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The emperor’s old clothes

Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard blithely ignore what is historically inconvenient to their argument—namely, history


It’s hard to know where to begin with this book, which purports to be a kind of “expose” of the use of Aboriginal traditional knowledge in policy making and ranges far afield into a critique of the idea of Indigenous rights and a survey of problems in the fields of Aboriginal healthcare, education, self-government, land claims, and so on. I had previously written these authors off as “kooks” from the far political right-wing; but now they have been embraced by certain prominent left academics and have themselves started to gloss their opinions with Marxist rhetoric. Their work does an enormous disservice to the growing movement of socialist activists and theorists in Canada who are engaged in the real work of decolonization, and could potentially set back a growing oppositional movement for years. So, at a time when crises are escalating and the demands on our time are high, I’m forced to sit down and read this. What follows will not be pleasant.

The authors tout their experience working with the government of the Northwest Territories as a basis that inspired the study, beginning with an anecdote from their time there. I, myself, would not be so proud of working as a bureaucrat for a colonial institution. The two have no actual community-based experience that they refer to, and may very well have never spent a night in an Aboriginal community.

The agenda of the book is to attack the notion of Aboriginal rights in favour of a notion of universal human rights. The book dismisses Aboriginal culture as “primitive” and outdated, and relies on the evolutionary anthropology of a century ago. Its particular target is traditional knowledge—especially traditional ecological knowledge, which they argue does not exist except as forms of local knowledge that people from any culture can have.

This book is based on intellectual dishonesty. The authors can barely cite a living anthropologist who will agree with them, so the anthropologists they cite favourably almost all come from before the 1950s, when the now totally discredited doctrine of social evolution still left traces of its pernicious influence. The dishonesty comes through, because in each chapter where they tackle an issue, they refuse to actually grapple with the stronger scholars who deal with the subject matter, usually relying on newspaper accounts and non-academic works to act as straw dogs they can knock over. For example, the chapter on “justice” (they mean criminal justice; the idea of justice is foreign to this book) offers one dismissive paragraph to Rupert Ross’s carefully conceived arguments about traditional justice based on his lifetime of work as a crown prosecutor. The chapter on environmental management dismisses Harvey Feit and Fikret Berkes in a single paragraph, and implies that their work is based on a kind of “new age” spirituality. Rarely do they actually confront strong versions of the arguments they oppose. Although they frequently gloss from Clifton’s book, The Invented Indian (much of their own work is a Coles Notes version of it), to “debunk” what they perceive as myths about Indigenous contributions to contemporary life, they are quite happy to regurgitate myths like that of the Bloody Falls massacre, which twenty years ago scholars realized was largely an invention of Samuel Hearne’s London editors (they cite Hearne uncritically).

They are worried about being called racists, so they try to innoculate themselves from the charge by confronting it. They argue that they never presume an inherent racial difference; rather, all people are equal, and it is only the “developmental gap,” the nostalgic attachment of Aboriginal leaders and supporters to a romantic vision of Aboriginal culture, that is responsible for the “social dysfunctions” they see in all those communities they never bothered to visit. It is true that much of their argument, technically, is ethnocentric rather than racist: it presupposes the superior value of capitalism (strange idea for alleged Marxists to have) to “earlier” forms of social organization (unlike Marx, who always noted—even within the evolutionary anthropology he accepted—that “earlier” forms of society were far advanced when it came, for example, to community relations).

There are moments, however, when their ethnocentrism does slide over into overt racism, like when they begin chapter ten, on traditional knowledge, with a discussion of the book Why Cats Paint, effectively implying that elders have the same absence of ability to think as cats have to create art (shades of Sepulveda’s comparison of Indigenous peoples to monkeys back in the mid-16th century, which is about where this book belongs).

There is a more pernicious racism when they name many Aboriginal leaders and gleefully “out” them for problems of alcoholism and sexual abuse. The book contains one mention of residential schools, and never draws any connections. By implication, they charge that the vast majority of Aboriginal leaders are corrupt and morally bankrupt. These parts of the book read so distastefully that it is difficult not to feel “slimed” simply in allowing ones eyes to slide over these pages. They never mention Conrad Black or Brian Mulroney, those standard bearers of the high moral values of contemporary culture. And they smugly, simply and blithely assume their own middle-class moral superiority.

Here and there, as in the closing two paragraphs of the introduction and the last paragraph of the book, they refer to themselves as historical materialists, and they refer to Marx. These read like graft-ons, and are generally out of tune with the rest of the text. But these authors are not in any way dissidents. Because, if all of Marxism gets tarred by this brush, we will have set back the critical cause of forging an Indigenous alliance with labour that offers real potential to destabilize the current capitalist regime in Canada.

Their “what is to be done” concluding chapter says nothing, except that the task is to reduce the “developmental gap” that holds Aboriginal people back. Uh, actually guys, this is what the federal government has been trying to do since about, um, 1867. So, it’s not really a new idea, nor one that has proven effective; it has been responsible for producing much of the misery that exists today. But they blithely ignore what is historically inconvenient to their argument—namely, history.

Very few on the social-movement left will take anything but offense from these words, but many on the right will happily wield them as weapons against the long-unfolding struggle for Aboriginal rights. In its sloppiness, ethnocentrism, racism and stupidity, this book does not reflect well upon its authors, the readers who endorsed it, the editors who proofread it, the scholars who supported it, and the publisher who will allow this book to stand on their shelves next to the many excellent books in their Native and Northern Series.

Peter Kulchyski is a leading Canadian Native Studies scholar at the University of Manitoba

This article appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Great Recession).


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