Story by Alyssa Tremblay
Photos by Ainslie Coghill
Just a stone’s throw away from where the scenic Rideau Canal meets the thundering Ottawa River, members of the Capillary Critical Geography Network gathered at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on May 25-26, 2023, to talk about climate knowledge, gentrification, migration and more.
The network’s inaugural conference saw graduate students, post-docs and early-career scholars share their latest research in the field of critical geography – the study of the physical world and place through a lens of social change and activism.
“Geography was essential to the entry of Indigenous lands into colonial knowledge systems,” said conference co-organizers Jennifer Ridgley from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton and Ted Rutland from Concordia University in their welcoming remarks.
Ridgley and Rutland went on to emphasize how a commitment to social justice must be a core tenet of what they do as critical geographers.
“At its best, critical geography is transformative. We’re not just doing critical research, but building different social relationships as we do so.”Jennifer Ridgley (Carleton University) and Ted Rutland (Concordia University), Associate Professors
“At its best, critical geography is transformative. We’re not just doing critical research, but building different social relationships as we do so.”
The conference was opened by Dara Wawatie-Chabot, Indigenous Lead Researcher for Iron & Earth, a worker-led organization with a mission to empower fossil fuel workers.
“We all have a relationship to the land. We are all travellers, we all come from somewhere, we have all been displaced,” said Wawatie-Chabot, who stressed that real change cannot be achieved simply by “adding more seats at the table” and increasing the representation of Indigenous peoples in spaces established and maintained by settler-colonial violence.
Instead, as Wawatie-Chabot explained, creating a better world for all requires complete systemic change, the table itself “chopped up for wood and used to create community fires.”
The pitfalls of representation politics were further explored in the conference’s keynote talk delivered by Delice Mugabo, Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa.
Mugabo, whose work focuses on Black life in Québec, told the story of Marie-Josèphe Angélique, an enslaved Black woman from Portugal who was arrested and publicly executed for allegedly trying to burn down Montréal as she attempted to flee the city.
Reflecting on recent government efforts to commemorate Angélique as a “hero” by renaming public spaces after her, Mugabo illuminated how these placemaking initiatives serve as a “third mode of captivity” alongside Angélique’s original enslavement and re-capture.
“Place naming and toponymy work to literally capture her in a place she attempted to flee,” said Mugabo, who noted how giving Angélique – a figure of Black struggle – a place of “honour” in white society is actually being used to “cleanse the national community of a history and present of anti-Black violence.”
“Dr. Mugabo leading this discussion of representation just a few blocks from Parliament Hill, an area full of monuments and memorials, was incredibly powerful,” said Ridgley. “Having her tell this story from Montreal here in Ottawa also helps draw these important connections between our capillaries – as critical geographers and researchers, but also as people.”
Nestled at the intersection of the region’s most two important waterways, the two-day conference burbled with conversation as the future of critical geography shared their knowledge and swapped contact information.
“These amazing emerging scholars are doing research and engaging with questions that are the key issues of our time,” said Ridgley, recounting how the idea to create the Capillary Network developed from conversations between herself, Hugill, and fellow geographers from Concordia, McGill, Queen’s, Trent, University of Ottawa, l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique, and the University of Vermont.
“Small critical geography conferences were really positive community-building experiences for us as students and helped us find support for the work we were doing,” she said. “With the network and this conference, we wanted to reproduce that experience for our students.”
As a result of this philosophy, and unlike most other academic conferences, the Capillary Network conference was free to attend and aimed specifically towards scholars who live within relative regional proximity to each other – all in an effort to build connections that can be maintained more practically and sustainably over the years.
“There’s something peculiar about people studying issues around the environment and climate change jumping on planes and flying thousands of kilometres to present at these big national and international academic conferences each year. Regional conferences like ours give us a way to still enjoy the unique opportunities that face-to-face interactions offer but with a much lower ecological impact, so that relationships can develop with integrity and authenticity.”Jennifer Ridgley, Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies
“There’s something peculiar about people studying issues around the environment and climate change jumping on planes and flying thousands of kilometres to present at these big national and international academic conferences each year. Regional conferences like ours give us a way to still enjoy the unique opportunities that face-to-face interactions offer but with a much lower ecological impact, so that relationships can develop with integrity and authenticity.”
As for the future, the Capillary Network plans on debriefing with conference attendees before getting started on planning next year’s gathering, which they tentatively hope to hold in Montréal.
“We have so much gratitude for all the labour that went into putting this first conference together and all the support that we received,” said Ridgley. “It’s really heartening affirmation that we can do academia differently.”
Learn more about the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University.
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
330 Paterson Hall
1125 Colonel By Drive
FASSOD@Carleton.caPhone: 613-520-2355Contact page