Painting a picture of dissent

ESS Lecture Series kicked off by Franke James

- September 19, 2013

Franke James, prior to her ESS Lecture last Thursday night. (Nick Pearce photo)
Franke James, prior to her ESS Lecture last Thursday night. (Nick Pearce photo)

Are you an enemy of Stephen Harper?

It’s a provocative question, but it’s how artist and activist Franke James describes her relationship with the current leadership in Parliament.

“Making Harper's blacklist is something I never dreamed of, but I've got lots of company,” she says.

Last Thursday marked the beginning of this fall’s series of weekly Environment, Sustainability and Society Lectures, hosted by the College of Sustainability. The series brings people of differing views on current environmental issues to speak with students, faculty and the public. The series kicked off with author and artist James, described by College Director Steve Mannell as “the one woman the government can't shut up.” (Her lecture was co-sponsored by the Dalhousie Art Gallery.)

In front of a full house in Ondaatje Hall, James shared her journey: from writing a letter to the government addressing concerns about climate change to how she became seen, she says, as a scandal, a saboteur to Canada's defence and a threat to international security.

“When I was young, I didn't think about the world's growing population,” James began. “I also never thought I'd get in trouble for speaking up, certainly not in Canada.”

In her book released earlier this year, titled Banned on the Hill, James describes her efforts to speak out against the government’s climate change policies, starting with a letter to Stephen Harper. Soon, she found funding for several of her artist projects being cut, and through her research — via several freedom of information requests — concluded that the funding cuts were directly connected with her political point of view.

James has been able to make the most out of her situation, however, by embracing her artistic abilities to create satirical posters and stories about the Harper government.

“She has become a troublesome artist for asking the tough questions,” said Mannell.

Sharing her story

Via Twitter, email and her website, James has received tremendous support and praise for speaking out about the government's unwillingness to hear citizen concerns on climate change. Her follower count on Twitter undoubtedly rose after Thursday's lecture.

Among those new fans is Christina Joynt, an ESS (Sustainability) and IDS (International Development Studies) student.

“As a second year, I've attended a number of guest lectures, but I thought this one added a lot of enthusiasm to environmental ethics and lobbying of environmental rights,” Joynt said. “The blacklisting of citizens is something that I didn't realize took place under Harper's government.”

“It was her art that kept me engaged,” said first-year Sustainability student Sydnie Sandwell about the lecture. “It was cool to change it up with the profs and actually have someone come in and share her experience firsthand.”

As James described, her stories and illustrations show an upside-down world that doesn't make any sense. One of her greatest triumphs was exhibiting her artwork in Ottawa, around the corner from Parliament Hill.

“Censorship doesn't work,” James said. “Especially if you wield a paintbrush.”

The ESS lecture series continues this Thursday, September 19 with Plains/Woodland Cree singer/songwriter/storyteller Joseph Naytowhow from the Sturgeon Lake First Nation Band in Saskatchewan. Learn more about tonight’s lecture and see the full schedule at the College of Sustainability website.


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