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Director's Message - Fall Program

September 10, 2015

I’m very pleased to announce that 50 years after the founding of Simon Fraser University, and 32 years after its own birth, the Institute for the Humanities is as strong and vibrant as ever in pursuing its mission of seeking to understand  the key social, economic, political and cultural issues of the day through the prism of the humanities broadly understood. While the rest of the university rightly anticipates its future fifty years, the Institute understands its own future through an act of remembering and building upon SFU’s radical past. Such a past was perhaps symbolized most clearly by the so-called “Templeton 5”, a group of graduate students who sought to organize the students of Templeton Secondary School in the east Vancouver in 1967, and who, therefore, were exemplars ex ante of an aspiration of university as a whole (as is now reflected in its motto): “engaging the world”!

Our program for 2015–16 reflects that we are in the midst of what could be the most important General Federal Election since 1867. The program’s title is taken from a TED talk given by one of our speakers, Professor Pam Palmater, Chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. Coming just prior to Justice Murray Sinclair’s release of the TRC report, Dr. Palmater drew attention to the fact that, particularly from an Indigenous perspective, Canada is in the midst of a “State of Emergency.” The most obvious example of this is the government’s stubborn reluctance to mount an inquiry into Canada’s national disgrace: the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women over the past decades.” In 1940, Walter Benjamin wrote in direct response to Hitler’s “crown jurist,” the theorist of the “state of exception,” Carl Schmitt: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.” There could scarcely be a more poignant assessment of the history of settler colonialism and its effects, particularly on First Nations, not least because such an on-going state of emergency was brought about in the name of historical “progress.”

We see such an on-going state of emergency in the economic crisis, the dramatic drop in the value of the Canadian dollar with the falling price of oil, the on-going feud between the government and the Supreme Court, the new security legislation that, according to allegations made by BCCLA, has empowered the government to illegally spy on peaceful dissidents and NGO’s such as Tides Canada and the Dogwood Initiative [CBC News Aug 12], the bombing campaign of questionable legality in Syria, the punitive use of the CRA to crack down on the government’s critics, and the stifling of the scientists whose findings constitute what Al Gore referred to as “inconvenient truths” that might undermine the government’s plan to transform Canada into a so-called “energy Superpower.”

Not to simply criticize the Conservative government, it seems that there is what could be called ideological closure in this country more generally, which is to say a lack of genuine diversity of real political options, violating what Hannah Arendt called the basic “human condition of plurality.” The Liberal Party, to its shame, supported the passage of Bill C-51, none of the main parties are courageous enough to raise claims about the inhuman treatment of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, and, aside from the Green Party, only lip-service, it would seem, is paid to the need for a real alternative to a carbon-based economic model. Moreover, a consensus appears to centre around an austerity agenda of balanced budgets, lower taxes and diminishing social spending during a time of recession on the backs of the unemployed and underemployed, the majority of whom are under the age of 24. Even that paragon of neo-liberal orthodoxy, The Economist, has admitted in the Greek case that austerity had failed on strictly economic terms. Things, however, appear to be different in the United States when a member of the Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, was elected to Seattle City Council some three years ago on a platform to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and a candidate who describes himself as a “Socialist,” namely Bernie Sanders, is running, at times ahead of Hilary Clinton, for the Democratic Presidential nomination. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn is revitalizing the prospect of genuine alternatives even if these look, perhaps, more to the past rather than the future. In Canada, by way of contrast, what we see is a state of affairs Herbert Marcuse described forty years ago of “one dimensionality.” Such a condition entailed the collapse of what was possible into what simply existed. Today, it appears uncertain that, as a species, we can survive without concrete and substantive alternatives to the current organization of state and society.

In this we follow up, logically, on last year’s program "Democracy and Dissent" which drew attention to the fact that as dissent has become increasingly criminalized, and Canadian Parliamentary democracy is in free-fall. Last summer, we co-hosted a conference devoted to exploring the ideas of the Frankfurt School, the highlight of which was a keynote by the distinguished US intellectual historian, Martin Jay of UC Berkeley as well as the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy’s annual meeting which featured among other wonderful keynotes, Professor Howard Caygill speaking about the “capacity to Resist”. Each addressed in its own way the importance of critical perspectives of art and philosophy in genuine democracies.

Our current democratic order is arguably in crisis because of the fact that virtually all of the institutions of this country have gone through a kind of streamlining or unification or what the Germans in the mid-1930s called Gleichschaltung according to the imperatives of extractive industries or what some of us have called the “petro-state”, in particular, tar sands oil and fracked liquid natural gas. This is no more the case than the National Energy Board, which has seen of late mass resignations because many see it as "industry captured” and therefore fundamentally incapable of providing a neutral forum in which the environmental risks of further pipeline examination, for example, could be dispassionately examined and weighed against possible benefits.

One of our most important and successful events over the past several years was our conference on the “State of Extraction,” which brought together front-line land-defenders, from three continents, public intellectuals and academics in such a way that addressed the nature of the extractive state and resistance to it. Closely related to this were two hastily organized but extremely effective and well-attended panel discussions. The first was on Bill C-51 on March 24th, 2015, the second was on the English Bay oil spill that happened on April 29th, 2015. Both events drew around 300-350 people each. That so many people attended these events both of which were organized in a matter of two short weeks, speaks volumes to the urgency with which these developments were greeted. It seems as if the degradation of the ecologies of our representative political institutions, such as they are, mirrors the destruction of our marine, arboreal and atmospheric ecologies. The C-51 panel included via Skype, Constitutional and Security expert, Professor Craig Forcese, who along with colleague, Professor Kent Roach, has recently published a book on this legislation. Since then, we have sections of the Bill C-24, the so-called Strengthening of Canadian Citizenship Act,” come into effect that, as many experts believe, establishes second class citizenship in this country. This legislation compounds measures previously introduced to stifle Federal Government librarians and scientists, as well as the grossly misnamed “Fair Elections Act” designed, by all accounts, to reduce and curtail rather than to enhance citizen participation in democratic self-governance in a manner not unlike what Michelle Alexander has called the “new Jim Crow” legislation in the United States.

This summer in British Columbia will become known in future years as the first year that a pervasive awareness of the climate threat hit the consciousness of average people. For many days, Vancouver was enveloped by a cloud of smoke from forest fires caused by unseasonal heat that also blanketing much of the province and indeed, much of the West Coast of North America from southern California to Alaska. A rainforest city in the middle of the wettest region of North America experienced its worst drought in history. The recent outpouring of grief internationally due to Middle Eastern refugees and European responses has drawn attention to root causes of diaspora due to climate change and extreme weather. The institute took up the challenge of climate change last fall with a panel discussion of Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything”. In October, the Institute will sponsor a one day conference bringing together progressive, aboriginal, environmental and faith communities, responding to the call of Pope Francis’ Encyclical and in anticipation of the explosion of discourses and activism that will inevitably accompany the Paris COP21 Climate Summit in December.

We are thrilled and honoured to kick off our program for 2015-16 with a panel on “Women Warriors of Kurdistan,” featuring Ms. Nissy Koye and Tiger Sun (Ms. Hanna Böhman). The latter has fought on the frontlines again ISIS and will be returning shortly to complete a documentary about the struggle. This panel, sadly, couldn’t be more timely given the unspeakably tragic deaths of three-year-old Aylan, his five-year-old brother, Ghalib, and their mother, Rehan Kurdi, who died en route from Turkey to Greece. This has highlighted the way in which, despite the claims of Prime Minister Harper, ever more restrictive Immigration policies in this country have had very direct and consequential effects on the most vulnerable globally.

Our program includes talks by long-time MP for Vancouver East and former Deputy Leader of the NDP, Libby Davis, who will be awarded the Grace McInnis Award and Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada who will speak about the many grave implications of C-51 for human rights. Donald Gutstein will speak about his book on Harperism which documents the way in which right-wing think tanks, such as the Fraser Institute and the National Citizen’s Coalition, once headed by PM Harper, have set about transforming the political culture of this country in a way that has enabled the Conservative Party’s historic majority government. Meanwhile, their more left-leaning counter-parts such as the CCPA have been subjected to punitive audits by CRA.

Professor Palmater will be speaking on “Taking Back Canada” on September 24th. Shortly thereafter, leading Russian dissident, Boris Kagarlitsky, will speak on the situation in Russia and the relation to the Ukraine. The Gandhi Memorial Lecture will be presented by Dr. Jennifer Simons, an expert on Nuclear Disarmament on October 1st. The former Chair of the ALR Commission, Richard Bullock, unceremoniously dismissed from his post, according to some, because he disagreed with the BC government about opening up the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) for development at a time of climate change and worries about food security, will be speaking in the middle of October. We also have award-winning journalist and film-maker, Michael Harris, author of "Party of One: Stephen Harper and the Unmaking of Canada," speaking on the “Rubicon Election of 2015" on October 5th. At the end of October, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz will be speaking about her myth-busting, prize-winning book, "An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States," in which we will certainly hear many disturbing echoes of Canadian history. As a contribution to the 50th Anniversary celebrations at SFU this year, we are co-hosting a major conference on the legacy of Ernest Becker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author who taught at SFU for several years and whose theory of “terror management” remains extremely influential. Relatedly, we will be hosting a panel on the politics of fear entitled “The Canadian Election and the Politics of Fear.” We will also be co-hosting, with Gen-Y and Creative Publics at the Fox Theatre in Vancouver, a panel discussion on how best to engage young voters in this country. In all, our program is going to be without a doubt our most important, exciting in our history. It is one that will no doubt help to confirm SFU as "the most engaged research university in the country."