Last week yours truly was at the University of Holguin, Cuba. I was participating in the Canadian Studies conference, which included a one-day teaching workshop with students and faculty (I was one of the teachers) and then a couple of days of conference presentations. The conference is sponsored by the Canadian Studies Centre of the University of Holguín, in collaboration with The University of Western Ontario, and it is also supported by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and the Canadian Embassy. This was the sixth International seminar on Canadian Studies, but the first one I had been to. Hopefully it will not be the last, as it was a wonderful experience. The theme of the conference was “Canada: Society and Identity,” a fairly broad theme. Interestingly, many of us who presented on Canadian topics (without consultation with each other beforehand) talked about Aboriginal issues. If you are interested in seeing the fully conference program, please click here.
On the teaching day I delivered a course on critical approaches to Métis literatures, outlining some of the current debates in this particular scholarly field. My conference paper the next day was on place-based identities in Mėtis literature where I focused on theorizing the connection between particular geographical locations and Mėtis stories, including life stories. I was a bit nervous because Clément Chartier, the President of the Métis National Council, was in the audience, but apparently I didn’t say anything too silly or completely wrong. It was actually great to meet President Chartier. Had to go to Cuba to do so!
Cuba itself has changed a lot since the last time I was there in 1999. There was more variety of food, more consumer goods to buy, more openness to entrepreneurship and to Cubans owning small businesses. American dollars no longer circulate, but there are two different Cuban pesos: the CUC, which is what we foreigners pay with, and non-convertible Cuban pesos, which the folks use. One CUC is equivalent to about 25 non-convertible pesos, so that tells you something about wages and cost of living. Cubans who work in the tourist industry have access to CUCs and the goods that they can buy, so clearly those are much-desired jobs. But, in true socialist style, tips earned by workers at resorts are pooled so that everyone gets the same. Tourists ride in fancy air-conditioned buses. Ordinary Cubans take cranky old buses, ride in old cars (some as old as the 1940s), or use horses and buggies to get around. Beaches were as pristine and gorgeous as ever, and the people are truly hospitable.
As for the academic context, here are some observations:
- Cuban students and professors are passionately interested in all things Canadian.
- They desperately need books and other resources in Canadian Studies.
- Cuban universities look and feel a lot like universities anywhere: students look like students; professors look like professors.
- The weather is better than it is here, but some of the buildings are in disrepair.
- I will never again take air conditioned university classrooms for granted.
- It is possible to show a perfectly adequate PowerPoint presentation projected onto a white bed sheet or a blank wall.
- People were so grateful to have Canadians come to teach them, to talk to them, and to mentor them that it truly felt like an honour to be there.
Of course, it made sense to go to Cuba on a package deal to an all-inclusive resort. Before and after the conference we had a little beach time. And yes, it was glorious. Much needed decompression after the end of winter term. Here’s the money shot.