Student Life

Piecing together fragments of history

Colleen Gray brings her experience as an editor, writer and poet to the classroom

Colleen Gray was flipping through books at the St-Sulpice Library, searching for a topic for her PhD thesis, when “this person’s voice just jumped out of the book and grabbed me.” It was the voice of Marie Barbier, a teaching nun from the Congrégation de Notre-Dame who lived in Montreal between 1663 and 1739. “I had this feeling I was going to write about this woman,” Gray recounted. “I felt that her voice needed to be heard by other people.”

The book in which Gray first discovered Barbier’s voice was actually written by a male priest who had collected the nun’s writings, inserted them among his own depiction of her story and then thrown away the originals. As with so many marginalized voices in history, what remained of Barbier’s work was fragmented and corrupted.

“That’s what happened to women in history. It’s your classic paradigm of how we’ve lost our voices in history,” Gray explained.

When Gray began studying history at the undergraduate level in the 70s, it was not only the women in history who were being marginalized; little space was provided for the women seeking to study it. This was one of several factors that stopped Gray from pursuing a master’s degree at the time.

She also saw that the field of history was moving away from a narrative discourse and focusing more on quantitative analysis. As a writer and a long-time poet, it was a shift Gray wasn’t willing to make. “That was just a little bit over the edge for me,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Well it’s time for me to step outside of that area.’”

Over the next two decades or so, Gray traveled and taught English as a second language; she edited manuscripts, had children and worked for the Science Council of Canada. In the early 90s, however, something began to change.

“I started to feel like time was running out, and if I wanted to really do something in academia and poetry, I had to do it now,” Gray said. Even her poetry, which she had continued to write and publish over the years, focused on historical themes in Montreal and seemed to demand the footnotes that characterize scholarly writing.

When she returned to university to complete her master’s, Gray was surprised to find that, not only had narrative history made a comeback, but women had also taken centre stage in her field.

“I came back at just the right time,” she said. “The beginning of my PhD was a wonderful adventure, a wonderful exploration in women and women’s voices and women’s archives. It was just such a liberation for me to be able to do that and do that with integrity without hiding it.”

A few years after she completed her PhD at McGill University in 2004, Gray decided it was time to rescue Barbier’s voice as best she could. The process involved transcribing, translating and annotating the nun’s writings to give them context. Compiled in the latter half of Gray’s book, As a Bird Flies, Barbier’s writings tell their own story. For the last three years, Gray has been writing a biographical introduction for the book—an endeavour that has grown from an anticipated 10 pages to nearly 100.

“It wouldn’t have gotten bigger if I hadn’t seen, as I was doing it, […] how much more real she became and how much more we could understand her life if it was presented this way,” Gray explained.

Yet a comparison can be made between the priest’s appropriation of Barbier’s work and the way Gray is presenting the nun’s writings. In fact, it was a realization that slowed down the progress of As a Bird Flies. “I was very judgmental with what he had done when I started the project, but as the journey advanced, I realized that I have no right to judge him because that’s what I’m doing,” Gray said.

The difference, Gray explained, is that she has preserved the integrity of Barbier’s writings in the second half of her book for people to read and interpret on their own. “I didn’t throw her writings away, and I tried to be as true as possible to the original source as I encountered it,” she said. “It’s corrupted, but the fact remains—and this is something that is difficult to prove—you can hear her voice.”

Colleen Gray reads an excerpt from her book, No Ordinary School, at The Study in 2015. Photo courtesy of Colleen Gray.

Part of the challenge has also been striking a balance between historical accuracy and an engaging narrative. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Gray said with a laugh. “I just reach a point where I can’t do it anymore, and I have to do something else.”

For Gray, there is always something else to do because the trajectory of her career has allowed her to remain “diversified,” as she put it. Although completing her master’s and PhD later in life didn’t make her an ideal candidate for tenure, Gray said that path “wasn’t in the cards” for her anyway. Instead, she has worked as a part-time professor at Concordia since 2006, and also taught at Queen’s, McGill and Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont.

Most of the courses she teaches—including her pre-civil war American history class at Concordia this semester—are what she refers to as “survey courses.” Typically assigned to part-time professors, these classes take a broad look at long periods of history and have allowed Gray to diversify her own expertise.

“Now, I’m no longer this 17th century PhD specialist,” she explained. “I have really a broad, expansive understanding of North American history—both American and Canadian perspectives—and history from women, from natives, from different ethnic groups.”

Unfortunately, cutbacks in education in general have significantly reduced the number of courses available to part-time faculty in the history department, Gray said. The last course she taught was in 2016. While her freelance writing and editing offer her other sources of income, “it’s very difficult to rely on being a part-time faculty member,” she admitted. “It’s inconsistent and it’s insecure, but it has its advantages too.”

Gray said she enjoys being able to teach and still have time to work on her poetry and her freelance writing and editing. “You get to develop yourself outside of that box,” she said. It is this ongoing personal and professional development that can make part-time faculty members a unique asset to students.

“Many of us are not mainstream academics,” Gray said. “I have one side of me that is, but I’m a poet, I’m an editor. I have a lot of these different dimensions that I do bring to the classroom.”

She added that she feels her “roundabout journey” to the academic world is a valuable life experience she can share with her students. “When they come to me for help with their essays, you can’t help but talk to them about what they’re going to do and what they want to do and if they feel they should be doing history,” she explained. What Gray said she hopes students can learn from her experience is to see the bigger picture.

“It looks so difficult when you’re young. It seems so narrow, and there don’t seem to be any openings,” she said. “Maybe at the moment [history] is not for you, but that doesn’t mean 10 years down the line it’s not going to be. […] People change directions all the time, and it’s not looked down upon.”

Although these interactions allow Gray to mentor students to a certain degree, she said part-time professors are limited in the work they can do with students outside of the classroom. In particular, she said the fact that part-time faculty are not allowed to supervise a master’s or PhD thesis is “a huge restriction” for her.

“I feel I am very qualified to do so, and I feel stifled by that [restriction],” she said. “It’s understandable, because I’m not working sometimes, but so what? I would continue to supervise somebody’s work even if I wasn’t teaching just because I’m interested in it.”

For Gray, being interested in the subjects she engages with is a driving force for her work. “Writing is always a headache,” she said. “But it can be so invigorating as well, if you get the right project.”

This was the case for a book Gray wrote in 2015 as part of the centennial celebrations of The Study, a Montreal private school. “It was like the Marie Barbier project,” Gray said. “It jumped out at me that I wanted to do this project.”

The result, No Ordinary School: The Study, 1915-2015, “was a two-year, huge, under-the-gun project,” Gray recounted. The process involved sifting through old student newspapers and the school’s archives, as well as speaking with former students, teachers and headmistresses.

“There were 90-year-old women with wonderful memories, and they could give me the history of their school and what it was like during World War II,” Gray said. “One person could even go back as far as the 1920s.”

Part of what kept Gray engaged as she rushed to meet her deadline was the connection she felt to the women she was writing about. “It was almost like reliving my girlhood as a privileged private school girl,” she said with a laugh. While some people may have perceived these students as snobbish, upper-class girls, Gray didn’t approach it that way.

“I saw it as having a wonderful girlhood where you had the best education that was available for women at that time,” she explained. “I looked at it from a different angle, and stepped into those shoes.”

For Gray, being able to put herself in her subjects’ shoes and immerse herself in the material is crucial. “I wouldn’t take up a project unless I could do that, because it’s fun,” she said. “If it’s a project where you don’t want to put yourself into it like that, then that’s for somebody else to do; it’s not for me.”


At the age of 10, Colleen Gray discovered poetry. It was the spark for her career as a writer. “[Poetry] is something I’ve always had, that I’ve always done,” she said. Gray’s poems have appeared in literary journals such as The Canadian Forum, Zymergy and Fiddlehead, and she has performed her work at venues like the Yellow Door.

Consolidating her interests in history and poetry did not come naturally to Gray at first. “It took me a while to see the two of them merge,” she said. Although Gray has experimented with confessional and political poetry, historical topics often become the focus of her poems. “It’s not strictly history—it’s interpretive history,” she explained. “[The facts] are still there, but you can play with them a little bit more.”

Atironta, ca. 1650 1

(I am Atironta, son of mighty warriors)

… and in the silence of the night I pray

to you my Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin

                    my lighted

candle flickers in wind howling through the bark

of our longhouse and beyond the forests, above

the pine trees rushing into the mist of a thousand

cataracts I follow the wind to our home

                        Huron Land

(Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, save us)

… our dead are strewn beneath the earth

their groans echo in my prayers –

                    you have not released our souls

                    to our Villages of the Dead

                        Atironta, mighty warrior

  • Loosely based on a historical person, Pierre Atironta, survivor of the dispersal of the Hurons by the Iroquois in the late 1640s, appearing in Reuben Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company). Published in Matrix: Writing Worth Reading 32 (Fall 1990): 37.

Digital News Innovation Challenge applications kick off at Ryerson

Facebook-funded program open to anyone with an idea to “disrupt” the news industry

Five Canadian startups will each be given five months and $100,000 to develop a solution to a problem plaguing the news industry as part of the Digital News Innovation Challenge. The incubation program is a collaboration between the Ryerson School of Journalism, the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) at Ryerson—an organization that mentors and supports tech startups—and the Facebook Journalism Project.

“It’s open to everyone,” said Richard Lachman, the director of Zone Learning at Ryerson, a network of 10 incubators where startups can get technical and financial support. “You can be a student, you can be an independent, you can be an early-stage startup, you can be a collective.”

With the application cut-off set at $100,000 in revenue, the program targets small-scale teams. Applicants from across Canada can be eligible with little more than an idea, so long as it seeks to address a “scalable, viable, real-world problem” in the news industry, according to Lachman.

In addition to the funding provided by Facebook, the five selected teams—to be announced on March 29—will have access to coaching from entrepreneurs and journalists, workshops and networking opportunities, a workspace at Ryerson, as well as $50,000 in Facebook advertising space.

The seed capital and advertising space will be given to the teams incrementally over five months, as they achieve goals they set for themselves. Acceptance into the program comes with an initial $20,000, and progress over the course of the five months will unlock two other “gates,” each worth $20,000, Lachman explained. At the end of the incubation period—lasting from April 23 to Sept. 28, 2018—teams will showcase their testable prototypes and receive the final $40,000 to continue developing.

“We’re very open-minded about what could emerge,” said Kevin Chan, the head of Canadian public policy for Facebook. He described the program as a first of its kind for Facebook, and admitted the anticipated result from this investment is “a bit of a mystery.”

The potential goals, however, are much less ambiguous. A half-day conference hosted at Ryerson on Jan. 25 in conjunction with the opening of the program’s application process highlighted the news industry’s numerous shortcomings and struggles.

“We need [journalists] to do a better job at telling us not just the stories we want to hear, not just the ones we need to hear, but the ones that maybe we didn’t even know existed,” said Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster, producer and public speaker. His keynote speech focused on the gaps in mainstream media coverage created by a lack of diversity in newsrooms and the failure of many outlets to adapt to diversifying communities.

“When large institutions fail to be inclusive and, at the same time, their audience is rapidly becoming more diverse, you have a recipe for irrelevance,” he told the attendees. “The populous has shifted in ways that [news media] have not then reflected in their staff and in the stories they are reporting and the point of views they are reporting. So then you’ve got this sudden disconnect.”

Panels throughout the afternoon featured speakers from various journalism outlets, ranging from the BBC to Discourse Media, as well as representatives from Facebook, Ryerson and Journalists for Human Rights. Several panelists identified a lack of trust, funding and inclusivity in the news industry as prominent issues in journalism today.

Despite the incubation program’s prominent digital component, many speakers emphasized the need for journalism to shift its focus back to creating high-quality content and reporting for the public good.

As Indian and Cowboy Media CEO Ryan McMahon put it, a media outlet can scramble to have a presence on every social media platform available, but “it’s all bullshit if you don’t have a community behind your work,” he said emphatically. “Twitter doesn’t give a shit about you. Your community does. And if you deliver high-value stories, they will continue to give a shit about you.”

Facebook’s intentions questioned

During the opening panel’s question period, a Ryerson student asked Chan whether Facebook’s financial contribution to the Digital News Innovation Challenge was the platform’s way of “acknowledging that it is part of the problem that journalism is facing today,” making reference to Facebook having “basically stripped funding from many Canadian private journalism organizations.”
Chan responded by saying the investment is “an attempt to help the broader ecosystem” of the news industry of which Facebook is a part of. He argued, however, that issues with the advertising-based business model in the news industry were being discussed in publications such as The Economist years before Facebook’s inception.
The Ryerson student’s question echoed concerns recently raised by media critic Jesse Brown. In the Jan. 8 edition of his podcast, CANADALAND, Brown discussed Facebook’s partnerships with the Canadian federal government, Ryerson and the Canadian Journalism Foundation, among others. “The news industry has a responsibility to scrutinize Facebook,” he said. “All of these partnerships can get in the way of checks and balances.”
Although the Digital News Innovation Challenge’s selection committee has not been finalized, Facebook will not be involved in the final selection process of the five teams, according to Chan. “We have no interest in what emerges other than, hopefully, great ideas,” he said.
Fenwick McKelvey, Brown’s guest on the Jan. 8 podcast and an assistant professor of communication studies at Concordia, suggested that Facebook’s programs and investments in the news industry are a way for the platform to “get ahead of regulation.”
McKelvey also voiced concern about the effectiveness of the Digital News Innovation Challenge. “I think we’re putting all of our eggs into one basket with the $500,000 program,” he said. “It’s really ambitious and puts a lot of pressure on this one program to be successful.”

For more information about the Digital News Innovation Challenge and how to apply, visit their website. The deadline to apply is March 9, 2018.

Photo by Katya Teague

Student Life

Textbooks down, summer reads up!

Concordia students recommend some good summer reads

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada by Will Ferguson
Press photo

This book is part humorous travelogue, part personal memoir, part cultural history—and overall, undeniably Canadian. Based on three years of cross-country travel and a lifetime of exploring his native country, author and travel writer Will Ferguson showcases Canada’s deeply-ingrained diversity and uncovers dozens of tales that have slipped through the cracks of Canadian history textbooks. The author’s undeniable passion and respect for history is infused in his historical accounts, which are given colour and intrigue by his witty narrative voice and travel anecdotes. History has never been more entertaining and digestible. Each chapter in this book could be its own short story, which makes this book ideal for stop-and-go readers, and allowed Ferguson to pack a wide variety of content into 332 pages.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is a fitting read heading into the summer of Canada’s 150th anniversary—it is nostalgic, amusing and emanates a feeling of unity. “Canada is more than just a country,” Ferguson writes. “It is a sum of its stories.”

By Katya Teague (head copy editor)

Best in Travel 2017  by Lonely Planet

Yes, you read correctly. I am reviewing a Lonely Planet book. That can only mean one thing—it’s really, really good. I was still trying to overcome a severe case of wanderlust when I stumbled upon this book. Twenty bucks later, it was mine. I devoured it—and not just the food porn and the listicles. The whole, entire thing. With summer fast approaching, this book is perfect if you’re planning on jetting off, but have no clue where to. The book offers up unique ideas for up-and-coming destinations that aren’t (yet) overcome by tourism and over-priced expeditions. The book is divided into sections, going in-depth on 10 countries, 10 regions and finally, 10 cities that are must-sees in 2017. Supported by beautiful photographs, maps, itineraries and snippets of history, the detail and honesty in the guide is impressive.

By Danielle Gasher (life editor)

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Press photo

Set in the 1950s, Tóibín’s novel follows Eilis Lacey’s journey to America from Ireland. With no job or marital prospect for her in her hometown, the young woman accepts an offer to move to Brooklyn, New York. There, a department store job and bookkeeping classes keep her busy. With so many stories about emigrating to America, Tóibín does nothing to sensationalize the experience. Although she does meet a love interest along the way, Eilis has an independence and strong spark to her throughout the novel that is charming and empowering. This is part of what makes her such a realistic and relatable character. Brooklyn gives insight on the reluctance and the struggles of moving away from home. Brooklyn is a slow-paced yet emotional coming-of-age story that explores Eilis’ move into womanhood and simultaneous move to a new country. Tóibín does not waste words—the story is simple, but with profound emotion.

By Mehanaz Yakub (staff writer)


Wherever the waves take her

A look at the passionate, up-and-coming DJ behind CJLO’s Waves of Honey

It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night, and DJ Honeydrip just started her set. Tonight, it’s at the Ti Agrikol bar. The night starts off quiet. Intimate couples and groups chat near the bar as mellow hip-hop beats fill the air. Two young men walk into the bar and immediately start swaying to the rhythm. It’s not long before others follow suit and take to the dance floor. Honeydrip makes eye contact with one of the dancers, smiles and sways to the music. As the bar fills, she switches up the beat, shifting to some African-inspired dance tunes, and the crowd responds. Honeydrip tunes out the people standing near her, her focus now on cueing the next song. She puts one of her headphones to her ear, twists a few dials on the mixer, all while rocking her body to the music. The transition is seamless. I comment on the complexity of the equipment in front of her, and how easy she makes it look. “It used to look foreign to me too,” she says. “Trust me.”

Two years ago, before Honeydrip was Honeydrip, she was Tiana McLaughlan and she was in her first year at Concordia University. A cheerleader all through high school and CEGEP, McLaughlan was searching for a new hobby at a school that didn’t have a cheer squad. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my free time anymore,” she said. An advertisement in the school agenda for CJLO, the university’s radio station, caught her eye. “I was very, very keen… I wanted to meet them, to show that I was super interested,” McLaughlan said. So she set up a meeting with the station’s volunteer coordinator. “Apparently most people aren’t as keen as I am usually, so I got in right away. A week later, I was offered to apply for a show.”

McLaughlan’s radio show, Waves of Honey, features mellow electronic music and interviews with musicians and DJs. Photo by Katya Teague

McLaughlan said the vibe she aims for with Waves of Honey, her Sunday night show, is “the kind of music that people groove to, bob their head to.” She often plays hip-hop instrumentals and smooth, synth-based electronic music. “I always try to keep a mellow vibe—watching the sunset or just chilling in the park kind of music,” she said. McLaughlan said the show made her want to DJ, and gave her a weekly opportunity to practice. “It helped me learn much faster,” she said. It’s also given her the chance to connect with various musicians and DJs. Many of the artists featured on her show are people she’s met through SoundCloud. “At first, you kind of feel like every artist is out of reach—they’re famous, they must be, so there’s no way you can talk to them,” she said. “But what I’ve learned a lot is that they’re super humble, and they’re super open to being interviewed, whether they have thousands of followers or not.”

In January, McLaughlan took on the role of electronic music program director at CJLO. A major part of the job is promoting the electronic music community and connecting her station’s DJs with local artists and bigger names. She herself has been getting increasing opportunities to showcase her own DJing. On Jan. 20, she opened for Purity Ring, an electronic music duo from Alberta, at Newspeak. “Newspeak was always somewhere that I really, really wanted to play,” McLaughlan said. “It’s a place that has international DJs and performers come through, and I’m just super blessed to have gotten to play there.”

Honeydrip performing live. Photo by Mira Barbara

Ideally, McLaughlan would like to get into Concordia’s electroacoustics program. “I know a lot of people who’ve been in that program, and they’re amazing producers and artists,” she said. “I would definitely want to create my own music,” she said. “I feel like if there’s one thing I want to leave behind in this world, it would be some cool tracks.” Yet becoming a big-time performer isn’t a must for McLaughlan. She discussed career possibilities such as music editing, owning her own record label or even working for music festivals once she completes her marketing degree at Concordia.“I mean, we’ll see where life takes me,” she said. “I’m so into music in general that I don’t care where I end up, so long as I’m doing something related to music.”

It’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, and “you are listening to Waves of Honey on CJLO 1690AM. This is your host, Honeydrip.” The show kicks off with “Racquets” by Indian Wells. McLaughlan adds a personal touch to the atmospheric instrumental, playing around with some effects on her mixer. “Some DJs like playing around with effects. Others not so much,” she said. I ask her if she’s the kind who does. She grins and nods enthusiastically as she twists a dial, highlighting the toc-toc tennis sounds that inspired the song’s title.

Later in the show, she interviews Canadian DJ Kid Koala. She’s a little nervous, but soon they’re having an animated discussion about his innovative, unorthodox way of practicing scratching using the wax paper burger wrapping from his fast food job before he could afford proper equipment. “Very primitive, humble beginnings,” he tells her. “But also very joyful times.” Sounds not unlike the circumstances McLaughlan currently finds herself in.

Tune in to Waves of Honey every Sunday night from 10 to 11 p.m. on CJLO 1690AM.

Student Life

From the heart of the newsroom to the front of the classroom

A part-time journalism professor with a full-time commitment to crafting journalists

With nothing but her bachelor’s degree in Canadian history and a few years of copy editing experience at Reader’s Digest, Concordia part-time professor Donna Nebenzahl pushed her way into the journalism world like the big bad wolf.

Photo provided by Donna Nebenzahl

“I huffed and I puffed and I refused to [give up],” she said. Editors didn’t want to talk to her—they claimed she knew nothing about newspapers. “But I just kept trying and trying and finally I got a job at The Montreal Star.”

Although the newspaper was only months away from folding, it was in that newsroom, on the streets of the Old Port, that Nebenzahl found her place.

“In that newsroom, I felt like ‘Oh my god, here I am, this is where I want to be,’” she recalled. “Everything about it, the pace of it—I loved it, I just really loved it.”

Nebenzahl eventually wound up in the newsroom of The Montreal Star’s old competitor: The Montreal Gazette. She spearheaded the newspaper’s Trends magazine, launched the award-winning Woman News section and worked as an editor for various lifestyle and feature sections.

Yet, as newspapers corporatized, the bottom line was the big bad wolf that huffed and puffed and swept Nebenzahl away in one of The Montreal Gazette’s rounds of buyouts. Six years ago, she joined the many journalists squeezed out of ever-shrinking newsrooms.

Since leaving her full-time job, Nebenzahl said she’s become much more invested in her teaching career. When you have a lot of experience in the field, it’s important to give back, she said. Leaving the newsroom is just one more experience she brings to the table for her students to learn from.

“It became about the shareholder, and the shareholder is really not the reason you should be doing journalism,” she said. “You should be doing journalism because you believe that these stories need to be told, that people need to investigate and understand, that the public has the right to know.”

She said many of her students have caught the journalism bug, and she wants to keep them focused on the value of their work, rather than on how to please their future bosses. She said it’s one of the main reasons she teaches.

“I think that, seeing the challenges in journalism today, it’s important to try to convey this notion of what this business is really about,” Nebenzahl said. “I mean certainly, if I had my way, there would be no media company that is owned for profit.”

Outside of Concordia, Nebenzahl has been developing a series of writing workshops called “Digging.” Her inspiration came from a poem by Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney in which he compares his ancestors’ digging of the land to the digging he does with his pen.

“All the writing exercises are designed to unearth things, to dig up memories or relationships or interactions or inspirations,” Nebenzahl explained. “I think it’s worth it for everybody to find those things. You put them aside, you stick them in a corner in your memory, and this allows you a chance to really look at them. It gives you a sense of understanding about yourself.”

Nebenzahl said she’s enthralled with the idea of “writing your life,” and even with her graduate students last semester, she spent a lot of time exploring their writing skills.

“There are things that you do occasionally where you forget the time, you lose track of time because you’re so immersed in it—well that’s what writing is like for me,” she said.

Stepping out of the newsroom has been liberating for Nebenzahl in a sense, as she said it has allowed her to focus on writing and, as a freelancer, she has more freedom to explore topics that interest her.

“You work at a newspaper for many years before you’re able to make choices about what you want to write. You’re usually told what to do,” she said. When she began working as an editor for The Montreal Gazette, her job involved managing her section—only 15 years later was she able to start writing again, as a columnist for the Woman News section she’d helped create. “As a freelancer, choosing makes life very interesting because it’s much more about what moves you or what you feel passionate about.”

One topic Nebenzahl has been particularly passionate about in the last few years is micro-farming. She has written several articles for The Montreal Gazette about small farming and urban agriculture in Quebec, and the new generation of young farmers leading the movement.

Traditionally, students who studied agriculture at McGill’s Macdonald campus were the sons and daughters of farmers, taking on the family business, Nebenzahl explained. Now, however, many of the students coming out of McGill’s agriculture program are new to farming but are pursuing it because they are passionate about it.

“They’re very well educated, they’re pretty hip, they create networks, they really talk to each other a lot and they’re doing farming in a very interesting way,” she said.

The idea behind micro-farming, Nebenzahl explained, is that farmers use very small acreage and sophisticated hand-held tools rather than try to mass produce on huge fields with tractors. In addition to local markets, many of these organic farmers connect with their customers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks.

“They’re not like the back-to-the-land hippies of my era who didn’t know anything,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that this is a real movement, a movement that’s going to have a lasting effect… To me, this is the future of food.”

It is a subject Nebenzahl said she would love to explore as a documentary. While she hasn’t created a documentary since her 2009 Twice Upon A Garden, which looked at the history of the Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Nebenzahl believes the medium would give people a sense of the hard work and value of these farming practices.

Nebenzahl is part of a CSA herself, and spent part of last spring and summer volunteering once a week on an organic farm.

“I’m sitting there in these plastic ‘tunnels’ and there’s all this straw on the ground and you’re planting little basil plants in between the tomatoes and, as you’re doing it all by hand, you realize in the end… this is going to grow into these awesome things and you’re going to be able to harvest it all,” she said. “It’s just beautiful… To me, there’s no downside here, if we can only believe in the importance of good farmland and supporting farmers.”

Getting close to the action when it comes to social movements is not new for Nebenzahl. In 2003, she and photojournalist Nance Ackerman published Womankind: Faces of Change Around the World. The book was the result of months of travelling to dozens of countries across five continents, capturing the stories of activist women, both in writing and in photographs.

“The theme was that women really are the face of activism around the world,” Nebenzahl said. “They are the people who are there on the ground, they see what happens to children, they see what happens to the environment.”

Photo by Katya Teague

Womankind features the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, fighting to bring back the grandchildren who were stolen from them during a government crackdown in Argentina. It sheds light on women in Kenya fighting to give their daughters an education. It showcases mothers in Moscow, working to get supplies to their sons, who were sent to fight in Chechnya without proper clothing or food.

Despite the tragedies experienced by many of these women, Nebenzahl said there was something very inspiring and hopeful about these women.

“When they woke up in the morning, they had a task. They were not sad, morose, unhappy people—they were very active people who really believed that what they were doing meant something,” she said.

While Nebenzahl spends less time out in the field and more time in the classroom than she used to, she believes this “boots-on-the-ground” experience is what makes Concordia’s part-time faculty so valuable.

“A lot of people are doing a lot of very original work,” she said, both in journalism and other fields. “This is what makes part-time faculty interesting in this department, because you need a lot of people who are in the field now.”

Nebenzahl said she is involved with a few of the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association committees because she wants to give the part-time faculty a stronger voice within the university. It’s an issue of inclusion, she said, and recognizing that these professors are an important part of the process. It’s a philosophy Nebenzahl said should come naturally to Concordia, as it is part of the university’s roots.

“It’s interesting to me because Concordia is kind of a university of the streets. It originated in downtown Montreal where people who couldn’t afford to go to McGill or couldn’t afford to go to school during the day started going to school at night,” she said. “It really developed out of that kind of idea of giving opportunities to people who were doing other things.”

Student Life

Looking beyond what you think you know

TEDxConcordia’s event featured 10 speakers who challenge social narratives

The Concordia students who organized Saturday’s TEDx event, rightly titled Looking Beyond, advertised the conference on their website as one that would seek to understand “the matter that lives below the tip of the iceberg.” This description, however, was just the tip of the iceberg.

The TEDx event featured 10 speakers and three TED talk videos. Photo by Mikael Theimer.

A little over a year in the making, the conference featured 10 speakers and three TED talk videos that touched on a range of topics, from the power of hypnosis to the power of data. It was meant to encourage the audience to challenge social narratives, make connections, look beyond the data and never stop learning, said Alan Mathieu, the director of content and program.

“It’s about awakening the visionary within us all,” said Hussain Shorish, TEDxConcordia’s president.

“It was a new experience,” said Kevin Kuppek, a Concordia student who had only ever heard a TEDx talk online. “The word ‘amazing’ pops to my mind.”

The in-person aspect of the talks played a role in the power of the conference since TED and TEDx talks are easily accessible online. Audience member Joaquim Miro said what was truly incredible was the discussions and connections that were already happening among audience members during the lunch break.

“It sparks innovation, it sparks conversation and I think even relationships that can really grow from it,” he said. “I find it absolutely inspiring.”

Some of the speakers helped audience members to look beyond the now, down the paths to a better future for their bodies, for urban infrastructure and for the world.

“We’ve totally extracted nature from our lives,” said speaker David Côté, the co-founder and president of the culinary business Crudessence which prides itself on serving “living” foods. He explained that people are becoming “domesticated” by virtue of the foods they eat. He urged listeners to “re-wild” themselves by eating foods that can grow in nature without the help of humans. Essentially, it’s food that’s super healthy and often raw, like veggies, sprouts and nuts.

Some speakers discussed their own career paths to emphasize the immense importance of following passions and reaching for opportunities.

“Everybody has these passions when they’re a kid and sometimes they get forgotten,” said Dax DaSilva, the founder and CEO of Lightspeed, a Montreal-based company that provides retailers with a cloud-based point-of-sale system. “I’m here to tell you that these passions are important. These passions are your secret ingredients. Igniting them can help you make your life complete,” said DaSilva.

Photographer Mikaël Theimer talked about his first-hand experience at looking beyond first impressions and prejudices.

Inspired by the blog Humans of New York, Theimer created Portraits of Montreal. He takes pictures of strangers and asks them questions. The answers often confirm that he cannot trust his initial assumptions about people and neither should anyone else.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” said Theimer. “Humans are like icebergs—your eyes can only ever reveal the tip of who they are.”

He asked to take a picture of a man named Michel Pepin and was invited to witness and capture on camera the life and reality of a poet with multiple sclerosis enjoying and finding meaning life. Theimer described the experience as “liberating.”

He took a picture of a man named David and his dog Diamond. He learned that David was homeless not because of his heroin addiction, as he’d been clean for two years, but because he sold everything he owned to have two tumors removed from Diamond to save her life.

Theimer’s takeaway: “There are no strangers; only friends you haven’t met yet.”
To learn more about TEDxConcordia’s upcoming events, visit

Student Life

Changing how rice is farmed one acre at a time

Engineering Without Borders member Maxime Desharnais is making a world of a difference in Ghana

The first time that Maxime Desharnais, a civil engineering student at Concordia, walked on the 1,000 acre rice field in the village of Nabogo in Ghana last May, he found a snake.

Desharnais (4th from the left), with Adongo (centre) along with other community members of Nabogo, Ghana. Photos courtesy of Maxime Desharnais.

Anyone in the village will tell you that if you find a snake on the field on your first day, “your field is going to be a success,” Desharnais said.

Months later, while many farmers in the region were losing their crops due to drought, Desharnais’ 17-acre test field was just that—a success. However, this probably has little to do with the snake and a lot to do with the use of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

Desharnais spent four months in Ghana last summer as part of the Junior Fellowship program offered by the organization Engineers Without Borders.

“I wanted to work on the field. I wanted to get my hands dirty,” Desharnais said. “That was my goal and I got exactly what I wanted.”

The program organizers put him in contact with Miles Adongo, a young man looking to improve the way his village farmed rice. The SRI has farmers nurse the seeds, plant them systematically, and use irrigation, which controls water flow to foster plant growth. The process uses 80 to 90 per cent less seeds than the conventional technique, and nursing the plants makes them stronger.

Although other Western African countries are currently using SRI, no one in Ghana has proven that it’s “commercially viable” yet, said Desharnais. That’s where Adongo and his farm come in.

“Everything we’re doing is for the community,” Desharnais said, adding that Adongo’s plans involve promoting the involvement of women in farming practices.

“The ultimate goal is processing our own rice for Ghana,” Desharnais said. The country currently has to import most of its rice, Desharnais said.

Desharnais, Engineering Without Borders member, nurses the rice on the field. Photos courtesy of Maxime Desharnais.

Now that Desharnais is back in Canada, it’s all about funding for the project. He is essentially the liaison between Canadian companies and Adongo’s farm.

“I heard numerous times [from people] ‘can I trust him?’ or ‘is he going to scam us?’” Desharnais said. His focus has been on breaking these misconceptions about funding African projects.

The project recently received funding from a large North American company and next summer Desharnais will be going back to Nabogo to follow-up on where the money is going and how it has affected the field.

“Next year, it’s going to be different,” Desharnais said. The plan is to increase the test field from 17 acres to 80 acres. According to Adongo, the field’s persistence through the recent droughts has given many villagers confidence about SRI.

“They’re scared to change the practice because it’s their subsistence,” Desharnais said, adding that, “[Growing rice] a big struggle with the weather.”

The hot sun already limits the length of the farming season because the soil becomes too dry, Desharnais said. When there is water, it’s rain-fed and in abundance, sometimes too much for the tractors to handle.

The solution is irrigation, but for now the project can’t afford it. Desharnais has no doubt that it’s in the farm’s future, though.

At Concordia, his hydraulics class was recently learning about irrigation channels. “When I’m in class, I’m thinking about how I could apply that on the field,” he said.

You can learn more about Miles Adongo and his projects at

Student Life

Sexual assault educator Julie Lalonde talks sexual violence

Forget feeling awkward, bystander intervention can help us prevent worse situations

A presentation hosted by Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre on Nov. 4 discussed the idea of consent and how bystander intervention is a straightforward and effective way to prevent sexual violence.

“There’s this idea that consent is this really complicated feminist thing that, if I actually follow it, I would never have a good time,” said award-winning guest speaker Julie Lalonde, a sexual assault educator.

Her dissection of the Canadian law about consent presented four simple characteristics: it must be voluntary, sober, enthusiastic and never assumed.

Fear of getting involved and avoiding awkwardness are two reasons people don’t intervene in potentially dangerous situations. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

In order to address bystander intervention, Lalonde presented the audience with a scenario: you see your wasted friend stagger out of the bar with some guy. Do you stay and keep dancing?

The interactive format of the presentation allowed for a discussion about why someone might keep dancing. Fear of getting involved or getting hurt and the desire to avoid being awkward were among the main culprits.

“The amount of things that we do in our lives to avoid awkward moments is really fascinating,” said Lalonde.

One audience member said she could not understand the concept that a small thing such as awkwardness could keep a person from preventing something awful.

“Why should I be afraid to be awkward?” she asked. “I’m saying the truth. I’m doing the right thing. I shouldn’t feel awkward—I should feel good about myself.”

Lalonde said she wished everyone felt that way, but because that isn’t the reality, we need to hold workshops like this one.

Julie Lalonde is the founder of a bystander intervention campaign called Draw The Line. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

“If something feels off, the easiest, most non-confrontational thing that you can do is to check in with the person,” said Lalonde, adding that it’s not awkward and is “oftentimes the only thing you need to do.”

Lalonde addressed the concern for personal safety with a list of simple and safe ways that a person can step in and potentially prevent a situation from escalating to sexual assault.

Audience members laughed as Lalonde imitated the “awkward dance” a person does to put themselves between their friend and a guy who won’t leave her alone on the dance floor. Other tips included making up excuses about people waiting for them or that a third friend is sick and needs to be taken home, now.

In simple terms, bystander intervention is “when we have each other’s backs,” said Lalonde.

Lalonde left the audience with three rules about how to intervene as a bystander:

Call out the behaviour.

“If what’s stopping you [from intervening] is this idea that he’s going to get mad at me, then that’s exactly why you need to intervene,” said Lalonde.

Support the person who is being targeted.

“The consequences for drinking too much should be a hangover, not sexual assault,” said Lalonde. Regardless of your opinion on drinking or sexting or hooking up, you are not there to dish out judgement, she added.

Speak out.

Sexting is consensual. Spreading naked pictures of someone without their knowledge or consent is online sexual violence. Call it like it is, said Lalonde, adding that “the way in which we talk about this shapes what we do about it.”

Student Life

Meet Concordia’s mighty Engineers Without Borders

Students from all programs aim to make a difference in developing countries as part of EWB

Here’s the first thing you should know about Engineers Without Borders (EWB): it’s not just for engineers.

Graphic by Charlotte Bracho.

It’s about engineers and non-engineers throughout Canada coming together to tackle some of the world’s complex problems, according to Geordan Vine, president of EWB at Concordia University.

Working towards solving global poverty and creating equal opportunities may sound ambitious for Concordia’s small chapter—but that is part of their charm.

“It’s small, but it’s mighty,” said Jane Stringham, the V.P. of fundraising. “We get a lot done.”

From used electronics sales and trivia night fundraisers to facilitating trips to developing countries, members at EWB are always busy with new projects.

It doesn’t take much to become a member—just drop by for a meeting and you’re part of the team.

“I really like that it’s so flexible and that everyone is always welcome at the meetings,” said Samantha Sieklicki, the V.P. of member learning.

Neither Sieklicki nor Stringham are engineering students. Sieklicki recently made the switch from physics to religious studies and Stringham is working towards a master’s degree in environmental impact assessment.

As the V.P. of member learning, Sieklicki organizes discussions for EWB members on topics such as fair trade and food systems. It’s a chance for members to learn about how and why EWB is making a difference.

“[EWB] is the kind of place where you can ask the hard questions to the CEO around a campfire,” said Vine, as he described one of the EWB retreats he attended last year.

The biggest project that Concordia’s chapter is working on is a certificate program as part of the Global Engineering Initiative. Vine said the program is about challenging students “to think in a global perspective, to think about their responsibility to society.” It is a part of EWB’s work to promote engineering leadership. Concordia aims to launch the program in January.

What sets EWB apart from other NGOs is its focus on creating systemic change. An organization can’t just build a well in a developing village and call it a day, Vine said. “It’s putting a band-aid on the problem of water distribution in small villages,” he said.

Systemic change is essentially the saying about teaching a man to fish so that you feed him for a lifetime, said Vine.

This past summer, Maxime Desharnais, a Concordia engineering student, spent four months in Ghana as part of EWB Canada’s Junior Fellowship Program. Desharnais primarily looked at the changes that could be made to the practice of growing rice through nursing and transplanting to optimize the yield of small farms.

“That’s the kind of thing that is going to change the way that people are living,” Vine said, referring to Maxime’s journey. “They are getting better outputs just from simple changes in technique that they might not have known or developed.”

As an individual chapter, Concordia’s EWB members focus on supporting ventures like Desharnais’ through fundraising.

“There are a lot of students that really find a passion in development, in leadership, in planning,” said Vine. “I think it’s something everyone should strive for.”


For more information, visit or stop by their samosa sales, held every Thursday at 12 p.m. on the second floor of the Hall building next to The Hive.

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