Rationalizing the use of the word “savages” to describe indigenous peoples is a reckless exercise that gives legitimacy to racist arguments. I doubt this was Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s intention when she did just this on October 24, as a response to Dick Pound’s use of the term to describe Canada’s first peoples. However, my defense is for neither the journalist nor the argument she made, but for the need to continue the debate that she sparked: how to broaden the boundaries of politically important discussion to challenge complacency and romantic ideals – without being racist or disrespectful.
Wente argues, “We have romanticized indigenous culture so much that it is often described (especially in native studies courses) as morally superior…. Anyone who questions the widespread belief that aboriginals originated in North America (rather than Africa, like the rest of us) is bound to be accused of disrespect and cultural insensitivity.”
Her piece was met with a knee-jerk objection from a Facebook group “Fire Margaret Wente (and Dick Pound),” that describes the article as “racist screed” and swelled rapidly to include over 3,000 members. The group’s description reads, “Wente’s right-wing commentary has long been inflammatory and notable for its scant regard for serious research or facts, but this column has taken her over the edge.”
I am startled by this reaction to a controversial piece of journalism. Why should Wente be the scapegoat for our own inability to discuss the circumstances of indigenous people today? Lambasting Wente’s piece and demanding that she be fired are red herrings; rather than prove the point that we shy from critical examination of ourselves, we should instead find a way to have a politically important debate in a respectful and constructive way.
Wente’s piece creates this opportunity and signals the urgency for us to take it. Wente called our ability to assess and respond to tough issues into question. And our natural reaction is to silence the woman because we disagree? This can’t be right.
While controversial, the piece dared to challenge the constitutionally embedded stance toward the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, that they are equal but different. The only reason to silence Wente is if we want to remain recoiled behind our romantic claims of “equal but different,” a distinction not void of meaning but void of obligation.
“Equal but different” is intended to recognize the authority of aboriginal peoples’ claim to a separate political status, but it shouldn’t negate all Canadians from engaging in a discussion about a future that is nevertheless shared, no matter how different we may (not) be. If we treat this phrase as an escape clause, then our complacency with the status quo will be paralyzing.
Diversity and complacency are not ideal bedmates. To abstain from questioning whether our romanticism of aboriginal culture is damaging or to avoid a dialogue about the nature of aboriginal engagement in the “modern world” only pigeonholes indigenous communities to their historical expressions. Our first peoples are not an asterisk in history, once thriving communities we recall with nostalgia, they are alive and living – and Canadian history unfolding has fundamentally distorted their ability to thrive in the conditions of the globalized, modernized world.
I am worried that as Canadians we are developing some bizarre, neo-xenophobic fear of offending an “other” with whom we are not sure how to interact, but the best way to preserve our diversity is not to shield it from critical discussion. We need to find new ways to nurture aboriginal communities rather than to idealize their past and allow them to stagnate. The same is true of Western culture; no belief system is excluded from the need for constant reevaluation if it wants to flourish.
We discount our intelligence if we perpetuate a habit of underutilizing our brainpower or if we click “Join Group” in a moment of superficial agreement with some of the key phrases (“racist screed”) that jumped out at us from the screen.
No debt will be serviced by firing a journalist. All this accomplishes is distance from two problems. First, we are afraid of what we might say because we don’t know how to say it in an informed and respectful way. Second, Western values have chiseled away at aboriginal culture so persistently that it is becoming impossible to preserve a traditional way of life – and we are afraid of admitting this. So, what comes next? And why do we let this question make us so squeamish?
It will be intelligence and sensitivity – not sensitivity and silence – that will allow Canadians to have a conversation that is 141 years overdue.
Hayley Lapalme is a U3 IDS and Political Science student currently enjoying the Barbados Field Study Semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and would like to thank those who provided feedback on the piece. She’s a real people-person.