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York University
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Glendon’s Conversazione Showcases Faculty Research and Learning

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Conversazione - the lunchtime series of research talks by Glendon’s faculty - has recently offered two more presentations touching on widely divergent topics: the history of Hispanism and ‘Ralph’s World’.

Professor Jerzy Kowal, acting chair of Glendon’s Hispanic Studies Department, provided an overview of the history of Hispanic studies in Canada on March 7th . Kowal started off by offering a definition of Hispanism as “the study of the language, literature, and the history of Spain by foreigners”, a term which is only recently gaining popular use, as a result of the explosion of Hispanic studies in North America. He gave a bird’s eye view of the worldwide study of Spanish language and culture, touching on France, Germany, Great Britain and the U.S., before turning his attention to Canada’s activities in this field.

Explaining that the University of Toronto was the first in Canada to introduce Hispanic studies in its curriculum in 1853, Kowal divided the years from that point to the present into four stages in the evolution of Hispanism. Each of these periods evolved as a result of major political events, such as the two world wars and the emergence of the baby-boomers, sometimes with interesting consequences. Kowal commented that the events of the First World War resulted in prejudice against all things German, causing a serious decline in the study of German language and German culture at Canadian universities. What German studies lost, Hispanic studies gained in numbers of courses and interested students.


Kowal leavened his talk with colourful anecdotes about the major figures of Hispanism, among them the story of James (Giaccomo) Forneri and his circuitous appointment as first Chair of Modern Languages at University College (U. of T.) in 1853. A native of a village near Torino (Northern Italy), Forneri was a lawyer by training, had fought with Napoleon’s army in Germany, escaped banishment to Siberia, participated in a secret society fighting for liberation in Barcelona, and fled to Britain, where he became a professor of Italian. He came to Nova Scotia to continue to teach, but when that job ended, Forneri was about to leave for Australia. That was when the opportunity to build the U. of T.’s first modern languages department was offered to him by Lord Elgin. And the rest, as they say, is history… Kowal described the contributions of other stars in the firmament of Hispanism, among them Milton Buchanan, who took over as head of the U. of T.’s modern languages department in 1917, and Emilio Goggio who followed in Buchanan’s footsteps in 1964. The creation of ACH, the Association of Canadian Hispanists in the same year, provided a much-needed framework for research and an academic community within which to function.

After outlining his vision of the future of Hispanic studies in Canada, Kowal described the project in which he is currently engaged. He has embarked on compiling a comprehensive history of Hispanic studies in Canada and the world, its emergence, the fields of study it includes, its achievements, challenges and its future. “The first wave of professors who established the modern curriculum [in the mid-1960s] is about to retire,” said Kowal. “As in every field, it is important to trace this trajectory, so that future generations may have a record of the past.” Kowal wants to produce a textbook which could be used not only in Canada, but also in Spain and other locations around the world.

March 22nd marked the next event of Conversazione, with Josée Bergeron, assistant professor in the Political Science department, offering her analysis of the current political situation in Alberta, with the amusing title “Ralph et moi” (Ralph and Me). Bergeron, who has been teaching political science at Glendon for the past three years, was on the faculty of the University of Alberta for the preceding seven years. With her special focus on media and politics, and on the socio-political restructuring of the state, she is particularly well-situated to assess this topic.

Bergeron described the enormous success of the Conservatives at the provincial election of March 2001, taking 74 of a possible 83 seats. Immediately after the election, Ralph Klein expressed his satisfaction at receiving this overwhelming mandate for continuing the longest premiership – over eleven years - in Canadian history. On that evening, he made an astounding pronouncement, not just once but three times, declaring to his supporters, “Welcome to Ralph’s World!”. The arrogance of this statement incited Bergeron’s interest in revisiting this ‘world’ in order to assess just what it is and the legacy that Klein will leave behind when he retires in 2007.


While we hear a great deal about Alberta’s enormous wealth, Bergeron took her audience on a journey for a look at how Klein’s government disburses it, and which segments of Albertan society benefit. She explained that the population of Alberta has more than quadrupled since the early 1940s; it has also transformed from a largely agricultural to a predominantly urban society. She stated further, that the electoral districts hugely favour the rural population, which is an important factor in the continued success of Klein and his party, in the face of general dissatisfaction among the urban population with social and health services, local transportation, and the public school system.

Throughout Canada’s history Alberta, along with other prairie and western provinces, has continued to express its feelings of alienation from the centre of Canada’s power. Albertans persist in feeling left out of Ottawa’s decisions, demanding a larger representation in federal institutions, as well as a greater autonomy in decisions concerning them. Whether these complaints are well-founded or not, there is little doubt that Klein and his government have fostered these hostile feelings and used them for their own political advantage.

As a result of shortfalls in petroleum supplies caused by the OPEC crisis and the Iranian revolution in the 1970s, the Canadian government turned to the exploration of Canadian resources which were previously considered uneconomical. Alberta has 70% of Canada’s coal deposits; it is also the locus of the Alberta tar sands, an important resource which was waiting to be exploited. The federal government took steps to control oil exportation, in an attempt to ensure supplies for Canadian needs; in 1973, the federal government also created PetroCan for the exploration and exploitation of the tar sands. These measures were loudly criticized by Alberta’s provincial government as federal meddling in provincial matters.

Bergeron pointed to another major field of contention in Alberta, namely the reconfiguration of the provincial government’s part in the health service. The Klein government used the U.S approach as its model for ‘reinventing government’, i.e. reducing the cost of running the government by significantly curtailing its size, role and influence. Klein further embarked on eliminating the income tax, increasing privatization in health and other service areas, and downloading powers and decision-making to high-ranking individuals, such as ministers of government departments, without the checks and balances of public control.

Bergeron outlined the disastrous results of some of Klein’s actions. She cited the 21% reduction of government contribution to health services, which disabled its proper functioning. Klein then declared that the system was too expensive and that it didn’t work, using this situation to embark on the privatization of the health service. In addition, Klein’s government eliminated publicly funded kindergarten, reduced the salaries of doctors and civil servants, begging the question of just where the oil income is being spent.

Bergeron’s conclusion was that ‘Ralph’s World’ is not the same for all Albertans, and that those who need help and services the most are the least well-provided. In order to bring in his ‘new ideology’, Klein has created an artificial crisis in the public sector by tragically under-funding it. “He is preaching ‘less state’, but ironically needs a strong, controlling central power to support the changes he has brought in”, said Bergeron. “Klein has such strong control over all the public structures of his province, that opposition is left with very few official avenues for protest and change.”

Conversazione is an excellent opportunity for sharing knowledge, arousing interest in heretofore unfamiliar fields, presenting current projects and promoting academic work. “The title Conversazione was my idea”, confirms Kowal. “I felt that it was an accurate representation of the spirit of this series, a chance to communicate with one’s peers and to overcome the isolation which may occur in academic work.”

This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny


Published on March 24, 2006