CHASI’s first podcast shares the wisdom of Dr. Jacqueline Nolte

The Community Health and Social Innovation Hub (CHASI) is thrilled to share the first episode of our new podcast: the CHASIcast, a monthly program where we drill down on a current topic and chat about how it impacts our lives.  

Photo of a studio with professional recording equipment. The focus is on a laptop showing Dr. Jacqueline Nolte on a Zoom call, while in the foreground, Dr. Martha Dow speaks into a microphone.

Our debut episode features an interview with Dr. Jacqueline Nolte, who recently stepped down from her position as UFV’s Dean of Arts. Dr. Nolte shares her thoughts on the role of universities as a space for dialogue, empowerment, and agency, on the recent protests in Ottawa, and how her understanding was shaped by years of active resistance against the apartheid state in South Africa. 

Hosted by CHASI’s director Dr. Martha Dow and recorded in CIVL Radio’s studio at the University of the Fraser Valley, the CHASIcast is available to stream below, or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, and other platforms!

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Dr. Nolte: You just have to look at the images of the convoy, you know, people jumping up and down and drawing attention to themselves, desperate to be seen, desperate, to be recognized, desperate to be heard, you know, and, and it’s our place to, to, to listen to people and to give them space. To, to be able to articulate their fears, their anxieties, their resentments, you know, the economic anxiety and so forth.

And that doesn’t mean allowing hate speech to prevail. I mean, this is not about creating space to silence others. It’s about creating space in which we negotiate dialogue. We understand the reciprocity of dialogue and we have faith in reason, kind of gentle reason, ultimately prevailing.

Intro: Based out of the University of the Fraser valley on unceded, traditional lands of the Sto:lo people, we are the Community Health and Social Innovation Hub or CHASI for short. We support the social, mental, emotional, physical, and economic health of those living in our communities by bringing together experts from across disciplines.

Those experts have some incredible stories and insights. To share those with the communities we serve, we bring you the CHASIcast, a monthly program where we drill down on a current topic and chat about how it impacts our lives.

Dr. Dow: So, hello and welcome to our first CHASI cast. I’m Martha Dow, the director of the Community Health and Social Innovation Hub. And it’s my pleasure to introduce Dr. Jacqueline , who as our former Dean of the Faculty of Arts at UFV, and most would agree a critical part of the heart and soul of this place.

Jacqueline, we wanted you to be our first guest for a couple of reasons. First you were the champion of CHASI, that ensured that our community partners chose UFV as the home for this hub. So thank you, again for that, and second, I just wanted an excuse to talk with one of the smartest and most passionate educational leaders I’ve had the privilege to be around. So welcome.

Dr. Nolte: Thank you, Martha. Not sure that I deserve those glowing comments, but I truly appreciate them. Thank you.

Dr. Dow: Well, you do. So by way of introduction I’m hoping that you can talk a bit about your journey. So you know, what are those critical junctures or moments that you think have shaped your path?

And I know that’s big and wide open, but there’s just so many aspects that I’ve had the privilege of hearing tidbits about, so I just wonder if you could talk a bit about, about your journey.

Dr. Nolte: Yeah. Thank you. I think before I proceed, I do need to just centre myself, locate myself and thank people who have made it possible for me to live the life that I live here in Canada.

And I want to acknowledge that I’m currently on Coast Salish territory. And so, you know, my hands go up to Cowichan people, Cowichan tribe. And I, I’m sorry that I’m not sharing Sto:lo territory with you right now, but I’m living on the island and I wanted to just acknowledge to where I am.

I think as well that I need to acknowledge particularly at this poignant time and place all that Canada, and I use the word with full consciousness of how problematic the notion of Canada is in relation to Indigenous territory. But I want to acknowledge and extend thanks to those who’ve made Canada the democracy that it is.

You know, I grew up in an extremely authoritarian society. It was a society built upon institutionalized racism and the ideology of what was known as apartheid, South Africa. And it was blatantly designed to protect the interests of a colonial white minority settler society and that settler society went on to classify people according to race, they brought in a number of slave populations. My ancestry is a mixture of settler and slave ancestry, and people were classified according to race and then accorded different privileges with regard to whether they were regarded as so-called whites or so-called non whites, they were forced to live in separate places. They were forced to accept different health systems, educational systems, ultimately the farce of different parliamentary systems in a reserve system that was actually built upon Canada’s reserve system, but very differently acted out historically.

You know, and, and the absurdity of the society in which I grew up is that sexual relations were prohibited across these classified races as well. There was a 1949 mixed marriages act. And you know, it split society into many, many fragments because of course people had intermarried over the centuries at the point of colonization.

You know, my family was also affected by that. And so it was a brutal society. I lived through many states of emergency in a militarized society. I was born shortly after the first treason trial in South Africa, which is when the African National Congress had been identified by the country as a major threat, one of a couple of political liberation parties, extremely threatening. And of course, many of you will know that Nelson Mandela was one of the primary architects, of the evolution of the African National Congress in the fifties and going into the sixties. And some of you might know about terrible events of Sharpeville in South Africa, but that was a formative turning point in really my upbringing.

There was a massacre of a number of people who were protesting against forced carrying of what we call dompasses. And there was a pass law because people of color weren’t allowed to traverse white areas or live in those areas. They could only move there when their labour was required. And so this whole pass system designed to really protect these labour reserves primarily for mining.

So the pass law resulted in massive protest against passes. Women were very instrumental during that anti-pass law campaign and shortly thereafter, the African National Congress and liberation movements aligned with the ANC — it’s very complicated to get into the history of the liberation movement. But the pan Pan-African Congress had broken away from the ANC. They, in fact, led pass campaign, even though the ANC was the bigger than liberation movement, they were all banned including the communist party, you know, the backs of the trade unions were kind of broken. So there was the space that I grew up in the standing of opposition movements and this very violent apartheid system with what is called Christian national education that we were subjected to at schools.

And by the time I’d left school, I was already quite politicized I’d been working with young university students, just up the road from my high school, learning a lot about, I suppose, revolution. You know, theories of resistance. When I got to university the Black high schools were literally in flames, protesting against forced use of Afrikaans as an official language.

Afrikaans was derivative of Dutch, which was the primary settler language. So there was this massive resistance against the use of Afrikaans as an official language and school children just left schools. Then they boycotted the system. So as young university students, what we were trying to do, or some of us were trying to do is to set up safe spaces for these youths who were without anywhere to go during the day. And we established what were called open schools and community arts projects and sort of alternative educational environments in which youths could gather and learn.

So really my university years were dedicated to learning to work in NGOs. And when I left university, so jumping over a lot of graphic experiences at university. But when I left university, I was determined not to work for the state in any way at all. I went on to acquire an educational diploma, but I, it was a farce, I mean, content thereof was extremely distressing and I didn’t ever want to apply that in a state setting. So

I worked in NGOs and at a certain point in time, once the emergency acts had intensified and the states of emergency went on a one off to the other, I realized I either had to leave country or I had to make a choice to put my life on the line in the same manner as young men had chosen to put their lives on the line, young, primarily Black men who had decided to fight for their rights.

So this was a huge decision to move from above ground cultural and political work to joining an underground cell and the African National Congress. And I think I worked in the ANC in that capacity for eight or nine years. It went right through until 1994. Even though liberation movements were unbanned in 1992, we had to remain underground because of the period of attempted destabilization of democracy between 1990 and 94, which is when we were also negotiating for a new constitution. So those years were intense and difficult and terrifying and quite frankly awful, but at the same time, very heady and very exciting because this new constitution was negotiated.

Some of us who were out about our sexuality and were proudly part of the LGBTQ community were particularly intent upon getting LGBTQ rights entrenched within the constitution itself. And because we had been out during the struggle and in the ANC I know that that was part of why we ultimately succeeded.

So, you know, that really is where I sort of cut my teeth. In this struggle for democracy and attempt to build organizations that were focused upon trying to accommodate the voices of all. You know, our meetings that NGOs were sometimes across 13— well, not as many as that but there were 13 official languages, so there’d sometimes be four or five language groups in a meeting and meetings took a very, very long time. And the objective, always, was to arrive at consensus as opposed to just one-off majority vote. So that always took a lot of energy, a lot of patience and a strong commitment to listening. So on the one hand there was that modality of working. On the other hand, I took a personal decision.

It was very graphic black and white decision to align myself with a particular movement that had resorted to military struggle against the South African regime. And you know, for me, that’s why this current attack on democracy, if we’ve seen across our border and on the border recently, is so incredibly disconcerting.

I chose to come to Canada because, well, I met my partner, who’s Canadian. And I was tired. I was burned out and I just needed to go inward and to sort of re constitute myself. Basically. I had a lot of PTSD. I didn’t know the name for it at that time, but the prospect of coming to Canada was a good one because I respected the democratic structures that Canada was known for, its work on human rights and so forth.

Of course. You know, I know now that there’s not an untainted record in relation to human rights and Indigenous issues and Canada, but at the same time on the international stage Canada had a very good reputation in terms of transparent and accountable government. So being here at this point in time witnessing what we’re witnessing with this rise of right-wing nationalist populism is a really, really chilling.

Dr. Dow: So that’s what strikes me. I mean, how do you weigh in when this narrative of, you know, freedom of speech and a rights discourse employed around the convoy kind of as we’re moving through pandemic, given your experiences, right? So we’ve heard people say that it’s so grounded in a privilege to be making these arguments about rights and freedoms that we’ve just most recently seen in the convoy in Ottawa. How do you react to that as an educator, as a citizen? How do we respond?

Dr. Nolte: Well, I think first of all, for me what’s been distressing is recognizing that there is so much misinformation or quite frankly ignorance about the workings of our political democracy.

You know, a lack of recognition of the legitimate channels of political expression and a kind of pride in echoing United States rhetoric about partisanship. You know, we see this with inappropriate sort of draping of the Canadian flag over people’s shoulders. As if people in power don’t represent the people as it were.

So there’s this fundamental questioning of whether democracy exists in Canada, that’s taking place, which frankly I find my naive, ignorant and unfounded. And when notions of partisanship are used to kind of construct our fellow citizens as enemies that’s a kind of crazy Trumpian kind of posture, which is suggesting that, you know, individual liberty is more important than the public or the common good. And I think there’s a difference between individual rights and individual liberties and, you know, human rights are ensconced and in the institute thankfully — with thanks to Justin Trudeau, the emergency act has now been lifted and, and there is a strong recognition of the importance of protecting human rights.

Dr. Dow: I’m hoping you can kind of solve all the world’s problems before we finish, and so I wanted to get to the university as a space. So, you know, you talked about the university is a radical space. So as you know, given what you just you’ve just relayed, what does that look like for us to be that space?

I mean, right now I’m seeing students, my own children grappling with what’s going on in the world and how they become players in terms of change. How do you understand or see when you mentioned the, you know, and talked about the university as needing to be a radicalized space?

Dr. Nolte: Well, now it’s certainly not the time for cynicism or complacency or entitlement or despair. And I think the university needs to contradict all of those by focusing on agency. And you know, and I don’t naively assume that individuals can in a quick, easy sort of stroke the brush transform systems. But I think that it’s our place to teach learners, how they’re positioned within complex, broader frameworks of power and to understand how to shape themselves, inwardly and outwardly in relation to those spaces that they occupy.

And, you know, so we can do this in so, so many ways. And I think we, you know, we are doing this and ultimately this is really towards engaged citizenship. It’s towards the importance of people developing a more refined, sophisticated understanding of citizenship and how important it is to maintain and defend our structures of democracy.

We can’t be passive. You can’t passively believe that these structures are resilient. They are imperfect. They need constantly to be attended to. And I think that our place as university is to alert people to how to free ourselves of the violence that we do to ourselves and to one another. I think that universities are places that should model mutual flourishing, and really insist that wherever power takes place, and it takes place in all contexts at all points in time, that we are aware of where power dominates and constrains and, and how we can empower others to kind of move into those spaces of parts.

So, you know, I know that’s idealistic, but I absolutely believe that universities are places to model big ideas and big ideals. You know, once people are aware, I think of agency, what can be contradicted is anxiety and a sense of marginalization and a sense of not belonging.

Because that need to belong is so central. I mean, you just have to look at the images of the convoy, you know, people jumping up and down and drawing attention to themselves, desperate to be seen, desperate to be recognized, desperate to be heard, you know, and, and it’s our placed to listen to people and to give them space to be able to articulate their fears, their anxieties, their resentments, you know, their economic anxiety and so forth.

And that doesn’t mean allowing hate speech to prevail. I mean, this is not about creating space to silence others. It’s about creating space in which we negotiate dialogue. We understand the reciprocity of dialogue and we have faith in reason, kind of gentle reason, ultimately prevailing.

You know, that’s really testing, I think, the experiment, the commitment, the belief in, in what, what universities can set out to do. So perhaps you can poke some holes in that, Martha. And then I can respond.

Dr. Dow: How optimistic are you feeling about our faith in reason, given that when you look to the convoy and so much, you know, what is that mean?

Dr. Nolte: Well, I personally think that our reason is flawed. I think our epistemological frameworks are flawed. And I think that one of the great objectives in a university environment is to always recognize the limits of our reason and the limits of frameworks of knowing. And for me, that’s, what’s so exciting about Indigenization at UFV and across Canada, there’s a possibility of really questioning the epistemological frameworks we work with recognizing that our ways of knowing are far from complete and opening ourselves to a place of uncertainty and humility. I do think that historically universities have been elitist institutions with a lot of arrogance in the certainty of science and certainty of measurement, you know, the certainty of technical skills, you know, the certainty of overwhelming bureaucratic and managerial structures and, and all of these things need to be interrogated.

So I mean, I believe in reason, but I think reason has to be interrogated to the point of it potentially having to reconstitute itself all the time. And that’s what’s wonderful about a place that purports to create knowledge where we can literally question the foundations of our knowledge and in humility invite questions in, from the public, from people who don’t trust us as to why we presume what we presume. And that means defending in the most accessible way as possible, what our research has revealed, what our mutual learning has set us up for.

Which I hope is to solve some of the challenges. And I, you know, be so bold as to say, yes, we can solve some of the supposedly inextricable challenges and that we face right now in relation to democracy and, you know, in relation to environmental stresses and so on. So I’m extremely optimistic precisely because of how we question our own rationality and our own epistemologies

Dr. Dow: At the threat of going down a rabbit hole for a quick second, if we could, how would then you respond if, you know, opening ourselves up to critique and conversation to a greater extent in a time where in fact, some of the voices feel like such a threat and that harm for many of us needs to be expanded in definition, not to be, you know, that kind of very narrow physical harm, but the harm that’s done in terms of sort of that racist, privileged discourse that characterized much of what happened around the convoy. Do you think actually there’s a threat that academics might be more worried about opening themselves up by giving greater voice to some of those voices that are creating a social order harm and individual harm.

Dr. Nolte: Yeah, and I think we’ve touched at this in conversation, you and I, and you probably have a much more sophisticated analysis of dialogue with respect to these concerns than I do. I do believe that we are obligated to shape the kind of community that we wanted outside of the walls of the university.

And that does mean developing ability to recognize the dizzying array of perspectives that make up the world with all the dangers therein. And and you know, this means bringing people together from very, very different positions in life. It means taking the risk of saying, okay, we’re going to collaborate on a project together. Our students come in with very different perspectives and positions. You know, you negotiate this on a daily basis in the classroom.

And I have to trust at a certain point in both the importance of reason and the importance of compassion with regard to believing that people will learn the benefits of reciprocity and our place as an educator is to create a safe space for that collaboration to take place.

So I don’t think we can shy away from what we know are the dangers of certain hateful intolerant positions, but we have to be bigger than that in order to create a robust space to fulfill that dream of the university, which quite frankly, the word university is to assume, you know, an integrated understanding of all things.

And the only way in which we can do that is through extending ourselves to create a space. These very different and contesting perspectives. So I know that’s an idealistic answer, but I am an idealist and I think that we’re beholden to do that. We’re beholden to model ways of pushing through, towards a recognition of our interconnectedness and that when harm is done in one part of the world, as is happening right now in Ukraine, the rest of the world becomes deeply hurt and pulled into that trauma.

Dr. Dow: I’m going to selfishly pull our conversation to a close, because I think thinking about the critical importance of reason and compassion is exactly what I selfishly need as we navigate what is going on in the world. So I want to thank you so very much for spending the time and being our first guest, and we’ll look forward to more conversation.

Dr. Nolte: Thanks Martha. And I just truly hope that I can live into, you know, a courageous space and that we at the university can all live into a courageous space because I think we’re about to move into a place where we’re going to be tested in a way that we haven’t been tested in many, many years on all fronts and hence the importance of believing in this great democratic project in the university.

And I do want to squeeze one more word in here, which is that we have to do this at all levels of the university, not just in the classroom, but really from the board through leadership to administration, you know, and to our faculty becoming courageous public intellectuals, there’re just so many exciting challenges where we can practice this. And I thank you for doing the work that you do.

Dr. Dow: Thank you.