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Diaspora centre examines identity

UTSC students Kelly Silke (left), Angelique Berube with Professor Ato Quayson, director of the new Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Issues; Image © Ken Jones

If your parents immigrated to Canada from their home country, do you identify more as a Canadian or with your cultural background? What does home mean to you? These questions of cultural identity are just two of the many topics Professor Ato Quayson of English will delve into as director of the newly established University of Toronto Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, which he calls the first centre of its kind in the world.

“Most other programs and centres of diaspora studies focus on single ethnic groups such as the Jewish or African-American diaspora studies,” Quayson explains. By contrast, he says U of T’s new centre will be the first in the world to study and compare a broad range of diasporas. And, in accordance with the Stepping Up plan’s emphasis on multidisciplinary study, it’s also going to involve many academic disciplines throughout the university.

“It’s going to be multidisciplinary, not solely just the many disciplines that will come into play but in terms of the meaning of culture and ethnic groups that feed into the ideas behind the centre,” Quayson says.

Quayson left behind his position as director of African studies at the University of Cambridge to head up the centre at U of T because of its Toronto location. “University of Toronto is very appropriate because it is one of the few universities that happens to [reside] in a diverse city. There are very few universities in the world that has this.”

An undergraduate degree program in diaspora and transnational studies, launched this fall and housed under the centre’s umbrella, is just a “taste of what’s to come,” says Quayson. He envisions the centre developing into an “intellectual beehive of activity” and has ambitious plans to introduce community outreach and graduate programs. He has also been busy collaborating with other institutions and organizations to create interest in the centre.

Through a new introductory course, students at all three campuses are getting a taste of diaspora studies. Quayson and two other professors, Sara Abraham, a sociology professor from U of T at Mississauga, and Ken MacDonald, a geography professor from U of T at Scarborough (UTSC), are travelling to all three campuses to teach a part of this course.

Quayson will lecture from a literature perspective while Abraham and Macdonald will examine diasporas through historical and anthropological lenses, respectively. Abraham says the course will be very relevant to the students registered, since many of them are from culturally diverse backgrounds and live in a multicultural city. “They’re going to find a lot that resonates with their experience or their family’s experience.”

Exploring her cultural identity is the main reason why Kelly Silke decided to enrol in the course. “I’m really fascinated with the idea of identities. The course really delves into the idea of where you come from, your history of nationality, your host nation versus your home nation, all of which really fascinates me,” says the first-year psychology student at UTSC.

As a third-generation Canadian who comes from both Italian and Irish roots, she’s unsure of her cultural identity. “Even being third-generation Canadian, there are questions of identity, especially when you come from a family where one parent is Italian and one Irish. I think that presents a question of who you identify with.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough