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  • Riisa Walden

Great Books & Excellent Educators: How I Came to This Work

As a queer, feminist teenager in the 90s, thinking about systemic oppression and wanting to work toward dismantling it came quite naturally on a personal level. However, recognizing and understanding systemic oppression beyond the boundaries of my own identity, that started with Partition.


In my first year of university, I fortunately found myself being taught by professors who understood systemic oppression and centered topics connected to inequality in the classroom by introducing students to texts and theoretical perspectives that resisted hegemonic discourses. Among other pivotal works like Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, we read Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India. This is when I first learned about Partition: one of the biggest human migrations in history, accompanied by extreme ethno-religious violence, and inextricably tied to the history of British colonialism on the Indian subcontinent.



Learning about Partition, especially through the eyes of the young female protagonist in Sidhwa’s novel, transformed my understanding of world history. However, what resonated more prominently, at the time, was the fact that I had never learned about this event before, although it happened in 1947, the not-so-distant past. This was my first recognition of the immense bias of my education in Canada and the cultural milieu in which I was raised. These are systems and spaces that repeatedly prioritize the importance of certain world events, selected cultural productions and art forms, and particular ways of knowing over others.



I was left with the unsettling but life-defining question of what else had been left out? What else didn’t I know that I should? The same education system and cultural milieu that omitted momentous events like Partition is the one that didn’t honestly or adequately address the colonial history or present in Canada when I was a student in the 80s and 90s. It still doesn’t.


It is these conditions that more recently in the 2000s when teaching Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon make it such that my grade 11 students only knew about figures of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr., but none recognized the names of Malcolm X or Angela Davis. It is hard to understand or analyze, let alone empathize with, the perspective of a character like Guitar Bains without understanding a philosophy of liberation expressed in the idea of “by any means necessary.”


Why am I still at this work?


As a white, middle-class woman, living in Canada, I count myself incredibly lucky to have been exposed to the workings of systemic oppression relatively early on in my life. For many, who experience this oppression daily, that isn’t a choice. However, I also received a companion lesson that truly launched me on a life-long journey of challenging these same systems through teaching, learning, and writing and instilled an ongoing practice of questioning the gaps in my own awareness of the experience of other people and the world.


At that same aforementioned university, in second-year global politics, I was elated to be learning about geopolitical relations, naively thinking, now that we all understand how oppression works on a global scale, we would be able to easily dismantle it. This is when another student raised his hand and asked why we were bothering learning about the topic of the day and suggested we might be better served by focusing on a different topic that he clearly found more relevant.


That day, I wept as I walked home.


I felt a deep sense of despair in coming to the realization that injustice doesn’t just happen because well-intentioned people don’t know any better. I had a feeling that there was a high likelihood that many of my predominantly white classmates at this prestigious university were going to go on to business and law school and other influential careers and, with the same knowledge I was learning, happily continue to benefit from and perpetuate systemic oppression.


I learned that day that achieving a just society takes education plus ongoing commitment to work towards this goal. It doesn’t happen passively through hopeful thinking. There are many otherwise nice, well-informed people who are happy just the way things are.


Support I've had along the way


Thank you, Teresa Hubel, for being my earliest model for the kind of educator and person I wanted to be.


Thank you, my friends of colour, for being patient with me as I have chipped away at and continue to discover the gaps in my learning and understanding.


Thank you, authors, for writing the words that bring life to the narratives and ideas that have the potential to change the world.


You are what brought me to this work and keep me at it everyday.

Connected Reading & Listening


Sarah Ansari, The Conversation, “How the Partition of India happened – and why its effects are still felt today”


Aanchal Malhotra in conversation with Michael Enright, The Sunday Edition, “The stories objects tell: What survivors of the Partition of India took with them”


Chelsea Vowel, CBC, “Debunking the myth that Canadian schools teach enough about indigenous people”


DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post, “Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost”


Lavanya Ramanathan, The Washington Post, “Angela Davis is beloved, detested, misunderstood. What can a lifelong radical teach the resistance generation?”

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