This post is part of the occasional series Outside Canada Looking In, in which scholars reflect on how teaching about the Canadian environment abroad has shaped how they see Canada.
On March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau closed Canada’s borders. Currently, only citizens, residents, and their immediate family can enter the country. He also told Canadians abroad it’s “time to come home.”
One day later, I had a flight booked to Toronto. Like many others on this site, I was headed to the ASEH in Ottawa and, on the way there, I planned to visit family.
Although I have been living in Germany since 2012, my only passport is Canadian. My uncertain response to Trudeau’s call “to come home” wasn’t unique. Estimates aren’t definite, but some reckon there are up to three million Canadians living abroad.
Environments are a powerful influence on how people imagine home. For some, home is a landscape. I know people who grew up next to rowdy water and only feel at home when the landscape is wet and the waves choppy. Forget postal codes or nations, I have friends who grew up among mountains that feel the ground is most foreign when it’s flat. Perhaps in addition to inquiring about mother tongues and addresses, we should ask if one pledges allegiances to prairies or to peaks, to icy shores or to muddy swamps.
My answer? I feel loyal to lakes big enough to mistake as oceans and rocks that behave like hills.
I cancelled my flight and stayed in Munich. I had syllabi to plan. The German semester alternates with Canada’s. Instead of a fall semester, Germany has a winter one from October to February. And instead of spring, its summer semester goes from April to July.
We’re a few weeks in and although I’m still holding seminars, I’m doing so in my slippers. Like educators all over, in response to COVID-19, LMU Munich has gone online. The only students I see are the size of passport photos on Zoom.
I teach at the Amerika-Institut. Some of my courses focus on Canada, others on the United States, and some on both together. Trained as a cultural historian (who has transitioned from a focus on contemporary art to foodways), my courses often engage with the environmental humanities.
The first course I taught was a cultural history of Canada. It was fall 2015, half a year after I joined the Rachel Carson Center’s Doctoral Program and the year of a federal election. As someone who hadn’t lived in Canada for the past five years, I was no longer eligible to vote. I addressed this in my teaching. Or, in my partner’s words, “I’m glad your students now have to listen to you rant and no longer me.” Embracing clichés, the seminar used stereotypes as an entry point for surveying contemporary Canadian society, covering topics from myths about nature and imaginations of the “Great White North” to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (at that point, hot off the press).
It was through introducing a diverse group of young students—Germans, many with multiple mother tongues, as well as exchange students—to Canada, a country few had been to, that I learned to teach.
Three years later I taught the course Half Empty, Half Full: A Cultural History of Water in Canada and the United States. Looking at water’s many roles and meanings, we discussed water as beverage and ritual, as danger and endangered, and water as commodity versus water as right. We considered the relationship between Indigenous sovereignty and salmon and the politics of sealing, watching Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2016 Angry Inuk, and reading Kyle Powys Whyte on the Dakota Access Pipeline.
For our session on water as recreation, I showed images from my family’s cottage on Georgian Bay, traditional Anishinaabeg territory. As I prepared my presentation, I didn’t think much of scrolling through photos of sunsets and our dock’s view of Beausoleil Island and selecting ones to share.
“You’ll never believe what happened.”
“‘You’ll Never Believe What Happened’ Is Always a Great Way to Start” is the title of the first chapter in Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. It is also the first text we read in our seminar. Narrating his take on Skywoman and the beginnings of Turtle Island, the Haudenosaunee creation story, we compared King’s text to North American “discovery” dramas of ships and seas. Stories about water.
I had first assigned a reading by King in my Canadian cultural history course. For one assignment, students could write a response paper about any of the readings. Twenty-one out of thirty-five wrote about The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. They fell for King’s humour, but stayed for his critique, penning titles like “The Comedian Indian,” “The Inconvenient Bavarian,” and “North Americans Have A Lot to Learn.” Some addressed the enduring legacy of Karl May’s popular Winnetou novels in Germany, and others reconsidered “dressing up as an Indian” as a popular Carnival costume.
So back to what happened: As I sat in front of my students, sharing an image of our cottage felt strangely intimate, like lifting the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.
I have never taught in Canada, but I imagine it as different. Never mind the schedules and styles, when I teach about Canada in Germany, I am essentially teaching about my family’s history. This usually appears in a between-the-lines way, but with these pictures I was critiquing the Canadian colonial project but also confronting how my family has benefited from it. Sure, this would happen in Canada too, but with a different dynamic.
After showing cottage snapshots, I summarized historian Peter A. Stevens’ “Decolonizing cottage country” and his explanation that cottaging signifies the good life, an “… escape from the cares of the world, and immersion in a natural landscape that is dedicated to pleasure, relaxation, and tranquility.” But as Stevens writes, the play Cottagers and Indians by Drew Hayden Taylor, an Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations, “disrupts the idealized image of cottage life.” Cottage country, like all of Canada, is a contested place.
It is hard to distill how teaching in Germany has impacted me. Some of these changes come from living here, but others connect to the responsibility I have as an educator. A settler Canadian teaching in a country that wears its history on its sleeve.
It was from dipping in Bavarian lakes that I realized how many of my outdoor Ontario experiences were of the pay-to-use nature variety—private property, no trespassing signs, and parks with entrance fees.
And it has been from critically confronting myths in classes where I can shape how students see Canada that, in turn, shapes how I see the country and its contested lands. Those lands still feel like home, but I see them as composed of lakes and rocks and knowledge so much older than any country called Canada.
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