How do the daily realities of our ethnic and religious identities contribute to our scholarship? What do our religious and cultural practices, the languages we speak, and the food we eat mean for the research we do, the articles we write, and the communities with whom we engage our questions? How do we negotiate the realities of our multiple identities while productively challenging outdated notions of “scholarly objectivity?” These were among the questions approached at the Coptic Canadian History Project’s Third Annual Conference. Panelists discussed themes of family, immigration, and identity in a day-long conference featuring scholars from the fields of history and anthropology, and from various ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities with differing histories of immigration to Canada.
Held at the Archives of Ontario on May 4, and titled “Who Am I? Who Are We? Family, History, and Immigrant Identities,” the conference brought together scholars and community members interested in questions of identity, family, and history, especially in the context of immigration to Canada and transnational communities. I attended the conference as someone who has been following the CCHP for some time but had not been able to be part of their work in person. I am a doctoral student at Harvard University and currently preparing for dissertation work on the history of modern Egypt with a focus on religious leadership in general, and His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in particular. While my work tends to focus on religious and devotional life as a primary category, questions of identity, belonging, and transnational communities are all deeply intertwined with a changing religious life, both communally and individually. In this way, although most of the day’s panelists were historians, their work and their questions retain their relevance across disciplines and echo many current conversations in religious studies.
While navigating a multiplicity of belongings has been a key theme in both the lives of Coptic Canadians and Coptic history more broadly, this conference explored the ways these experiences resonated with those of other communities who have immigrated to Canada in the past two centuries. Many of the presentations demonstrated the value and richness of writing history with experiences and practices often thought of as normal, unremarkable, or mundane; things like Mennonite food, a sewing machine taken from interned Japanese Canadians, and the origins of an Italian Canadian pasta company. By anchoring in the mundane, these papers bring a richness and a productive intervention to historically dominant narratives of Anglo Canada and its immigration history.
The day’s first panel, moderated by Michael Akladios, was entitled “Writing Within Ethno-Religious Identities” and featured talks by Dr. Marlene Epp (“Searching for ‘Mennonite Food’: De-Centering and Reclaiming Ethnic Traditions”), Dr. Paul Sedra (“Writing the History of a Revolution in Progress: The Challenges of Interpreting the Arab Spring as an Insider-Outsider”), and Dr. Joseph Youssef (“Tensions of Positionality: Writing from Within the Coptic Community”). Speakers reflected on the practice of writing history or anthropology as a scholar anchored in a community in some ways, and simultaneously perceived as an outsider in others. For both Mennonite and Coptic communities, researchers reflected on how interlocutors sometimes perceived academic research as invasive or harmful, even when carried out by researchers who are, at least in some ways, community members themselves. I was grateful that panelists were willing to share these rather tense moments in their work, as well as sharing responses that balanced sensitivity and honesty. Many of their questions resonate with those that scholars of religious studies are asking, particularly as we consider how to reclaim our field from its history as a tool of empire used to categorize, describe, and dominate colonized peoples. My own work challenges me to be aware of my positionality: what does it mean to study the Coptic Church as one who is not Egyptian and not Orthodox, but rather a Christian from a Euro-American church background?
The second panel, moderated by Kassandra Luciuk, was titled “Familial Dilemmas and Ethnic Histories” and included talks by Dr. Pamela Sugiman (“The Stranger in my Family’s History: Reflections on the Telling of Japanese Canadian History”), Dr. Roberto Perin (“Perin Peregrinations”), and Dr. Gabriele Scardellato (“The Catelli Clan in Montreal: 1845-1895”). This panel emphasized both the perils and promises of publicly presenting history that touches on the experiences and even traumas of living individuals and communities, with examples ranging from an aging father negotiating his identity as an Italian Canadian to Japanese Canadians who survived internment. This kind of history has the potential to take seriously narratives silenced by dominant racist discourses that erase the contributions of people of color and sexist discourses that ignore women’s labor, or excuse violence against women, immigrants, and people of color. However, such a history may leave unexamined some of the power dynamics that inform our societies and our research. This emerged most prominently when one speaker recounted observing a group composed primarily of white scholars pondering whether it was necessary to discuss race in their public history project on a historically marginalized group in Canada. It is troubling that white historians can speak about this topic while treating race as an optional conceptual category, rather than a real power imbalance that caused material, physical, and psychological harm to people who are not only still living, but whose participation is vital to the project. Although it didn’t name them as such, this panel ultimately gestured toward some ethical questions shared in religious studies: how does our research affect the lives of the religious practitioners or historical actors we study? How do scholars manage bias and power so that we can effectively intervene in the discourses that have marginalized our interlocutors (and perhaps ourselves) over decades and centuries? And, while the day’s panels focused on largely on historians who are members of the communities they study, these kinds of questions should weigh especially heavily on scholars like me, whose research engages with communities that are not our communities of origin.
One of the most remarkable outcomes of the day’s talks was highlighting the ways in which questions of belonging and positionality resonate across different communities with histories of immigration to Canada, from Coptic Christian communities arriving in the mid 20th century to Japanese families interned during World War II to Canadian Mennonites with roots in Ukraine. The conference demonstrated the productivity of gathering together across different ethnic and religious identities to study the histories our communities are preserving, interpreting, and sharing every day.
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Leah Rumsey is a second-year doctoral student at Harvard University. Her research focuses on modern Egyptian history, with a particular interest in religious leaders and institutions. For the past two years, she has been a doctoral fellow in the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School.