Among one of Canada’s most prolific writers, Thomas King was the guest lecturer for the 2015 Hagey Lecture, entitled “Love In the Time of Cholera: Canadian Edition,” held Nov. 17.</p>
After Ian Orchard, vice-president academic and provost, acknowledged Waterloo’s location on the traditional territory of the Anishnabe and Hodenashone peoples and the Six Nation’s Haldimand tract, King took the stage at Federation Hall for what he said will be his last formal lecture.
Though King frequently speaks on First Nation issues, he decided that he would take a different angle for his last lecture: “I thought I would touch on a topic that you might not think would be of concern to native people, but which, as it turns out, has an enormous impact on native society, and the world for that matter. That topic is white culture.”
King said that when he speaks, non-native people ask what they can do to help native people — he quotes his friend and fellow author, the late Narcisse Blood.“What I tell them, says Narcisse, is that that question is the wrong question. I tell them that we don’t need their help,” said King.
King speaks in much the same way that he writes. Interspersing humour and the deadly serious, connecting an abundance of seemingly disparate subjects, from margarine to cruise ships to neo-liberal capitalism, King wove a complex answer to the question of what white culture should do instead.
The lecture’s title refers to the novel of the same name by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. The novel ends with the two main characters purposefully segregating themselves on a ship while massive deforestation and a cholera pandemic ravage the surrounding countryside. King said, “What we are left with at the end of the novel are our two characters safe in their private privilege and splendid isolation, sailing up and down the river, forever, while the world falls apart around them; an Adam and Eve for the 21st century, a solemn indictment of our own love affair with comfort and convenience.” Using this symbol, King turns his lecture back to the ways in which white culture avoids dealing with major issues: racism, pay equity, poverty, and the environment.
With this background in mind, King returned to the question he left unanswered at the beginning. He quoted Blood, saying, “What whites need to do is to fix their own society. Rather than ask us what they can do to help natives, they should be more concerned with what they can do to help themselves.”
Blood’s solution, according to King, is to try to tackle something small. King’s suggested we try to eliminate bottled water. He said, “While bottled water per se is not the culprit, it is a reminder that in the struggle against globalization and climate change, world hunger, war, and the like, what we lack is neither the intelligence nor the resources, but the will. Most of all, we’re frightened. We’re frightened that if we do anything to rock the fiscal boat even a little, it will capsize us and we will drown.… This is the message that holds us in place.”
An audience member wondered how we, in our privileged position as university students and faculty, might lower our own “cholera flag” and make some change. King said that while it’s up to us to figure out how to do this, regardless we need to try. “Do we lower the cholera flag? That’s the easy thing to do. We’ve got to get to work and come ashore.”