father would put it.

Of course, I live in hope. The one thing an academic craves is institutional affiliation—we don’t “exist” until that happens. So you work hard at your research and publishing in case you get some traction on a job application you’ve sent out. And I’ve done that: my first book came out in 2011, and I’ve published a series of articles, and book chapters, as well as held my own research grant. During all of that, I completed two postdoctoral fellowships and obtained a fourth degree. I’ve also lectured, given papers and have been invited to seminars in the US, UK, France, and Germany. Maintaining this scholarly profile is what a friend calls a “compulsory hobby.” Every day for the last decade, I’ve hoped this hobby will lead to a tenure-track position where I’ll be paid. But the chances of that seem to be shrinking.

It could have been much worse. Contingent academics are often forced to move continually, or commute extensively, chasing contracts here and there. In the US, many in my situation are on food-stamps. The over-educated precariat class is just a new addition to the migrant proletariat. But I’m something of an exception. After my postdoctoral fellowship ended in 2010, I’ve had a series of cobbled together contracts from the same institution which have let me weather the financial storms of the past eight years fairly well. Sure the contractual ups and downs have been tricky, and at times it’s been difficult to afford new pants, but it has had a certain stability. There are jobs in the southern US and in the UK, which would take me away from family and a new relationship that I cherish. I don’t need to start building a life from scratch in my late thirties. I definitely don’t need to do it for a nine—or three-month contract without benefits, or costs of moving. And if we’re talking about the US, I don’t need to be dealing with signing religious codes of conduct or dealing with campuses where eighteen-year-olds can carry concealed guns.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not up a creek. After eight years at the same institution, I’m often mistaken for being permanent faculty. Even my tenured colleagues sometimes forget. It causes all kinds of absurdities. Undergraduates wonder what courses I’m teaching next year, but I don’t know if I’ll have a new contract. I can’t supervise PhD or MA students, but I am asked to regularly. I’ve had to explain why I can’t make long-term commitments for the development of new programs as an administrator without a permanent faculty member able to back me up.

The disconnect between my scholarly profile and my academic employment can be stark. I once sat in a colleague’s office as he chatted with another new assistant professor about tenure requirements. The two disclosed who had submitted a grant proposal and whose book was near publication—all of which are needed for tenure. I was the only one in the room with books, articles, and a recently awarded grant. Though I wasn’t in a tenure-track position, I found myself giving them advice while trying not to scream at the same time.

Sometimes you can’t win for losing. That grant my colleagues were ogling in the office? It was so I could lead a research team of tenured faculty and their students. Great, right? Except my contract was due to expire, and although my department threw me a course for one term, and another offered part-time admin work, funding regulations meant the grant couldn’t pay my salary as its lead researcher. It was either accept the grant, and take the financial hit, or move somewhere to teach for a few months. Teaching wouldn’t look as impressive on my CV, so I stuck with the grant. For much of the year, I was on employment insurance benefits. My student researchers made more than I did.

It’s definitely common to put career over financial stability early on. Racking up debt on a credit card is better than coming out of your doctoral program still-born. In the spring of 2007, I forked out over $2000 to attend two conferences in the UK. The first one was a dud and at the second I was cut off half-way into my paper. There’s nothing quite like having an established academic decide that hearing eight minutes of the allotted twenty would be sufficient. As a self-funded under-employed contingent, I wasn’t going to say anything useful anyway.

My financial reality still makes it hard to keep up with conferences. I haven’t had access to professional development funds since 2010, and unless the conference is near by I can’t attend without some assistance. This summer, I refused to self-fund for conferences in Alberta because the costs of travel, hotel, and registration would have come to nearly two months of rent.

In all likelihood, most academics are able to tell similar stories of self-funding, of being cut-off, or of feeling like impostors despite the depth of their research and the impact of their teaching. Until a tenure-track position arrives, we are academic waifs or the “unrealized” who have failed somehow to live up to our potential. I guess the greatest shift for me over the past two years is recognizing the fact that I am an established scholar regardless of the job.

But owning it doesn’t mean clarity on the job market. A few weeks ago I interviewed for a short-term but ranked faculty position at a comprehensive university some distance from where I now live. It went well; I’m still waiting to hear back. As is normal during these day-long interviews (I’ve had four now, out of nearly 100 applications to Canadian, US, and UK institutions since 2006), candidates sit down with the Dean. The answers I received to the questions I asked her illustrate how much academia is down the rabbit hole.

First, I wanted to know how the university would regard my experience and employment. She reminded me that the position was “entry-level.” Right, I thought: the position’s expectations and responsibilities required an established academic, not someone newly minted. My ten years of experience, the publications, the postdoctoral fellowships, the teaching, research, grants—that international profile—were what got me the interview. But because I’d never held a “ranked” professorial position, I was no different than someone who hadn’t finished their doctorate yet, but had achieved ABD (All But Dissertation) status.

Then I asked if she could substantiate rumors that the position would eventually translate into tenure-track position. This answer was more troubling. “Universities aren’t really looking to make thirty-year commitments anymore,” says the beneficiary of such a sinecure. In the space of five minutes this Dean had summarized my plight: because I’ve never held a tenure-track position, my decade of productivity put me in no greater standing for a job than someone fresh out of grad school; and those tenure-track positions—the only means to vindicate that work—aren’t in the interests of higher-education administrators.

It was quite clear that if this university was having commitment issues on the first date, the position might not be for me. You see, my current university just isn’t that into me either, even after eight years. At this point I’m looking for something more than the academic equivalent of a summer tryst.

I’ll admit to being slightly amused by the absurdity of it all. The latest turn in the comedy of my non-committal relationship with my soon-to-be-ex-university is that I’ve received a merit award for my academic work for the past calendar year. I’ve been told it’s not a bonus, but an increase to my base salary annualized over bi-weekly paycheques. The catch? I’m getting three paycheques worth of it, something like $300 out of $3250 or so. After eight years, there’s no severance, and, because I’m “leaving” my position, the remainder is forfeit. It’s an amount which could pay rent for three months. The sum is this: my scholarly activities and output in 2015 were enough to merit recognition. But I still lost my job.

And so, like any scholar, despite my expiration, and the long-gone best-before date, I’m back at my “hobby.” At this point, I know the game enough to able to keep the hounds at bay. I’m a musician. I used to paint and design quite a bit. If I can make a buck doing it, great. I’ve also spent the past decade working in a new field that has desirable skills. I had a phone interview last week and I’ve been head-hunted by a private start-up fifteen minutes from my apartment.

I haven’t given up the tenure-track hunt completely, but the odds are stacked hopelessly against me. The academic job market is now like high-stakes gambling. Folks like me sit at the table, waiting for a big break that never comes.

Stephen Black is the pseudonym of a Canadian academic.


Motherhood Consumes the Poet

The literary consequences of raising a child

• 1,238 words

A portrait of Suzanne Buffam by the poet’s daughter.

Before my first daughter was born, I swore to live by a new rule: never write about the baby. To me, there could be nothing so distasteful as the woman poet gone domestic, nothing so cliché. I was young, straight out of McGill, unexpectedly pregnant during what was meant to be a year off before grad school. I had been writing poetry in a dedicated way for a few years, publishing in our small student journal and feeling like part of a scene. I wasn’t going to let a baby change me, man.

As though this helpless, mewling, scratching creature that I loved ferociously despite the off-putting helplessness could do anything but transform me. I was consumed. Consumed physically, as she nursed for hours while I sobbed on the couch or stood with her at the kitchen counter, one arm reaching to shovel sizzling fish sticks straight from the toaster oven into my mouth, the other supporting her angry pink body, her little lips latched on for dear life. Consumed emotionally, mentally, as she woke me with screams each morning and kept me up until all hours. Very soon it became clear that I really needn’t worry about writing about the baby, because it was unlikely I would ever string together enough thoughts to write about anything.

It is difficult enough for a poet to follow up on a strong career start, even without the added emotional and temporal drain of child-rearing.

This concern is what Suzanne Buffam explores in her third collection, A Pillow Book, a connected series of thoughts, observations, meditations, dream sequences, and aphorisms of a mother battling sleeplessness. “The closest I come to writing poems these days are the lists I jot down in the little blue notebook I keep beside my pillow to remind myself, years hence, how my middle years were spent.”

Readers familiar with Buffam’s 2010 collection, the Griffin-shortlisted The Irrationalist, will recognize A Pillow Book as picking up where an earlier prose poem, “Trying,” leaves off. In “Trying,” the reader is led through the difficulties and disappointments of a married couple attempting to conceive. In A Pillow Book, the intangible child once tried for is now a pre-schooler, referred to exclusively as “Her Majesty.” Buffam is tender but unsentimental. There is frustration, concern, anxiety, but also love. What comes through most honestly is exasperation—familiar to those who have been fortunate enough to experience the relentless tedium of day-to-day life with small children, with its attendant swimming lessons, potty training, arts and crafts, and bedtimes that include “a forty-minute meltdown, an ostensibly unintentional head-butt, a grudging apology, a warm bath, two books, and three off-key a capella nonconsensual renditions of Tomorrow.”

There is a hint of “be careful what you wish for” here; after trying and succeeding, the couple is now faced with new tensions, and the poem’s speaker fears that motherhood will impede her literary success. Early on, Buffam writes that on Mortimer Adler’s list of Great Books of the Western World, “only four, I can’t help counting, were written by women—Virginia, Willa, Jane, and George—none of whom, as far as I can discover, were anyone’s mother.”

Later the poet-speaker recalls a conversation with “a famous aging editor in New York . . . Did I have any children, he wanted to know . . . I’d just turned thirty-seven and had none. Good, he said firmly. You’ll be finished as a writer if you do.” Given Buffam’s early successes (before the aforementioned Griffin nomination, her debut collection, Past Imperfect, earned her the Gerald Lampert Award), this concern is fair; it is difficult enough for a poet to follow up on a strong career start, even without the added emotional and temporal drain of child-rearing.

The famous aging editor’s comment, however archaic-sounding, raises a good question: how do you negotiate a career that depends on time alone with one’s thoughts, on time to read and wander and scribble and ruminate, with a newborn’s need for sustenance, a toddler’s need for steadying, a pre-k’s need for an audience? My mantel and tables are stacked high with partially-begun books and my head rattles with conversations I meant to finish before someone needed a band-aid or a sandwich. Hours stolen away for writing find me with an attention span no better than a two-year-old’s, and by the time I’ve managed to focus my thoughts, it’s time to close the computer and return to the real world.

Buffam’s format mirrors this mental and personal disjunction. A Pillow Book takes its name from, and refers frequently to, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, the famed thousand-year-old Japanese miscellany composed by a poet and court lady of the Heian period. Broadly, a pillow book is a snapshot of a particular period in a writer’s life, its quotidian events and concerns. Buffam’s pillow book engages Shōnagon’s in its form—prose sections interspersed with lists—and through direct interaction with the text, which is read at night by the light of a “Petzel Tikinna 2 headlamp set on low.” Buffam points out that Shōnagon “is rumoured to have borne” a son or daughter, but that this possible child is never mentioned.

Buffam balances her heavily-researched, fact-laden text with a stand-up comic’s skill for timing; she bounces between the wry wit of an academic and the giddy delirium of an exhausted twelve-year-old after a sleepover. All beverages—Sancerre, Neocitrin, kombucha—are “tepid.” Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Peach Tea makes repeated appearances in multiple permutations, starting with a place on the list of “Beautiful Names for Hideous Things” (a list whose other entries include concertina wire, crystal meth, and Lhasa Apso). Buffam’s humour gives the collection a warmth, a comforting air of this-too-shall-pass, or, perhaps, of you’ve-got-to-laugh-to-keep-from-crying: on the silly end we have “Jobs From Hell,” including “Eternal Finder of the Ragged Edge of Scotch Tape,” and “Plumber to the stars.” The register is more cerebral when Buffam lists “Dream Interpretations”:

If you dream about horseflies, houseguests are coming.

If you dream about houseguests, houseguests are coming.

If you dream about drinking, your in-laws will arrive with bad news from the east.

A polar bear means conflict on a list-serv or an over-crowded bus or a heartfelt robo-call from the Vice President’s wife

A construction site is a root canal.

A root canal is an IRS audit or a preschool fundraiser bakesale or a LinkedIn request from an ex or a day-trip in the rain to the zoo.

I am nearly thirteen years into this parenting gig. My husband and I are outnumbered by a ratio of two to one. He, also a poet, has managed to write in fits and starts, while I was fairly certain a year ago that I would never write a word again, in spite of all his support and encouragement. Like the poet in A Pillow Book, what I needed and craved was a good night’s sleep, unbroken by wandering children and unhampered by worry or mental self-flagellation.

Buffam writes that Shōnagon, “affords sufficient distraction on one’s pillow at night to transport one to a late Kurosawa dream sequence, but also enough repetitive and inconsequential minutiae to conjure, on a good night, the infinitely gentle god of sleep.” A Pillow Book, by contrast, is engrossing enough to keep a reader up late.

Andrea Callanan is a poet and writer who lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.