Let Canada Live Up to Its Name of Kanata

Image Inspired by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “Of Upright Revolution” by Laura V. Rodriguez.

I feel greatly honored  with this honorary doctorate from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. But I have a little confession to make. When I first read your letter of invitation, the first words  that jumped in my mind were Kingston, Queens, and Canada. I thought there was a mistake. I used to love the song, Jamaica Farewell, by Harry Bellafonte about his leaving his little girl in Kingston town. Kingston must be in Jamaica. Was there a Canada in Jamaica?

The Queen part was equally  puzzling but intriguing  in a special manner. The late Queen Ellizabeth was a Princess who once lived  in Treetops in  Nyeri Kenya. As children we really admired her. Living in Treetops like a monkey?  You see, as children we used to climb up trees and then tried to create a bridge between the trees by tying  the branches of any two trees. And it was very difficult. So we were in awe of monkeys. And now this Princess had been able to do what we  had failed to do. And when she finally came down from TreeTops, she was a Queen. Maybe the archives in her University, Queens, had the answer to my childhood puzzle.

It was Sam Kegney, the head of the  English Department who helped me solve the puzzle. In my talks with him I learnt that there was indeed a Kingston in Canada. Jamaica out. Then he told me that Queens University was named after Queen Victoria, and I am sure she had never set foot in Kenya. Out the Queen Elizabeth puzzle.

But he added other details. There were two indigenous languages taught at  Queen’s University, viz 1.AnishinaabeMowin 2.Kanyen’kehà:ka. And he himself, the head of an English department, knew some Cree. He also revealed to me that the name “Canada ” is derived from “Kanata” of the native Canadian peoples of Huron-Iroquois. Another eye opener and this is why:

Recently, at the University of California, Irvine,  I have been teaching  a course on  Normalized abnormality in Literature.. Normalized abnormality refers to a situation  where a clear abnormality  becomes the normality on which economic, political, cultural structures and identities are built on. But the founding abnormality was never confronted. One of the best examples of this phenomenon was the United States of America. White people from Britain settled on the land belonging to native Americans. In short, America was a settler colony. The same settlers declared themselves independent of the English Monarchy. But they remained colonizers of the Native Americans. The independence of America was never that of the colonized.

Canada, New Zealand and Australia fall in that category. What do you call these settler nations? Colonial nations to distinguish them from other settler colonies where the colonized actually held up the flag of independence. I have always thought these colonial nations must undergo profound decolonization. And the beginning of that is the question of languages. Bring indigenous languages into the education of the entire nation. Let every Canadian know at least one indigenous language in addition to their English. In other words. Let  Canada live up to its name of Kanata.

That was why I was so excited to hear what I heard from Sam McKegeny about Queen’s University teaching two Native Canadian languages.

I believe every child in the world has a right to their mother tongue. With their mother tongue as the base, they can add other languages, including English. And, We must do away with the hierarchy of languages. Remember that a language is like a musical instrument. Each instrument has its unique musicality. And you can never replace the musicality of one instrument with another. And we never say, let us destroy all the music instruments and leave only the sound of the piano. Many instruments can create an orchestra. Many languages can also create an orchestra through their common language  that we call Translation.

So to receive a doctorate from a University that is taking some steps, small as they may seem, towards a democracy of languages, is a  great honor to me, and I want to thank the vice Chancellor for honoring me by making me a member of this community.

Test of reception speech by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, June 20, 2024.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family.  His writing examines the legacy of colonialism. In his own words, He has been “a language warrior,” fighting for indigenous languages to find their rightful place in the literary world.