George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” He could’ve written as readily that we’re all victims, but some of us are more victims than others.
Your ancestors were placed in residential schools. Mine were gassed there. A thousand of your mothers and sisters went murdered or missing. A couple million of mine did too. So yes, when it serves my purpose I play my J-card as shamelessly as you play your I-card. But you won’t catch me whinging about your whinging about your victimization, because I don’t see what mileage there is in this kind of atrocity-scoring.
And, to their credit, neither do most indigenous Canadians. They would be atrocity-scoring if Indigenization was a call for contrition over white-on-red colonialism. In that case I’d tell them to either grieve with me on Holocaust Day or go fuck themselves. But theirs is not a call for contrition. It’s a call for recognition. And in that it’s no different than the Irish celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day or the Scots honouring Robbie Burns’ poetry.
Guinness beer, Burns’ poetry, Ukrainian Easter Eggs, Writing on Stone … They’re all and equally woven into the very fabric of Canadian identity, such as it is. Canadian identity such-as-it-is may not be much. Haggis and bannock are no match for curry and pizza. Still, say what you will, even bannock beats the hell out of whatever grits might be.
But that’s not what Indigenization has come to mean. What began as an invitation to imbibe a little native culture has morphed instead into a residential schooling program of its own. Some universities are insisting on at least one Indigenous Studies course to graduate. In our commencement ceremonies we’re now required to honour not what indigenous people might know, but we’re to honour their ways of knowing, as if there could be such a thing. Young earth creationism as espoused by Christians is banned from school curricula, but not if the identical nonsense is delivered by a native elder. Some public schools that wouldn’t tolerate an exorcism are accusing parents of racism if they don’t want their children exposed to smudging. And on it goes.
Like #MeToo and #Black-Lives-Matter and #Idle-No-More, this too will pass. But my worry is the inevitable pushback. That pushback is going to invoke features of indigenous culture and history that will expose it to more ridicule than recognition. Such as? Such as that at the time of Contact the indigenous people of the Americas were a stone-age people. That they’d yet to invent the wheel. That native shamanism is just a species of gnosticism. That the Creek Nation of eastern Oklahoma bought black slaves. And so on.
The conflation of calling bullshit with racism is the oldest ploy in the book, because to deny it is to confirm it. I’ve found the most effective strategy is just to lean into the accusation, but to take the wind of the accuser’s sails by adding that I’m also a thrice-convicted pedophile. Now, like in the Monty Hall Paradox, he doesn’t know whether to stick or switch. (If you don’t know the reference, look it up.)
As Abraham Lincoln put it, “Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” If Lincoln is right, then the Indigenization of our public institutions, well-intentioned as it may be, is courting a whole lot of unnecessary pain.
Jews celebrate all kinds of things that never happened. The Exodus. The burning bush. Christians too have their Empty Tomb and their Resurrection. Every people has the right to tell itself its stories. But it doesn’t have the right to insist those stories be believed. Every people has the right to play magic. But it doesn’t have the right to insist that others play along.
Calling a smudging ceremony cultural doesn’t make it any the less religious. Nor does their not having been allowed their ceremonies under white occupation entitle them to impose them on us now as some kind of compensation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, indigenous Canadians are entitled to substantive equality, and substantive equality, as distinct from formal equality, entails a number of deferential privileges. But this kind of cultural imperialism isn’t one of them.
Indigenization is undercutting itself. It’s generating racism. I’d add that it’s certainly rekindling my own, were it not that I have to work on my pedophilia first.