[Racism, Sexism & the University: The Political Science Affair at the University of British Columbia]

By Marchak, M. Patricia; Vickers, Jill | Journal of Canadian Studies, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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[Racism, Sexism & the University: The Political Science Affair at the University of British Columbia]


Marchak, M. Patricia, Vickers, Jill, Journal of Canadian Studies


Societies, like families, have things they don't talk about. In Canada, the existence of oppression and intolerance is one such thing. The identities shared by most Canadians have been based on an image of tolerance, although franco-Quebeckers focus their self-image on comparisons to "les anglais," while anglo-Canadians compare themselves to the US that they suppose is less tolerant and more racist. Canada's "nice guy" reputation abroad has been shattered in recent years, however, by images of the police and the army laying seige to aboriginal communities and by our inability to restructure the federation to acknowledge the just aspirations of our peoples. Many of our institutions are racked with conflicts over how to deal with the needs of many diverse groups, conflicts too often fought out in the media or in scare-mongering texts that generate heat but not much light. By contrast, these four books provide badly needed tools to help us think seriously about difference, and several also outline concrete approaches to promoting constructive change.

Montreal historian Lise Noel's landmark text Intolerance: A General Survey, published originally in French by Boreal, won the Governor-General's Award for NonFiction in 1989. Far too rarely are important non-fiction texts translated and re-published between the "two solitudes," so we must be grateful to McGill-Queen's University Press and to translator Arnold Bennett for making Noel's ideas available in such clear and eloquent English. Noel provides an interdisciplinary analysis of oppression in relation to six main parameters: age, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and physical and mental health. Her main focus is on the discourses of intolerance in relation to these variables as manifested in Canada, France, the US and the UK. Writing as a woman and a franco-Quebecker, her analysis provides insights about the general process of "othering" both in history (as for example, in the treatment of left-handed or "sinister" people) and in relationships between "Western" and "Third World" people.(f.1) Her text demonstrates how aspects of popular culture, academic theories, religious teachings and scientific precepts all contribute to "the discourse of intolerance [that] legitimizes relations of domination... [and] gives validity to the most brutal forms of oppression" (5).

I found especially interesting the franco-Quebec and French sources used by Noel and her focus on the discourse of intolerance. It is different from the sociological and philosophical approaches that focus more on what is done than on what people think and say about it. These approaches are more common in anglophone countries. It also differs from empirical analyses of the mechanics of everyday acts of oppression.(f.2) For Noel, "Intolerance is the theory; domination and oppression are the practice"(5). Intolerance, then, is a way of knowing the world and she explores the discourses used to legitimize oppression and domination. Noel's identification of the common elements in different discourses of intolerance provides a useful template against which to explore how people think about difference in that the dominant discourse: first. always proclaims the superiority of the oppressor's identity over that of "the other"; second, defends this principle in the language of objectivity; third, claims universality for the relationships of dominance and subordination; and last, calls on other authorities by drafting expert opinion, the will of god and the antiquity of law, language and custom to support its claim. In the first half of her text, Noel focusses on the way of knowing the world represented by the dominator's intolerance. In the second half, she focusses on how, before they can act to gain some power over their lives, those dominated must struggle to re-invent ways of knowing that neither obliterate their presence nor blame them for their situation; that is, how they must "break the silence" by speaking about their experiences of oppression, alienation and marginalization.

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