Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Powerful Readings at Dis(s)ent

Dis(s)ent is the collective effort of many contributors brought together by the charismatic writer and playwright Sanita Fejzic. Escaping with her mother, brother and later her father from Sarajevo during the siege, she moved among different nations before settling in Canada. Through her writing, Fejzic advocates for the voices of people who find themselves uprooted by conflict, repression and relegated to the sidelines of cultural identity and place. The event brought together a panel of writers, poets, visual and musical artists and researchers who give voice to the marginalized, the uprooted, and to the forgotten. As a work of dissent, the event celebrated how each work in the collection is a voice contributing richly to our cultural fabric as part of a collective human experience.


The event began with a performance by Gloria Guns, the human rights lawyer and lead singer for the Indie band Scary Bears. Guns sang “Asian Fetishist” that gave voice to her opposition to the occidental appropriation of her cultural identity as an Asian Canadian woman. She strummed a turquoise and silver electric guitar as she sang out her dissent in the words, “the object speaks against your narrow narratives of the periphery… reducing me to your exotic other and fodder your superiority… to mock and smother my identity.”


Guns was followed by Carleton University professor Colett Tracey, who read an emotionally powerful excerpt from her text, “Breaking the Silence.” She tells the story of her Irish mother, who, as a child, was placed in the industrial schools established by the Catholic Church. For 12 years, Tracey’s mother experienced what it was to be a child slave. Laboring under inhumane conditions, children were assigned numbers instead of names, lived unclothed and abused. Moving anecdotes included how these unclothed children were given nothing more than a thin blanket to sleep with and forced to fight for cast-off shoes dumped in a pile in the courtyard of the school. Tracey’s mother was present in the audience, a small, white haired and unassuming woman seated in the front row. She listened with quiet dignity as her daughter gave voice to her story that had been silenced by time, social stigma, education and the Catholic Church.


Cree poet Michelle Poirier Brown gave a compelling reading of her poem with a voice made for oral storytelling. Brown regards dialogue as a seditious act because it is the primary mechanism through which most people can “deepen the understanding between indigenous people and settlers.” Brown believes that it is through language that we will understand radically different perspectives of the world. Her poetry and the silenced voices represented therein work to show that “indigenous existence is no longer invisible.”


Poet Sarah Kambaba followed with a reading of her poem that gave voice to the state of cultural identity among people who are forced to leave their country because, “This is how you love a country that doesn’t love you back.” In these few words, she captures the depth and breadth of what it means to experience this journey of losing the country of your cultural roots and building a new one, because the country cannot provide for the dreams, aspirations, opportunities and the security of its people.


Marie-Pierre Daigle advocates for intersex children in a gender binary world. As a clinical psychology researcher, she focuses on how the current medical and cultural norms create oppressive conditions that enforce a state of binary gender on the “intersex” nature of these children. Thus parents, afraid of the social exclusion, stigma and prejudice that they and their child will encounter, feel pressured and forced to have their babies undergo surgical procedures that “correct” their sexual identity into either male or female. This translates into issues for parents and children alike as the child grows up under such repressive cultural norms. As adults, intersex individuals struggle with fertility and attaining sexual pleasure. Daigle’s work and advocacy provides a voice for these intersex children and individuals who make us question the normative standards by which we live and help us to realize that reality is richer and multiple rather than binary.


How internal and external borders shape identity was the moving subject of work by Maité Simard, a multidisclipinary artist and Deniz Kilinc, whose research concerns Syrian refugees. Together, they read a dialogue from an interview with a Kurdish refugee currently in Brussels who experienced capture and torture in Syria. His thoughts about what borders mean to him after his experience and his state as a refugee had a powerful message about how we consider the borders we take for granted and whether they free us or act as a barrier. He regards his state as a refugee in Brussels as one that is another form of confinement saying, “It is the only jail I have ever liked.”

 Xavier P-Laberge presented the final piece of the evening. He talked about how the deteriorating state of the global environment is deeply connected to the current political movement toward populism in the U.S. and European countries. P-Laberge’s goal was to give voice to people who live through the devastation of environmental change and how the decisions policies of populist governments can only lead to more of the same in the future. He is particularly concerned about finding truth and restoring facts despite misleading information.

Taken together, Dis(s)ent is beautifully curated collection of articulate, diverse and compelling narratives that through dissent give voice to those who are compelled into silence.