Janice Williamson lives at latitude 53 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She has been speaking and writing about social justice since she enrolled in her first Women’s Studies undergraduate course at Carleton University in 1973 the same year she contributed to and helped launch one of the first feminist magazines in Canada – a bilingual PLUS. Over three decades, she lectured widely and published on: Canadian literature and cultural studies especially women’s writing and social issues; mothering and adoption; women’s trauma narratives; feminist visual art, performance, and film; nonviolent civil disobedience & peace activism; and popular culture including written and video feminist cultural study readings of West Edmonton Mall.
In 2019, she retired as Professor in the Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta after 32 years. Between 2015 and 2018, she served as Chair of the Equity Committee in the AASUA, the 4000-member union of University of Alberta academic staff. She is the recipient of the 2018 University of Alberta Academic Women’s Association Academic Woman of the Year Award for her lifetime of achievements.
Williamson edited the multidisciplinary and multi-genre anthology Omar Khadr, Oh Canada (June 2012) published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Over 30 scholars, poets, novelists, artists, filmmakers and activists contributed. This volume of work explores one of Canada’s most significant legal, social, and ethical issues to have emerged post 9/11. To some including the former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, Omar became a demonized monster. According to International Law, he is a child soldier who should never have been sent to Bagram and Guantanamo where he was tortured and mistreated. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, Omar’s Charter Rights were violated. Until late September 2012, Omar Khadr remained in Guantanamo and was reluctantly returned to Canada by the Canadian government even though his return had been advocated by many legal bodies including the United Nations Committee against Torture, the US Pentagon, the U.S. Defence Department and others. In the spring of 2015, he was released on bail. In 2017, he was awarded compensation that acknowledges how the Canadian government harmed him by violating Khadr’s Charter Rights while he was detained in off-shore U.S. prisons where he was tortured during the pro-torture era introduced by George W. Bush’s “torture memos.” In 2019, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench court ruled Omar Khadr had served his sentence.
Omar Khadr, Oh Canada explores this case in relation to the Rule of Law, human rights, torture, Canadian domestic and foreign policy, Islamophobia and the “War on Terror.” One critic describes how the book “shines a dazzling beam into the prison of atrocity and helps us understand how hatred drives legal, governmental, and social policy, sanitizing it all the while.”Royalties to this volume are donated to PEN Canada.
In 1987, she completed her PhD dissertation on Canadian feminist poetics, Citing Resistance: Vision, Space, Authority, Transgression (York University). This early interest in the genre-blurring work of poets and innovative feminist writers led to a focus on literary nonfiction or “creative nonfiction.” Williamson cofounded the CNFC (Creative Nonfiction Collective), now a national organization. Canadian women nonfiction writers tend to be underrepresented in some periodicals and she catalogued more than 170 Canadian women writers of nonfiction on her women’s nonfiction writing blog the pomegranate. For over a decade, she taught workshops in the outstanding annual spring Women’s Words: Women’s Writing Week at the University of Alberta. And she co-edited with Shirley Serviss Women’s Words: An Anthology featuring the work of 75 women writers from this programme. In retirement, she is resuming her workshops for women writers.
Much of her work was generated by her early studies in women’s and cultural studies as well as her engagement with the International Women’s Day Committee and Women’s Press. During November 1983, 127 women and men were arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience at Litton Industries in Downsview, Ontario, to protest against their production of the guidance system for the U.S. Cruise Missile. Twenty-nine women were arrested in the all-women’s anti-militarism action on November 14. As a result, Williamson participated in a week-long trial and prepared a collective legal defence, guided by an excellent lawyer, Marion Cohen, and with the superb expert testimony of three distinguished Canadian women: the late metallurgist and distinguished Quaker and peace activist Dr. Ursual Franklin, epidemiologist and environmental scientist, the late Dr.Rosalie Bertell, and leading sociologist Dorothy Smith. This experience led Williamson to invite former teacher and mentor Dr. Deborah Gorham, now Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of History at Carleton University, to collaborate on the anthologyUp and Doing: Canadian Women & Peace (Women’s Press, 1989) — a collection of history, theory, activist documents, essays and poetry.
Over the years, Williamson participated in a number of women’s peace groups beginning with Women’s Action for Peace in Toronto. And including Women’s Action for Peace in the Gulf, a group she initiated with others during the first Gulf War. Out of this emerged a very active nationally engaged Arab-Jewish Women’s Peace group that spoke out. Women’s Action for Peace in the Gulf, an ongoing activist group that met Tuesdays at noon with guest speakers come hell or horrible weather in front of Edmonton’s Canada Place. In 2001, when Canada entered the “war” in Afghanistan, she initiated Edmonton’s Women in Black with Patti Hartnegal, a long-time Quaker peace activist. This original Edmonton group included members of the earlier Jewish Arab women’s peace group. In 2006, Edmonton Women in Black was awarded the Salvos Prelorentzos Peace Award in Edmonton City Hall. Women in Black is “a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence.” It was a collective originally established by Jewish and Palestinian women in Israel in 1987 to protest the treatment of Palestinians. See here for a history of Women in Black around the world.
She is at work on several creative nonfiction projects. Her story “Fu: the turning point” about adoptive mothering was published in Dropped Threads 3. “The Turquoise Sea,” an essay about suicide and mourning, was originally published in AlbertaViews Jan/Feb 2010. The essay won a Silver Medal in the 2011 National Magazine Awards and was short-listed for the Jon Whyte Essay Prize in Alberta.
Other publication projects include:
- Crybaby! (NeWest Press, 1998), an image-text creative nonfiction work exploring family photography and writing, women’s autobiography, memory and trauma. It has been the subject of a number of scholarly essays and dissertations about memoir and photography, image/text work, melancholic and trauma narratives. (Funded by Canada Council.)
- Tell Tale Signs: fictions (Turnstone Press, 1991), an image-text collection, Finalist for the Alberta fiction prize.
- Several poetry chapbooks, including excerpts from the journals of Alberta Borges and a boy named: (the latter a winner of the Canadian bpNichol Chapbook Award)
- A collection of interviews or “oral essays.” Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers (UTP, 1993) was an investigation into questions of feminist and lesbian poetics, race and cultural issues, and canonicity. This work was a Books in Canada Best Book of the year. (Funded by the Canada Council.)
- With art historian Lynne Bell, a series of SSHRC-funded interviews and essays about Canadian prairie feminist performance and visual artists.
- With co-editor, critic and writer Claudine Potvin & with the assistance of S T de Zepetnek – Women’s Writing and the Literary Institution [in Canada/Quebec] (U of A Research Institute for Comparative Literature, 1992.)
- With co-curator and art historian Dr. Bridget Elliott, an exhibition and companion catalogue funded by Canada Council – Dangerous Goods: Feminist Visual Art Practices (Edmonton Art Gallery, 1990.)
Photo by Jun Kamata