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A gamechanger at the Royal Society of Canada

Sunera Thobani takes her place

Indigenous PoliticsFeminism

Dr. Sunera Thobani. Photo courtesy the University of British Columbia.

On April 5, 2023, the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia convened a celebration event for its faculty member, Dr. Sunera Thobani, on the occasion of her induction as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. It was a moment fraught with ironies, yet rich with possibilities.

The RSC, convened in 1882 under the “personal patronage of the governor general,” recognizes Canada’s foremost scholars, artists and scientists, yet it has had a very heavy white male and colonial hand on the scale of what counts as meritorious scholarship in Canada. That weight has been reinforced continuously since its inception: every governor general has been an honourary patron of this prestigious and problematic organization. It’s original animating question was, “In a time of widespread scientific and technological change, demographic transformation, political reconfiguration, and culture diversification, how can leading thinkers come together to help make a better future?”

That future never included Indigenous people and, as manifested in Canada’s explicit and structural racism on these matters, the RSC was not intended for non-whites either. As renowned Gitxsan activist and professor Cindy Blackstock wrote, “The highly educated have littered colonialism across the country… they deployed their knowledge and skills to abet colonialism and, in too many cases, continue to do so today.” Sunera and I, and really, everyone, has learned in that climate. Too many have been conditioned to disregard racism and genocide.

Recall, the inception of the RSC occurred only a few years after the “confederation” of the Canadian state, and coincided with the treaty-making era and the elimination of the bison. It included the revision and execution of the Indian Act, a piece of legislation that read out most of the Indigenous people of Canada while legislatively confining “Indians” to “reserves” where they were restricted in all aspects of their personal and collective lives, under the control of Indian Agents and cops. The year 1882 was also situated temporally between the two Métis resistances, both of which were met with savage, racially-charged military and policy responses from the Canadian state.

The vision of the RSC, then, was Indigenous-blind and race-blind, even while its mandate presumed the construction of a white Canada built on stolen Indigenous lands. That vision was shared by Canada’s political, social and corporate elites, and has worked its way into the culture and the structures of the country. In the words of legal scholar, historian, and University of Ottawa professor Constance Backhouse, “The RSC helped to construct a bedrock of racist ideas that bolstered the damaging policies of Indian Affairs.”

Moreover, Canada’s founding “national dream” was comprised of the program of settlement of approved immigrants across the southern part of the new state—preferably white northern Europeans. It also involved a tariff at the international border to maintain vigorous commercial activity on an east-west axis instead of a north-south one, as well as the construction of the railway as part of bringing BC into the (con)federal relationship. None of those factors could be conceived and implemented without consideration of the fact of Indigenous dispossession and thus, the “national dream” included the deployment of the policies of coercive expropriation and state control, mostly ignored by the intelligentsia.

This is the history of the RSC, of which Jeremy McNeil, who served as RSC president from 2018-2022, wrote: “Our difficult past must be publicly addressed. While we, the Royal Society of Canada, cannot change the errors of our past, as an organization we promise to defend the rights of all, now and in the future.”

Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons.

I juxtapose an early luminary of the RSC with the recent induction of Sunera Thobani. Duncan Campbell Scott, a white man with limited education, was appointed to a clerk position in 1879, obtained from Sir John A. Macdonald through the intercession of Scott’s father. He eventually ascended to the rank of deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, a post he held from 1913 until 1932.

During his tenure he was both an architect and enforcer of genocidal policies against “Indian” people, including the residential school policy, the confinement to reserves, and the legal prohibitions on Indigenous religious, cultural and political practices. Despite his limited education and through his vicious reach from “Indian Affairs,” he achieved much positive prominence, including election to the Royal Society of Canada in 1899, in recognition of his (often racist) poetry. He also served as its president in 1922-23. Scott had at least two honorary doctorates conferred upon him—one by Queen’s University in 1939, and one by the University of Toronto in 2022. They still stand, despite contemporary requests that they be rescinded.

In this context, the election of Dr. Thobani, a long-time feminist critical race scholar and racialized woman, is revolutionary. Her membership and participation will surely foreground many subjects that have not historically been attended to by the RSC. Indeed, she is likely to involve scholars and activists who historically were not contemplated as members of the intelligentsia, or as citizens of the state. Nor is Thobani joining an all-white, all-male cadre at the RSC. There are now a number of important critical female and racialized voices present in the institution. Some of those have recently edited and published the important book Royally Wronged: The Royal Society of Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Thobani will add another perspective to what constitutes important, socially and politically relevant scholarship in Canada, in the company of others with similar disciplines.

Thobani has a scholarly and political record as a critical political economist; as a critical race scholar; and as a prominent feminist and peace activist. Her works include the magisterial critique of Canada’s racist affirmative action program for white folks, Exalted Subjects (2007), and her recent edited collection on racism and privilege in the academy, Coloniality and Racism in the University: Counting for Nothing (2021). She has attended to racialized communities of women, and from 1993-1996 led what was once Canada’s premier women’s NGO, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). She was the first woman of colour to become president of NAC.

The discourse of the times was neoconservative and neoliberal, and there was a general assault on what was framed as “special interests” whose arguments were only considered because of “political correctness.” As evidence of this, consider the responses to her election and tenure as NAC president. When she was acclaimed, Conservative MP John Alexander Frances MacDougall rose in the House of Commons to allege the dishonest slander that Thobani was an illegal immigrant. This epitomized the reactionary resistance of so many to publicly delegitimate her presidency.

Some framed Thobani’s presidency as a result of political correctness, as though she was not elected because of her qualifications. In a conversation with me in April, Thobani noted that “Throughout my tenure as president, I had to keep proving my legitimacy, both within NAC and in the public.”

Then and ever since, Thobani has spoken for peace and against war; in favour of complex and contextualized intersectional political analyses, and as an advocate for a more nuanced and inclusive scholarly academy. Her activism demonstrates the late great Edward Said’s view of “the importance to the intellectual of passionate engagement, risk, exposure, commitment to principles, vulnerability in debating and being involved in worldly causes.” In all of this, she has discharged the responsibility recommended by Said: “though nothing can make you more unpopular, an intellectual must speak out against [evil done in the name of their own ethnic or national community], and the personal cost be damned.”

I was involved in the women’s movement then, and heard the whispers by those who were troubled by the rise of what they saw as angry women of colour who were destabilizing an innocent and benevolent movement, rather an exclusionary white one. It is always this way, in universities, governments, movement organizations, media, police forces and armies, and civil society. Canadian whiteness is thoroughly structured into our institutions and political cultures, and white fragility and privilege are highly resistant to requests that space be made for others. Whiteness constructs its privilege as the result of meritocracy, a fanciful set of assumptions that I will not explore more here. Thobani did much work to challenge those assumptions. This hard and thankless work has helped to open space for all kinds of people who otherwise were erased from political discourse, institutional participation, and civic visibility.

Thobani’s predecessor at NAC, Judy Rebick, remembers that “There was a lot of racism inside and outside NAC upon her election. She stood up to it. [As president] she organized the Women’s March Against Poverty on Parliament Hill. It was the largest feminist March ever in Ottawa but it got little media coverage, and she and NAC got no recognition for it.” The march, a political tour de force which travelled from coast to coast to coast, was organized with the Canadian Labour Congress in 1996. Media also underreported the attendance of thousands of people at the final rally in Ottawa.

And this, too, is the way that gatekeepers ensure resistance voices are unheard. Such is the infertile ground of the Canadian public square. Rebick’s book, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution, documents more about those difficult years.

In what was then an unprecedented move, Preston Manning and the Reform Party refused to meet with NAC in what had become an annual event, with all parties, including government, meeting with the women’s lobby to talk issues and policy. Thobani and other NAC members stormed Parliament because of this, insisting that the political class had to listen to women. This was sensationalized by some media, which focused, not on the Reform Party’s refusal to meet with NAC, but on the theme of ‘radical women of colour.’ And this too said something about the unwelcoming space in Canadian democracy for women, particularly marginalized women.

At the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the NAC delegation was led by Thobani and other women of colour. She remembers that “We were under constant pressure from a number of prominent ‘Canadian’ [read: white] feminists not to ‘make Canada look bad on the world stage.’ We were also shut out of the consultative process with Canadian government representatives, who had formerly met with the white leaders of NAC.”

Her experience is reminiscent of the Canadian reaction to the remarks of then Assembly of First Nations National Chief Matthew Coon-Come, at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. What did Coon-Come do to ignite the firestorm?

He had talked about “the oppression, marginalization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples” and the “racist and colonial syndrome of dispossession and discrimination.” He “referred to “Canada’s hidden shame” in its systematically racist treatment of Native people. The comments attracted much denial and criticism, including from former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and former Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, the latter of whom demanded an apology from Coon-Come, claiming that any racism in Canada was individual, not institutional. Coon-Come recalled “I was attacked in the media in Canada for saying this. Minister Nault told Canadians these words would set back relations with First Nations by several years. … I remind you it was the Royal Commission [on Aboriginal Peoples] that I quoted. It was a former Supreme Court justice who reached these conclusions.”

The reactions of mainstream media to Thobani’s politics reached their nadir following her speech at the Violence Against Women national conference in Ottawa, in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Afghanistan. In her considered critique of the war, in the context of histories of such wars, she said that “American foreign policy is soaked in blood.” Thobani recalled that the reaction was “a wave of public anger and hate towards me. I was constructed as a public enemy, calls were made for my deportation, petitions were organized to get me fired from my job at UBC. My speech was denounced by the prime minister and the BC premier, and I was subsequently investigated by the RCMP for a hate crime against Americans” (the charge was baseless and was dropped, after an exhausting and expensive three year investigation). She was also made officially ineligible to visit the United States then, thereby stifling her cross-border personal and professional relationships.

And yet, this is precisely the kind of critical engagement urged on scholars by Edward Said, who wrote “there is a special duty to address the constituted and authorized powers of one’s own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in a deliberate program of discrimination, repression, and collective cruelty.” When scholars cannot critique government and policies for fear of reprisal, the academy also suffers.

In an effort to make space in the academy in which she taught for racialized scholars and scholarship, Thobani organized a conference at UBC that led to the founding of Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equity (RACE), the first such network dedicated to promoting the work of Indigenous and racialized women scholars. She thought this necessary because “while executing my duties as the Director of the Race, Autobiography, Gender and Age Centre (RAGA) at UBC to develop a program in critical race studies, and to eventually build an institute for critical race studies, I was subjected to an incredibly hostile environment for this work, and was constructed as the proverbial ‘angry woman of colour.’”

The Canadian academy and political class, the media and the intelligentsia, have dismissed foundational critiques with the tropes of angry women, angry racialized women, and uppity Indians. The RSC has historically been the national emblem of that impervious white wall of denial and racism. Yet, it has changed—it has brought in critical minds and challenging voices. Thobani takes her place there now, recognized as one of the finest scholarly minds in the country. She will use her influence to do what she has always done: to speak against racism and oppression; to advocate for peace and democracy; and to invite and incite us all to join in making a better world for everyone.

Joyce Green is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Regina. She is also a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, and a band member of Yaqit ʔa·knuqⱡiʔit (Tobacco Plains).

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