Thursday, February 26, 2009

Challenging Dogma is Bad For Your Academic Health

Questioning efficacy of reserve system has political scientist in hot water

If there's any one rule that has come to predominate politics in Canada, it is this:

Don't ask questions about the state of Canada's aboriginal people. If you must ask questions, don't ask the wrong ones.

This at least seems to be the lesson to be learned from the recent experience of Frances Widdowson, whom many Canadian academics have been slowly stewing ever since a presentation she gave last year.

At the June 2008 meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association Widdowson cited Canada's Aboriginal Reserve system for encouraging unemployment and the social problems that come with it. She insisted that the best way to help Aboriginals is to assimilate them.

This naturally provoked a great deal of outrage from those present, including a man who allegedly asked her if she wanted to "take it outside".

After the presentation -- which according to reports seemingly may not have even been finished -- accusations of hate speech were levelled against Widdowson. There were also calls for McGill university press to be censured for printing Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: the Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, Widowson's book on the subject.

Some have gone so far as to accuse Widdowson of peddling "master race fantasies".

It's even been suggested that views such as Widdowson's may discourage aboriginals from seeking careers in academia.

Widdowson isn't the only individual -- academic or otherwise -- facing difficulties for challenging an entrenched dogma in Canadian thought on aboriginal affairs.

Also in June of last year Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre questioned how well money spent on aboriginal reserves has actually served Canada's aboriginals.

"We spend 10 billion dollars -- 10 billion dollars -- in annual spending this year alone now, that is an exceptional amount of money, and that is on top of all the resource revenue that goes to reserves that sit on petroleum products or sit on uranium mines, other things where companies have to pay them royalties," Poilevre said. "And that's on top of all that money that they earn on their own reserves. That is an incredible amount of money."

"Some of us are starting to ask: 'Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?'," Poilievre asked. "My view is that we need to engender the values of hard work and independence and self reliance. That's the solution in the long run -- more money will not solve it."

Poilievre's insistence that aboriginals need to learn "independence and self reliance" was treated as offensive by a great many people. But for those who focused on that unfortunate choice of words, the real issue was entirely lost: namely, the endemic poverty that persists on Canadian aboriginal reserves.

Tom Flanagan has also stirred up a great deal of controversy with his own recommendations on aboriginal policy. In his book First Nations? Second Thoughts, Flanagan suggests that, among other things, aboriginals should be given property rights over reservation lands so that they may sell those lands or use them as collateral for bank loans.

The ultimate result of that would be transforming reservation lands from a trust handed down from generation to generation into properties no different from any other property.

In other words, assimilation by property.

Assimilation has formally been on the national agenda before. Assimilation was very much at the heart of the Residential School system, just as it was the very soul of Pierre Trudeau's "citizens plus" model for aboriginals.

Assimilation has been rejected by Canada's aboriginals at every turn, and naturally so. Anyone who believes in the right of aboriginal Canadians to self-determination cannot accept forced assimilation. Those who favour assimilation should understand why this is so.

But what is emerging in this particular debate isn't a battle between racism and tolerance, as many of those who favour the status quo in regards to aboriginal policy would insist. Rather, this is a battle between a call for pragmatism -- however ill-conceived -- and a dogma of liberal guilt.

Canadians can no longer ignore the fact that our aboriginal policies -- policies which reinforces the notion that aboriginal Canadians and non-aboriginal Canadians live separate lives -- have failed.

For $10 billion annually poverty on aboriginal reserves should be a thing of the past. Yet it isn't, and it may come down to questionable priorities.

Funding the fight against assimilation may be a losing battle. In one way or another it could be said that assimilation is inevitable, and that the only question remaining is whether this assimilation will be aboriginals assimilating within Canadian society or traditional aboriginal lifestyles assimilating within the modern world.

Yet should aboriginal cultures fade into history as many aboriginal leaders fear, there is no question that this would be an incredible loss.

Balancing the fight against poverty and the fight to preserve aboriginal culture is a difficult task. There's no reason why both can't be done, but it's clearly time for a paradigm shift in the approach to each. The status quo isn't working.

Many Canadians, sadly, are perfectly content with the aboriginal affairs status quo. The poverty on aboriginal reserves is something that many Canadians never see. Aboriginal reserves are, for many Canadians, something they never see. At most, perhaps they pass one on the highway on occasion and see it from a distance at best.

The outrage directed at Frances Widdowson is simply further evidence of how this insular relationship has fed the dogma that has come to dominate Canadian thinking on aboriginal affairs.

It may be an exaggeration to suggest that Widdowson's academic career is threatened by her thinking on the topic. Then again, it might not be. If her career truly is threatened by her antithetical thinking on aboriginal affairs, then she isn't alone.

Other bloggers writing on this topic:

Lee Harding - "Left Wing vs Aboriginal Status Quo"

Metis Bare Facts - "Hypocrisy in the World


  1. The problem with Widdowson's and Flanagan's proposals is that they overlook some fundamental realities of Canadian history.

    First of all, the whole reason Canada even has access to the land it now occupies is because of the various treaties signed with the First Nations. Those treaties are part and parcel of the Canadian Constitution, and were not simple bills of sale. Rather, they were an intent of agreement to share the land, and for recognition of aboriginal hunting and fishing rights. Those rights are enshrined in the Charter, and cannot be overridden by the notwithstanding clause.

    Similarly, the problems many Aboriginals face are due to the very fact that mainstream society has tried to assimilate them, and such problems will continue to dog any attempts to assimilate in the future-are we simply going to erase the Treaties? If we do, on what basis does Canada have a legal claim to huge swathes of its territory, include this whole province?

    Yes, we're paying a lot of money on Native affairs, but compared to what all our levels of government have made on natural resources ranging from hydroelectricity to oil and gas to lumber to copper, diamonds and other minerals, all of which used to belong to the Aboriginals, we've gotten a lot more out of it than we've been paying in.

    Besides, more and more aboriginals have left the reserves already. Edmonton has one of the highest urban Native populations in the country, and they're already making it on their own.

    If anything, it's been efforts by Native activists like George Manuel, Harold Cardinal and Ovide Mercredi to strengthen and maintain their cultural identity, and otherwise incorporate European inventions like the English and French languages, computers, video equipment, business models, etc. that has begun improving life for many Native Canadians.

    The reserve system seems to me to be in a difficult position; historically meant as a way to assimilate Natives, it's become a means for them to maintain their identity and an important reminder of their contributions to our history and the presence of the Treaties. That legal limbo is the problem that's got people on both sides of the debate riled up-Flanagan on one side and Alfred on the other.

    You are right in saying that Aboriginals and non-Natives cannot lead separate lives, and so the proposals of people like Mohawk activists Shawn Brant and Gerald Taiaike Alfred, who otherwise advocate full sovereignty for Natives, won't work any more than the proposals of Flanagan and Widdowson will. We're too intertwined, and there are far too many thorny questions which remain to be answered, just as with the idea of Quebec separation.

    The issues surrounding Quebec nationalism and French Canada are similar to those of Aboriginal Canada in many ways. It's impossible in either case to have complete separation, since the different segments of our population are too intertwined for us to be separated without serious harm. Similarly, their presence is one of the major reasons we've adopted federalism; the United States adopted the federal system as a way of limiting the power of government and maintaining individual liberty, but Canada's reason for choosing federalism had much more to do with the need to recognize these particular groups and make room for them in our society.

    Obviously, I don't have all the answers-I still need to read the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, for example, not to mention more of the work of people like Mercredi, Cardinal and Erasmus. One thing I have retained from them, however, is that the federal principle can just as easily apply to peoples as to provinces.

    After all, as Harold Cardinal (RIP; I really, really wish I had gotten the chance to meet him) said, "If you want us to be good Canadians, you have to let us be good Indians!"

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