Skepticism, not objectivity, is what makes journalism matter

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Originally published in The Conversation.

The Washington Post has been criticized for saying a reporter who was the victim of a sexual assault couldn’t objectively cover topics like the #MeToo movement.The Conversation

“That reporter is too biased to cover this story.” It’s a too-familiar complaint from news consumers — and sometimes also from newsroom managers — because people expect journalists to be impartial, detached or even “objective.”

The fraught idea of journalistic objectivity was at the centre of a recent controversy at the Washington Post.

The story of Post politics reporter Felicia Sonmez began with her 2018 allegation of sexual assault against a fellow journalist. Soon, she’d been banned from covering stories that “hinged on sexual misconduct” and, by extension, the #MeToo movement — a ban finally lifted on March 29.

Similar perceptions of “bias” have stymied Canadian journalists in relationships with politicians, gay reporters covering marriage reform and Jewish or Muslim reporters in the Middle East.

Journalists, apparently, should not report from territory to which they’ve spent their lives acclimating — unless you count education, health care, war, sports, travel, cars or real estate.

The O-word

Racialized reporters, for instance, often get hit with the word “objective” when they pitch or file stories about race.

“Our professionalism is questioned when we report on the communities we’re from, and the spectre of advocacy follows us in a way that it does not follow many of our white colleagues,” Pacinthe Mattar recently wrote in The Walrus.

Mattar quoted a news producer as saying: “There seems to be the assumption that racialized journalists cannot co-exist with the journalistic standards of being fair and balanced and impartial. Really, what we are fighting for, what we’ve always been fighting for, is just the truth.”

And that’s the problem: does telling the truth require journalists to detach themselves from their life experiences? Is this degree of balance or impartiality even possible?

As far as I can tell, few professors use the O-word nowadays in Canadian journalism schools. Journalists inevitably bring their subjective experiences to work and must learn to recognize and manage their biases and assumptions. They are human beings — they have feelings about the events and people that they find interesting.

A resilient ideal

Still, the controversial ideal of “objectivity” is uncannily resilient. It’s especially widely invoked in the United States — long after the actual word objectivity was removed from that country’s professional journalists’ ethics code in 1996.

Clever academics have helped keep the O-word alive by massaging its meaning to suit a more limited purpose than intellectual detachment.

Columbia University’s Michael Schudson defined this “chief occupational value of American journalism” as “at once a moral ideal, a set of reporting and editing practices, and an observable pattern of news writing.”

Likewise, Canadian ethicist Stephen Ward has promoted a method of “pragmatic objectivity” that requires journalists to step back from their own beliefs to apply tests for empirical validity, logical coherence, “self-consciousness” and transparency.

And so impartiality limped stubbornly into an age of duelling truths.

Detached watchdogs

Research by a team I led found that most Canadian journalists still see themselves as detached watchdogs — autonomous monitors of power and privilege. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard students and working journalists say words to the effect of: “We know objectivity’s impossible, but we aim for it anyway.”

It’s an impossibility that now leads some to embrace outright, unabashed advocacy.

All journalists bring their biases and their own life experiences to assignments. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young.

A new book, The Roots of Fake News: Objecting to Objective Journalism, by father-and-son British professors Brian and Matthew Winston, argues against the “fantasy” of a journalism that provides “pure truth.” They call for journalism to be rebuilt wholesale on a more “honest, biased, subjective foundation.”

That seems unnecessarily extreme. Yes, journalists’ ranks have always included commentators who unapologetically advocate for one or another form of social change (whether leftward or rightward) or for the status quo. But not all.

Different motivations

Newsrooms are big tents whose occupants, diverse even if only in interests and aptitudes, produce nuanced documentaries and breaking-news tweets, baseball reports and concert reviews, data-mining investigations and courthouse updates.

Some are in this business to make the world better. Others live to fact-check. Still others like making people laugh.

Writing at the century’s turn, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel rejected outdated notions like objectivity and balance in favour of 10 distinguishing marks of journalism that hinge upon a “discipline of verification.”

Their book, The Elements of Journalism, has been required reading in journalism schools around the world for the last two decades, but mass addiction to the O-word continues.

This book is required reading in many journalism schools.

If a benign replacement is needed to break the O-habit, it could be a much humbler ideal: plain, old-fashioned skepticism.

Uninhibited curiosity

The uninhibited questioning of what others take to be facts is nothing like a claim of neutrality or to be seeking “pure truth.” Skeptical journalists make no claim except their own ignorance and they expect to be surprised daily. When called upon to opine, interpret or analyze, they stay within sight of evidence.

As for a unifying purpose, they seek merely to provide (in the words of Oxford University’s Rasmus Kleis Neilsen) “relatively accurate, accessible, relevant, and timely independently produced diverse information” about public affairs.

It’s neither bias nor objectivity but simple curiosity that has led journalists to ask unsettling questions like: Were soldiers dying because governments spread lies to justify wars? Was a wildly popular newfangled financial instrument sound? Did a leading magazine skip fact-checking a false allegation of campus rape?

The tradition lives on despite dissent’s growing hazards: Is the science of combating pandemics more complicated than governments would have us believe? Does realistic health policy require setting a numerical limit on “acceptable” deaths? Are Canadian lawyers debating a court-enforced declaration of pronouns?

To ask dumb questions when all around believe they know the answers requires both mental discipline and hard-won confidence. But it’s both more reasonable and more inclusive than enforced detachment.

Under skepticism’s rubric, subject matter with which you’re intimately familiar is the opposite of forbidden territory; your life’s experience can provide perfect trailheads to unfamiliar paths, because you know where to look — you know what you don’t know.

There, in the unknown place just out of sight of home, journalists find new questions to ask and new stories to tell, stories that need telling whether or not they’re comfortable to hear.

Skepticism, not objectivity, is why democracies need journalists.

This is adapted from an article originally published by the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

How to help artists and cultural industries recover from the COVID-19 disaster

Written by , Ryerson University; , Ryerson University; , Ryerson University. Photo credit: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Street dancers wearing face masks dance the tango in Madrid, Spain, Dec. 16, 2020.

To say that 2020 has been rough for the cultural and creative industries is an understatement. More specifically, COVID-19 has been nothing short of a perfect storm for workers in those industries, who already experienced precarious conditions. Venue closures and travel restrictions have affected other economic sectors, such as hospitality, on which many workers depend to make ends meet.

If this pandemic were a natural disaster, it would be as if the tides kept on bringing oil to already devastated shores, day after day after day. In the end, who can we count on to provide some of the much needed “post-disaster” assistance, and when?

Research on disaster management offers insights into these questions. Interestingly, it suggests that future assistance will need to look a lot different than the responses seen to date.

Adverse impacts

Almost a year into this pandemic, it feels as if everything has been said. We know all too well about the struggle, the layoffs and the dire financial situation many artists now find themselves in. We know about artists and other creative professionals moving on to more stable, greener professional pastures — at times in a literal sense as they leave cities that they were increasingly priced out of pre-pandemic. Perhaps more worrisome, we also know about the mental toll of prolonged inactivity and isolation.

Yet, we have also regularly been privy to glimpses of hope, promising innovations and we’ve marvelled at the adaptations of a generally resilient arts sector.

Think back to when news media extensively covered the the phenomenon of people singing or playing instruments from their balconies. Despite the crisis, many established artists found ways to engage the public and some people in quarantine filled time with crafts or their windows with paintings.

Such positive moments remind us of the value and power of creativity, but they sit, of course, in the context of grief, anxiety and exhaustion.

The Super Wonder Gallery in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood on College St., pictured April 5, 2020. Photo credit: Francis Mariani/Flickr.

Beyond immediate relief

There is now a need to look also beyond immediate relief to deal with artists’ short-term needs met through things like emergency benefit schemes, wage-subsidy programs and other forms of cash injections. The subsequent “chronic” stage efforts will need to focus on cleaning up, conducting post-mortems or self-analysis and perhaps more importantly, on healing.

Applied to the cultural and creative industries, this involves asking tough questions on the current working conditions, financial stability and social recognition of artists, as well as extending sustained non-monetary support such as counselling for those who have had to weather a seemingly perpetual storm.

Only then can the sector turn to long-term rebuilding strategies, which must include reinvestment strategies.

Role of growing creative sectors

Recent disasters, natural or man-made, show that help for devastated communities tends to come from those who have been for the most part unaffected by the situation. For example, over 90 countries provided logistical and financial assistance to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, much like many nations across the word were quick to come to Beirut’s rescue after last summer’s horrific explosions. On the surface, this may seem hardly applicable in a context of a global pandemic that has impacted most people in some shape or form.

However, when it comes to the cultural and creative industries, a handful of sectors such as the video game industry and streaming platforms such as Netflix have actually experienced record growth over the past months.

We suggest that those companies that have weathered the storm, if not flourished during the pandemic, should launch joint initiatives, production support, sponsorships and dedicated programs for individual artists or small organizations.

Furthermore, the collective expertise among these sectors could support digital transformation initiatives for those that did not previously rely on online outreach. This includes the development of tailor-made, but scalable immersive experiences that allow audiences to engage with creatives in a digital first, or hybrid digital-offline context.

A conductor’s assistant sits among empty seats during a rehearsal of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra at the Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, Belgium, July 1, 2020, before the symphony was scheduled to reopen after months of closure due to COVID-19. Photo credit: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo.

Safer, more accessible venues

In addition to reinvestment, infrastructure considerations and dedicated communications efforts have an important role building up sustainable arts communities and enterprises. Redesigning venues to make them more accessible, but also much safer for both patrons and artists is significant. In addition, what’s needed are government programs to support not just artists’ productions, but also cost of living and rent stabilization subsidies.

Beyond this, government investment to promote audiences’ consumption of artistic goods and services also matters. Once the pandemic is over, overcoming the stigma of mass gatherings and the public’s residual fears is also likely to be an everyday communication battle, one in which the entire cultural sector will need to come together in a concerted effort to encourage people to go out.

University space for incubation

Likewise, while the rest of the economy was taking a battering, universities remained reasonably safe and privileged despite the collapse of the international student market. It is also the responsibility of universities to help by offering spaces and programmatic support for experimentation and incubation of creative projects, as well as reskilling programs and research initiatives into the future of these sectors.

The current pandemic has shocked many of us into an awareness of the threat posed by disasters particularly given the world’s interdependence and complexity. This is why we need to develop much more sophisticated contingency, rescue and recovery strategies, in which stakeholders other than just governments are compelled to come together and support each other in times of crisis.

Daring reads by the first generation of Canadian Jewish women writers

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: John Reeves. Image (cropped) courtesy Archives & Special Collections, University of New Brunswick. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Poet Miriam Waddington (left) participated in the rise of modernist Canadian poetry and Helen Weinzweig (right) wrote the classic feminist novel ‘Basic Black with Pearls.’

How do you get through the dark winter months of a pandemic? By reading exciting work by long overlooked Canadian women writers.

Consider the first generation of Canadian Jewish authors who wrote in English. Readers will know the poet Irving Layton — whose death we commemorate on Jan. 4 — as well as novelist Mordecai Richler and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, all of them Montréalers.

But you may not know the women who published poems and prose alongside their more recognized male counterparts.

Prairie writers Miriam Waddington, Adele Wiseman and Fredelle Bruser Maynard and Torontonians Helen Weinzweig and Shirley Faessler were among the pioneering figures who produced daring work out of their own experiences as women.

My research on Canadian Jewish writers has led to a deep appreciation for the work of these accomplished women who deserve recognition for their contributions to the field.

Who were these women and what did they publish?

Miriam Waddington

‘Driving Home,’ by Miriam Waddington. Photo credit: Oxford University Press.

Winnipeg-born Waddington (1917-2004) participated in the rise of modernist Canadian poetry.

A prolific writer, she published 14 volumes of verse during her lifetime. Waddington’s poetry is deceptively accessible: it is personal but never private, emotional but not confessional, thoughtful but never cerebral.

Waddington wrote layered verse always from a gendered position, first as a social worker who saw aspects of herself in her most vulnerable clients. She detailed intoxicating romance and mature love, the pleasures of marriage and motherhood, the experience of raising two sons to adulthood and the ineffable pain of divorce.

As she moved through middle age, Waddington wrote of her ancestral past, the death of her ex-husband and loss of close friends, and later of growing old. Her poems of a Winnipeg childhood, modern urban life in Montréal and Toronto, visits to London, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow, of art and writing, probed irreconcilable differences of place and identity, politics and work.

At the core of Waddington’s poetry was a moral quest for knowledge and understanding. A two-volume critical edition of her collected poems was published in 2014.

Adele Wiseman

‘The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman.’ Photo credit: University of Manitoba Press.

Wiseman (1928-92) was also born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End when it was largely Jewish.

She is best known for her two novels that mine the Prairie landscape and the Jewish culture that was her inheritance. Both works are set in insular communities whose practices reflect traditional Judaism.

The Sacrifice, published when Wiseman was 28 in 1956, received the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. This tragic novel revealed her interest in characters who challenge normative behaviour and affirmed Wiseman’s belief in community. It centres on the murder of a woman by its devout protagonist Abraham who misinterprets her flirtation.

Crackpot is the epic story of Hoda, an obese Jewish sex worker, who services the boys and men of her North End community. Hoda is garrulous and outspoken, determined and resilient. Tested by fate and the son she must give up at birth, she remains one of literature’s most memorable characters — for playwrights, poets and readers alike.

Today, Crackpot is universally admired, but in 1974, the year it was published, the Canadian audience had little taste for its novelistic treatment of unconventional sexuality and incest.

Fredelle Bruser Maynard

Fredelle Bruser Maynard at her home at 25 Metcalfe St., in Cabbagetown, in Toronto, in the mid-to-late 80s. Photo credit: Rona Maynard.

Born in Foam Lake, Sask., Maynard (1922-89) spent her youth in Winnipeg. Her two memoirs, written with honesty and poignancy, foreground her experience as a Jewish woman.

Raisins and Almonds (1972) evokes Maynard’s childhood and family life on the Prairies, where she recalls growing up feeling “Jewish and alien” in rural Western towns during the 1920s and 1930s.

She continues her story in The Tree of Life (1988) with an emphasis on relationships with her mother and sister, her artist husband Max Maynard — who was an alcoholic for the duration of their 25-year marriage — and her writer daughters Rona and Joyce. A brilliant student who earned a PhD in English from Radcliffe College in 1947, Maynard also exposes the gender norms of the time that prevented her from pursuing an academic career.

Helen Weinzweig

Born in Radom, Poland, Weinzweig (1915-2010) immigrated to Canada at the age of nine with her divorced mother. Her novels and stories are dark, spare narratives that critique the institution of marriage.

The experimental novel Passing Ceremony (1973) blends surreal and gothic styles to present a sombre picture of the ritual of marriage. It communicates Weinzweig’s belief in the paradox that tragedy always lurks beneath the seemingly innocuous conventions of everyday life.

Basic Black with Pearls (1980), which won the Toronto Book Award, is a “feminist classic.” Written as a highly subjective interior monologue, it too examines the vacuousness of traditional marriage. An ingenious work of puzzles, the novel’s clever use of transformations and masks sharpens the interplay of reality and illusion at its heart.

“My Mother’s Luck,” another monologue included in the short story collection A View from the Roof (1989), records the difficult life of a dynamic character based on Weinzweig’s own mother.

Weinzweig’s fragmented, discontinuous stories propel readers toward a heightened awareness of the contradictions of contemporary life.

Shirley Faessler

‘A Basket of Apples.’ Photo credit: Now and Then Books.

Faessler (1921-97) was born and raised in Toronto’s Kensington Market when it was a Jewish enclave, and used this setting for her fiction.

The novel Everything in the Window (1979) describes the marriage of Sophie Glicksman and Billy James, a convert to Judaism. Set during the 1940s, it draws readers into a vivid world of contrasting sensibilities: the Jewish openness in Sophie’s family versus James’s gentile politeness.

On the back cover of A Basket of Apples (1988), Alice Munro proclaims Faessler “a witty and uncompromising writer.” Munro admired the nine stories in the collection, six of which return to the Glicksman family.

In a 2014 edition of the six Glicksman stories, linked via chronology and a consistent first-person female narrator, a cast of lively characters of the 1930s and 1940s speak to us across time through Yiddish-inflected English.

Readers will enjoy the rich diversity of Canadian Jewish experience reflected in the poetry of Waddington and the prose of Wiseman, Maynard, Weinzweig and Faessler. The work of these authors remain evocative and relevant — perfect for long winter evenings.

All I want for Christmas is a Hollywood blockbuster

Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Some movie fans who await Christmas Day movie openings will be stuck in the middle of cinema closures due to COVID-19 and streaming restrictions. Here, a still from ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’

This year’s Christmas movie superhero will shelter at home with viewers in the United States. But Canadians will have to wait a while longer to stream the eagerly awaited and long-delayed Wonder Woman sequel.

WarnerMedia has announced it will launch Wonder Woman 1984 in both movie theatres and on HBO Max on Christmas day in the U.S. But it’s not being released for streaming in Canada at this time. In Canada, the movie will only show in whichever movie theatres remain open after second-wave COVID-19 closures.

Going to movies during the Christmas holidays has been a time-honoured tradition and, before COVID-19, a financially important one for movie theatre owners planning to attract crowds.

The days of enjoying the company of friends among strangers in movie lineups seem as remote as the paradise of Wonder Woman’s Amazon island. Instead, we need the TV remote for Amazon Prime.

The movie business was already hard-hit by COVID-19, and the decision to simultaneously release a would-be Christmas blockbuster in cinemas and via streaming hit the industry like a bombshell. Warner Bros. plans to launch all its 2021 movies the same way as Wonder Woman 1984 in the U.S.: both in-cinema and exclusively on HBO Max for 31 days.

For film fans like me, beyond how COVID-19 puts the financial viability of making and showing movies at risk, what’s also threatened is discerning hype from promise as we consider how to keep movies part of holiday traditions this year. The fact that parsing streaming options has now become an integral part of movie watching may seem like yet another impact of COVID-19. But, in reality, commentary about what to watch and how new media technologies shape viewing has always enthralled audiences.

Early days of movies

In the early days of moving pictures, theatres were open on Christmas Day, unlike Sundays and other days off. The Chicago Tribune published special holiday advertising in 1915, wishing “a Merry Christmas to motion picture fans.” In 1922, Universal promoted a special “Yuletide Joy Week” for its pictures.

Movie ads on Christmas Day in 1915. Photo credit: The Chicago Tribune.

Through my research into the interplay of movie-going and newspapers, I’ve found theatres offering special charity picture shows and children’s matinees during the holidays as early as 1903.

Since the 1940s, Hollywood has released special movies on Christmas Day to make the most of captive audiences with people on holidays. Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut who wrote A Kosher Christmas recently discussed a Jewish history of movie-going at Christmas with Vox:

It was a day off from work, so what do you do? You can stay home, or you can go to the nickelodeons, or the Yiddish theatre. Eventually, decades later, you could go have a meal in a Chinese restaurant.”

To refer to a phrase that’s inspired tongue-in-cheek headlines for its resonance with age-old movie review clichés, “if you see only one movie a year,” it’s likely to be during the holidays, and perhaps with the entire family.

Box office charts

This Christmas, as many people’s movie watching will involve channel surfing from their couches, it’s clear the whole system of deciding what to watch has shifted during COVID-19.

Before now, simply knowing what movies screen in theatres and how such movies fare in box office rankings have functioned as one kind of quality control.

A computerized tally of movie theatres’ box office revenue began in 1969, giving Hollywood an equivalent of radio’s “hit parade.” On April 16, 1969, Variety reported how it had been working “closely … with a computer service bureau, so that the chart, as it will appear in the paper, is actually a printout from an IBM 360 that already stores and updates its weekly input of information on each picture and title as well as by market and theatre.”

The article explained how the new chart would sample 650 to 800 theatres in 24 key markets in the U.S. and Canada to produce a weekly list of 50 top-grossing films tabulated through movie ticket sales. The sample captured five per cent to seven per cent of all movie theatres, but enough to accurately and quickly predict the total earned across all of North America.

Some viewers may judge a movie by its box office success, while others turn to film critics’ opinions, award nominations or websites that aggregate reviews.

Movie commentary

The first newspaper commentary about cinema goes back to reporters getting previews of new technologies that could project moving pictures.

In my research on publicity for Thomas Edison’s early film projector, the Vitascope, I found news published across the U.S. from a press screening held early in April 1896, three weeks before the first pictures were shown to an eager, paying public in New York. I found stories about cinema in town and village newspapers where movies didn’t appear until a year or more later.

Reporting about cinema has made many of us “movie-crazy” ever since, including reports on past crises that confronted the movie industry with each new home entertainment — radio, then television, cable, home video and now streaming.

Today, commentary provided by movie critics, industry-sanctioned signals like awards, film festival runs or tips from trusted sources have become more important than ever. How else would we know which of the endless options are worth watching and where to watch?

Even before COVID-19, the movie industry faced challenges from home entertainment. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Coming soon?

There’s likely to be little holiday movie-going in 2020. Some wonder if there will be a future for movie-going at all if cinemas can’t turn a profit until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available — and if streaming habits don’t subside with the pandemic.

Vanity Fair reports that the pandemic’s cinematic ripples are projected to delay some planned releases for years, with Avatar and Star Wars sequels now postponed to between 2022 and 2028.

Still, it’s unfathomable that Disney would launch those blockbusters online — although it’s easy to imagine rebranding a bankrupt chain of cinemas as a local, miniature Disney++ theme park.

My advance ticket for Star Wars Episode 12 in December 2028 is all but in hand, but I’ll also eagerly await the reviews.

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto designers are showcasing resistance and resurgence

Written by Riley Kucheran, Ryerson University; Alysia Myette, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Section 35 – IFWTO. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto showcased 15 designers, including the Vancouver-based Nēhiyaw streetwear brand, Section 35. The collection ‘Miyo Pimatisiwin’ merges art and fashion to empower, educate and bring people together.

This past weekend, the biennial Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto (IFWTO) took the virtual fashion world by storm. Over four days, the festival showcased 15 designers who presented creative and artistic runway shows that underscored our interconnection to water. This year also marked the launch of a virtual marketplace that sold out in a matter of hours.

Beaded earrings by multidisciplinary artist and jeweller Catherine Blackburn (Dene, Canada). These and other designs were featured at the IFWTO market which sold out in mere hours. Photo credit: Catherine Blackburn.

The event ran alongside a symposium — Fashioning Resurgence — in collaboration with Ryerson University’s School of Fashion, which hosted live and recorded panels on the Indigenous Fashion movement. Nine conversations shared ideas from within the Indigenous fashion movement, while welcoming others into the dialogue by offering diverse perspectives on a series of provocations. Themes included land-based fashion, colours, materials and symbols, Indigenous Fashion Education and the next generation. It also included masterclasses on branding, communications and collaborating with the mainstream fashion industry.

Celeste Pedri-Spade’s collection, Material Kwe (Anishinabe, Canada), shown at IFWTO. The collection was featured as part of the day four Tu Gh’el T’ilhn//Water Carriers runway event. Photo credit: Material Kwe.

At the inaugural IFWTO in 2018, we saw early signs of how Indigenous fashion and its platforms differ from the mainstream industry. A banner insisting that stolen land be returned in reconciliation was unfurled at the opening night party. Runways honoured regalia makers and matriarchs. Designs spoke against resource extraction and drew attention to the interconnectedness of caribou, fashion and sovereignty. A front row was reserved for Elders.

At that first event, we saw that Indigenous fashion, when grounded in community ethics and ancestral values, is innately political, inherently sustainable and socially responsible. Since 2018, the Indigenous fashion movement has continued to grow, with new entrepreneurship incubators and big-name collaborations with retailers like Simons helping designers grow their brands.

Perhaps most importantly, the scope of conversations about Indigenous fashion has widened, and increasingly diverse voices are imagining and shaping where this movement takes us.

Knowledge sharing

Indigenous designers engage daily in the tasks of translating Indigenous worldviews and practices. This is partly what makes our fashion so revolutionary. Perhaps the most succinct example of this is Section 35, a brand named for the section of the Indian Act that has so profoundly shaped Indigenous life in Canada. Others, like Evan Ducharme, spoke to the ongoing struggle for Métis rights with his reworked “census print” which listed Ducharme’s maternal great-grandfather, James Lavallee, as “French” before it was was scratched out and replaced with “Indian.”

The garment is part of the PROGENY series by Evan Ducharme which is an observation of transgenerational love.

What sets Indigenous fashion apart are these stories and teachings embedded in the design, and the sustainable production systems that Indigenous communities mobilize to create Indigenous material culture. Articulating this significance is difficult on a fashion runway or in a photographic campaign. The immediacy of fashion’s visual culture must be combined with Indigenous stories. These challenges were discussed in the symposium.

Both the branding and communications panel and the panel on Indigenous fashion journalism discussed the importance of educating consumers. Creative consultants Andrew and Ian Foxall and journalism professors Candis Callison and Duncan McCue hinted that educating consumers is not just a task for brands, it’s a project for the movement itself.

Better reporting on Indigenous fashion is needed

More depth and nuance is needed when reporting on Indigenous fashion.

The panel series was created to provide the cultural and historical contexts that situate Indigenous fashion. Indigenous designers and creators are engaged in resistance to systems of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, and a resurgence of the relations and practices that provide us with alternatives.

The second goal of the symposium was to initiate dialogue, without pretending to provide “answers.” The series began with questions: What does Land mean to you? How does Indigenous fashion support communities? How does Indigenous materiality convey meaning? How can “mainstream” brands respectfully collaborate with Indigenous designers? How should Indigenous designers be representing themselves? How can fashion, craft and textiles be rendered in a virtual world? What’s the tea on that Christi Belcourt x Valentino collection? How do beading circles support resurgence? How can fashion schools support Indigenous sovereignty?

Beading circle discussions centred beadwork and fashion as both resistance and resurgence in a virtual panel hosted by Justine Woods (Métis, Canada). Photo credit: Justine Woods.

The conversations pinpointed some important directions that Indigenous fashion needs to move towards: Body and gender inclusivity. Communal production and tighter control of the supply chain. Knowledge sharing between Elders and Indigenous youth. Slow-moving relationship building and consensus before action. Land back.

All runway and panel videos are available on the IFWTO YouTube page. Next, the team plans to transcribe these conversations and work with panel participants to edit and expand their ideas for publication in the open-source Fashion Studies journal. Participants will also identify avenues for future conversations.

Imagining futures

Designer Curtis Oland’s collection ‘Delicate Tissue’ represents the precarious and sometimes volatile relationships we share with the Land, and with one another. The collection was featured as part of the day three Tu Gh’eg Tl’e’th//Streams runway event. Photo credit: Curtis Oland.

Indigenous fashion is a critical medium because of its potential to enable representational sovereignty, or the ability to fashion our own stories against dominant narratives.

Designers refute visual stereotypes with a future that requires looking back to ancestral Indigenous identities and clothing practices. Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto is a key supporter in exercising that sovereignty by providing a platform for designers.

The fashion that has been showcased is also a powerful model for the mainstream fashion industry, which has fumbled to balance its capitalist values and commitments to sustainability. Environmental pledges by “fast fashion” companies are ineffective because the model itself is systemically unsustainable.

The amount of interest in Indigenous fashion from the mainstream industry inspires hope that they’re ready to listen, but the lesson I’m left with is that there’s much work to be done within our own communities. The movement has momentum, but moving slowly means scaling responsibly and in good relation. The future is ours to imagine, together.

Remembrance Day: How a Canadian painter broke boundaries on the First World War battlefields

Written by Irene Gammel, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-223, Copy negative C-141851. Originally published in The Conversation.

‘Isolated Grave and Camouflage, Vimy Ridge,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, May 1919, oil on wove paper. 

“I cannot talk, I can only paint.”

This is how Canadian battlefield painter Mary Riter Hamilton (1867-1954) summarized her urgent response to witnessing the large-scale destruction of the First World War.

The 51-year-old artist began painting the devastated regions of Northern France and Flanders in late April 1919 and continued until November 1921. During this period, she often rushed from one battlefield to the next to paint the scenes in oil before the war detritus was cleared or the dead were buried.

Hamilton first sought work with the Canadian War Memorials Fund in 1917, and again in 1918 as an official artist, but was rejected because she was a woman. After this, she embraced alternate means to gain permission and financial support for her expedition.

Fuelling her unprecedented expedition through the trenches of the Vimy Ridge, the Somme and the ruins of Ypres was her patriotic desire to create a memorial in paintings for her country.

My forthcoming book, I Can Only Paint: The Story of Battlefield Painter Mary Riter Hamilton, features her letters and the first exhaustive account of her vast, under-explored oeuvre and her powerful visual rhetoric as a battlefield artist.

‘Clearing the Battlefields in Flanders,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1921, oil on cardboard, 26.3 × 35.0 cm. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-142, Copy negative c-104244.

Painter and witness

As a witness of mass graves and human remains, Hamilton responded with a painting style that made viewers see and feel her deeply felt and ultimately traumatic encounters, rendered in vivid colours, spontaneous brushstrokes and tumultuous landscapes.

Hamilton transgressed the rules of both gender and art in her day. Hamilton first embraced her artistic vocation after her husband’s sudden death when she was 26.

Mary Riter Hamilton in fur stole, in a rare photograph, c. early 1920s. Location unknown. Photo credit: Ronald T. Riter Collection.

In early 1919, she was commissioned by the war amputees club of British Columbia, who paid for Hamilton’s trip overseas, and likely for two shipments of her paintings back to Vancouver. The club reproduced her paintings in colour in their magazine but discontinued their support after one year. Hamilton continued while using up her personal resources and relying on sporadic support from a female patron in Victoria, B.C.

When Hamilton left Canada, she was at the height of a brilliant career, at that time much more recognized than painter Emily Carr.

Non-official scenes

Artists with the Canadian War Memorial Fund made brief sketching trips to battlefields and then prepared polished and monumental paintings in their London and Paris studios. As art historian Laura Brandon has shown, artists such as Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley used photographs, which they combined with their own experience to compose war paintings as amalgamated scenes. The most famous of these Canadian War Memorial-commissioned paintings, Richard Jack’s The Second Battle of Ypres, reconstructed dramatic combat by using unrealistic 19th-century war art conventions, although the artist had visited the battlefield after the fight.

Hamilton, by contrast, transgressed official war painting norms to pioneer her own visceral style that blurred boundaries between documentary realism and esthetic urgency. Many of her works exhibit a haunting blankness, recalling the missing soldiers. She also painted individual soldiers’ marked graves, as well as mass graves where entire regiments had perished. In so doing, she insisted on remembering and mourning each individual loss.

‘Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919, oil on woven paper. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-147, Copy negative C-101321.

She painted on small canvases or pieces of plywood or paper while trekking through collapsing trenches and swamps en route to remote areas. Her work can be seen as a part of what political theorist Michal Givoni has identified as a 20th-century shift towards mobilizing acts of witnessing as a vocation by showing difficult truths in public.

Among the handful of women who painted the First World War, Hamilton stands out for the magnitude of her work, the length of her stay in the battlefields and her empathic esthetic achievements.

Today, we have witnessed disturbing images of mass graves during the COVID-19 pandemic in the same time that our society is reckoning with what it means to make ethical choices as we confront connections between systemic inequities, violence and historical trauma. How we think about and understand Hamilton’s courageous, determined and perilous engagement of mass death is more important than ever.

Startling perspective

In Memorial for the Second Canadian Division in a Mine Crater Near Neuville St. Vaast (circa 1920) Hamilton visualizes the shocking decimation of an entire regiment with an alarmingly deep hole, whose cutaway view gives viewers a startling, open perspective.

‘Memorial for the Second Canadian Division in a Mine Crater near Neuville St. Vaast,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, circa 1920, oil on canvas. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-69, Copy negative C-105221.

Also concerned with survivors, she recorded scenes of reconstruction, as in Cloth Hall, Ypres – Market Day (1920). This showed grieving family members at a distance and depicted signs of hope and new life.

‘Cloth Hall, Ypres – Market Day,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1920, oil on wove paper. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-162, Copy negative C-104371.

On her expedition, Hamilton overnighted in war-torn Nissen huts erected for military shelter and storage or other makeshift shelters. By 1920, her war studios included a bombed-out attic in Arras, France. She often ground her colours on the battlefield. She lived in extreme poverty, often starving and putting her life in danger.

‘Battlefields from Vimy Ridge, Lens-Arras Road,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919, oil on plywood. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-75, Copy negative C-104794.

Recognizing her work

Art historians Robert Amos and Ash Prakash have begun to document Hamilton’s important pre-war contributions to Canadian impressionism.

Beginning in 1989, historian Angela Davis, with art historian Sarah McKinnon, curated exhibitions of Hamilton’s battlefield work, and scholars have begun to honour her legacy. In recent years, The War Amps produced a video about Hamilton.

For Remembrance Day this year, Canada Post has dedicated a stamp to Hamilton’s memory, featuring her 1919 painting Trenches on the Somme in which scarlet poppies grow along white chalk walls of the trench. The painting exhibits her trademark style, which often puts the viewer inside a trench.

‘Trenches on the Somme,’ by Mary Riter Hamilton, 1919, oil on commercial board. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-38, Copy negative C-104747.

Hamilton brought home more than 320 battlefield works painted in oil, or drawn in pencil, charcoal or pastel, along with etchings. She donated 227 to the Dominion Archives (today Library and Archives Canada).

In 1922, Hamilton was awarded one of France’s highest honours, the Ordre des Palmes académiques.

Mary Riter Hamilton with driver near the ruin of Ablain St. Nazaire at the foot of the Vimy Ridge in 1919. Photo credit: Ronald T. Riter Collection.

Life and legacy

Hamilton’s life and legacy leaves us much to reflect on today. As an artist who embraced witnessing as a vocation, she broke barriers and insisted upon artistically rendering what she saw with candour. Her perception and embodied art practice also left a unique record of the physical and moral devastation of war, both in her art and in her own life.

As a woman artist travelling through battlefields, she experienced mobility, articulated a vision of empathy and contributed to a public record of the war. Yet how she engaged with her craft and what she saw took a toll on her health and ultimately curtailed her career as a painter. She suffered from post-traumatic stress and a major mental breakdown and other health problems following her expedition. War painting would mark her for life.

Hamilton summed up her achievement with understatement: “Yes, it was like living in a graveyard … but I felt this was a duty that someone must do, and I thought I would try to do it.”


Nuit Blanche Toronto goes virtual to change how people see art and public space

Written by Noor Bhangu, Ryerson University. Photo credit Noor, Author Provided. Originally published in The Conversation.

Artist Joi T. Arcand explains ‘Never Surrender,’ ‘translates a …1980s Canadian pop song into the Cree language and recontextualiz[es] the lyrics as an anthem of Indigenous sovereignty.’ Here, the image layered over a photo of a Winnipeg sidewalk.

In streets and kitchens across Canada, viewers and participants can interact with virtual public art to be reminded of diverse histories and communities. This is through Nuit In Your Neighbourhood, a new virtual component of Toronto’s ongoing Nuit Blanche festival, which runs until Oct. 12.

Nehiyaw text-based artist Joi T. Arcand’s artwork celebrates just this when she writes “Never Surrender” in Cree syllabics to honour her own heritage and efforts of solidarity-building between Indigenous communities.

The neon words are delivered to viewers’ spaces in three dimensions through virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. Viewers visit the Nuit in Your Neighbourhood site on a smartphone or tablet, click on avatars of the images, and then can use their device to photograph artists’ works wherever they direct their cameras (some versions of devices may require users to download an app).

Nuit Blanche’s artistic director, Julie Nagam, brings an approach to curating art that focuses on coalition-building through dialogues and collaboration. I am a research assistant to Nagam working on Nuit Blanche programming and I research Islamic art histories and transcultural curatorial practices.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and recent debates around public heritage and public monuments shape how Nuit Blanche Toronto is seeking to remap cities. The festival features artists who imagine different futures for BIPOC communities that have been marginalized, and whose work realizes a more liveable present through remapping what an urban space and a community can be.

Re-visioning community & public space

Now, when many people globally are facing another COVID-19 lockdown and the unknowns of stepping into yet another pandemic month, it would be a cliché to state that most of us are exhausted. Many of us are feeling disconnected from what we might have once called community and connection. Both social distancing measures imposed at the outbreak of COVID-19 and vigilant transformations of shared public spaces seen in the removal of colonial monuments have led some people to announce the end of public spaces.

Our societies are reckoning with the fact that public spaces marked by these monuments are not accessible or desirable for everybody.

While we’re witnessing the end of a public space as we know it, it is certainly not the end of its possibilities. A recent panel discussion, “Thinking Through Public Space in the Time of COVID,” was part of Nuit Talks, a series of in-depth conversations with Nuit Blanche artists, scholars and curators. During the discussion, Mazyar Mortazavi, board chair for The Bentway, a public art space and park located under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, said: “Grief is the first step for recovery.”

There are infinite possibilities for how viewers might engage with Nuit in Your Neighbourhood artworks, from the safety of their own homes or walking through public space.

Nuit in Your Neighbourhood

A common thread that ties together the commissioned works in Nuit in Your Neighbourhood is the artists’ engagement with virtual technologies to critically elevate marginalized histories. Such practices are also seen where Indigenous artists, curatorsand writers make and imagine space in art exhibitions and in contemporary arts commentary.

Nagam has approached decolonial curating through similar gestures of affirmation and presence. Alongside curator Jaimie Isaac, Nagam curated the groundbreaking exhibition, “INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE” at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2017 that created opportunities for a young cohort of artists and BIPOC communities in the city. To this day, it has been the largest exhibition on contemporary Indigenous art in the country.

Space making

With Nuit in Your Neighbourhood images, a person might interact with artists’ images in their domestic or shared public space.

Consider When The Fam Lose Faith, Hold Them Up, by Toronto-based photographic artist Yung Yemi. Viewers could choose to mark the distance gained through Black Lives Matter protests against colonial monuments by photographing the disgraced statue of Egerton Ryerson in Toronto with this image layered overtop.

Yung Yemi, ‘When The Fam Lose Faith, Hold Them Up’ (2020). Photo credit: (Yung Yemi), Author provided.

In the digital medium, the artist’s depicted Afro-futurist figures can travel and establish their own relations, and are both ephemeral and fluid. They bring into reality what Toronto’s own philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan prophesized: “The medium is the message.”

Another artist whose work invites people to mark space is video and performance artist Rah Eleh’s #Bluegirl. This work is an immersive video that considers self-immolation practicesinvolving young women in the Middle East and Persian-speakingnations in Central Asia.

In #Bluegirl, Eleh visualizes alternatives of survival for these figures that massage out the possibilities of not only the present, but the cosmic past and future.

Detail from Rah Eleh’s ‘#Bluegirl’ (2020). Photo credit: (Rah Eleh), Author Provided.

Memories of origins

Maureen Gruben’s Kagisaaluq visualizes cultural traditions to demonstrate their vitality and survival. Kagisaaluq presents a “fox stretcher,” an Inuvialuit tool to stretch and preserve animal skins carved by Gruben’s father to help the family and community thrive in the Arctic. In reproducing this, Kagisaaluq feels as if it reorders space and time to honour traditional forms of survival and knowledge.

Maureen Gruben, ‘Kagisaaluq’ (2020). Photo Credit: (Maureen Gruben), Author provided.

Artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong has discussed the idea that tradition needs to be expanded. Skin Deep is the artist’s most recent exploration in an ongoing series, where faces are wrapped by different Chinese silk fabrics.

Dong has noted she is not only challenging patterns of sexism in China, but also the “othering” of Chinese Canadian subjects through racism in Canada.

When explored in its augmented reality construction, threads in the form of a fluttering butterfly start to lift from the face. For me, this signals a slow but enduring deconstruction of tradition.

Solidarity across cultures, peoples

Nagam’s prioritization of BIPOC artists living in diverse cultural conditions generates solidarities across diverse cultures and peoples. From an esthetic perspective, what is of lasting remembrance is an encounter between the artwork and audience.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s image ‘Skin Deep,’ is layered over an image of a fence in the author’s backyard, Sept 28, 2020. Photo Credit: (Chun Hua Catherine Dong), Author Provided.

In the expanded universe of augmented reality and virtual reality, the artworks engender what curator and artist Amalia Mesa-Bains has referred to as “inter-ethnic intimacy,” borne out of exchange.

Within processes of play and exploration, audience members are invited to understand and feel the different layers and propositions of how space is made. When we are longing for the rush of the Nuit crowd, we are, instead, offered deep connections with other people and other communities, where multiplicity is the work.


‘We need each other’: Black classical musicians are building supportive communities

Written by Gloria Blizzard, Dalhousie University, and Gillian Turnbull, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Pexels. Originally published in The Conversation.

An orchestra can be a hostile place for a lone Black classical instrumentalist.

Music has been significant for many during COVID-19 isolation, and in these same months Black musicians have amplified the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.While pop or hip hop music are genres whose agility and responsiveness make them natural sites for popular commentary, this threatens to neglect other arenas of music making.

Some arts organizations in Canada have pledged support for Black Lives Matter, turned their platforms over to Black artists or spotlighted their work. Recently a virtual event aired, “Black Opera Live: Canada,” featuring acclaimed sopranos Measha Brueggergosman, Othalie Graham and Audrey DuBois Harris, produced by Black Opera Productions, a U.S. documentary film company. But what of a wider and cohesive community of Black classical instrumentalists in Canada today?

While there is a long history of professional classical musicianship in the Black community, there are gaps of knowledge about Black classical artistry in Canada.

Black classical artists may spend their careers in majority-white orchestras and small ensembles across Canada, without knowledge of others who share their experience. But this may be changing as Black classical artists are starting to tell their stories, change the trajectory of their careers, challenge how arts communities are defined and step into leadership roles where they call for systemic change.

Black classical Canada

In the United States, a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras found that less than two per cent of musicians in American orchestras are Black.

Similar data isn’t available in Canada. A study commissioned by Orchestras Canada about orchestras’ relationships to Indigenous peoples and people of colour published in 2018 found that systemic inequity and coloniality underpinning Canadian classical music creates hierarchies reinforcing racism and cultural appropriation. Ethnomusicologist Parmela Attariwala authored the study with writer Soraya Peerbaye. Attariwala notes that because of Canada’s privacy laws, they could not compile race-related statistics about who is part of orchestras. She is now exploring the idea of orchestras taking voluntary statistical surveys.

Some prominent Black classical artists have gained newfound attention through work by Black Canadians: Conductor Brainerd Blyden-Taylor founded the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in 1998, honouring the Black Canadian-born composer and pianist. Classical singer and Nova Scotian Portia White has been the subject of several Black artists and writers and became more commonly known in 1999, through the introduction of a memorial stamp.

Although research has been broadly conducted into how colonialism, diversity initiatives and post-secondary hiring practices have affected Black participation in classical music, we have yet to see a comprehensive study of Canadian Black contributions to Canadian classical music history.

Absence of colleagues, mentors

There is no comprehensive listing of contemporary Black classical instrumentalists in Canada. As the co-authors of this story, our shared interest in classical musicianship emerged through discussions, and an interest in reporting on Black classical instrumentalists came to the fore. Of the five Black classical instrumentalists whose work we were aware of, three were available to participate in interviews.

Bassoonist Sheba Thibideau. Photo credit: Sheba Thibideau.

Black classical instrumentalists often experience their successes, as well as the subtle and overt blows of anti-Black racism without the support of colleagues and mentors who might help navigate such terrain. All were pleased to have their experiences brought to light.

Negative experiences can start early.

Bassoonist Sheba Thibideau was told that her lips were “too big” to play the flute and that she was “not suitable” for violin by the principal of her elementary school in Vancouver.

Tanya Charles Iveniuk, who is on faculty at Axis Music, the Regent Park School of Music and the University of Toronto, had an easier entry. Surrounded by the sounds of her older brother practising the piano, she announced, at age three that she wanted to play the violin. And so it was.

In university, however, both musicians described impacts of anti-Black racism. It often appeared as mysterious absence of access: to the appropriate performance-level student orchestra, to mentorship and information on how to navigate the invisible pipeline to professional life as a classical musician. They experienced micro-aggressions, at times, outright hostility or a lack of awareness of different economic circumstances.

Both question how their careers might have been different if they hadn’t spent considerable energy navigating, explaining and protecting themselves within the pressure cooker of predominantly white environments and power structures.

“I have a great career now,” says Iveniuk, “and yet, I’m haunted by that question.” This is psychic and emotional work that white (and often Asian peers) aren’t required to do.

Something is rotten

One of Iveniuk’s students, a boy of Vincentian background, like her, told her that he didn’t know that it was OK to pursue the violin until he had her as a teacher. Rarely are white musicians questioned when they explore and become expert in music from historically Black traditions. But Black children learn early what is and is not for them.

“Orchestras have a lot of work to do in this area,” says Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, principal education conductor and community ambassador of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He has developed some guidelines in his role. Through outreach, educational support and other consistent work in the community, orchestras can become a place where people go to hear their children and neighbours perform.

Until that work is accomplished, the orchestra can be a hostile place for the lone Black musician.

Real change

“Black people are all exhausted. I was completely burnt out after George Floyd,” says Bartholomew-Poyser. He suggests that instead of asking what to avoid saying to Black people, put them on the board or in positions of power.

As artist in residence and community ambassador of Symphony Nova Scotia, he received a call from Christopher Wilkinson, the CEO. “He asked me, ‘Do you think we could do a concert with Maritime Bhangra Group and Symphony Nova Scotia? I thought about it for three seconds. I said, ‘Yes.’”

Bartholomew-Poyser envisions the orchestra as a library of sound that can be applied to music from all over the world, not just the European canon. He arranged bhangra music for the symphony. The concert was a success.

“That is what inclusion looks like. That is vulnerability on his (Wilkinson’s) part. That is respect. That is handing over responsibility. Putting people of colour in positions of power. And trusting them with it,” he says.

Bartholomew-Poyser insists artists need to be able to talk about their experiences of micro-aggressions, “othering” and more overt harm, with each other and with their organizations. The Stratford Festival and the National Ballet of Canada were recently called out by Black artists.

The power of many

Iveniuk relished experiences of working south of the border and the opportunity to be one of many Black people in an orchestral setting. “Mind blown!” she laughs. “A whole orchestra of us?”

Thibideau has yet to have that experience. She’s dedicating 2020 to creating her own projects including a performance package to be used to entertain people in the prison system.

Iveniuk’s many projects include the Odin Quartet. and planning to train as many BIPOC kids as she can.

Bartholomew-Poyser plans to catch young BIPOC players coming up. He says support looks like money, as well as mentorship, lessons as well as transportation to and from concerts. It also looks like Black classical artists keeping in touch, he says, because “we need each other.”

In Canada’s already spread-out classical community, these vital connections will be the key to increasing the participation and visibility of Black instrumentalists.


Radical hope: What young dreamers in literature can teach us about COVID-19

Written by Irene Gammel, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Marc-Olivier Jodoin/Unsplash. Originally published in The Conversation.

The arts, literature and culture provide models for hope and resilience in times of crisis.

We rarely associate youth literature with existential crises, yet Canada’s youth literature offers powerful examples for coping with cultural upheaval.

As a scholar of modernism, I am familiar with the sense of uncertainty and crisis that permeates the art, literature and culture of the modernist era. The modernist movement was shaped by upheaval. We will be shaped by COVID-19, which is a critical turning point of our era.

Societal upheaval creates a literary space for “radical hope,” a term coined by philosopher Jonathan Lear to describe hope that goes beyond optimism and rational expectation. Radical hope is the hope that people resort to when they are stripped of the cultural frameworks that have governed their lives.

The idea of radical hope applies to our present day and the cultural shifts and uncertainty COVID-19 has created. No one can predict if there will ever be global travel as we knew it, or if university education will still to be characterized by packed lecture halls. Anxiety about these uncertain times is palpable in Zoom meetings and face-to-face (albeit masked) encounters in public.

So what can literature of the past tell us about the present condition?

What we see in the literature of the past

Consider Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, a master of youth literature. In her books, Montgomery grapples with change. She provides examples of how youth’s visions and dreams shape a new hopeful future in the face of devastation. I have read and taught her novels many times. However unpacking her hope-and-youth-infused work is more poignant in a COVID-19 world.

Her pre-war novel Anne of Green Gables represents a distinctly optimistic work, with a spunky orphan girl in search of a home at the centre. Montgomery’s early work includes dark stories as subtexts, such as alluding to Anne’s painful past in orphanages only in passing. Montgomery’s later works place explorations of hope within explicitly darker contexts. This shift reflects her trauma during the war and interwar eras. In a lengthy journal entry, dated Dec. 1, 1918, she writes, “The war is over! … And in my own little world has been upheaval and sorrow — and the shadow of death.”

COVID-19 has parallels with the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people and deepened existential despair. Montgomery survived the pandemic. In early 1919, her cousin and close friend Frederica (Frede) Campbell died of the flu. Montgomery coped by dreaming, “young dreams — just the dreams I dreamed at 17.” But her dreaming also included dark premonitions of the collapse of her world as she knew it. This duality found its way into her later books.

Rilla of Ingleside, Canada’s first home front novel — a literary genre exploring the war from the perspective of the civilians at home — expresses the same uncertainty we feel today. Rilla includes over 80 references to dreamers and dreaming, many through the youthful lens of Rilla Blythe, the protagonist, and her friend Gertrude Oliver, whose prophetic dreams foreshadow death. These visions prepare the friends for change. More than the conventional happy ending that is Montgomery’s trademark, her idea of radical hope through dreaming communicates a sense of future to the reader.

The same idea of hope fuels Montgomery’s 1923 novel Emily of New Moon. The protagonist, 10-year-old Emily Byrd Starr, has the power of the “flash,” which gives her quasi-psychic insight. Emily’s world collapses when her father dies and she moves into a relative’s rigid household. To cope, she writes letters to her dead father without expecting a response, a perfect metaphor for the radical hope that turns Emily into a writer with her own powerful dreams and premonitions.

What we can learn from the literature of today

Nine decades later, influenced by Montgomery’s published writings, Jean Little wrote an historical novel for youth, If I Die Before I Wake: The Flu Epidemic Diary of Fiona Macgregor. Set in Toronto, the book frames the 1918 pandemic as a moment of both trauma and hope. Twelve-year old Fiona Macgregor recounts the crisis in her diary, addressing her entries to “Jane,” her imaginary future daughter. When her twin sister, Fanny, becomes sick with the flu, Fiona wears a mask and stays by her bedside. She tells her diary: “I am giving her some of my strength. I can’t make them understand, Jane, but I must stay or she might leave me. I vow, here and now, that I will not let her go.”

Governor General Julie Payette presents Cherie Dimaline with the Governor General’s Literary Award for English young people’s literature for The Marrow Thieves. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle.

A decade later, Métis writer Cherie Dimaline’s prescient young adult novel The Marrow Thieves depicts a climate-ravaged dystopia where people cannot dream, in what one of the characters calls “the plague of madness.” Only Indigenous people can salvage their ability to dream, so the protagonist, a 16-year-old Métis boy nicknamed Frenchie, is being hunted by “recruiters” who are trying to steal his bone marrow to create dreams. Dreams give their owner a powerful agency to shape the future. As Dimaline explains in a CBC interview with James Henley, “Dreams, to me, represent our hope. It’s how we survive and it’s how we carry on after every state of emergency, after each suicide.” Here, Dimaline’s radical hope confronts cultural genocide and the stories of Indigenous people.

Radical hope helps us confront the devastation wrought by pandemics both then and today, providing insight into how visions, dreams and writing can subversively transform this devastation into imaginary acts of resilience. Through radical hope we can begin to write the narrative of our own pandemic experiences focusing on our survival and recovery, even as we accept that our way of doing things will be transformed. In this process we should pay close attention to the voices and visions of the youth — they can help us tap into the power of radical hope.

When the Calgary Stampede rises again, so too will local roots, folk & country musicians

Written by Gillian Turnbull, Ryerson University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

While the pandemic means some of us are scrambling to transition to more time online or to supplement Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit with a little more income, Alberta’s horses are taking a much-deserved vacation. So are the cattle.

As June descends towards the province’s hottest and busiest month of the year, primarily because of the Calgary Stampede, livestock are normally in their last period of rodeo training. Concentrated care and extra rest help the animals ready themselves for a 10-day stretch of entertaining crowds on the city’s fairgrounds.

Not this year. As with other public events, the Stampede was cancelled earlier this spring because of coronavirus.

The scheduled July 3 opening day proved too soon — and too risky — to take a chance. This says a lot for a city that persisted in stampeding through the Great Depression, Second World War and the great flood of 2013. In fact, it’s the first cancellation since it became an annual event in 1923.

Alberta’s horses are taking a much-deserved vacation with the cancellation of the Calgary Stampede due to COVID-19. Here, people pet a horse at the Stampede in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Lost city revenues

Maybe the horses are happy to avoid their frightful, sometimes fatal, rotations around the chuckwagon track. But for a city already decimated by the crash in oil prices and the economic fallout of the pandemic, the cancellation is bad news. The Stampede first announced staff layoffs in mid-March.

It’s estimated that the 10-day affair gives the city a $227-million boost, and more than double that amount through the rest of the year. And it’s only growing: last year’s attendance was second only to the city’s centennial celebrations in 2012. The income isn’t just from what goes down on the grounds either; for every dollar spent there, the rest of the city gobbles up $2.65.

That means restaurants, clubs, hotels and shops, also already debilitated by coronavirus, will lose a big chunk of their annual revenue.

Mariel Buckley and Tim Buckley, sister and brother, perform on Calgary’s Stephen Ave. in July 2018. (Gillian Turnbull), Author provided

Added musician uncertainty

For the city’s local musicians, this is added uncertainty. Many of Calgary’s entertainers are able to call themselves full-time musicians because of the Stampede — and that’s saying something in the age of musician precarity.

As gigs decline from closing venues throughout North America and recording revenue dries up thanks to online streaming platforms, some musicians are already succumbing to economic instability and increased mental health problems.

The Stampede bills its Coca-Cola stage as the place for “the biggest names in music” and stocks it with a mix of international, Canadian and cross-Alberta performers of various genres from hip hop to rock, alternative pop and country music. The Nashville North tent is also typically piled with commercial, often American, country acts.

Places like the Western Oasis schedule traditional folk and country acts for their Window on the West series. But many local Calgary country, folk and roots musicians are likely to be found performing throughout in the city.

Roots musicians benefited

Go anywhere in Calgary — a pancake breakfast, a grocery-store barbecue, a corporate afternoon beer garden — and there are those local country, folk and roots musicians, a constant soundtrack to the city’s party.

These musicians typically have a particularly easy go at Stampede time of year, primed as they are to amplify the western theme of the season. It’s here where they can make the majority of their year’s income, sometimes pulling in salaries in the tens of thousands as they play upwards of four gigs a day.

This has led the city’s roots music scene to stay relatively contained and for the performers to carve out a somewhat middle-class existence, unlike other cities in Canada that force musicians to travel far and wide to build their audience.

Oil prices, gigs shrinking

The Stampede was the last vestige of strong financial support for local musicians, whose income bouquets have been thrashed by their volatile partner, the economy. As I was winding down a two-decade research project on the city’s independent country and roots music scene, oil prices hit a low from which Calgary has found it near-impossible to recover.

By 2018, my last fieldwork trip to the city, venues were beginning to shut down, gigs were drying up and musicians were panicking. Many considered returning to past careers they’d been able to temporarily relinquish; some quit making music altogether.

Meanwhile, climate change and political turmoil at provincial and federal levels further exacerbated the oil industry’s uncertainty, challenging the way many people conceived of their local heritage and identity. Musicians took on challenging topics of the era, grappling with environmental issues and politics in song, changing the face of Calgary.

Prior to then, from the late 1990s to 2015, Calgary had reached historical heights in population increase and economic activity.

Money flowed, then slowed

As much as we may fear the very real fact of arts economies’ dependence on broader economic growth in our late-capitalist world, that proved to be true in the case of Calgary. Money flowed from the corporate office to bars, clubs, venues, festivals, house concerts and record shops. Then it slowed, and stopped.

Yet as I found, performers persist, and thrive, in the face of uncertainty, showing us a progressive community who use music to voice solidarity, dissent and to create community. Their musical commentary has ranged from critique of the Conservatives’ spending policies around education and health care to diversifying the narrative of Canadian folk music history to countering the prevailing notion that Calgary is a socially regressive city.


While some Canadians unfairly stereotype Alberta as an all-round conservative province seeing only staunch opposition to weaning itself from an oil-based economy, in fact the horses that typify the Stampede have always spoken to a far more complex spirit of risk, creativity and bucking the system. Albertans are protective of the land, love their animals and treasure their heritage and culture. When the Stampede rises again, so too will Calgary musicians.The Conversation

Gillian Turnbull, Contract lecturer, Music section, Department of Philosophy, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cardi B says ‘shit is gettin’ real’ as coronavirus pandemic reveals cracks in celebrity capitalism

Written by Cheryl Thompson, Ryerson University. Photo credit AP Photo/Eric Gay. Originally published in The Conversation.

A mural of Cardi B updated by the artist Colton Valentine to include a face mask in San Antonio. Cardi B’s instagram post, ‘Shit is getting real’ went viral.

When universities closed in March due to COVID-19, and my celebrity course transitioned online, I was no longer able to share informal chats and insights about celebrity news and gossip with my students. Recently, I’ve noticed a change in celebrity culture. Like capitalism, it has pivoted. The change speaks to how intertwined celebrity culture is to capitalism.

Richard Dyer, the well-known English film studies professor, argued more than 30 years ago that celebrity culture is a kind of “triumphant individualism” ideologically bound up with the condition of capitalism. He said society’s hyper focus on celebrities as transcendent beings who exceed, go beyond and surpass what ordinary people appear able to do, parallels the western culture belief that free-market capitalism enables all individuals to achieve their greatest potential.

As Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi recently noted, both capitalism and celebrity rely on the “lie of meritocracy:” that working hard will lead to ultimate success.

The grips of COVID-19, with its fallout of the millions who have lost their jobs and the thousands who have lost their lives, has shined light on the tenuous nature of the meritocracy myth.

Now that we know what essential work is, it seems the perfect time to reflect upon the not-so-essential work of celebrities.

‘Shit is gettin’ real’

On March 10, Cardi B posted a 46-second video to Instagram: “Coronavirus! Coronavirus! I’m telling you, shit is real! Shit is gettin’ real!” Within a week, DJ Snake released a YouTube video remix of Cardi B’s rant and DJ iMarkkeyz, known for turning memes into music, also remixed Cardi’s “vocal.” According to the New York Times, “Coronavirus Remix” has been steadily rising on download charts worldwide.

On March 11, actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, announced that they had been diagnosed with coronavirus, and as Cardi B predicted, shit got real. Following their positive test, and that of NBA player, Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, all major league sports were shut down. Film and TV sets closed. Within a few days, celebrities transitioned online.

Talk shows

Daytime talk shows, such as The View and Ellen have continued with scaled-down virtual versions.

Late-night shows have followed suit. Conan O’Brien uses an iPhone and Skype to keep his cable show going from his home. NBC’s Jimmy Fallon creates 10-minute “At Home” segments for NBC’s Tonight. Stephen Colbert produces 10-minute clips for CBS from his bathtub, and Jimmy Kimmel also performs monologues from his home.


Recently, when Fallon appeared as a virtual guest on SiriusXM’s The Howard Stern Show to talk about his “At Home” episodes, he recalled how, after Sept. 11, 2001, he turned to then talk show host David Letterman for guidance. Remembering Letterman’s words (“pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing”) motivated Fallon to air his pandemic-era, YouTube-distributed segments.

The show must go on

This idea of keeping the masses entertained (and distracted) is rooted in the 19th-century circus. If an animal or performer were injured, the ringmaster and the band would try to keep things going so that the crowd would not panic or leave. Since then, show business has been defined by this mantra — singers gotta sing, dancers gotta dance, the masses must be entertained.

This is especially true in the theatre. Andrew Lloyd Webber teamed up with Universal Studios in a series called, “The Shows Must Go On” to offer free viewing of his musicals on YouTube in the social distancing era.

We consume celebrity culture to take our minds off our everyday lives and in some cases, it is a primary source of social bonding. We form para-social relationships with celebrities; that is, one-sided relationships where we extend emotional energy, interest and time, and the celebrity doesn’t even know we exist.

This process builds second-order intimacy constructed through the mass media rather than direct experience. In other words, while we don’t know a celebrity personally, based on consuming their work, watching them on talk shows and maybe even indulging in a gossip magazine, we feel like we know them.

How sincere are they?

The physical distancing brought on by this pandemic has made it overtly obvious how deep the desire is on the part of some celebrities to manufacture para-social behaviour and to create levels of intimacy with us — the people they need to maintain their star power.

Elton John’s iHeart Living Room Concert for America, Kevin Bacon’s #IStayHomeFor Twitter challenge, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s urges for people to stay home (from his California mansion) are all examples of celebrity public service announcements (PSAs) becoming the new “gossip” content.

Celebrity gossip has become an industry onto itself over the last 30 years thanks to outlets like TMZ. As we’ve been taken behind the curtain, not only do we feel like we know celebrities, they, in turn, treat the public like we are their real friends. The problem is, we’re not.

Larry David, Samuel L. Jackson and former Jersey Shore reality star Mike Sorrentino have lent their voices to PSAs. Many other celebrities, like Rihanna, have responded with charitable donations worth millions of dollars.

These celebrity announcements — along with the new glimpses into their private homes — has raised a lot of questions about their level of privilege and sincerity.

This came up most notably when David Geffen posted a pic on Instagram from his giant yacht with the caption, “Sunset last night … isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus.” Surely his post did little to comfort those in housing precarity right now.

Similarly, celebrity chef Bobby Flay who has a reported net worth of $30 million, set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000 to pay his restaurant employees who are currently not working due to the coronavirus. Couldn’t he use some of his millions to help them out?

Ultimately, some celebrity moments during the pandemic have felt genuine, while others have been downright bizarre.

Similarly, some music mashups have worked – like Tyler Perry teaming up with Jennifer Hudson, and others to sing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” and Canadian R&B divas Tamia and Deborah Cox’s cover of Whitney Houston/CeCe Winan’s “Count on Me.” But others, like the star-studded singalong led by Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot have missed the mark. As Buzzfeed’s Michael Blackmon lamented: the singalong failed to invoke a “digital kumbaya for our pandemic-stricken world.”

Will celebrity culture change forever?

It is difficult to predict how celebrity culture, like capitalism, might change, but one’s thing is certain: dwindling content is inevitable.

According to Forbes, while Netflix is not running into the same content problem as the networks because its series are made all at once for binge-release, both streaming services and the networks could eventually run out of produced content in the coming weeks.

Thus, celebrities might have been essential to our media culture before the pandemic, but after we get through this, they may not be.

Or, it could become, as was the case after the Second World War, when Hollywood created an entire genre of cinema — the war movie — that is still thriving nearly 70 years later, and musicians responded with songs that we still remember today, the coronavirus could become the content we consume years from now.

Coronavirus has dimmed the lights on live entertainment. What now for event managers?

Written by Chris Gibbs & Louis-Etienne Dubois, Ryerson University. Photo credit Oscar Keys/Unsplash. Originally published in The Conversation.

Until entertainment industries can turn the lights back on, companies should follow strict crisis response strategies.

COVID-19’s impacts on society are unprecedented and nobody can say precisely when we will return to normal public life.

Experts predict that COVID-19 will cut US$12 billion out of the entertainment industry in the United States alone. Global entertainment giant Cirque du Soleil shut down 44 shows worldwide and will not reopen until January 2021.

If public safety is still at risk in the summer, global concert promoters like Evenko, AEG or Live Nation will be at risk of losing the important summer concert season.

Juggling immediate impact

In response to public health directives, live event and entertainment companies have focused on public safety, protecting employees and flattening the curve. As a result, they are now left coping with the immediate impact of not having “bums in seats” to pay for their operations’ fixed and sunk costs.

Cirque du Soleil has shut down 44 worldwide shows. Here, a performer juggles flaming balls during the opening ceremony for the World Basketball Championship in August 2010 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo credit AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.

The live events and entertainment industry has survived increased security measures after 9/11, weak demand from SARS and re-schedulings due to fire or weather, but it has never globally closed down. It may be recession-resilient, but it is not shutdown-proof.

During times of uncertainty, managers often juggle an infinite number of issues, multiple stakeholder needs and an unpredictable range of outcomes.

When leading through uncertain times, it is critical that managers avoid the urge to throw up their hands and act purely on instinct.

Systematically record implications

While it may seem like an effective short-term response, failing to account for systemic implications could also exacerbate the negative impacts. Instead, managers should systematically record knowledge and look for analogous situations to identify patterns that can inform strategic thinking in uncertain times.

Yet analogous situations to COVID-19 are difficult to find, and knowing what accounts of the impact of SARS to rely on is not necessarily clear. Medical scholars suggest media coverage about the impact of SARS was “excessive, sometimes inaccurate and sensationalist.”

From a health perspective alone, 774 people died from SARS worldwide during the 2003 SARS outbreak, while 33,673 people have died from COVID-19 as of March 31.

Some health professionals later considered SARS to be a “dry run” for a greater global pandemic.

The most significant economic declines during SARS were tourism-related activities such as airlines, lodging and restaurants in a limited number of markets; Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, Spain and the U.S. By comparison, more than 180 countries have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Crisis response strategies

That means the global economy is entering a stage of unparalleled ambiguity. How long social distancing restrictions will keep people from going to a concert or theatre is unknown, as is audiences’ post-COVID-19 appetite for live events and entertainment. Until the industry can turn the lights back on, companies should follow strict crisis response strategies.

Two people walk by the Cirque du Soleil Big Top in Montréal’s Old Port on March 21, 2020. Cirque du Soleil has shut down 44 shows worldwide. Photo credit THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

According to McKinsey’s recent COVID-19 report, this implies taking proportionate actions to account for the ambient uncertainty and ensuring sufficient financial liquidity to weather the storm.

As such, more cancellations, wage cuts, consolidations and massive layoffs from live events and entertainment companies are to be expected in the coming weeks.

Key creative assets

However, even when laying off people to preserve capital, managers should proceed with caution and identify the key creative assets that must be salvaged. Live events and entertainment are people-based businesses that rely on the creation of emotional experiences and human interactions. Shedding too many employees, or the wrong employees, may impede the ability to resume operations when the crisis ends.

The author of an article in Harvard Business Review about management in uncertain times also suggests taking pragmatic actions and cultivating emotional steadiness in order to support employees and make them feel better than doing nothing.

In addition, a common response to crisis is to maintain customer engagements so that they return when the conditions allow. This is even more critical now knowing that companies are likely to relaunch all at the same time and engage in a costly battle for audiences’ limited attention. Employees should be encouraged to keep their companies’ name out there by connecting with customers in surprising and unexpected ways.

Keeping in touch

Both creative companies and performers themselves have reached out to audiences. Los Angeles-based Theatre Unleashed started performing cast readings through Zoom, while the Centre for Puppetry Arts, based in Atlanta, has taken steps to ramp up its online programming.

Artists like Neil Young and Keith Urban recently hosted impromptu performances through platforms like Instagram, and are actively staying in touch with their fans.

No one really knows what the other side of this shutdown will look like. That means companies ought to take this time to think and collaborate with their key people. They should also consider reaching out to suppliers, clients and even competitors to pool resources, share best practices and maintain relationships.

Imagining outcomes

Lessons from crisis response and management suggest that using techniques like scenario planning or “table topping,” where stakeholders can imagine or project potential future outcomes, are important.

Those who care about an organization’s mandate and vision can explore prospects for slow or fast recovery, weak or strong demand, local or global re-openings. Such exercises may involve mapping issues, discussing implications and developing strategies.

As the world awaits the end of social distancing measures, live event and entertainment companies have no choice but to pause and look forward — anything but just throwing their hands up.