Thursday, 10 January 2013

Canadian Idle and the Strategy of Deference?

Certain claims, even by the simple act of being uttered, can have a devastating chilling effect. The clearest of these accusations is one of racism. A simple allegation even and especially if unfounded and often targeted on the basis of intellectual opposition, is enough to silence critics and terminate whatever semblance of discourse had to that point existed. One need only look to debates that rage over the Israeli-Palestinian to see the effect. Opponents questioning policy decisions of the Israeli government – not even the state, but the transitory government in power – can result in claims of anti-Semitism. These claims are used in order to preempt opposition, for instance to delegitimize Israeli Apartheid Week events.

In Canada, the recent Idle No More movement has raised similar problems. Take for instance National Post columnist Andrew Coyne, whose simple act of retweeting a link to an article by fellow columnist Terry Glavin (of the Ottawa Citizen) was enough to level accusations of racism. Indeed, these were accusations hurled at Glavin for deigning to question Teresa Spence’s approach. Similar invectives were launched at a range of national columnists, most of whom had the misfortune to be born privileged white male colonialists. If only they had had the decency to select their parents more equitably!

Whether their opinions are right or wrong is beside the point. Indeed, he dominant hegemonic forces of white settle colonialism may well have informed their conclusions. The problem is that they were silenced automatically, their writings dismissed as oppressive and their voices rendered mute solely because of who they are. The only acceptable – no, legitimate - lines of critique could come from within the movement – which, ironically, includes privileged white voices who just happened to be on the ‘right’ side. This is to say that no critique was acceptable as the movement is itself exasperatingly non-reflective and devoid of introspection. The virtue of their position – and thus the logical outcomes – has been predetermined.

A colleague who voiced her discomfort about questioning the subaltern position on account of her place in mainstream settler society hit the problem home.  In essence, the Aboriginal interpretation of events and political processes could not be questioned from outside as these were colonial impositions. My criticisms – in this case on the involvement of the Governor General in policy discussions – needed, essentially, to defer to Aboriginal interpretation.

There is deeply troubling on three grounds. First, this logic would have devastating implications for scholarly standards and political discourse generally. Imagine then religious studies departments in which only Christians could study Christianity. To allow outside interpretations would be an imposition. It is for Christians to interpret their religion and its impact for themselves. At the department of history, only Egyptians could authoritatively publish research on the Pharaohs. Closer to home, Seymour Martin Lipset’s insights – as an American - into Canadian political culture would be called into question. How can he write about a society he is not a part of? It’s a ludicrous argument to suggest that outsiders have no business writing about the particular concerns of others. Reverse the tables and Aboriginal scholars would have no business writing about the Canadian constitution (at a great loss, I might add, as the work of John Borrows among others is invaluable).

Second, this smacks of a perverse acceptance of cultural relativism that assumes that different cultures are entitled to their own ontologies and cosmologies without so much as a hint of criticism from agnostics. Yet on issues such as human rights we deny that cultural practices should not be taken into account, that human rights are universal and not subject to the vagaries of culture. At some point there must be room of criticism, well founded, logically sound criticism. Do we defer to alchemists who insist lead can be turned into gold despite what chemists – and the evidence – tell us to the contrary? Do we defer to the Ancient Greek views on medicine? At some point misunderstandings and misinterpretations need to be called for what they are, even if they are sincerely held.

Finally, the notion that somehow sincerely held believes can alter current political realities is patently absurd. The onus is not on the Canadian government to accommodate the outmoded understandings many First Nations leaders have of the contemporary Canadian Crown. It’s entirely unrealistic. The cold, simple reality – constitutionally and, I might add, practically – is that Canada is the inheritor state of the British Empire in North America. Arguing that it is unfair for the monarch to simply up-and-quit North America is facile and beside the point. No amount of protestation will change this fact. No number of petitions to the Queen will result in change to the status quo. What is the solution? Have Britain repeal the Canada Act and rescind the Statute of Westminster and fight colonialism with colonialism?

There may be two very different interpretations of events and two widely differing understandings of the Crown and sovereignty.  Do responsible government and other precious constitutional principles simply get tossed cavalierly aside in the interest of righting historic injustices? The existing constitutional order - imposed or otherwise - is not likely to change. Ignoring it does not make it disappear. Moreover, First Nations are trapped within that order. The justice of this is up for debate. The fact is not. Indeed, this is especially the case given that it is precisely this constitutional order – the common law, the Royal Proclamation and s.35 of the 1982 Constitution Act in particular – that animates and gives much moral and legal force to Aboriginal claims.

There has been a noticeable chilling effect running through much of the discourse of the Idle No More movement. Journalists questioning the motives and rationale of Chief Spence are lambasted as racists, imperialists, and colonists, denied a voice. Those who question the Aboriginal interpretation of Canada are advised to defer and stop imposing interpretations. One of Canada’s most eminent political scientists – Alan Cairns – wrote of his trepidation about the prospects of speaking on Aboriginal political issues. Cairns noted that:
Many non-Aboriginal commentators on Aboriginal issues, accordingly, tread carefully. There is an unwillingness to conclude that some Aboriginal objectives might be undesirable or impractical, when to do so might raise questions about the author’s motives.[1]
Cairns writes of an unease at appropriating the voice of others, of speaking on behalf of those who were once marginalized.  As he notes, “Our present discontents are largely due to the past silencing of Aboriginal voices”.[2] There is a danger, however, that we rectify one silence with further silence, that we empower Aboriginal voices while marginalizing those with 'mainstream Canadian' perspectives. This is no way to renew and build a relationship. Aboriginal perspectives are not immune from criticism, nor should they be granted stay because of past injustices. Critique should not be aimed solely at existing structures but at schemes hopeful of replacing them. Chief Spence’s view of the Canadian Crown – if she sees it as Canadian at all – may be sincerely held, but it is not a useful guide to current political realities. Progress, meaningful progresses – including self-government – while not be achieved by standing on symbolism and ignoring reality.

Hi. I'm Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

[1] Alan Cairns Citizens Plus p15
[2] Cairns, p16

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