Feminist Legal Studies Queen’s (FLSQ) hosted its 2023 International Women’s Day conference on the weekend of March 10-11. The theme of this year’s hybrid event was “Radical Collaboration(s) for a Better World: Reckoning(s) Revolutions, Life, and Love…Towards the Elimination of All Forms of Inequalities.”

This annual event is organized by FLSQ Co-Directors Professors Bita Amani and Kathleen Lahey, with sponsorship this year from Queen’s Law, the Principal’s Development Fund, and Queen’s Gender and Black Studies. 

Following a warm welcome by Dean Mark Walters, in her opening remarks, Amani expressed the hope that the conference would provide opportunities for attendees to “learn from each other and build our communities, and to collaborate radically towards and for a better world, finding “areas for intersection…toward the eradication of all forms of inequalities.” Lahey noted that with all the turmoil that’s happening in the world today, the 2023 theme was especially timely. “Hopefully, this year’s conference will be a corner-turning event that will take the discourses that surround the problems of inequalities to a much higher level than they have been,” she said. 

The keynote address by Professor Debra Thompson, the Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies at McGill University’s political science department who is also a 2023 Queen’s University Principal’s Development Fund Visitor, was in keeping with that goal. The title of Thompson’s talk was “Roots, Routes, and Reckonings: On Blackness and Belonging in North America.” 

Thompson, a leading scholar of the comparative politics of race, is the author of two critically acclaimed books. The Schematic State: Race, Transnationalism, and the Politics of the Census (2016) is a study of the political development of racial classifications on the national censuses of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. The Long Road Home: On Blackness and Belonging (2022) traces the roots of Black identities in North America and the routes taken by her own family members and others who crossed the Canada-U.S. border in search of freedom and a sense of belonging.

Drawing upon content from that latter book, Thompson recounted her own experiences from a revelatory decade that she lived in the U.S. She’s a dual-citizen whose ancestors were runaway slaves. They settled in southwestern Ontario in the 1850s after coming north via the Underground Railway. Said Thompson, “When I decided to go live in the U.S. I felt like I was ‘going home’...in part to lay claim to the humanity that [my ancestors] were refused, and I was...quite wrong, but not in the way you might think.”

What Thompson came to realize during her sojourn south of the border was that while Americans tend to think of their country as being exceptional, the reality is that assumption carries a very large caveat. “The doctrine of American exceptionalism requires a kind of willful ignorance about how American democracy has worked for those who were excluded from this original 18th-century formulation of ‘We, the people,’” said Thompson. “The self-evident truth of the liberal ideal that all men are created equal was scarred into the Declaration of Independence at the same time that nearly 20 per cent of the population was held in bondage.” 

She went on to note that the U.S.  is neither free nor is it a place of equality. Racism is inherent in the social, legal, economic, and political distinctions that mark and maintain equal entry and access points to privacy, property, protection, prosperity, and personhood. “Racism has shaped every major political, social, economic institution in [America], every single one,” Thompson said. “It has touched every single facet of American life and society in ways that I didn't understand, until I moved there.”

That realization led Thompson to another important insight. By the time she returned to Canada in 2020, it was apparent to her that while Canadians insist this country is different from the U.S. and isn’t racist, the reality is that’s a fallacy. 

As Thompson sees it, Canadians simultaneously hide and entrench “the persistent racial inequities that define nearly every socioeconomic indicator in this country.”  However, she notes, that the mindset that prompts Canadians to be righteously indignant about racism in the United States, but defensive where this country is concerned, is itself a uniquely Canadian kind of racism.

“This denial is aided and embedded. I argue, by the way, that Canadian multiculturalism has become a powerful national ethos. And yet, no matter how multicultural we are, or how multicultural we claim to be, there's one question that non-white people get asked on the regular. Where are you from?”

Benign though such queries might be, Thompson argues that they are integral to the national mythology that buttresses Canadians’ notion that because this country is multicultural it can’t possibly be racist. However, racism “manifests itself in the realm of ideas and can move across borders as easily as the wind.” 

In addition to the Thompson address, the 2023 FLSQ conference featured a wide-ranging slate of panel discussions, all of which were related to the weekend’s main theme. Those sessions included:

  • “To Stay, Move, and Decide: Embedded Values and Powers,” chaired by Professor Debra Haak, Queen’s Law; 
  • “Humanizing Discourses and Socializing Stories Promoting Life: Methods and Equality of Relations Revisited,” chaired by Professor Sharry Aiken, Queen’s Law/Cultural Studies;
  • “Fire in the Belly and Burning Conversations: Life, Arts, and the Authoring of a Better World,” chaired by Professor Bita Amani, Queen’s Law;
  • “On Love and Life: Patriarchy, Politics, and (In)Equalities in/of Changing Environments,” chaired by Professor Beverley Baines, Queen’s Law;
  • “Care, Wellbeing, and the (Re)Imagining of Established Thinking: Conceptions, Preventions, and Collaborations,” chaired by Professor Lisa Kelly, Queen’s Law;
  • “Sustainable (Development) Goals? Cultural Production, Commodity Consumption and the Eradication of (In)(E)qualities of Identity Harms in National and International Fora,” chaired by Professor Danielle Macdonald, Queen’s School of Nursing; and,
  • “Feminisms Convergences and Divergences: United and Divided Conceptions of (and Consequences for) Equality,” chaired by Professor Bita Amani.

By Ken Cuthbertson, Law’83

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