Reflection: Five years of resistance

Crying uncontrollably wasn’t something notable filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin expected to do within minutes of entering one of Professor Norman Cornett’s infamous dialogic sessions.

Months before, Cornett’s students at McGill University were watching Obomsawin’s documentary “No Address” – detailing the plight of aboriginal homelessness in Montreal.  At certain points in the film, Dr. Cornett would stop the recording and ask his students to reflect.  Translation: take the piece of paper in front of you (recycled or not) and write whatever  the heck  you please – no worry of spelling, no worry of colour. Just do it.

Unbeknownst to the students at the time, Cornett was preparing them to meet the leaders of the fields of the topics they were engaged with through reading, watching or listening and constantly reflecting.  First you did your homework, than you met the greats – that’s how Cornett’s classes worked. His course was an elective offered in the department of religious studies, sometimes called “Religion and the Arts.”  He’d pick a couple of themes a semester, often taboo, and have students read, watch, and listen to various materials on said subject all while writing reflections.  About once a month there would be a “dialogic” session with a panel of greats or one of the greats from that field of study which was being discussed in class.

When Obomsawin turned up months later, Cornett read aloud one of those reflections in his characteristically theatrical narrative style. Said reflection spurned the homeless as a lazy and pitiful bunch one begrudgingly is forced to walk by. Obomsawin, of Abenaki descent herself, is no stranger to discrimination, but knowing those hateful words stemmed from one of Canada’s supposed youngest and brightest struck a visceral chord within.

“I started to cry, and I couldn’t stop to save my life,” said Obomsawin.

Years later the Governor General Award winning documentary maker released “Professor Norman Cornett: ‘Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?’”, which screened last weekend at the tail-end of Concordia’s Student Art Studies Association’s (SASA) Women and Art Conference.  The documentary tells the story of the popular McGill professor dismissed in 2007 for unknown reasons.

I was lucky enough bear witness to Cornett’s unconventional teaching methods as a thespian in one of the classrooms he called theatre in 2006.  Like other students featured in Obomsawin’s film, I appreciated the break from being treated like a number forced to listen, memorize and regurgitate through the typical midterm, paper, and final exam class structure.  We simply had to participate through writing (of which our anonymity was always protected) or speaking what we pleased.  Never had I ever been so encouraged to explore and articulate my convictions  – it is no wonder I want to be journalist today.

In one semester, we covered topics from incest to the Arab-Israeli conflict and met with the likes of the personal doctor to Pope John II and Lucien Bouchard – once demonized in my federalist mind but thereafter humanized and dare I say empathized.

Other classrooms met with Preston Manning, jazz-great Oliver Jones and  Alexandre Trudeau.  All were personally lured in by Cornett who isn’t quick to take no for an answer.

Cornett demythologized the typical classroom setting by calling us by self-assigned pseudo-names.  Mine was “Nine Lives,” another was “Vegetable Lasagna” and Cornett once chose  for himself “Bubba” because like the character in Forrest Gump, he always tried to be everyone’s best good friend.

As outlined in the documentary,  the curtains to his McGill classroom were closed.  In May 2007, the outgoing dean of the department of religious studies came by Cornett’s office and told him that after 15 years of lecturing his services were no longer needed. He was asked to clean out his desk by the end of the day.

Ever since, Cornett’s been battling with the university to outline the reasons behind his dismissal.   He took his case to the Quebec Labour Board where McGill has since made monetary overtures dependent on Cornett’s confidentiality and a cease and desist of all legal pursuits. Cornett has refused all offers.

“I believe in freedom of expression and academic freedom so it doesn’t matter how much you offer me, I’m not going to take it,” said Cornett.

Behind the 61-year-old born Texan is a history of fighting injustices from racial segregation to the Vietnam War. He’s propelled by the support  his three grown children and the bedrock that is the legacy of his wife Laura who passed away after a decade-long battle with cancer in 2010.

“When you face end-of-life decisions, things become crystal clear,” said Cornett. What really counts is what we leave behind. If you think you can buy our compliance with what we consider immoral, unethical and contrary to our beliefs? You don’t know us. You don’t know what we’re about.”

The Cornetts’ have always been about education.

Obamsawin discovered that after finally wiping away her tears. An honest back-and-forth took place between her and the students. She implored the future leaders not to kick someone when they’re down – she reminded them how easily it could have been or become them.

“After, I felt they would think different,” said Obomsawin.

The experience was mutually enriching.

“All people who sit in a classroom should feel that they belong, should feel that they have something to say, should feel that whoever they are, whatever nation they come from, they will be respected. I think that’s the nature of real learning,” said Obamsawin.

The National Film Board’s “Professor Norman Cornett: ‘Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?’” is available at Concordia’s Webster library or can be viewed for free at CinéRobothѐque on 1564 St-Denis Street.

Cornett continues his dialogic sessions outside any university’s curriculum  today in rented spaces open to the public for a five dollar fee.  Check out his website for upcoming events.


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