Jeff Noh Reviews New Essay Collections for EVENT 49/1
Jeff Noh Reviews:
Ursula Mathis-Moser and Marie Carrière, Eds., Writing Beyond the End Times?/Écrire au-delà de la fin des temps?: The Literatures of Canada and Quebec/Les littératures au Canada et au Québec, University of Alberta Press, 2019
Darryl Leroux, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, University of Manitoba Press, 2019
Writing Beyond the End Times?/Écrire au-delà de la fin des temps? gathers 15 scholarly essays that address a ‘sense of crisis [that] seems to overwhelm us.’ Numerous crises converge on the contemporary moment sketched out in this book: crises in time, representation, memory, love, testimony, ethics, history, empathy and even ‘historical truth.’ The book’s bilingualism and repeated references to something it calls ‘Canada and Quebec’ give these crises a point of view. What is at stake is ‘our world’; a ‘point de vue collectif’ (a collective point of view); a ‘mémoire collective’ (a collective memory); ‘notre fragilité’ (our fragility); and ‘nos sociétés’ (our societies). If it is difficult to define, the pervasive crisis is definitive for being ours.
But who is in this we/nous? Lists, and especially long lists, operate by a logic of exclusion. In the nearly 300 pages of this book, the project of decolonization is not mentioned once. If we are near the end of the Anthropocene, the book suggests it is more because of biotechnology than climate change. Canada appears as the benign cousin to the United States, defined by ‘Justin Trudeau’s leadership’ and its ‘self-understanding as a country built by Indigenous Peoples, First Nations, and immigrants.’ The idea of Canadian innocence that undergirds these essays leaves little room to recognize the harm done in the name of ‘Canada and Quebec,’ from the ascendancy of white nationalism to the militarized expropriation of Indigenous land. One does not have to read closely between the lines to see who is included in the we/nous asserted throughout this book.
No anthology can achieve perfect representation, although the particular exclusions from this collection make it a stifling read. What’s more conceptually damaging is the book’s failure to challenge dominant power structures through its approach to literature. On balance, the essays presented in the collection are likelier to reinforce patriarchal, settler-colonial and cis-normative paradigms than see literature as occasions to produce meaningful responses to the crises and injustices of the present. What, I wondered, would be the interpretive or conceptual payoff in reframing Dionne Brand’s novel Love Enough as a reflection of ‘Aristotelean and Christian traditions’ of love? After reading the essay, I was no closer to an answer. Reading a contribution on contemporary Quebec cinema, I stumbled on an adjective phrase that was modified as if the gender identity of the trans woman protagonist of Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways were ambiguous: ‘prêt(e) à tout’ (ready for everything). This careless error, if it is only that, is unfortunate given that the author’s thesis depends on the topic of embodiment. The reactionary streak continues in a response to Abla Farhoud’s Hutchison Street, a novel about the diverse communities that live in Montreal’s Outremont and Mile End neighbourhoods. The counterintuitive reading of Farhoud’s novel proceeds on sheer obduracy: The polyphonic form of the novel, the author insists, is proof of the ‘auto-ghettoisation’ (self-ghettoization) of the Muslim, Sikh and Orthodox Jewish communities in Quebec. If there is evidence in Farhoud’s novel that justifies this tendentious interpretation, the author does not furnish it.
Some essays in this anthology are better than others: David Bouchard, for instance, reads Nelly Arcan’s Paradis, clef en main (2009) with historic sensitivity, tracing the distorted legacies of the Quiet Revolution under neoliberalism. (Arcan’s novel, which was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award, takes place in a dystopian Montreal where corporations sell an on-demand suicide service.) Émilie Notard presents a deft argument about Nicole Brossard’s construction of a ‘feminine counterorder’ that resists patriarchal definitions of sensing and feeling—of ways, that is, of inhabiting the body. Perhaps because there is more at stake, these stronger contributions also feel the most blinkered by the we/nous that organizes this collection. Marion Christina Rohrleitner, for example, constructs a valuable survey of literary Latinocanadá, aimed at readers unfamiliar with the diverse literary productions of Latinx writers in Canada. The historical study of migration and immigration offered here would have benefitted from a critical perspective on Barack Obama’s complicity in the militarized border and on the class and race politics of Canada’s Express Entry immigration system. Similarly, Srilata Ravi offers a memorable deconstruction of the division of fictional and ethnographic discourses in the works of the social scientist and novelist Gérard Bouchard, but her valuable argument on the ‘relation between good intention, self-reflexivity, and power relations’ is limited by its own well-meaning practice of sympathy. ‘[W]e watch several thousand migrants from the comfort of our living rooms,’ Ravi announces at the opening of the essay, and ‘pose our benevolent regard on this mass movement of misery.’ I was frustrated by this framing of the critique of ‘good intention[s],’ for its recentring of ‘our homes and work spaces’ in thinking about the politics of sympathy. In the end times, is it only the we/nous who watch on from a comfortably mediated distance, least affected by the calamities of the present, who read, write and respond to literature?
Darryl Leroux, a sociologist at Saint Mary’s University, has written a critically important book on race in Quebec. Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity is an authoritative account of race-shifting, or the practice of white settlers spuriously adopting an Indigenous identity, sometimes with the intention of displacing Indigenous rights. Although race-shifting occurs elsewhere, as documented in the United States by the anthropologist Circe Sturm, the phenomenon takes place in Quebec through a culturally distinctive combination of genealogy, blood quantum theories of race, and enduring cultural myths about the French settlers in Nouvelle France. Leroux, who himself is a French-descendent settler scholar, brings sensitivity and rigor to a challenging and under-studied dimension of settler-colonialism in Quebec.
Race-shifting occurs in Quebec in the slippage of possible meanings of the French word ‘métis’—a term that, in common usage, can refer to the self-governing Métis people or a difficult-to-translate idea that ‘resembles the English-language concept “mixed race”’ with ‘origins in the cauldron of colonialism’ going back to the 17th century. As Leroux notes, the book’s study of race-shifting applies neither to ‘individuals who have been dispossessed by colonial policies—the Indian Act, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and still others—or their attempts to reconnect with their kin, family, and community,’ nor to African Americans ‘seeking…to connect with a past that has been violently cut off by the Middle Passage and subsequent practices of white terror and violence.’ Instead, race-shifting ‘involves white French-descendant people using an Indigenous ancestor born between 300 and 375 years ago as the basis for a contemporary “Indigenous” identity’—an identity that is then used as a means to infringe on Indigenous identities and dispossess Indigenous claims.
After an introduction that lays out historical and sociological foundations, Leroux’s book begins with a taxonomy of race-shifting actions in Quebec, particularly as it takes place on genealogy websites. Leroux and his research associates comb through an expansive archive of public discussions about genealogy to identify three different race-shifting categories: lineal descent, where a claim to Indigeneity is made based on a single long-ago ancestor, hundreds of years in the past, and often reducible to the same handful of women; aspirational descent, where a white ancestor in the deep past is reinterpreted as being Indigenous, justifying a present-day Indigenous identity; and lateral descent, where a claim to Indigeneity is made based on a distant white ancestor’s proximity to an Indigenous identity. What unites these practices of race-shifting is a claim to Indigeneity that is entirely disconnected with living Indigenous people and their land: ‘Instead…a long-ago Indigenous woman’s identity is transformed in such a way that today’s race shifters claim that a genealogical link to her leads one to be “Indigenous” to anywhere they happen to live.’ These identifications have, in turn, led to the creation of ‘Eastern Metis’ organizations, such as the Communauté métisse du Domaine-du-Roy et la Seigneurie de Mingan (CMDRSM), associations that, based on race-shifted claims to Indigeneity, contest existing Indigenous land claims in Quebec by the Innu and the Mi’kmaq peoples.
The CMDRSM and similar race-shifting organizations in Quebec emerged following R. v. Powley (2003), in which the Supreme Court of Canada laid out a test to ‘define Métis rights and identify Métis rights holders.’ What might be Leroux’s most striking finding, presented in the second half of the book on race-shifting organizations, is the continuity in membership and leadership between 21st-century self-identified ‘métis’ organizations and white rights organizations in Quebec that opposed Innu land claims. Following Powley, ‘much of the leadership of the anti-Indigenous, white rights movement’ near the Saguenay River ‘shifted into a nascent “métis” identity’ and began filing cases (which have hitherto been unsuccessful) challenging Innu claims to their territories.
As Leroux notes in the afterword to the book, Distorted Descent is part of a larger project to understand the
twenty-first-century effort to transform the boundaries of whiteness and white identities in a context where Indigenous political claims risk undermining the established (white) order of things. In that sense, race shifting facilitates white futurity in response to conventional reconciliation frameworks.
As an academic study that follows the surprising, and disturbing, gestures of white settler colonialism in Quebec, Distorted Descent meets the unfulfilled ambitions of Writing Beyond the End Times? It is a deeply necessary book that responds to the challenges of the contemporary moment and charts a path for a more livable future.