Hopes to stir great debates and get Canadians asking questions
By Neale McDevitt
Will Straw is back…at the MISC. On July 1, the Professor of Communications in the Department of Art History and Communications will take the reins as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), a position he held in 2007-08 while acting director Antonia Maioni was on sabbatical. Straw will be coming full circle, as he was part of the committee that helped select MISC’s original boss, Desmond Morton back in the early 1990s.
Straw acknowledges that following Maioni, who led MISC for the last 10 years, and Morton will be no easy task. “They both did some amazing work for MISC,” he said. “I just hope to continue where they left off.”
Recently, Straw sat down with The Reporter to discuss his new position, his research and what it really means to be Canadian.
What is MISC’s mandate?
MISC supports education on Canadian issues – which it does partly through running the University’s Canadian Studies program. But, just as important is MISC’s public mandate to reach out and do public events that deal with issues that are of concern to Canadians in a non-partisan way.
Why the emphasis on public education?
Universities have to engage with their communities and that’s always a challenge. There’s a particular community associated with McGill, there’s the broader Montreal community, but there’s also McGill’s place in Canada and in the world.
MISC has been good on all these levels. Our big annual conferences draw opinion leaders and experts from Canada and around the world. More and more MISC is getting a reputation worldwide as a place where people go if they are studying Canada or are interested in Canada.
What do you bring to the MISC table?
First of all, I’m following two excellent directors, Des Morton and Antonia Maioni, both of whom have done truly wonderful things. I’m trying to continue their good work.
I’m a political junkie, but by no means am I a political expert. So my interests are a little bit more on the cultural side, a bit more on some social issues.
For example, I’m thinking that the next big conference we do in February or March 2012, may be on crime as a social issue, as a way Canada may or may not be different from other countries.
I’m also very interested in how we fund culture in an age when governments are cutting and consumers are expecting more and more of it to be free.
Everyone leaves their stamp on MISC and mine will probably have a little more emphasis on the culture/social issues.
Any new initiatives planned for MISC?
If you talk to McGill undergraduates, you’ll find they are very interested in internships. I’d like to develop some sort of MISC internships, maybe beginning in the cultural-policy sector but moving outward.
More and more I’d like to hold events off campus, whether it is with McGill alumni groups in Montreal or across the country – we have to get out into the community. I like the idea of bringing people to McGill and creating an atmosphere where they can exchange ideas and then going out and finding audiences that are interested.
Also, I see MISC as a potential research hub. I want to put together teams of people working in various fields so we can focus on interdisciplinary issues that concern Canada.
MISC is not there to push particular policy positions, but it is there to create events, conversations and discussions that are part of those debates. Almost every one of our big conferences has been about an issue that is of concern to policy makers.
The beauty of MISC is that it brings together people who might not necessarily find themselves talking to each other a lot. Those kinds of discussions are usually very fruitful.
What are your current research interests?
I’ve worked a lot in the music industry, the film industry… I’m very interested in the future of newspapers and the rise of free commuter newspapers.
I have a project funded by the Fonds de recherche sur la société et la culture on media and urban life in Montreal – on the role of media in tying together a city like Montreal.
Are newspapers in jeopardy?
Two years ago, I was very pessimistic but they seem to have found ways to survive. They are obviously going to have to change – the big players now aren’t necessarily going to be big players in the future.
I worry about local news because I don’t think when people read news online, they are necessarily reading local news. Our technology can take us around the world in an instant, so a local news organization isn’t necessarily where you’re going to start.
Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis – why are Canadians at the forefront of thinking about media and technology?
How do you build a nation across this ridiculously large amount of space unless you find ways of linking it? The railroad, the telephone system – we were among the first with satellite communications and we’re one of the most wired nations in the world. All of that is central to what I think it is to be Canadian.
With yet another election looming, it seems like more and more Canadians have become disinterested in the political process. If nothing else, can we say that disinterest is part of the elusive definition of what it is to be Canadian?
Like everybody else, I’d like there to be less of a sense of detachment in the political process. But I think one of the things MISC can do is look at some of the other ways in which people can be Canadian, and casting a ballot every four years – or, these days, every year – isn’t necessarily the only way.
So is it possible to define what it is to be Canadian?
Probably not. Part of MISC’s mandate is to bring people together to discuss what it is to be Canadian. I wouldn’t want us to define an essential Canadian, but we might ask what are the rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship. Same as in Quebec where we ask, what does it mean to be a Quebecer? What do we allow? What will we be less tolerant of? These are touchy, thorny issues, of course.
On the one hand I don’t think we can ever define what it is to be a Canadian. On the other hand, I don’t think we should ever stop asking the question.