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U of T’s Pamela Klassen wins major German grant

Exploring "how the contested – and sometimes celebrated – categories of religion and multiculturalism shape, provoke and complicate projects of public memory"

Pamela Klassen is the recipient of the Anneliese Maier Research Award from the Humboldt Foundation (photo by Johnny Guatto)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, focused on Indian residential schools, has brought forth painful stories of loss, violence and generational suffering for Aboriginal Peoples. Religion – especially in the form of the Christian churches who ran the residential schools – has been a focus of many of these memories of the past.

As Canada comes closer to its sesquicentennial in 2017, what kinds of stories and memorializations of the nation’s past will take centre stage? And what role does religion play in these projects of public memory when today’s public is made up of people from many different countries, cultures and religions?

This intersection between multiculturalism, religion and public memory is the focus of a major new study about to be undertaken by U of T’s Pamela Klassen, a professor in the department of the study of religion.

Klassen has been awarded €250,000 (about $353,000 CDN) by Germany’s Humboldt Foundation to conduct a five-year collaborative project that will bring together an international group of scholars and students “with a particular interest in how the contested – and sometimes celebrated – categories of religion and multiculturalism shape, provoke and complicate projects of public memory,” says Klassen.

Klassen is one of only 11 researchers – out of an international field of 72 nominees – to be awarded the 2015 Anneliese Maier Research Award from the foundation, which seeks to promote the internationalization of the humanities and socials sciences in Germany. Klassen will work closely with colleagues at Germany’s University of Tübingen.

By “projects of public memory,” Klassen means museums, monuments, digital platforms and truth and reconciliation commissions that tell stories of the past and, usually, the difficult past:  the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, for example, or Holocaust memorials in both Europe and North America.

“We live in a time where global migration is much easier and more frequent than ever before,” says Klassen. “So, countries with steady flows of immigration, such as Canada, France, Germany, Britain and the United States, have an interesting challenge: what does it mean to remember or memorialize a country’s ‘heritage’ when many of these new citizens are being called to remember a past that they may not claim as their own? When religious diversity is added to the mix, the question of whose heritage is remembered and which stories are told becomes even more complex.”

The research team will include scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, including the study of religion, anthropology, history, museum studies and Aboriginal studies, who focus on North American and European contexts from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

Klassen says an interconnected series of research projects, workshops and conferences will focus on such topics as:

  • a comparative study of how the intersection of colonialism and Christian missions are narrated and displayed in projects of public memory
  • the ways that legally-sanctioned state violence, especially against groups marked as religious/ethnic minorities, is remembered or forgotten in projects of public memory

“How a nation remembers is a question that can be asked at both the large scale of nationally-run museums and the small scale of lay people who make websites or walk in local pilgrimages. This collaborative project gathers a diverse and international group of scholars and students doing both contemporary fieldwork and historical research. We are really asking: how does the past inform the present at a time when living with religious diversity is an everyday reality for many at the same time that religious difference is blamed for serious conflicts that strike at the heart of our societies?”

Paul Fraumeni is a writer with the office of the vice-president, research and innovation, at the University of Toronto.