By the Leveller Staff

On Nov. 17, more than 200 people filled Alumni Hall at the University of King’s College, on unceded Ki’jipuktuk (Halifax) for an evening of difficult conversations about toxic nationalism, the meaning of freedom of expression and the molasses-slow impact white fragility has on meaningful social change.

“Race in a Glass Nation: Fragility and Dissent in the University and Beyond” was organized as a result of recent backlash against challenges to the Edward Cornwallis statue and the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) decision to opt out of Canada 150 celebrations.

These divisive issues go to the very core of the global crisis of colonialism, racism, war and violence, said the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Sunera Thobani, who delivered the keynote lecture.

“Yet it is a matter of the greatest urgency that we address them clearly and as effectively as we can,” she said. “Doing this work however requires risk-taking and a great deal of courage, for this work requires standing up to the power of the institutions we seek to transform.”

“It also means being subjected to retaliation from those who benefit from the power invested in these institutions,” she added.

Ki’jipuktuk has been a contentious site of attempted colonial erasure since the establishment of the city of Halifax under the auspices of British Governor Edward Cornwallis. The most contemporary example of the dialectic between anti-colonial activism and white fragility came earlier this year. A group of white, male members of the Canadian military, under the banner of the “Proud Boys,” a self-proclaimed “western chauvinist” alt-right group, disrupted Mi’kmaq women engaged in a peaceful demonstration on July 1 to raise awareness about the Governor Cornwallis’s genocidal scalping proclamation of Oct. 2, 1749.

Around the same time, DSU VP Academic, Masuma Khan introduced a motion to her council to not use student property for Canada 150 celebrations, in light of Canada’s ongoing colonial project. A handful of conservatives sought to thwart that motion but were defeated, leading them to simultaneously claim to Dalhousie administrators that Khan had violated the student code of conduct by making the campus an unsafe place for white students.

On July 10, 2016, a Dalhousie graduate student published an op-ed in the National Post calling the DSU’s ban on Canada Day celebrations “shameful”— and making a fragile case that Canada ought to be commended for its tolerance (The op-ed has since been edited from its original state online). The op-ed and ensuing social media furor unleashed the venom of white fragility on Khan, a 22-year-old Haligonian by birth, who endured hundreds upon hundreds of threats —  extending to deportation, rape, murder and more.

Thobani lauded the “extraordinary courage and bravery of the students at Dalhousie university who have demonstrated such a clear determination to contest settler colonial practices and who refuse to be contained in the space that they are assigned by the very relations of power that they are challenging.”

Thobani commended Khan’s actions as more than simply dissent — she is “standing in the front lines against the rise of white supremacy.”

Khan’s refusal to “stand with privileged white people” or to be “proud to be celebrating 400 years of genocide” resulted in backlash from not only her fellow students, but from the university administration as well.

“Her refusal to capitulate to the power of whiteness was compounded by the threat of disciplinary action against her from Dalhousie University ‘for targeting white people’,” said Thobani, which prompted the University to focus on her refusal to back down rather than on the issues being raised.

For Thobani, this was a “typical non-response response from universities to probably the most important political question of our times: How can we transform a nation, indeed an entire global order that is founded on white supremacy, colonialism and slavery – how to end settler colonialism and racism when both are so profoundly entrenched in Canada’s institutions?”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2017).