“Comprehending Canada:” Learning from Canadian Studies in the Heart of Europe

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the department of English and American studies at Masaryk University organized a new international collaborative summer course on Canadian studies titled “Comprehending Canada.” Already taught twice in two consecutive years by an international team of five experts from Canada and Czech Republic, the success of the course is a reflection of the ever-increasing popularity of Canadian studies in Central Europe and beyond.

Founded in 1919, Masaryk University is based in the mid-sized Central European city of Brno in the Czech Republic and is the second-largest university in the country. Masaryk has stood at the forefront of advancing Canadian studies since 1990 when it established the Canadian Studies Centre with the aim to promote research and develop courses that focus on Canadiana. In 1998, the university hosted the inaugural International Conference of Central European Canadianists which led directly to the founding of the Central European Association for Canadian Studies, an organization that coordinates Canadianists active in Central Europe. The association has been a member of the International Council for Canadian Studies since 2004 and I am currently working at its Secretariat, coordinating its nearly two hundred members from over ten different countries. Reflecting from this position and as Course Coordinator for “Comprehending Canada” as we prepare for its third consecutive year, reflecting on the course’s growth is important pedagogical practice and revelatory of the role the environmental humanities has played in its development.

Fig. 1. A Canadian Panorama. Gratefully used with permission of the photographer, Denisa Krásná.

Comprehending Canada: Pedagogical Approaches

The “Comprehending Canada” course was designed with the aim to expand upon the aims of the Canadian Studies Centre: to share its teachings broadly, reaching beyond the university premises. Held over Zoom, the course is offered for free to thirty students each year and is open to students from across the world. In past years, students have joined mostly from European universities, yet represent an incredibly diverse cohort of schools: Regensburg University of Germany, Tartu University in Estonia, the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Porto in Portugal, the University of Vienna in Austria, the University of Sofia in Bulgaria, University of La Laguna in Spain, the University of Warsaw in Poland — as well as Saint Michael’s College in the United States. The students themselves cultivated a truly international environment, with many nations represented — Czech, Slovakian, American, Iranian, Spanish, Swedish, German, Estonian, Finnish, Kazakhstani, Portuguese, Austrian, Serbian, Australian, and Italian students have converged to learn about Canada.

Fig. 2. The Faculty of Arts Building at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic with lush greenery in the middle ground and students gathered and walking around the courtyard’s landscape. Gratefully used with permission of the photographer, Denisa Krásná.

To uphold the goals of the Canadian Studies Center and course alike, the course content is carefully prepared and organised in order to accommodate students of all levels (whether pursuing a BA, MA, or even a PhD) and from diverse areas within the humanities at large. Its intensive, two-week format rigorously attends to providing comprehensive learning outcomes and is divided by week. In the first week of the course, students have access to pre-recorded lectures, required and recommended readings and videos, as well as discussion forums. Importantly, in this week, they also meet their fellow participants — as well as all five instructors — over Zoom during an hour-long introductory session. In its second week, the course is devoted to intensive, online seminars, with two ninety-minute-long discussion-based sessions every day, each guided by one of the instructors.

Richard Nimijean, from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada sets the tone for these classes, providing seminars on “National Identity, Diversity, Race and Ethnicity,” followed by my own contribution, introducing students to “Indigenous Studies, Literature and the Environment” (itself reflective of my research at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic). The week continues at an intensive pace: on Wednesday, Jeffrey Ayres from Saint Michael’s College (Burlington, USA) continues with his sessions on “Canada-U.S. Relations, the Border, Refugees,” on Thursday, Magdalena Fiřtová from Charles University in Prague elaborating on previous topics with her seminars on “Climate Policy, Natural Resources, and Immigration.” Finally, Tomáš Pospíšil from Masaryk University closes the class with two final seminars on “Canadian Feature Film.” Truly intersectional in its scope, the course covers topics from the fields of political science, literary and film studies, economics, international relations, border studies, social sciences, Indigenous studies, and importantly, the environmental humanities.

Environmental Humanities in the Course:

Contemporary Canada’s leading role in the environmental humanities sees to it that the content of the course actively engages this field. Students are asked to consider Canada in relation to issues ranging from climate change, environmental degradation, environmental violence and racism, and environmental policy — as well as philosophical questions which ask them to think critically about the treatment of non-human animals, plants, and the land. Learning about Canada from the perspective of environmental studies along this intensive framework challenges many students’ preconceived, stereotypical views about Canada: in one of the student’s own words, for them, the course “made my view of Canada less naïve.” The course, then, presents an important pedagogical model for other environmental humanities scholars working to apply and improve decolonial practice in the classroom.

Fig. 3. A Canadian landscape: Image description: a lake with turquoise blue waters offers a middle ground contrasting lush trees on a downward slope; mountains in the background are partially snow-covered, their tips obsucrued by cloud cover. Gratefully used with permission of the photographer, Denisa Krásná.

Importantly, the course introduces Canada as a country whose elite largely profit from extractive industries. Juxtaposing Western, capitalist ways of life and thought which perpetuates hierarchies, further colonizes minoritized groups, and exploits nature with Indigenous philosophies of “interconnectedness,” the course offers a decolonial alterNative1 to the anthropocentric Western mindset. Combining environmental studies with Indigenous studies further deepens students’ knowledge-building of the extractive colonialism and capitalism on which Canada is built.

Towards these learning outcome goals, the course implements a variety of pedagogical tools. In one such exercise, students engage in a compelling discussion, and are asked to think over some of the ways that can help us deconstruct our embedded lines of thought, unsettle these, and motivate positive environmental change. In one of their written assignments, the course’s participants are asked to reflect on the importance of decolonial perspectives in environmental and animal rights movements. In both exercises, students are inevitably thinking and writing from an anti-anthropocentric perspective and importantly, are already learning both to deconstruct the Western mindset and to apply other perspectives in their analysis of the Canadian society (and beyond).

Perspectives from the environmental humanities and Indigenous studies fortify the course framework to enrich student learning outcomes and shed intersectional light on the destructive impacts of the extraction of natural resources. From poisoned water on First Nations reserves to gender violence against Indigenous women and children near the so-called “man camps”, the course unmasks how marginalized communities are discriminated and terrorized by extractive industries and colonial oppression, and introduces some of the pathways by which those communities resist colonial injustice. From eco-feminist women-led initiatives such as Idle No More2 to the many environmental coalitions in the Arctic, First Nations are challenging the colonial system. Artivism, a term used to describe the important juncture of art and activism as acts of resistance and artistry, has also become a popular and powerful means of peaceful resistance within these contexts and communities. The students are introduced to select counter-narratives in the form of literature, art, and film that they then discuss in the seminar, enriching their knowledge base.

Fig. 4. “Brno, city of statues, a temporary exhibit by artist Michal Gabriel,” installation as photographed by Denisa Krásná. Used with gratitude to, and permission from, the photographer.

The course depends upon environmental history frameworks alongside these frameworks to show the extent to which resource production is at the heart of the settler-colonial Canadian identity. Canada has long been represented as a resource space: a country whose economic, social, and political organization is determined by spatial distribution of extractive activities. Relatedly, in her session on climate policy and natural resources, Magdalena Fiřtová offers an intensive look at the colonial systems at the core of these acts of violence. Magdalena’s contribution contextualises how Canadian mineral exploration and the expansion of capitalist activites contributed directly to the dispossession of Indigenous land and territorial sovereignty on the extractive frontier. Branching off of other sessions, this environmental history works to evidence the mechanisms which led to a shift which diverges from Indigenous lifeways of collective land use to the individualistic model, beholden to profits and western conceptualizations of private property. Alongside readings that challenge students to consider the aggressive discourse of extractive populism that portrays environmentalists as radical and anti-nationalistic, this session, and others reliant on similar frameworks, uncover some of the major reasons for tensions in Canadian society. This year, students also discussed the impacts of the war in Ukraine on the extraction of natural resources in Canada and how extraction industries benefit from the conflict.

Importantly, in its final stages, the course introduces Alfred Crosby’s concept of “ecological imperialism” as a vehicle to explain how colonizers physically transformed environments of colonized societies by their deliberate occupation and through activities that facilitated the introduction of foreign species of non-human animals, plants, and diseases on the North American continent. Considering other animals as colonial subjects, the Indigenous session of the course shows how dependent colonization has been on settlers’ subjugation of other animals and how their continued exploitation drives and sustains these capitalist power systems. By engaging anti-colonial perspectives from the field of critical animal studies, students are asked to consider the entangled nature of colonization of non-human animals and Indigenous peoples and to see decolonization itself as an inherently more-than-human process.

Fig. 5. A family of Canadian Grizzly bears. A mother bear on alert (center) looks alerted towards her right. Two cubs (one to the left and one to the right) play in the grass. The cub to the left of mother bear looks directly at the camera. Gratefully used with permission of the photographer, Denisa Krásná.

Outcomes: Invitation to Participate

“I consider the course high quality and it definitely met my expectations. The University of Tartu where I am studying towards my master’s belongs to top 105 universities in the world and I can genuinely say that your course belongs to one of the best courses I attended in spring term. I am very grateful that I was given a chance to be part of it.”

— Anonymous student from Estonia

All in all, our course’s participants have provided positive feedback and have overwhelmingly expressed gratitude for having attended the course. The course expands beyond western pedagogical norms, making detailed concepts accessible to student understanding and promoting life-long learning skills through immersion and alterNative perspectives. Towards these ends, the environmental humanities fortify our course’s teaching tools, uproot western pedagogical norms, and provide fertile soil for community thought work within this international, collaborative course. Although the course’s condensed time frame ensures a rigorous immersion, students produce beautiful, analytical work in a supportive environment allowing them to reflect on contemporary Canada in a critical, yet objective manner. Their written responses to selected readings — and their intriguing in-class discussions — give us the pleasure of saying with confidence that the course provided them with new perspectives to Comprehending Canada.

Get in Touch!

The course is scheduled to take place for the third time in June 2023. For more information, or to register, get in touch with Denisa Krásná in spring of 2023 (April/May) at:
den.krasna [at] mail.muni.cz


1 See e.g. Simpson, Leanne, Betasamosake. “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 3, No. 3, 2014, pp. 1-25 and Nelson, Melissa K. “Education for the Eighth Fire.” EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, edited by Erik Assadourian and Lisa Mastny, Island Press, 2017, pp. 49-60.
2 See idlenomore.ca and see also Coulthard, Glen. “Idle No More in Context: A History of Resistance.” rabble.ca. Rabble, 7 Jan 2013. https://rabble.ca/indigenous/idle-no-more-context-history-resistance/.

Feature image: A landscape photograph of Brno taken at an upward angle with fallen leaves in the foreground and composition looking outward to the city. Provided at the courtesy of the author and photographer, Denisa Krásná, gratefully used with permission.
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Denisa Krasna

Denisa Krásná is a doctoral candidate at the department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University, specializing in Critical Animal Studies, Ecofeminism, and Indigenous studies. She has received awards to conduct research at universities in Mexico, Spain, Canada, and Hawaii and worked as a research assistant in a law firm based in Bellingham, WA, specializing in Indigenous cross-border rights. Currently, she is developing a research project on decolonial outdoor counternarratives funded by Masaryk University which she hopes to publish as a book. She has published papers in prestigious international journals and essay collections and presented at international conferences across Europe and North America. She is an avid highliner and climber and always strives to find balance in life so that she can pursue both her academic and outdoor goals.

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