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UBC students create cognitive disequilibrium by challenging narratives around Canadian studies

Photo by Guillaume Jaillet.
Photo by Guillaume Jaillet.

Twentieth-century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget used the phrase cognitive disequilibrium to explain the development of children’s logic and reasoning. This disequilibrium occurs when kids cannot wrap their minds around a new situation or task with their existing knowledge.

However, via a breakthrough, Piaget stated that this can be achieved. Children can then assimilate or accommodate new information. And when they experience this breakthrough, it restores the earlier sense of equilibrium.

In a similar vein, students in a new upper-level UBC course, Canadian Studies 450, are trying to create a sense of disequilibrium by shaking up this field of research.

Traditionally, Canadian studies programs incorporated an interdisciplinary examination of various subjects. They include history, literature, geography, government, politics, languages, and other topics not offered through an anti-colonial lens.

Students in the UBC course, taught by Prof. Minelle Mahtani, aim to challenge normative ways of looking at this field. They hope to assimilate or accommodate perspectives of those who’ve traditionally been ignored or marginalized in Canadian studies.

In so doing, they believe that they will elevate understanding of Canada as a settler-colonial state, thereby achieving a different kind of intellectual breakthrough.

“I think that in our course, we are tying to embrace the space of discomfort,” student Abigaelle Normand told Pancouver over Zoom.

As an example, the Montreal-raised Normand contrasted the landback movement with the “very surface-level land acknowledgements that have become very normal to hear in our day-to-day courses”.

“We need more critical and radical commitment to change and commitment to having these uncomfortable conversations about what Canada is built upon, founded upon, and how it’s amassed such wealth,” she stated.

The first cohort of Canadian Studies 450 students spoke at Green College Coach House on March 7.

Disequilibrium from silencing true history

Normand majors in gender, race, and social justice. She was joined on the call by sociology student Lulu Jama, who also enrolled in Canadian Studies 450. They met as first-year students in another of Mahtani’s classes.

Jama was born in Hamilton and traces her roots back to Somaliland, though she was raised in Saudi Arabia. Her multiple identities of being Black, Muslim, and the child of immigrants are not reflected in traditional approaches to Canadian studies. That creates a different type of disequilibrium.

“I think Canadian studies is fictional to me,” Jama said. “It’s based on a history that is not accurate and it’s based on a narrative that isn’t true.”

Like Normand, Jama believes that Canadian studies must engage with hard truths about the history of Canada. In her view, it’s inextricably linked to European settlers’ theft of Indigenous lands and the suppression of non-European peoples. And this settler-colonial state engages in similar conduct through its foreign policy.

“I’m hoping to see Canadian studies become more racialized and actually represent the Canadian population,” Jama added. “I also hope it represents the various cultures that make up Canada.”

On March 7 at Green College Coach House, Mahtani presented a dialogue featuring Normand, Jama, and seven other Canadian Studies 450 students reflecting on the course and the future of this field of study. It was the first installment of the Another Canada series under the umbrella of the Brenda and David McLean Lectures. Canadian studies researchers and students attended the event, ensuring a mix of ages and perspectives in the audience.

Minelle Mahtani by UBC
Prof. Minelle Mahtani is a former president of the Association for Canadian Studies. Photo by UBC.

Centralized power maintains narrative

Normand said that there is a variety of myths about Canada that must be broken down to truly understand the roots of the country. They include the myth of Canadian multiculturalism, the myth that Canada is a green country, and the myth that somehow, Canada is a foil to the United States.

She maintained that this latter myth erases understanding about the extent of violence north of the border.

Meanwhile, Jama declared that a revitalized Canadian studies program must centre Indigenous knowledge and decolonial ways of thinking. That’s in addition to advancing historically accurate storytelling.

Jama acknowledged that English is a colonial language. In response, she suggested that post-secondary institutions should exert more effort to offer Indigenous language courses taught by Indigenous scholars.

Pancouver asked why these ideas have still not penetrated the consciousness of the nation. Jama responded that major media—and the powers at play—are dominated by a certain group. According to her, it’s people who are “submissive and complaint to the continuous land theft from Indigenous peoples and are complicit [in] cementing settler colonialism”.

“So, I’m not surprised that the nation’s narrative hasn’t shifted,” Jama said. “Actually, it makes perfect sense because power structures in our country are refusing to acknowledge the truth of the matter, which is that there is insidious violence continuing in the country.”

Moreover, she noted “white-supremacist, settler-colonial-like powers” remain in control of major institutions.

“As long as those powers are in place, the narrative is going to continue to be the same.”

(Credit: Kent Monkman/ Collection of the Denver Art Museum)
The Scream tells a part of Canadian history that was suppressed through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. (Credit: Kent Monkman/ Collection of the Denver Art Museum)

Differentiating root from the branch

Normand and Jama each expressed appreciation over how Mahtani’s course is structured to promote “reciprocal knowledge”. According to them, this shatters the traditional hierarchy in which students are taught rather than being seen as valuable holders of knowledge that can be shared.

But it’s not always easy. Mahtani is a former president of the Association for Canadian Studies. Students in the class must read one book a week before engaging in conversation with a variety of guests.

In the first cohort, these guests included author Lawrence Hill, decolonial scholar and nonfiction author Julietta Singh, and Canadian studies scholar and writer Amy Fung.

In addition, poet Madhur Anand, Giller Prize-nominated author David Macfarlane, First Nations and Indigenous Studies professor and author Daniel Health Justice, and other innovative thinkers exchanged ideas. (Disclosure: I spoke to a different Canadian Studies 450 class prior to writing this article.)

Near the end of the Zoom call, Normand cited a comment by Justice that left a lasting impression on her.

“He said the relationship between Canada and Indigenous literature is one in which we mistake the branch with the trunk,” she recalled. “I think this is what this course is really about and the way that Canadian studies needs to shift.”

According to Normand, this same concept of the root and branch is also applicable to languages. It’s yet another idea in which students just might generate some disequilibrium within the field.

“I think English should be one branch on that trunk—one lens through which we explore Canada and Canadian studies, and its legacies and its histories—without assuming it to be the trunk,” she said.

Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.