Review of Critical Inquiries in Labour/Le Travail

Critical Inquiries
A Reader in Studies of Canada

Edited by Lynn Caldwell, Darryl Leroux and Carrianne Leung  

Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada, edited by Lynn Caldwell, Carrianne Leung and Darryl Leroux, is a useful text that is simultaneously indicative of what has, perhaps, become the dominant scholarly approach to Canadian Studies. Critical Inquiries is a collection of essays that runs to 207 pages of text, exclusive of bibliography and index. It consists of a “Foreword” by Rinaldo Walcott, an editorial introduction, ten essay chapters, and an “Afterword” by Sherene Razack. The ten chapters are divided into three sections that explore diversity politics, their implications for place, and the cultural politics of Canadian nationalism. In short, it is designed, in large measure, as a text for what strikes me as upper-level undergraduate or MA courses. As a text, Critical Inquiries looks to “open up space to think the nation otherwise.” (15) Said differently, its objectives are to encourage students to reconsider their “common sense” understanding of Candada derived from official discourses and, secondly, to probe beneath their surfaces in a way that exposes the deeply disturbing ideological dynamics that have made — and continue to refashion — Canada. As the editors explain, it is this critical perspective that unites the collection. What makes this collection valuable is not, however, the specific case studies it provides. In point of fact, there is little remarkably new in it because, in one way or another, the various authors and editors all work with a variant of critical race theory. Those who have been reading the work of Razack, Eve Mackey, Himani Bannerji, or Ian McKay and Robin Bates’ In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) will not be surprised by this collection’s conclusions. As Razack explains in the “Afterword,” the collection began “with the understanding that Canada is a White settler society, one that is constituted in ongoing colonial violence.” “This book,” she continues, “invites readers to think about the salience of race and colonialism in the Canadian context. Racial exclusion is built into the Canadian story of multiculturalism.” (197) For those of us who teach Canadian Studies, there is little with which to disagree here. Indeed, I laud the activism of these scholars, their desire to trouble self-congratulatory national narratives, as well as their commitment to politically-active scholarship. Robert Campbell noted some time ago that Canadian Studies makes its most effective scholarly contributions when it takes an engaged, committed, and progressive perspective. Critical Inquiries meets this mark.
It also raises questions. Leaving aside potentially idiosyncratic quibbles one might have with any particular essay, two issues strike me as important to raise by way of engagement with this text. First: what happened to social class? Critical Inquiries is, rightly, interested in challenging official discourses and easy patriotism, but in the process neglects a generation of scholarship — much of which was developed through Labour/Le Travail — that explored how the material processes of modernity both bred and constituted class conflicts, cultures, and dynamics. Because Critical Inquiries is interested in exploring other possible iterations of Canada, this lacuna seems important. Does the history of working-class self-organization have nothing to tell us about the potential trajectories of other Canadas? This is not a matter of playing off class against race in order to suggest that one is more important than the other. It is about thinking through class to see how racialization and other material conflicts both create and limit possibilities for radical social, political-economic, and cultural transformation. My second concern is related to the first. The editors and authors might find this characterization amiss, but Critical Inquiries has an oddly dated “feel.” One of its key analytic foci is the supposedly liberal, progressive discourses that mask racializing violence. But, these liberal progressive discourses have been increasingly displaced by Harperesque conservatism. In a string of important areas — migrant labour, the militarization of Canadian heritage, law and order discourses that underscore prison construction as well as women’s rights — the current federal government is looking to reconstruct Canada on very different grounds. One should not neglect the intensely problematic character of Canadian liberalism but surely, too, politically engaged scholarship should not neglect the Conservative re-branding of Canada and the concomitant reconstruction of Canadian public policy currently in progress. The continuities between the Harper government and Canada’s liberal past are evident but, too, are discontinuities that need to be explored, analyzed, critiqued, and challenged. Such policy levers as new visa rules (replete with exclusions), citizenship tests, and the increasingly privatized temporary labour recruitment processes are matters about which we want our students to know. Moreover, the heuristics of critical race theory linked to an explicit re-theorization of political economy strike me as a sound basis upon which to engage these developments. Here we might seek not simply to unmask their violent racialized and colonial logic but to show how they are part of processes that re-constitute class and class conflict in contemporary Canada. What are the strengths and limits of a re-oriented transformative politics that looks to dislodge the material logic of capitalist neo-liberalism? What would such a transformation require? Critical Inquiries has its strengths and weaknesses. Simply stating that is trite and does not, in fact, make for an effective review. What I mean to say is that its strengths are appreciable and its weaknesses telling. The telling nature of these weaknesses does not suggest that we should not use this book. Instead, it suggests a new future direction for Canadianist scholarship that maintains its political commitments but, at the same time, broadens its analytic scope in a way that more directly addresses and engages the class dynamics of contemporary Canadian capitalism and the state.

— Andrew Nurse (Mount Allison University)

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