Book recycles paternalistic native stereotypes

A book that tonight could win the prestigious Donner Book Prize for Public Policy presents the troubling argument that First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples must abandon their cultures to be successful in Canadian society.

While this position wouldn’t be tolerated if directed at Catholics, Buddhists, Kurds or any other group, Albert Howard and Frances Widdowson’s case for the cultural extinction of native peoples is regarded as respectable enough to be eligible for an award.

In their Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, Howard and Widdowson assert that a conspiratorial “aboriginal industry” has duped native peoples into pursuing unsurrendered lands, achieving a semblance of self-determination and revitalizing their cultures. Indeed, they argue that these aspirations will actually hinder First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples.

This is nothing more than a restatement of century-old paternalism that ignored the desires of native peoples and treated them instead as childlike wards of the state.

The authors open with a pertinent question: Why has so much government funding had so little impact?

It’s a question common among Canadians as well, although they may not like the answer: It’s not enough.

To put the $10 billion in context, only half of the funds get to the community; the rest goes to the government bureaucracy. Actual spending on native people amounts to just 1.9 per cent of Canada’s 2009 budget. That’s not enough money to build schools in 45 communities or get clean water to more than a 100. Nor is it all lost to corruption, as the authors assert. According to a Canadian government report in 2003, only 3 per cent of all First Nations had financial accountability problems.

Regardless, the pair insists the “aboriginal industry” directs funds to misguided projects like traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

Despite Howard and Widdowson’s impoverished experience with TEK, they claim that most native knowledge is essentially junk science. However, those who have actually investigated TEK can attest to examples among the Haudenosaunee in obstetrics/midwifery, the Menominee in forestry operations (they are the world’s only 100 per cent sustainable loggers), the Nisga’a in resource management with fishwheel technology, and so on.

But the duo is steadfast in their belief that “aspects of aboriginal culture are inhibiting aboriginal survival today” – a statement that contradicts the majority of research on the challenges facing native peoples. Nearly every report, study or inquiry done in the last 30 years cites cultural loss as the problem. Indeed, the common sense solution would be to restore those cultures and help to support the tools that native communities need to address many of these challenges. In terms of policy, this strategy is only infrequently employed and certainly not the hegemonic force the authors insist it is.

In a further attempt to prove their point, Howard and Widdowson focus on education, claiming that consistent failure among native peoples is the result of cultural elements in school curriculums. To demonstrate a cultureless success story, the authors point to Grandview/Uuquinak’uuh Elementary in Vancouver, where the school succeeds “not by instituting `culturally sensitive’ programs, but through a focus on literacy, academics and objective assessments.” Yet, according to the former principal who brought the changes to the school, she actually “honoured aboriginal culture and incorporated it into the curriculum and daily routines.”

Howard and Widdowson have only disdain for native cultures, generalizing and simplifying, calling them “superstitious” and suggesting that “no rational person believes that modern problems can be solved by reverting to the ways of our ancestors.” Here their hypocrisy is clear: every modern society builds its institutions on the work of previous generations.

Indeed, it appears the authors actually believe that culture among all peoples evolves in linear fashion through gradual stages toward an apex, which is Western civilization – classic ethnocentrism.

I don’t disagree a change is required in “aboriginal” policy by the Canadian government and native organizations. However, that change needs to trend in the opposite direction from the one prescribed by the authors.

In the areas of criminal justice, health care, education and suicide, it is not fewer cultural components that are required, but more. Just as other Canadians use cultural-specific solutions to cure social issues, native peoples should be granted that same right. This is not an argument for segregation or isolation, but rather inclusion.

I also agree that an “aboriginal industry” does exist, as do some exploitative lawyers and consultants within it who are taking advantage of First Nations.

But native peoples are not the naive victims of the industry cabal imagined by Howard and Widdowson; rather they have goals that often require help with legal issues, economic development and education. Most of the people in the so-called industry are working in genuine support of those desires.

The work of Howard and Widdowson is undermining their efforts, and tonight the Donner Canadian Foundation risks sharing that distinction.–book-recycles-paternalistic-native-stereotypes