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William Leggett receives prestigious lifetime achievement award

Dr. William Leggett.

William Leggett, professor emeritus in the Department of Biology and Queen's 17th principal, has received the H. Ahlstrom Lifetime Achievement Award from the Early Life History Section of the American Fisheries Society for his contributions to the fields of larval fish ecology.

The American Fisheries Society is the biggest association of professional aquatic ecologists in the world, with over 9,000 members worldwide.

"œIt feels good to be singled out by such large group of people who I respect so highly," says Dr. Leggett. "œI didn'™t expect to receive this award so it'™s a big honour and thrill to get it."

Dr. Leggett'™s research focuses on the dynamics of fish populations and his work as a biologist and a leader in education has been recognized nationally and internationally. A membership in the Order of Canada, a fellowship from the Royal Society of Canada, and the Award of Excellence in Fisheries Education are just some of the awards he has received for outstanding contributions to graduate education and marine science.

The Early Life History Section of the American Fisheries Society recognized Dr. Leggett'™s "œexceptional contributions to the understanding of early life history of fishes that has inspired the careers of a number of fisheries scientists worldwide and has led to major progress in fish ecology and studies of recruitment dynamics."

The award was recently presented in Quebec City at the 38th annual Larval Fish Conference held in conjunction with the 144th annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society.

 

The Conversation: Fossil fuel era is ending, but the lawsuits are just beginning

An American coal company is suing the Canadian government over Alberta's plan to combat climate change.

Trucks at a coal mine]
Trucks make their way along a makeshift road at a coal mine in Indonesia. (Photo by Dominik Vanyi/Unsplash)

“Coal is dead.”

These are not the words of a Greenpeace activist or left-wing politician, but of Jim Barry, the global head of the infrastructure investment group at Blackrock — the world’s largest asset manager. Barry made this statement in 2017, but the writing has been on the wall for longer than that.

Banks know it, which is why they are increasingly unwilling to underwrite new coal mines and power plants. Unions and coal workers know it, which is why they are demanding a just transition and new employment opportunities in the clean economy. Even large diversified mining companies are getting out of the business of coal.

The only ones who seem to have remained in denial are President Donald Trump and non-diversified mining companies like Westmoreland Coal. The Denver-based firm made a bad bet in 2013 when it purchased five coal mines in Alberta. Now it wants Canadian taxpayers to pay for its mistake.

Alberta’s coal phaseout

Three years ago, Alberta’s New Democratic Party (NDP) committed to what some have described as “the most ambitious climate plan in North America to date.” In addition to the development of an economy-wide carbon price, the province is phasing out coal-fired power by 2030. Without the infrastructure to export coal, the climate plan has also resulted in a de facto phaseout of local thermal coal mining.

To ensure support for the plan, major utility companies in the province were provided with “transition payments” to facilitate the switch to gas and renewable energy. Westmoreland did not receive a government handout, because coal mining companies have no role to play in the energy transition. The company, which filed for bankruptcy protection for its investments in the United States in October, doesn’t think this is fair.

NAFTA’s investment chapter

Because Westmoreland is an American company, it can rely on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for protection from “unfair” treatment. NAFTA allows a foreign investor to use a process known as “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) when government action harms its business in some way.

ISDS allows foreign investors to bypass local courts and bring claims for monetary compensation to an international tribunal. The system is not unique to NAFTA; it is found in other trade agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and thousands of bilateral investment treaties (known as Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements in Canada).

ISDS is hugely controversial. Concerns have been raised by a wide range of actors about both the process of ISDS, and the way the system can infringe on the sovereign right of states to regulate to protect public health, human rights and the environment.

More than 900 ISDS cases have been launched by investors since the early 1990s, including 27 against Canada that have so far cost Canadian taxpayers at least $315 million. There is one ongoing dispute that concerns a ban on gas fracking in Québec, but the Westmoreland claim is the first brought in relation to a policy explicitly designed to combat climate change.

Westmoreland argues that part of the reason it invested in Canada in 2013 was to diversify its holdings in response to regulatory risk. At the time, the Obama Administration was taking action under the Clean Power Plan to reduce the reliance of American utilities on coal. The company’s failure to anticipate similar regulatory action by its northern neighbour is remarkable.

A key battleground

If governments respond appropriately to the urgent warning issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October, efforts to phase out fossil fuels will have to ramp up considerably — and quickly. We should expect the industry to fight these efforts through a variety of means. ISDS may become a key battleground.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA or CUSMA, depending on who is talking about it), which may replace NAFTA (it has been signed, but has not been ratified), does not retain the process of ISDS between Canada and the U.S.

While this is good news in the long run, some have suggested that there will be a “rush of filings” before access to ISDS for already established investors expires (three years after USMCA comes into force). Canada will also be exposed to claims from investors under other agreements such as the CPTPP and Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Other countries, particularly poorer nations, face an even higher risk of ISDS claims and have far less resources available to fight them. It is notable that big oil companies have retained some access to ISDS against Mexico in USMCA, after lobbying hard for it.

[Oil rig works as the sun sets]
An oil rig pumps crude oil as the sun sets. (Photo by Zbynek Burival/Unsplash) 

A climate of fear?

If Westmoreland’s case proceeds to arbitration, it will not have direct implications for Alberta’s climate policy. An investment tribunal cannot require the provincial government to reverse the coal phaseout; it can only award the company damages. Westmoreland is asking for US$470 million. It is the federal government, rather than Alberta, that would have to pay compensation to Westmoreland if the company’s claim was successful. However, Ontario did agree to pay the award in a recent NAFTA case.

What is more concerning than any potential payout is that Westmoreland’s suit could hinder efforts to implement similar plans to combat climate change in other jurisdictions.

Regulatory chill” is a phenomenon that has been observed in several jurisdictions around the world. A notable example is the decision of the New Zealand government to delay the introduction of legislation to require plain packaging of tobacco products until Australia won its ISDS case against the tobacco company Philip Morris International. This delay of regulatory action — out of fear of expensive litigation — may have cost lives.

As recent forest fires and floods have demonstrated, delays in action to combat climate change can also be deadly.

____________________________________________________________The Conversation

Kyla Tienhaara is a Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment and an assistant professor in the School of Environmental Studies and the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

Three math professors named fellows of the Canadian Mathematical Society

[Math Professors]
Professors Ram Murty, Greg Smith and Peter Taylor have been named Fellows of the Canadian Mathematical Society.

Three professors from the Queen’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics have been named to the inaugural class of Fellows of the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS).

Professors Ram Murty, Greg Smith and Peter Taylor are honoured to have been chosen among the class of 49 inaugural fellows.

The fellowship recognizes CMS members who have made excellent contributions to mathematical research, teaching, or exposition, as well as having distinguished themselves in serve to Canada’s mathematical community.

Founded in 1945, the CMS is the main national organization whose goal is to promote and advance the discovery, learning and application of mathematics. 

Queen’s remembers Gerrit (Gerry) Wilde

[Gerrit Wilde]
Professor Emeritus Gerrit (Gerry) Wilde

The Queen’s community is mourning the death of Professor Emeritus Gerrit (Gerry) Wilde (Psychology), who died Jan. 1 while on vacation in Mexico. He was 86.

Flags on campus will be lowered in his honour on Sunday, Jan. 20.

An internationally-renowned researcher, Dr. Wilde’s research interests were focused on, but not limited to: ergonomic psychology; traffic behaviour and accident causation; and the effect of alcohol and sleep deprivation upon performance; as well as the psychology of risk taking.

Born in Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1932, and obtaining his PhD cum laude in 1962 at the University of Amsterdam. He arrived at Queen's in 1965 and was made a professor emeritus upon his retirement in 1997.

A memorial service will be held for Dr. Wilde on Sunday, Jan. 20, at 3 pm at Sydenham Street United Church. 

His obituary was published in the Globe and Mail.

Virtual exhibit examines the digital future

Showcasing innovative Queen's technology projects that could change the way we live.

Close-up of hands using computer (courtesy of Glenn Cartens Peters, Unsplash)

Last fall, experts and audience members gathered at Queen’s University to discuss the future of research, knowledge sharing, and the student learning experience in the digital age at the first-ever Principal’s Symposium.

Hosted by Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf, and emceed by CBC Radio’s Nora Young, the symposium examined advances in artificial intelligence, data analytics, and data governance, as well as how ongoing digital transformation is influencing post-secondary students, Indigenous communities, and people in developed and developing countries.

“The speakers and panelists at our symposium shared a broad and detailed picture of how digital innovation is reshaping learning and discovery both here in Canada and abroad,” says Principal Woolf. “With their insights in mind, as well as those being revealed by researchers and students at Queen’s, we can build upon our institution’s digital framework and take advantage of the opportunities future technologies will surely present.”

The symposium also marked the launch of a supporting virtual exhibit – Imagining Our Digital Future – to highlight digital planning initiatives currently underway at Queen’s and in the Kingston community.

“For decades, Queen’s faculty and students have been leveraging technologies to advance learning and research,” says Principal Woolf. “Technological innovation will continue to change how we live, so our ongoing exploration of this new frontier is not only important, but essential to the future of knowledge, truth, and healthy societal progress. Sharing our ideas and efforts across disciplines will help us stay concerted in our efforts to create an open, inclusive, collaborative, and innovative digital future.”

The virtual exhibit features over 40 digital technology projects happening at Queen’s and in Kingston that have the potential to impact our daily lives, and create previously unimaginable learning and research opportunities across the disciplines – with plans to showcase new projects on an ongoing basis.

Currently, featured projects include everything from “smart” surgical instruments that will help doctors more efficiently remove cancerous tumours and state-of-the-art camera technology used for analyzing human movement, to online database technology used to help preserve Indigenous heritage and art or reunite communities with their history. There are also projects focused on augmented reality and VR simulators, ambient and artificial intelligence, astroparticle physics research, archaeology, surveillance, and more.

Faculty, staff, students, and Kingston community members engaged in interesting digital initiatives are welcomed to submit their project for possible inclusion in the virtual exhibit. Contact the virtual exhibit curators using the online form.

Examining Indigenous rights and the RCMP

New research from Queen’s University examines how the RCMP assess protests.

Queen’s University researcher Miles Howe and co-researcher Jeffrey Monaghan (Carleton University) have revealed in a new report how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) assess individual activists according to political beliefs, personality traits, and even their ability to use social media.

In line with other criminal justice agencies in Canada, the RCMP are now relying on new models of preemptive governance and risk-mitigating strategies.

PhD candidate Miles Howe.

"My initial interest in the RCMP's profiling methodologies stemmed from my involvement, as a journalist, with anti-shale gas protests in New Brunswick, which lasted for much of 2013,” says Howe (Cultural Studies, Global Development Studies). “In a declassified report, known as Project SITKA, the RCMP had determined that 45 Indigenous rights activists in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were meritorious of future surveillance, based upon their involvement in this protest event.”

Howe says that although their names were redacted from the report, he felt sure that many of the people who the RCMP listed had been classified as 'volatile' to state security.

“Having first-hand knowledge of the events of 2013, I was immediately curious as to how the RCMP had ranked these individuals, towards determining their 'volatility',” he added.

When co-author Jeffrey Monaghan and Howe received the RCMP's socio-psychological profiling matrices, for both individuals and events, he says the vast majority of risk ranking factors had to do with an individual or group's ability to use social media, to network, to easily convey their message – even their beliefs surrounding the issue. In short, the potential or reality of criminality was not what determined risk ranking; rather it appeared to mostly surround narrative creation and ability to disseminate.

“Though the RCMP regularly claim to protect and facilitate the right to lawful advocacy, protest, and dissent, my new research shows how these practices of strategic incapacitation exhibit highly antagonistic forms of policing,” Howe says.

The research was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Sociology.

Miles Howe arrived at Queen's University as a 2018 Vanier Scholar.

The Conversation: When pets are family, the benefits extend into society

Studies show that living with a pet has positive outcomes when pets are considered family members and not property.

[Man hugs his golden retriever]
In addition to the health benefits of physical activity, walking your dog has many social and community benefits. (Photo by Eric Ward/Unsplash)

There is a growing global trend to consider pets as part of the family. In fact, millions of people around the world love their pets, enjoying their companionship, going for walks, playing and even talking to them. And there is evidence suggesting that attachment to pets is good for human health and even helps build community.

More and more often, animals are included in family events and become important to all members of the family. This can be particularly significant in single-parent families, where a pet can be an important companion to children. Children with pets may have higher levels of empathy and self-esteem compared to those who do not have pets. Thinking of pets as family members can actually make the chores associated with pet care less stressful than they are for those who consider pets as property. Spending more time caring for a pet increases attachment to that animal which in turn reduces stress in owners.

In the research my colleagues and I have done on aging and social participation, we found considerable analysis showing that interactions involving pets, especially if we care about them, can have a health-protective effect. Zooeyia (pronounced zoo-AY-uh) is the idea that pets, also known as companion animals, can be good for human health. In fact, pet owners in Germany and Australia were found to visit their doctor 15 per cent fewer times annually than non-pet owners.

Healthy, emotional connections

Many health benefits to humans occur when there is an emotional attachment to pets. And we tend to care the most for animals that live with us. For example, a study that looked at attachment to dogs found that people tended to care about their house dogs more than those that lived in the yard. Higher levels of attachment to dogs has been associated with a greater likelihood of walking the dog and spending more time on those walks as compared with those with a weaker bond to their dogs.

Sharing your life with a pet has been associated with a decreased risk of coronary artery disease, a reduction in stress levels and increased physical activity (especially through dog walking). The presence of a pet during stressful activities has been shown to lower the blood pressure of couples taking part in a stressful task. In fact, levels of beta-endorphin, oxytocin and dopamine, among other markers, increased in both humans and their dogs during caring interactions, demonstrating that time spent together is physiologically beneficial for both species. And owning a pet has been associated with an improved cardiovascular disease survival among older adults (aged 65 to 84 years old) being treated for hypertension.

[Cat hiding in a blanket]
Research shows that children who grow up with a pet develop higher levels of empathy and lower stress levels. (Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev/Unsplash)

Pets as family and community members

Because pets are considered family members by many people, the loss of a dog or cat is often a cause for deep grief. A missing or dead pet is hard for many to replace because the relationship between the person and pet was specific to those individuals. The attachment between humans and animals is often so strong that it is common to mourn in a way that is very similar to the feelings and behaviours associated with the loss of a human family member.

The bond between humans and animals is not just good for human health, it can also help build community. People with pets often find that activities with their companion animal creates connections with other people. Social networks that are developed based on shared concern over the welfare of animals can lead to increased human-human interaction, as well as activities involving pets (e.g. dog-walking clubs). Walking a dog gets people out of private spaces, which can be isolating, and into public areas where interactions with neighbors and other walkers are possible.

Protecting pets

Societies create laws and institutions to protect companion animals from cruelty and neglect. In most jurisdictions, regulation of shelters and pounds has not evolved to reflect the beloved status of many pets, and instead consider pets as property. If a lost pet is not reunited with an owner within a few days it can be sold to a new family, to a research lab, or be euthanized. However, some countries, such as India, Italy and Taiwan have legislated against the euthanasia of healthy shelter animals.

But in North America euthanasia is still common. In 2017, Humane Canada found that among the shelters they surveyed, over 70 per cent of lost dogs and cats were unclaimed, and tens of thousands of dogs and cats were euthanized. In 2016, 4,308,921 animals were experimented on in Canadian laboratories. Approximately 17,000 were pet dogs and cats who were provided by shelters to research laboratories and later euthanized.

The strength of the human-animal bond has resulted in the creation of not-for-profit animal rescues whose mission is to ‘pull’ lost and abandoned animals from shelters before they are euthanized or sold for research. For example, Marley’s Hope is a Nova Scotia all-breed rescue organization. The organisation also partners with the Sipekne’katik First Nation to help rehome roaming dogs as well as spay and neuter where possible. The Underdog Railroad in Toronto, Ontario, rescues dogs and cats from high-kill shelters as well as those offered “free to a good home” online. And Elderdog provides older adults with help to care for their pets as well as rescuing abandoned older dogs.

The Humane Society International — Canada assists in spay-neuter programs as well as advocating for and rescuing animals, including in the international dog and cat meat industries. They closed three South Korean dog meat farms and two slaughterhouses in 2018, rescuing 512 dogs, many of whom found homes in Canada and the USA.

Mohandas Ghandi understood the importance of the human animal bond. In his autobiography he said “man’s supremacy over the lower animals meant not that the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two.” Recognizing the ways that companion animals enrich human lives, and understanding the depth of the affection between many humans and animals, may be the key to not only better health, but to improving the welfare of society as a whole.The Conversation

___________________________________________

Lisa F. Carver is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science and Post Doctoral Fellow, SSHRC-funded ACTproject at Queen’s University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

Queen’s signs new partnership with Chinese university

Beijing Normal University and Queen’s University geography departments develop faculty and student exchange.

  • Representatives from both universities present at the November 2018 Beijing Normal University signing ceremony in China.
    Representatives, including signatories Song Changqing, Executive Dean of Geographical Science at BNU, and Barbara Crow, Dean of Faculty of Arts and Science at Queens, at the Nov. 2018 Beijing Normal University ceremony in China.
  • Queen's representatives add the final signatures to the agreement on Jan. 10, 2019 during a ceremony at Richardson Hall.
    Queen's representatives add the final signatures to the agreement on Jan. 10, 2019 during a ceremony at Richardson Hall. (From left: Warren Mabee, Head of Geography and Planning; Jill Scott, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) and Interim Associate Vice-Principal (International); and Dean of Arts and Science, Barbara Crow
  • Signatories Dr. Mabee, Dr. Scott, and Dr. Crow joined by Professor of Geography and Planning Mark Rosenberg, and Director of the Queen's China Liaison Office, Zhiyao Zhang at the Jan. 10, 2019 ceremony at Richardson Hall.
    Signatories Dr. Mabee, Dr. Scott, and Dr. Crow joined by Professor of Geography and Planning Mark Rosenberg, and Director of the Queen's China Liaison Office, Zhiyao Zhang at the Jan. 10, 2019 ceremony at Richardson Hall.

Queen’s and Beijing Normal University (BNU) signed an agreement for a new joint field course, formalizing ongoing ties between the BNU Faculty of Geographical Sciences and Queen’s Department of Geography and Planning. Made official at a signing ceremony at Richardson Hall, the agreement strengthens opportunities for research collaboration, faculty collaboration, and undergraduate and graduate mobility.

“It’s been very exciting to watch the relationship between our two universities grow,” says Mark Rosenberg, the Queen’s professor of geography and planning who spearheaded this initiative. “This formal agreement will result in a growing number of benefits for Queen’s and BNU faculty and students, including chances to work and study in very dynamic research environments, and to work alongside many of the brightest young scholars from both Canada and China.”

In August 2018, Dr. Rosenberg led the two-week field course pilot, during which 15 undergraduate students and two faculty from BNU visited Queen’s to study and learn from planners and industry experts. The course’s itinerary had them visit Ottawa, Toronto, Prince Edward Country, and Niagara to develop an understanding for the varied historical and geographic development of Southeastern Ontario.

Looking ahead, Dr. Rosenberg will host more BNU students for the next iteration of the field course in summer 2019, with Queen’s undergraduate students making their first Beijing visit sometime in 2020. He expects graduate student exchange between the two schools’ geography departments will begin within that period as well.

“I have had an academic relationship with China, and particularly BNU, for many years,” says Dr. Rosenberg, who also holds the Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Development Studies. “I think it is fantastic that students and colleagues will have similar opportunities to collaborate there under this agreement, and believe it presents unique, cross-cultural opportunities to push knowledge in new and exciting directions.”

Present at the Richardson Hall signing were representatives from Queen’s University, including Barbara Crow, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science; Jill Scott, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) and Interim Associate Vice-Principal (International); Warren Mabee, Head, Department of Geography and Planning; Zhiyao Zhang, Director, Queen’s China Liaison Office; and Dr. Rosenberg. Representatives from Beijing Normal University signed the agreement at an earlier ceremony held at BNU in November 2018, during a visit by Dr. Crow.

“Deepening engagement with universities in China is a priority for the Faculty of Arts and Science and this agreement is an excellent example of the type of partnerships we hope to pursue in the future,” says Dr. Crow. “This signing marks a very exciting development in our relationship with Beijing Normal University, and it demonstrates the international capacity and networks of our colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Science. This will provide wonderful opportunities for our faculty and students.”

Stepping up to help others

Queen's student Ampai Thammachack named one of the Top 22 Under 22 Most Inspirational College Women in the World by Her Campus.

[Ampai Thammachack]
Ampai Thammachack, a third-year kinesiology student, was recently named one of the Top 22 Under 22 Most Inspirational College Women in the World by Her Campus. (University Communications)

Ampai Thammachack went through some large challenges in her life. However, she says she is proud of them because she has been able to turn negative experiences into tenacity and determination.

Now, in a better place thanks to some key mental health support and her own resilience, the third-year kinesiology student is using her experiences to help others.

As a result, Thammachack was recently named one of the Top 22 Under 22 Most Inspirational College Women in the World by Her Campus, a U.S.-based website.

She is the first Queen’s student to be named to the list.

As a teen in Bedford, N.S., Thammachack struggled with her self-worth and suicidal thoughts. Eventually she received the help that she needed and regained balance in her life.

Looking to help others in similar situations, she founded two charities that have grown and made a difference in numerous lives. A key message that she wants everyone to realize is that when it comes to mental health, help is necessary – and that’s all right.

Being recognized has been a wonderful experience, she says.

“I am still so shocked. It still feels so surreal and I am so over the moon happy about knowing that what I’ve started is starting to make the difference I hoped it would,” she says. “It makes me so happy because it makes all the bad things that happened feel so much more worth it. I went through a lot and it was so painful. It’s the type of thing that you feel that you will never come out of it. You feel like your life will never be normal again.”

Yet, her life did become normal again, once she got the help she needed.

Thammachack started her first charity as she started Grade 12. Called the Glass Slipper Organization, the group collects donated prom dresses and then gives them away to high school students who cannot afford the $200-$700 price tag for a new dress.

“The whole point of starting this organization was to try to make a girl feel special, to make a girl fell like her community has her back,” she says.

In the past three years, the Glass Slipper Organization has given away more than 500 dresses across Nova Scotia and is looking to expand across Canada.

[Step Above Stigma]
Ampai Thammachack started up Step Above Stigma, which is aimed at eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues. (Supplied Photo)

After finishing high school, Thammachack then started up Step Above Stigma, which is aimed at eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

The key problems, she says, are that people are too afraid to get help and that many mental health organizations are severely underfunded.

“I thought that the best way to help out was through a project that could simultaneously solve both problems,” she explains. “So I designed socks – because who doesn’t need socks – that say Step Above Stigma on the bottom, and then they have the mental health symbol, which is the semi-colon with a heart, on the leg. The socks are sold across Canada and they make mental health more normal by having people wear this symbol on the socks and hopefully start conversations about what they mean.”

All the funds raised go to mental health organizations working directly with patients, to help fund projects. Step Above Stigma also does countless advocacy events and campaigns throughout the year to help end the stigma on Queen’s Campus.

The Step Above Stigma team has now grown to 18 executives and 50 volunteers and there are now branches at universities, colleges, and high schools across Canada.

Read Ampai Thammachack’s profile at HerCampus.com.

The Conversation: In the post-truth era, documentary theatre searches for common ground

Reality-based theatre is one way artists are challenging the lies put out by politicians who exploit our contemporary insecurities.

[Porte parole]
Based in Québec, Porte Parole led by Annabel Soutar has toured and run several documentary theatre shows. Pictured here, The Watershed, a docudrama about the politics of water in Canada. (Photo courtesy Porte Parole)

With the onslaught of “alternative facts” or “fake news,” it can feel as though the ground has become almost liquid.

One strategy to confront the ongoing public lies has been to embrace journalistic principles and aggressively fact check statements. Reality-based theatre is also inspired by this same desire, tapping into the contemporary zeitgeist for authenticity.

In Canada and the U.S., we have been experiencing a flourishing production of reality-based theatre (also called “documentary drama”). Sometimes, it takes the form of an autobiographical performance where the performer and the character are the same people. Other times, it is a verbatim theatre where playwrights cull the script from interview testimony and archival documents. Plays created by the Montréal-based company Porte Parole, led by playwright Annabel Soutar, are a great example of verbatim theatre.

Yet, this quest for authenticity is an impossible dream.

Poststructuralism shattered our singular reality

Poststructural theorists from the 1980s and 90s like Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler rejected binary ways of thinking and instead asserted that our “realities” are made up of performative constructions. In other words, there is no absolute real; there are only representations of, or performances of, reality.

But poststructuralism has not just been about negating the idea of a singular reality. With its world-creating power, poststructuralism has been a potent feminist political tool used by feminist theorists, activists and artists to shatter monolithic conservative ideology. It was a way for many to strike against patriarchy, against conventionality, against strict norms, and was used to create space for otherness, for feminism, for LGBTQ identities.

Fredy is Annabel Soutar’s documentary play about the tragic death of Fredy Villanueva who was shot by a Montréal police officer in 2008. It premiered March 2016 at La Licorne in Montréal, directed by Marc Beaupré. (Photo courtesy Porte Parole)
 

However, since the performative power to generate alternate worlds is ideologically neutral, it has also been used in the interest of climate change deniers and the extreme right.

The poststructuralist genie is out of the bottle and we cannot put it back in: simply demanding aggressive fact checking and asserting a return to “capital-T” truth will not work. Given that realities are multiple and shifting, reality-based performances can help us to navigate the political landscape of “fake news.”

Embracing insecurity

The nostalgic-driven desire for security manifested in the 2016 Trump campaign, “Make America Great Again” and the Brexit slogan “Take Back Control” is directly linked to poststructuralist liquid uncertainty. These movements are stimulated by a flood of insecurity in the face of globalization, mass migration, social fluidity, the transience of traditions and conventional value systems.

As a researcher of Canadian theatre, I have observed that contemporary documentary plays that deal in reality and facts consistently conclude that nothing can be known.

On the surface, theatres of the real offer authenticity and certainty in their attachment to reality. But watching one of these plays does not produce a secure experience of truth. The closest we can get to an objective reality is the feeling of real, replacing fact with feeling.

Come from Away is an example of theatre based on reality.
 

Researchers Meg Mumford (Australia) and Ulrike Garde (Germany) coin the term “productive insecurity” in their work on verbatim theatre. They say that when artists intentionally display multiple points of view, it generates a sense of insecurity for the audience about what is true. This insecurity can be productive for the audience.

These feelings of insecurity are not just something to be endured but they should be embraced and fostered. The plays challenge established ways of knowing, urging us to be humbly aware of our limitations in the face of complex problems.

Theatres of the real do this. They provide emotionally and intellectually engaging environments and scenarios in which we can safely experience that insecurity. Theatres of the real give us a chance to develop the capacity for recognizing and managing our vulnerability.

Multiple truths?

Attention needs to be focused not on whether something is objectively valid as true, but on how that reality has come to be seen as true. What makes a truth true? Rather than pressing for an impossible singularity, documentary theatres of the real embrace multiplicity.

Rather than claiming direct access to the world as it is, these plays ask audiences to be thoughtful about how these staged realities came to be. What is selected? What is omitted? How is the narrative of a documentary world constructed? Often these plays deliberately expose these mechanisms of truth-making and knowing.

We can only ever partially know the world: we are surrounded by hybrids and multiplicities, creating more rather than fewer worlds. Breaking away from the rigidity of binary views: real/not-real; red!/blue!; we are better off with more perspectives, not fewer.

In moving the positive embrace of multiple realities from theory into practice, reality-based documentary theatre makes visible the processes of reality creation.

Searching for shared perspectives

In Lily Tomlin’s one-woman play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the character of Trudy the bag lady says, “After all, what is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.” Focus here on the word “collective.” To have reality, we need to have community.

Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the UniverseLilyTomlin.com

Linguist J.L. Austin, author of How To Do Things With Words, asserts a performance is only “felicitous” if there is “uptake;” that is, ideas presented in performances can only be valid if other people agree that they are valid. The need for uptake can slow down the creation of new dramatic worlds, restricting innovation. So change can be slow.

But we need to listen to each other as we work together to create a larger territory of shared perspectives. We need to rebuild social connections, so that more people can agree together on what constitutes reality. We don’t need to agree about content, only about process.

To doubt is to question appearances; to doubt is to contemplate and weigh. Doubt impels us to engage insecurity and question how representations are made.

When conspiracy theories flourish and lies are indifferently accepted, the thread between our lived experiences and our cartography of that world breaks. Returning to the first principles of how “reality” comes to be is a necessary first step.

Does what I see represent my local experience? Does my experience of reality align with other people’s? Are these the realities that we want? Instead of being fearful, insecurity makes me hopeful.The Conversation

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Jenn Stephenson is a professor at Queen's University's Dan School of Drama and Music. She is the author of two books: Performing Autobiography: Contemporary Canadian Drama (UTP, 2013) and Insecurity: Perils and Products of Theatres of the Real (UTP, 2019).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca

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