The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival kicked off on Thursday night, ushering the city ’ s beloved celebration of storytelling into its twentieth year. Despite its popularity, the festival ’ s anniversary huddles in the shadow of a more vexing historical milestone: that is, one-hundred-and-fifty years of Canadian confederacy. In her introductory remarks to the evening ’ s first panel, “ A Woman ’ s Work, ” director of media and communications for the Nobel Women ’ s Initiative, Rachel Vincent, commented on the role our public intellectuals play in ensuring that the “ Canadian future [is] better than the Canadian present. ” How fitting, then, to open the festival with a glimpse at the risks and possibilities that arise when those touted as the bearers of national futurity refuse to reproduce its dominant narratives.
Indeed, while the panelists offered very different reflections on their relationship with Canadian-ness, each woman testified to the profound influence of ‘ private ’ familial histories on her public advocacy. Sandra Perron, a self-professed “ army brat, ” grew up in a military family before joining the Canadian Infantry ’ s 22nd Regiment as its first female officer. Her new book, Out Standing in the Field , details her twenty-five year journey to speak out against the unrelenting sexual harassment and abuse that she suffered within the armed forces: an institution for which she still feels much “ love and loyalty. ” In lieu of addressing her memoir ’ s more uncomfortable truths about white-masculinist supremacy and nation-building, Perron delivered an optimistic message of solidarity that imagined no contradiction in the pursuit of both military advancement and gender equity. Notwithstanding her efforts to amplify those voices that have been smothered by patriarchal violence, Perron ’ s talk left one audience member wondering, “W here, ” exactly, “ is the place for anger? ”
Offering one partial, provisional answer was Monia Mazigh, a local author born and raised in a politically active Tunisian household. Mazigh ’ s name first entered public consciousness in 2002, when her husband Maher Arar was detained in Syria based on unsubstantiated RCMP evidence of terrorist ties. Her passionate campaigns for her husband ’ s release are narrativized in her first book Hope and Despair ; however, in her new novel, Hope Has Two Daughters, Mazigh explores the legacy of two revolutionary women: Nadia, a member of Tunisia ’ s increasingly poor middle class who flees to Canada during the 1984 Bread Riots, and her daughter Lila, who, when sent to Tunis to explore her maternal history, gets caught up in the furor of the Arab Spring. As Mazigh pointed out, the English title of her book comes from a quote by St. Augustine: “ Hope has two daughters: one is anger, and the other is courage. ” Well acquainted with the dangers of being the “ angry Muslim woman ” in a society that hears “ about Muslim women rather than from them, ” Mazigh nonetheless testified to the importance of anger and dissent in forwarding more equitable futures. While Western nations are know for “ exoticizing ” the struggles of those they have colonized, Mazigh noted, there is nothing so fragrant or “ delicate ” about the pursuit of political freedom.
Riayah Patel, a seventh-grade student at Hadley-Philemon Wright High School and activist for indigenous rights, rounded out the panel. During her impassioned speech on the plight of indigenous children ’ s education, Patel acknowledged that she was schooled in the ethical necessity of activist work from an early age. Her father, a survivor of South African apartheid, and her mother, an immigrant from Lebanon, encouraged their daughter to heed the words of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who argued that “ power concedes nothing without a demand. ” Though much of the evening ’ s conversation was directed towards Mazigh and Perron, Patel spoke eloquently on the Canadian government ’ s amnesiac approach to indigenous children ’ s welfare and on her own indebtedness to the legacy of Shannen Koostachin, a fifteen-year-old activist from Attawapiskat First Nation who died tragically in a car accident in 2010. Patel ’ s self-deprecating jokes about her social media obsession aside, hers was a crucial commentary on the privilege of ignorance and the responsibilities that the young bear for their ancestors ’ traumatic and violent histories.
As the festivities of July 1st, 2017 approach, the stories of Perron, Mazigh, and Patel challenge us to move beyond empty ceremony. Diversity — in national narratives and in the politics of everyday life — is more than just a buzzword: it is an enduring labour. And, like a woman ’ s work, it is never quite finished.