Review — A Title Too Hot To Handle

Unravelling Encounters peels the vinyl siding off Middle Canada. It is a riveting account of suburban smugness. I challenge any book club to read and discuss it. I don’t think they have the guts.

Authors recount our affluent nation’s “imaginary past”. They interview one social worker who describes the 1960s as magic – the word is actually used, “magic” – “The music, and growing your hair, and bucking authority, and going against the establishment,” she says: “We really pushed the boundaries.”

By comparison interviewees curse the present as a bleak era of mean-spirited program cuts. “As I listened to social workers talk about recent changes to their work, my attention was drawn to the recurring presence of highly nostalgic memories about the past, especially on the part of research participants who identified as white and female,” writes co-editor Kristin Smith, associate professor of social work at Ryerson University.

Problem, writes Smith: the magical past that gave us pensions and hospital insurance also produced Indian Residential Schools, forced adoption and race-based immigration quotas. “It becomes apparent that mourning over social welfare, especially on the part of white social workers, constitutes a form of historical amnesia obscuring the history of violent colonization and racism in Canadian social welfare policies.”

Unravelling Encounters documents White Canada, a subject so painful it rates among our country’s greatest taboos. “An emotional response is unleashed when the ‘goodness of whiteness’ and the innocence of white people in this racialized settler/colonial nation is called into question,” writes Dr. Carol Schick of the University of Regina.

Canadian views on race and history are skewed by over-exposure to the dramatic American experience of slavery and Jim Crow. It is a handy escape. It voids the need for any awkward self-analysis.

An example: when the Senate suspended Patrick Brazeau in 2013 then-Government leader Senator Marjory LeBreton called it an “experiment gone wrong”. Other senators were suspended too, but none were former chiefs of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. LeBreton presumably felt comfortable in blurting out exactly what was on her mind – you know, those kind of people. She was not fired.

Chapter by chapter, Unravelling Encounters challenges readers to peer a little closer. The analysis is crisp, the findings provocative. Nirmala Bains of Vanier College interviews young Canadians who apply to teach English in South Korea. They are typically jobless, bored Caucasians, 23 or 24, who studied humanities or political science: “There are not a lot of engineering students around here,” one says. None are qualified to teach in Canada.

They are quite literally temporary foreign workers, Bains writes, yet all dismiss the fact as unimaginable: “A migrant worker to me is a construction worker or restaurant worker,” says one: “I feel like I was asked to come here because I have something they want. It is more of a prestige thing. I have English, and they want English”; “I definitely feel that I am on a higher level ‘cause I make more money than Koreans and I am invited here from a Western country.”

No book club will take up Unravelling Encounters. Too bad. It would be a discussion they’d never forget.

By Holly Doan

Unravelling Encounters: Ethics, Knowledge & Resistance Under Neoliberalism; edited by Caitlin Janzen, Donna Jeffery and Kristin Smith; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 300 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-21255; $29.24

Back to Top