Margaret Atwood, Kent Monkman, George Elliot Clarke part of Restorying Canada conference at uOttawa

Timing is everything and an intriguing conference underway at the University of Ottawa next week is the recipient of a happy coincidence.

Called Restorying Canada, the gathering will over three days (May 18 to May 20) “explore key themes, ideas, and issues related to religion, memory, and collective identity in Canada, both historically and today.”

It features two events with high profile individuals which should draw attention. One is with the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), has become a metaphor for our times and is the subject of a much-discussed new TV series. Much as 1984 did during the Cold War, Atwood’s dark story of a United States of America taken over by religious zealots, is assuming the status of prophesy and Atwood herself, with her 1.4 million twitter followers, has become a bit of a sage.

Emma Anderson is one of the organizers of the Restorying Canada conference.

There will be 19 regular sessions in Restorying Canada with about 85 registered participants who will present papers and two evening plenary sessions. The first of those is on May 18 at 6:30 p.m. in the National Gallery auditorium featuring the indigenous cellist Cris Derksen, Canada’s poet laureate George Elliott Clarke and the indigenous artist Kent Monkman (Tickets). The second panel on Friday May 19 at 7 p.m. in Tabaret Hall features Atwood and the eco-Christian activist Leah Kostamo (Tickets). The rest of the panels will be in the Desmarais building on the uOttawa campus and are open to the public.

Emma Anderson, a uOttawa professor in the department of classics and religious studies, says part of the idea for the conference comes from a sense that these sorts of gatherings seem to take place elsewhere.

Together with her colleagues Hillary Kaell (Concordia University) and Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto) the decision to hold a conference at uOttawa was made at a meeting in the U.S. of the American Academy of Religion.

“We were eating dinner together and noticing how odd it is that we are all female Canadian academics and the only time we see each other, even though we live not too far apart, is in the U.S.

“What is up with our academic culture up here that we can’t put on events that are perhaps a little bit more youth driven and broad and intriguing and different and that involve non-academics like journalists, politicians, poets, artists and documentary filmmakers?”

Anderson said that the sesquicentennial also seemed like a natural time to explore different perspectives on how Canada explains itself.

“We were noticing, there are a lot of similarities between the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities over time in Canada. And we wanted to find a forum to talk about those kinds of issues with a broader public.”

She was not interested in a chest-thumping approach to the Canadian story as was done, for example, with the Harper government’s treatment of the anniversary of the War of 1812.

“With this conference we wanted to make it about the good, the bad and the ugly.” The organizers wanted to restate, rethink and restory.

The latter neologism “gets across this idea that we are looking for all the stories. You don’t have to be a flag waving beavertail munching nationalist to enjoy what we doing here. We are trying to encourage a clear eyed evaluation of our past.”

Anderson is a historian as well and she has seen cycles repeat over 400 years of Canadian history. One example is the idea of residential schools.

“My first book was about one of first residential schools back in 17th century. If you talk to most Canadians they would say these schools were a mid-19th century to 20th century phenomenon, but they go back to the very beginnings of contact. If the people of the 19th century had read the Jesuit Relations and seen this tragic failed attempt to indoctrinate Indigenous peoples a few centuries earlier, they might have realized it was not possible.

You can see the parallels between the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War and the examples of Islamophobia happening today.

For Anderson, religion, history and culture reflect each other.

“Some of the ways that we understand our past most memorably is not in academic tomes, but in the stories or images we create, such as Tomson Highway’s novel Kiss of the Fur Queen which tells the story of two brothers in residential school.”

Anderson will moderate the event featuring Atwood.

“This is a woman who has been writing now for half a century and if you look at her works about religion, they are extremely nuanced and variegated. With The Handmaid’s Tale we are getting the negative side of religion used as a patriarchal, muzzling force that is trying to control women. It’s dystopian.

“If you look at the Oryx and Crake trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) religion comes out on both sides of the equation. The God’s Gardeners are eco-Christians. They’re kind of the heroes of this word gone mad. She is playing with how religions are created with the Crakers.”

Anderson says the conference organizers want people to listen and think about how fact and fiction and academics, artists and activists all mutually influence each other. The co-panelist with Atwood is  Leah Kostamo, who is a Christian environmentalist and author and who founded with her husband a branch of the A Rocha in British Columbia 12 years ago, which Anderson says, is modelled after God’s Gardeners. A Rocha is a Christian environmental stewardship organization with branches around the globe that is working in conservation, environmental education and sustainable agriculture.

“Kostamo was inspired by Atwood’s fiction writing. She read about the God’s Gardeners and thought this is where Christianity needs to go,” Anderson said.

Even Pope Francis has called environmental degradation a sin.

“Francis is linking issues of environment and poverty together. He is throwing down a challenge by saying that we have to work on alleviating poverty and reclaiming our environment.”

For more information on Restorying Canada, please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.