[Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I point out that Frances Widdowson recently attacked The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, at which I am employed. I am writing as an individual Haudenosaunee citizen, and not as an employee of the AHF. My views do not reflect or pertain in any way to my employer or associates.]
Frances Widdowson has been in the news again of late. The National Post has lent her, once again, a generous platform. Reading her output over the years, I’ve found three main contentions regarding Aboriginal people. The first is that lawyers, consultants, politicians – in short, the professional class – make enormous sums of money on the backs of Aboriginal people. The second is that there is much corruption in Aboriginal communities and that this corruption is endogenous, or in other words, proceeds from Aboriginal culture as an inevitable product of it. (The alternative is to claim that corruption is exogenous — a result of colonization, government policies, etc.) The explanation is that Aboriginal culture is organized around reciprocal kinship and lacks the concept of equality under the law, hence institutions which ensure peace, order, good governance, and justice. “Reciprocal kinship” is a professor’s way of saying It’s Who You Know. Under it, a family or group dominates at the expense of everyone else. The third chronic Widdowson contention is that Aboriginal people suffer a “development gap.” By this she means Aboriginal culture is pre-scientific, and therefore traditional knowledge ought not to be considered in matters of science, such as Canada’s northern environmental policy. From this it flows that assimilation into Canadian society is the only recourse for those trapped in a Stone Age Aboriginal culture. There you have it: a rough, but I think fair, summary of her ideas.
Jonathan Kay, of the National Post, thinks these are new insights. I appeal to the reader: is any of the above unfamiliar? — the claims that professionals are making money off Aboriginal people, that Aboriginal culture is primitive, that there is corruption in the communities, or that assimilation is best for Aboriginal people? I submit that these are antique ideas. If they seem new, it’s only in the manner of the cliché that everything old is new again.
To argue that Aboriginal people are hindered by their culture is to invite the standby charge of being racist. My view however is that Widdowson isn’t writing about race, but a construct she designates “Aboriginal culture.” If she were a racist, she would conclude that Aboriginal people are inherently savage and that there is no hope for them as a race. Instead she argues that Aboriginal people are inherently savage, but that with some help they can become good white people. This is best termed Hand-up Chauvinism.
In Widdowson’s world, there are two Aboriginal subject positions, or if you like two kinds of Indian. Either you live in the woods and talk to the trees, or you are a slick Aboriginal Industry Indian, working from inside the machinery to shove taxpayer dollars toward bogus enterprises like cultural indoctrination or self-government. I doubt she considers the latter to be authentically Aboriginal, so perhaps there is only one kind of Aboriginal person. It’s a tough subject, on which she has publicly ruminated:
Determining whether or not someone is “Aboriginal” is becoming increasingly difficult since in certain cases (hiring at Memorial University, for example) one only has to check a box “identifying” as such to be considered an indigenous person. This means that many people who now identify as ”Aboriginal” have little in common with the isolated members of the native population who, because of their marginalization, are the focus of social policy.
I’m given to the weird notion that this could be a germ of her next book. In the meanwhile I wonder how much work exactly has she put into this Real Indian Test? In another era such matters were determined by blood quantum (which really is racist, and is also advocated by some Aboriginal people), but whatever the criteria will be I find it curious that she would even raise this as an issue. Is Memorial University, or any institution of higher learning, being overrun by the Faux Indians Problem? The issue surely is that more Aboriginal people results in more Aboriginal Industry, hence more diversion and waste of taxpayer dollars in the service of an outmoded culture.
Notice the singular culture has been used throughout, as if there were only one. Widdowson recognizes there are Aboriginal cultures, but it hardly makes a difference to her conclusion, which is that they are all archaic. Try getting some actual work done in a community, proceeding from the assumption that everyone adheres to a pre-modern code of kinship and consults with the animals, or even that everyone is simply alike. That’s doable in polemics, but in real life it rather makes a balls-up of things.
If you need an example of diversity, have a look at my own group, the Haudenosaunee. There is a great deal of debate and disagreement among us about the Indian Act, reserves, corruption, governance, sovereignty, traditionalism — in short, everything. This is a good place to mention, in contrast to Widdowson’s complaints about the habit of romanticizing Aboriginal people, that I’m not at all inclined romantically toward the Haudenosaunee or Aboriginal cultures in general. There are some good reasons our Huron and Algonquin enemies called us snakes (Iroquois) and cannibals (Mohawk). Even our Kaianerekowa (the Great Law, or constitution) was in my view an outcome of brutality submitted to the conditions of realpolitik. We were quite prepared, and willing, to get as near mutual genocide as could be had. Making the implications of this stick among the Confederacy’s five constituent members was a quite unromantic task, I’d say. Romance, no: but I do have reverence for the Great Law. I note also that it appealed greatly to the Enlightenment authors of the American Constitution, and rightly so. Far from lacking the checks and balances of Liberal democracies, the Kaianerekowa inspired them.
All of this is however a sort of throat clearing. What I dislike about the Widdowsons of this world is their disingenuous carping about self-sufficiency and self-reliance as they fight every real-world effort of Aboriginal people to direct their affairs. I know she is a bookish sort, but some of the people with whom she consorts are committed to taking this to the streets. Her charming new associate, Gary McHale, is a first-order thug and carpetbagger who announced his intention to move to Caledonia, presumably to shorten his commute to the exquisite task of inciting violence. You have to wonder about, and then consider the unpleasant implications of, Widdowson’s inviting him to sit on a governance panel for something called “New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forums.” In this connection, Widdowson’s writing seems less a critique than a diversion. By all means, try to change the subject to the “development gap.” The essential point is that the Haudenosaunee have a unique legal-historical relationship with the British Crown and subsequently to Canada. Widdowson would respond that Canadian history and Canadian law do not support our position, but the Haudenosaunee have always maintained, with abundant examples, that Canada ignores our agreements and rewrites history and laws in an effort to make it appear otherwise. Dubious anthropology won’t change the fact that our struggle has always been, and always will be, a political struggle against officials who want simply to do away with us.
My commitment is to seeing that this struggle is principled, respectful, and peaceful, and that it has as its endgame a just resolution which appeals to the best in all of us.