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Dr. Janice Williamson

Dr. Janice Williamson in the Department of English & Film Studies is a recipient of the 2018 Academic Woman of the Year Award for her lifetime of achievements.


Dr. Williamson and her daughter Rae Xiao Bao Williamson

Dr. Janice Williamson, Professor, joined the Faculty of Arts in 1987 after graduation from York University the same year. Long before her 31-year academic career here, her vocation was social justice. She is recognized for a lifetime of activism and commitment dedicated to improving lives and to fighting injustice on many fronts.

She has been a professor of literary and cultural studies and creative writing and taught thousands of students in the Departments of English and Women’s Studies, and in the Women’s Writing Week in the Faculty of Extension (the latter sadly cut due to budget shortfalls). She has mentored many students who have gone on to distinguished careers. The mutually influencing rapport with students helps sustain her. Just as her daughter does – inspiring her with resilience and strength. She has been a steady activist, in person, with colleagues, students, and the greater community, electronically and in her publications. As an academic and public intellectual, she has worked on institutional-level reform. She has advocated on behalf of students, fellow scholars, and colleagues. She has written and edited six books of critical and creative work, and numerous scholarly and literary essays and poetry. Her academic work is intersectional in its focus on race, gender, sexuality, class, disAbility, citizenship status, and family relationships. She contributed to the first collection of bisexual writing in Canada, work that advanced change in the discourse around fluid gender and sexuality paradigms.

Her early formation taught her “the personal is political.” At a moment when the Women’s Liberation Movement reshaped understanding about misogyny and women’s lives, she travelled to France and West Africa during an undergraduate gap year to widen her knowledge of the world. On her return to Canada in 1972, she began her study of women’s social history and literature that sparked the spirited rebellion her Manitoba-born mother and grandmother had nourished in her. Before returning to graduate school, she worked for a women’s organization and at CBC Current Affairs. While completing her Ph.D. studies, she became an organizer in the women’s movement and served as a union steward for teaching assistants at York University. At this formative time in her life, she was already inspiring and mentoring fellow graduate students who later continued in academics and in creative publishing. One of these colleagues—a co-nominator for this award–has said, “Janice Williamson was a key person in my life in graduate school, and remains so, with her engaged, innovative, and witty literary reading and activism. She brings together people from the academic, activist and social worlds and models how to work together and to be open to each other.”

Her Books in Canada Best Book of the Year anthology Sounding Differences (U of Toronto P) built on her study of Canadian feminist poetics and expanded the canon of women’s writing to include underrepresented Canadian women from cultural, sexual, linguistic and religious minority communities. This work included some of the earliest interviews with Indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, and lesbian women writers in Canada. It also explored aesthetics and feminist ideas that informed her later writing of award-winning prose and poetry in chapbooks, a fictobiotext Tell Tale Signs (Turnstone P), and an innovative image-text creative nonfiction book on trauma and memory Crybaby! (NeWest P) which is now the subject of a number of dissertations and critical essays.

In 1984 Dr. Williamson began decades of peace activism. She participated in non-violent civil disobedience demonstrating against the Canadian manufacturer of the US cruise missile at a Toronto factory. Her arrest and week-long collaborative feminist trial with other women inspired her book about Canadian women and peace. She initiated three women’s peace groups in Edmonton including the city’s enduring branch of Women in Black originally established by Jewish and Arab women in Israel and Palestine. After 9/11, she worked to build bridges between activist and scholarly communities around issues of anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia. A major contribution was editing Omar Khadr, Oh Canada (McGill-Queen’s Press), a multidisciplinary anthology that emerged in time to help inform the public about the social, cultural and political issues that perpetuated the young Khadr’s torturous imprisonment in Guantanamo.

Among other subjects, her work investigates violence (both sexual and related to the “war on terror”) perpetrated on women’s, children’s and men’s bodies. One referee writes: “Janice Williamson’s attention to issues is both highly critical of the structural violence that states and institutions perpetuate and also deeply compassionate and attuned to the individual challenges and stories of those who are victimized by such systems. Dr. Williamson is unique in how she balances her attention between structural critique, policy development, and sharing personal narratives of lives lived inside such systems. Few academics can tell the stories at these multiple registers…. She is not only helping build a better institutional response at the University of Alberta and across Canada, but she simultaneously adds nuance to the cultural landscape in which these stories emerge.”

For the past three years, Janice Williamson has served our community as Equity Chair of the 4000-member University of Alberta Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) during preparations for bargaining under the new Alberta Labour Code. She has collaborated with others on salary equity, child care, Indigenous initiatives and other significant change. And she participated in the Faculty of Arts response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She also collaborated with students on public protests of violence against Indigenous women.

As a settler scholar, Dr. Williamson is inspired by the brilliant decolonial analysis of her Indigenous friends and colleagues. Her work-in-progress “The Disappearing Disease: a memoir of forgetting” tracks an intergenerational settler narrative through nineteenth and twentieth-century colonial space.

Over the course of her career, Dr. Williamson’s work has met with homophobic vandalism, Islamophobic and anti-feminist threats and workplace violence. This is a shared history. One referee writes of some of the early resistance: “Janice faced an anti-feminist backlash from (predominantly) male academics at our university in the early-mid 1990s. This was a chilly climate[1], and she was among those who received personal threats. She knows first-hand the obstacles to women’s inclusion and advancement in the academy and has been engaged in equity and diversity struggles throughout her career. Progress on these fronts has been incremental and hard-won –as members of the Academic Women’s Association know– and I believe that it is important to recognize the work of women like Janice who have persisted, over decades and at personal cost, in their efforts to make the university more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming for equity-seeking groups.”

[1] The referee continues: “Some of Dr. Williamson’s colleagues wrote about these university experiences in their contributions to publications about the chilly climate for women at UAlberta and elsewhere. See, e.g., Not Drowning but Waving? Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (University of Alberta Press, 2011). Other works recounting the backlash against women and racialized academics at this time include: The Chilly Climate Collective’s Breaking Anonymity: the Chilly Climate for Women Faculty (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995); Unsettling Relations: The University as a Site of Feminist Struggles, edited by Himani Bannerji et al. (Women’s Press, 1991), and; Beyond Political Correctness: Towards the Inclusive University, edited by Stephen Richer and Lorna Weir (University of Toronto Press, 1995).”

For more information, please visit the 2018 AWA Women and Student of the Year award announcement.

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