Non-native lawyers and consultants defend aboriginal causes for their own financial gain, argue Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard in their controversial book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. The billions of tax dollars spent on aboriginal programs serve to enrich white consultants and a native elite, instead of improving the condition of the aboriginal population, according to the authors.
Can government policy be made to change for the benefit of aboriginals? What actions should be taken? We raised these questions and others with Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. Interview conducted by Victor Teboul for Tolerance.ca
Tolerance.ca ®: In your book, Disrobing The Aboriginal Industry (McGill University Press, 2008), you reveal that the aboriginal people of Canada are kept in a state of isolation from the economic chain of production by the very people who are supposed to defend their claims, and even more so, by those who are hired to promote their cause: lawyers, anthropologists and social scientists in general. Why, according to you, has no one ever denounced this situation, which has been preventing the aboriginal people from becoming part of the industrial network?
– The Aboriginal Industry has been exposed before – by David Crombie, Calvin Helin, Jean Allard, and a number of others (a complete list of these critical views is available on page 266, note 2 of our book). This exposure, however, has largely come from the political Right, and has not been undertaken systematically. This is because the Aboriginal Industry pushes aboriginal leaders in front of itself, and so critics like us appear to be attacking aboriginal people, not the Industry (which is our real target). New Left commentators are very sympathetic towards aboriginal people, and are inclined to be supportive of any political demands being made by an oppressed group. Therefore, when the Aboriginal Industry manipulates native leaders, and encourages them to support reactionary initiatives, most non-aboriginal people accept these claims without question. They assume that this is the best way to address the terrible oppression that aboriginal peoples have endured historically from colonization because they believe that land claims and self-government are what aboriginal people “want”.
Tolerance.ca ®: You point to social scientists and to lawyers as profiting from the legal procedures rather than obtaining tangible long term settlements which would contribute to integrating the aboriginal people into the socio-economic chain of production. Why haven’t the Canadian media ever investigated the aboriginals’ conditions within the perspective you bring forth in your book?
Abuses scarcely reported by media
– The media certainly has reported on the abuses in the system of carrying out aboriginal policy. The reporting has been sporadic, however, due to the underlying apprehension about criticizing anything to do with aboriginal policy initiatives because it may be seen as an attack on native people. By implying that all critics of aboriginal policy must be closet racists or colonialist sympathizers, the Aboriginal Industry has made it difficult for all people, including journalists, to question aboriginal policy.
Tolerance.ca ®: You state that “The tribal basis of politics in aboriginal communities (…) is incompatible with modern values because it is exclusive rather than inclusive, concerned with ancestral privilege rather than equal citizenship under the law’’. Isn’t this true, to a lesser degree perhaps, of all ethno-cultural communities in Canada? How should a community be inclusive while it must, at the same time, be preoccupied with reproducing its own value system?
- Yes, it is true of all communities anywhere that still identify according to their ethnicity. However, no other group has the same circumstances as aboriginal peoples where the gap between cultures is so great. No ethno-cultural communities came to Canada without iron-age technology and the developmental characteristics associated with the technology. All non-aboriginal ethnic groups in Canada chose to come to this country, which means that they are psychologically prepared to integrate, at least partially, with the wider society. The automatic association of aboriginal people with their ancestral traditions also creates additional obstacles to their development and the absorption of characteristics needed to participate effectively in modern society.
Tolerance.ca ®: You mention the difficulties in getting your book published. How has it been received?
– The difficulty with getting the book published had to do with the elements discussed above. Some publishers even suggested that we change our thesis! The book has had a polarized reception; the Aboriginal Industry supporters tell people not to read it, but there have been some very positive responses from people who are disturbed by the increasingly irrational character of aboriginal policy development.
Tolerance.ca ®: You seem to denounce the double standard existing in our judiciary whereby leniency appears prevalent when it concerns crimes committed by aboriginal offenders and particularly by aboriginal leaders. Why, in your view, is this situation tolerated by the courts and by our legislators?
– We do not “denounce” the leniency of sentencing of aboriginal offenders, nor do we refer to a “double standard”. Our intention is to illuminate the effects of the cultural gap between natives and non-natives in the judicial system. Acknowledgement of the cultural gap is the first step in understanding and dealing with the problem of over representation of aboriginal people in penal institutions. The existing policy direction is to try to reduce the number of aboriginal people being incarcerated without addressing the cultural roots of aboriginal criminality.
Alcoholism not the direct cause of violence
Tolerance.ca ®: You have come to the conclusion that alcoholism is not the cause of violence and abuse, but that it is used as an excuse, and that the real cause of violence lies in the very way of life in the culture of aboriginal communities. If that is the case, how can violence be combated or eradicated?
– There are studies that indicate that alcohol is not a direct cause of violence and abuse, but that it relieves inhibitions of a number of social behaviors. The clash of cultures facing many aboriginal people results in frustrations that, under the influence of alcohol, find expression in violence. While there is evidence of this in all cultures, the occurrence is highly disproportionate in aboriginal communities. The answer lies not in rejecting all alcohol use, which reinforces the idea that alcohol is the cause, but in cultural integration with the non-abusing society. It should be pointed out that European societies also had problems with alcohol as they industrialized; however, this transition occurred over hundreds of years, not decades, and so it was easier for Europeans to develop customs that facilitated moderation in alcohol consumption.
Tolerance.ca ®: The Canadian Heritage program, Canadian Culture On Line, has, among its main criteria for the selection of the projects it subsidizes, that they must originate from the groups themselves -whether aboriginal or ethno-cultural- and that they must ‘’be active in promoting the culture of that community ’’:
In the light of your analysis, how can there be any room left for self-criticism when the Canadian government itself supports self-promotional projects on the part of communities, projects which might in some cases, as demonstrated in your book, even contradict our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
“Government policy must change”
– Government policy is at the root of the problem, but the initiation and control over projects is exercised by the Aboriginal Industry that promotes traditional cultural features to keep native people in isolation and need of their “help”. Government policy must change to accept responsibility for the delivery of services to the native population rather than transferring funds to community leaders who are under the influence of self-serving lawyers, anthropologists and other consultants.
Tolerance.ca ®: You propose, among the solutions that you put forward, that problems in aboriginal communities be addressed through ‘’widespread social change’’. Given the magnitude of the situation and the deeply entrenched problems you describe, can you offer some examples of how you envision such widespread social change?
– It is difficult to come up with solutions to problems that are not acknowledged in the first place. Ultimately, the huge cultural gap must be recognized and considered in the development of future policy. Funding for the promotion of atavistic cultural phenomena by non-aboriginals must be stopped. Education should be consistent with universal concepts of knowledge without the premise of different “ways of knowing”. Monetary transfers should not be channeled through sinecured boards of directors. Developing a long-range program to integrate isolated communities while minimizing discomfort to their members must be the focus. This means scientifically based programs to improve basic educational levels, address Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and eliminate the chronic health problems in the native population.
While there should be no forced relocations, as many aboriginal people do not have the skills, values and attitudes to survive in urban environments, encouraging the native population to migrate to larger centres should be the focus. This is not occurring in areas like Nunavut, where the policy direction is actually proposing the opposite; the government is embarking on an expensive program of “decentralization”, where it is assumed that economies can be “built” with government funds even in isolated communities that can only be accessed by air. Instead of spending millions of dollars on infrastructure developments in communities like Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet, for example, government funding should be oriented towards providing transitional programs so that more aboriginal people would begin to feel comfortable in moving to larger centres like Iqaluit.
An entirely new overall policy must be developed in concert with the true representatives of aboriginal people. With the objectives of addressing the contemporary problems, allowing native people to participate in the global society, and not in compensating for past ill treatment regardless of the regrettable and acknowledged extent of it. As is now being seen with the residential school settlement, the money is going towards pick-up trucks, drugs and gambling, while the real problems – low educational levels, poor health and substandard housing – remain.
Frances Widdowson is a faculty member of the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal College, in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). Albert Howard has worked as a consultant for government and Native groups, and is currently an instructor and Director of Programs, at the Kennedy College of Technology in Toronto.