Kevin Libin, National Post (Canada), Oct. 31, 2008
In their living room, surrounded by posters of Vladimir Lenin and smiling, AK-toting Salvadorean guerilla girls, Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard hardly look like enemies of the Canadian Left. But in this country there are Things One Cannot Say; the most egregious of them being to question the special status Canada grants to entrenched Aboriginal interests. And the Calgary authors, despite their Birkenstocks and their confidence in Trotsky, appear, unconscionably, unworried about saying them.
Their new book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, due out this month, is 260 pages of unspeakable challenges to what they consider the “romantic mythology” of native culture, the “quackery” of promoting traditional healing, the meaninglessness of “traditional knowledge” and treacherous assertions that Indians were “barbarians” before Europeans introduced to them “civilization.”
Their scholarship has been denigrated. They have been denounced as racists. At this, they shake their heads and chuckle. None of it seems to bother them nearly as much as accusations that they are in collusion with, of all people, Fraser Institute types like Tom Flanagan and Melvin Smith.
“It’s difficult because you get criticized by people you thought you had some connection to. But they’re so misguided, they can’t really look at things rationally,” sighs Ms. Widdowson, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal College.
Conservative scholars, with their tendency to critique the aboriginal status quo, may be a minority in the academy, “but we actually do exist,” as one right-ish prof puts it. Heretical Marxists bucking left-wing orthodoxy, on the other hand, are as rare as the Wendigo.
“It’s a bit lonely out here,” says Mr. Howard.
Actually, their critique of the so-called aboriginal industry is classical, albeit outmoded, Marxism. In their book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, they identify the main culprits as the primarily non-native agents such as lawyers, consultants and anthropologists who thrive on our segregated policy approach to First Nations people. The tens of billions of dollars a year channeled to reserves and Canada’s North from governments and industrialists, they argue, attracts mercenaries in swarms, manipulating natives to inflate land claim grievances, demand industry payoffs and pressure politicians for more funding with few strings attached.
These revelations came to them when the two worked advising the Northwest Territories government in the 1990s. The territory had incorporated into official policy something called “traditional knowledge,” requiring departments to include the spiritual folklore of Inuit and First Nations culture in decision-making about resource management—say, approving mines or setting hunting quotas. Appalled at the melding of supernatural beliefs with government policy, the two published an essay in the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s journal, Policy Options, arguing that traditional knowledge made bad policy; its amorphous nature meant it “can be used to justify any enterprise, including the over-exploitation of resources.”
For this, Ms. Widdowson was suspended from her government job. In a letter appealing to the deputy minister of the department, she reasoned: “Do you think that I should integrate the [native myth] idea that wolves create caribou and that animals ‘present themselves’ to be killed with my current understanding of evolutionary biology? Should the department encourage renewable resource officers to throw beaver fetuses into lakes so that they can be ‘reborn?’ This is exactly what the traditional knowledge policy is directing employees to do.” Her contract was not renewed.
The sin, she says, was challenging the dogma maintaining the aboriginal industry: that natives are special; that their traditions possess enlightened ideals and crucial wisdom that must not only be protected, but encouraged. We sanction native justice, in the form of sentencing circles; the preservation of economically questionable traditional languages and sciences in schools (native languages often cannot accommodate modern scientific concepts); and the integration of “spiritual healing” in aboriginal health policy. This plays to sentimentalities for ancient ways, but when it comes to improving First Nations’ social and economic outcomes, the authors argue, such things are dangerously counterproductive. “We don’t want to stop people from believing these things,” Mr. Howard says. “But how about we stop encouraging it?” The book even mounts a careful justification for Canada’s reviled residential schools: Yes, they had flaws; but having introduced basic literacy and Western knowledge to hunter-gatherers, “we have to consider the question of what aboriginal communities would be like were it not for residential schools,” they write.
The current aboriginal industry prefers atavism: “It’s basically being said that Aboriginal cultures are equally developed and they have their own science and their own medicine,” Ms. Widdowson says. “That whole philosophy justifies not doing anything about anything, and just basically allowing these very isolated, marginalized groups to continue that way without any hope for any improvement in the future.”
Like proper Marxists, they contend that the system is perpetuated by those benefiting from the arrangement—which certainly aren’t rank-and-file aboriginals, persisting in poor, sick and miserable conditions. “When you break down the romantic mythology, you find yourself immediately being accused of being anti-native people. But this whole thing came out of the fact that we looked at this and we said native people are getting screwed over here,” Mr. Howard says.
To the Left, Ms. Widdowson and Mr. Howard’s suggestion that aboriginal policy must elevate post-Enlightenment knowledge over superstitions is blasphemous. An essay in the New Socialist magazine last year said Karl Marx would be “turning in his grave” at the way they employ his theories. At Ms. Widdowson’s college, administrators received letters calling for her dismissal.
The attacks from erstwhile comrades don’t surprise the couple: They’ve faced these before, and predict more in their book. But they believe standing against the powerful machinery of institutionalized interests is what leftists do best. They may be among the only ones of that ideological persuasion willing to utter Things One Cannot Say, but Ms. Widdowson and Mr. Howard seem satisfied that they are keeping faith with the Bolshevik vanguard. As unpopular as it is, they insist, a “real left-wing analysis” of the state of aboriginals in this country “requires a critical eye rather than a bleeding heart.”