Two York lecturers reach top 10 in Ontario

York University archeologist and historian Karolyn Smardz Frost and human rights lecturer Nadia Habib were chosen yesterday as two of the top 10 finalists in TVOntario’s 2010 Big Ideas Best Lecturer Competition. Both from York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, they were chosen from among more than 300 nominated lecturers across Ontario.

Smardz Frost teaches historical research methods, with an emphasis on Toronto and on the city’s complex and fascinating African-Canadian heritage. She studies slavery by focusing on the lives of the courageous individuals who fled it.

Right: Karolyn Smardz Frost

Habib teaches human rights & equity studies and sociology at York University and is also a teaching assistant for a foundation course in humanities. Her research focuses on Egyptian cultural life.

TVO’s Big Ideas Best Lecturer competition, which began in 2005, seeks to recognize the best lecturers at Ontario’s colleges and universities. The finalists’ lectures will be broadcast on “Big Ideas” from Saturday, March 6, to Sunday, April 4. Smardz Frost’s lecture will air on Sunday, March 14, at 5pm and Habib’s lecture will air on Saturday, April 3, at 5pm. Voting will end April 11, with the winner announced on Saturday, April 17.

Left: Nadia Habib

Smardz Frost’s journey of detailed historical detective work began 25 years ago with a remarkable find in downtown Toronto – traces of a house, shed and cellar that were owned by fugitive slaves from Kentucky who settled in Toronto in 1834 and established the city’s first taxicab business. Smardz Frost recounted their story in I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2007.

Very few people are aware that Toronto was a major terminus of the Underground Railroad, yet more than 2,000 people came here in search of freedom before the American Civil War, according to Smardz Frost, who teaches history part time at York University and is a Fellow of both York’s Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples and the Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada.

Students are also often surprised to learn that many of the African Americans who migrated to Canada before the Civil War were free people, she says, especially those who came after the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This law gave slaveholders and their agents wide-ranging powers to recover their slaves in any state. Abuses led to free African-Americans being kidnapped and sold as slaves, even if their families had been living as free blacks for three or four generations. As a result, after 1850, a large number of free African-Americans also turned to Canada for refuge.

In her research, Smardz Frost turns to the personal papers of the slaveholding families, stories passed down by the formerly enslaved to their descendants, and uses methods ranging from genealogy through archeology. She is working on a biography of two women, one who escaped slavery to live in Toronto, and the other the Kentucky slave owner from whom she fled. The two women corresponded for more than 20 years. Smardz Frost has also designed a fourth-year history course that will teach students how to use the Archives of Ontario and other local repositories to research the rich heritage of African-Canadians in Ontario.

Habib’s PhD dissertation examines the role and impact of Umm Kulthum, Egypt’s most enduring cultural icon, on Egypt’s struggles with the challenges of modernity. Her work is grounded in psychoanalysis and philosophy, particularly Jacques Derrida’s reading of Sigmund Freud’s analysis of resistance. 

Before returning to academia, she worked performing, directing and producing live theatre in both English and French in different parts of Canada, including Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton. Habib is also a poet and activist, and was the recipient of a Toronto Arts Council grant for poetry. She continues to be involved in creative projects, and wrote and participated in the narration of "A Hot Sand Filled Wind", the third instalment of b.h. Yael’s film, Palestine Trilogy: Documentations in History, Land and Hope.

Habib collaborated with Maryem Tollar, a Toronto world music performer, to develop a narrative around issues of displacement and belonging to accompany the Maryem Tollar Group’s release of their CD Cairo to Toronto. Together, Toller and Habib are preparing a new work, Journey from Alif to Zed, for the 2010 Luminato Festival.

For more about the top 10 lecturers, visit TVOntario’s 2010 Big Ideas Best Lecturer Competition Web site.