From left to right: Award funder Santosh Bhatti, Chetna Association General Secretary Jai Birdi, Former BC premier Ujjal Dosanjh, Deanna Reder, and SFU VP-External Joanne Curry. Photo Credit: Aziz Ladha Photography

FASS News, Faculty, Awards, English, Indigenous Studies

SFU Professor Deanna Reder wins Dr. Ambedkar Arts & Literature Award

December 17, 2021
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By Rebecca Saloustros

Deanna Reder, Associate Professor in the Departments of English and Indigenous Studies, has received the Chetna Association of Canada’s 2021 Dr. Ambedkar Arts & Literature Award.

“I was incredibly honoured to receive this award from the Chetna Association,” says Professor Reder. “They do amazing work. To think, that among their list of prizes they decided that an award for arts and literature was important. Most people don’t see literary study as being on the cutting edge of changing the world, but we who do it know it is.”

Established in 1999, the Chetna Association of Canada raises global awareness about caste-based issues. “Castes” are hereditary social classes in India. The Association promotes the benefits of creating casteless, respectful, and inclusive communities through dialogues, discussions, presentations, and seminars.

The lowest caste in India is called “Dalit,” which literally means, “oppressed; broken.” The Dalit people, like Canada’s Indigenous people, have a history of creating literature that has been ignored and/or suppressed. Professor Deanna Reder first became familiar with Dalit literature as a graduate student. However, she found it almost impossible to obtain any resources.

“It’s like Indigenous literatures in Canada,” Reder says, “Certainly before 1992, almost no university in Canada had courses on Indigenous literatures. Maybe in the early 21st century there were courses, but still for a long time only just one or maybe two in any department.”

Indigenous literatures weren’t part of Canadian literary programs in the past, Reder says, because they weren’t seen as important or relevant. Prior to the 1970s, literature from Great Britain was the focus.

“The ‘70s was all about ‘Read Canada,’” she says, “But now, I think people appreciate that the land claimed by Canada doesn’t just include immigrant authors, but also includes Indigenous writers.”

Reder sees parallels between the evolution of Canada’s literary focus and India’s. Both countries have a similar history of colonization, and an education based on a British curriculum.

“They would start by beginning to read authors from India and eventually realize there are unrecognized voices in India as well,” she says.

Reder also points to a history of Indigenous authors, such as Cree writers Joseph Dion and Edward Ahenakew, who tried to get manuscripts published in the early 20th century but faced many obstacles. Ultimately, they and other Indigenous authors did not get published during their lifetime.

“There was really a sense that Indigenous writing wasn’t that good, wasn’t that relevant, and wasn’t that interesting,” she says. “Instead, however, there was a flourishing of non-Indigenous writers writing about Indigenous stories.”

So, what opportunities are there for today’s Indigenous writers? In 2017, Reder and her Department of English colleague, Professor Sophie McCall, inherited funds from a crowd-funding campaign to start the Indigenous Voices Awards. They along with colleagues across Canada, including the Department of French's new Assistant Professor Sarah Henzi, have just announced the opening of the fifth year of awards and to date have given out $109,000.00. Among the winners of unpublished work have been SFU alumnus Smokii Sumac, who won in the first year and then won again in the second year, once his work was published. SFU has also provided jurors for the awards. This year, Métis scholar and Assistant Professor June Scudeler is judging work alongside SFU alumnus and Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel.

“The effect of the prizes has been great, but I think that also comes after a long history of people advocating for curriculum change, as well as Indigenous people entering academia, so that students have books by Indigenous authors to read, and maybe the chance to study with an Indigenous professor,” she says. “Now, we need a huge infusion of Indigenous students to take over and be the next generation to make long-term change.”

In 2019, Reder met someone who is helping to change the present day for Dalits. Suraj Yengde, writer of Caste Matters, discusses the daily discrimination Dalits face and the new reality he would like to see.

“There’s a bust of Dr. Ambedkar in the Bennett Library. Every year, the Chetna Association and the community come to garland it and that’s where I first met Suraj Yengde,” she says. “He was a 2019 Chetna Association award winner. He’s from a Dalit family and has made a lot of amazing changes and is a real role model to his generation.”