Monday, 5 September 2011

Aboriginal Issues During the "Culpability Era"

The definition for "cultural relativism" is "the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture" (Wikipedia, August 13, 2011).

The "critical race theory" definition for "white privilege" is "a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that white people accrue from society as on the disadvantages that non-white people experience" (Wiktionary, June 17, 2010).

The definition for "culpability" is "the degree of one's blameworthiness in the commission of a crime or offense" (Wiktionary, August 23, 2011).

People often ask me how I got involved with aboriginal issues in the first place. The truth is that aboriginals and their supporters recruited me to work for them. To make a long story short, some of my family's involvement with native issues (dating back to the 1950s) probably made the recruiters think I was a good candidate to help them with their "cause." In fact, a couple of recruiters actually showed up at one of my former places of employment (in a mainstream institution) and urged me to work for them. Bear in mind, though, that this was back in the 1970s, when there were not as many aboriginals with skill sets that the native organizations needed. I also suspect that, in order to get certain funding, the people in charge had to show that they had qualified people to do the work, so my college diploma and related experience fit the bill for that. In addition, the recruiters wanted me to train native people--something I did a lot of when I worked in this area.

However, I am an opinionated individual, and that fact, combined with my white skin, did not always fit in with the collectivist mindset that operated in these places. In retrospect, I should have left at the first sign of trouble, but two major factors kept me involved. The first was that an aboriginal woman very likely contributed to saving my life in the early 1970s. She died in the early 1980s--far too young and under tragic circumstances. Second, a family member who was very much involved with the aboriginal scene passed away when I was working in the organizations. Both these factors made me feel that I had an obligation to support the aboriginal cause, and this obligation propelled me through about 12 years in the organizations. I now realize that I should have got involved because I was truly motivated, not because I felt I had to.

Up until the late 1980s, I assumed that my problems in this area were because I was an opinionated white who just did not "get it." But the extensive reading and reflection I have done since then have made me understand that the explanation is much more complicated than that. I now realize I was involved in what I will refer to as the Cultural Relativism Era. The proponents of the cultural relativist movement I was part of believed that aboriginal woes could be resolved if natives returned to their traditional ways. I see this era as beginning after the release of the Trudeau government's 1969 White Paper and the aboriginal response: the Red Paper. From the 1970s onwards, aboriginal groups repeatedly asked for and often got more government funding.

The main point of establishing the organizations was to help aboriginals gain greater self-determination, e.g., in relation to land rights and governance. And to a certain extent, greater self-determination has been the result. For instance, I am pleased that the training I did with some aboriginals helped them to further their education and work prospects.

But natives had a lot of cards stacked against them before they even got started setting up their agencies in Canada. I believe many of the resultant problems were based on the rocky relationship that had existed between the races for more than 300 years. One prominent example of this is the 1876 Indian Act, which is still in effect today. Until 1985, Status Indian men could marry non-aboriginal women and the women would gain status, but the same did not hold true for Status aboriginal women marrying non-aboriginals or non-Status Indians. I believe this provision has done a lot of damage to relations between the sexes, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. When I was working in the organizations, I did not fully understand how the Indian Act system worked, but now that I have had a chance to examine it in more depth, I realize it was very detrimental, particularly to aboriginal/non-aboriginal female relations.

I know from working for many years in mainstream institutions that office politics play a role in workplace dynamics. Let's face it: whenever more than two people get together in a work setting, there are bound to be differences from time to time. But I found the possibilities for conflict were greatly intensified with the race card thrown into the mix.

After I stopped working in the organizations in the late 1980s, I planned to return to the mainstream. But just as I was embarking on my new life path, some politicos dragged me back into the aboriginal fray by publicly spreading false accusations about me. As a result, I was viciously harassed and subjected to the devastating effects of bad medicine--I was used as a sacrificial lamb.

When the worst of the harassment was over, I tried to convince myself that the sacrificial lamb period was behind me. I was also hopeful that people sympathetic to my plight would assist me on my road to healing and reconciliation. But I discovered, after many years of trying, that even aboriginals and their supporters who had been closely associated with me for decades only paid lip service to my desire for justice. I concluded that the doctrine of white privilege was often strictly adhered to in aboriginal country. But it was even more upsetting for me to learn that this doctrine was also firmly ensconced in many academic, religious, and political institutions that I had to deal with for one reason or another. Even though it was usually not expressed in such blatant terms, the underlying message I got was "healing is for aboriginals; white people are just supposed to take it."

The Caledonia crisis, which started in February 2006, and which still reverberates to this day, made me realize that white privilege was not only affecting me, but also other non-aboriginals. I have already covered this topic in my "David Peterson and the Caledonia Crisis" post. I am also alarmed by the fact that the Ontario government's Ipperwash Inquiry Report (2007) paid almost no attention to the concerns of the non-native residents, even though some of these residents made presentations to the inquiry. I think taxpayers deserved more bang for their buck than they got with the $27+ million Ipperwash Inquiry.

I believe the Caledonia crisis (and other native occupations and problems, such as contraband tobacco smuggling) made many members of the public recognize that the governments' appeasement strategies were not working very well. And I contend that this growing awareness signaled the dawn of a new era in 2006, which I will call the Culpability Era.

Tsimshian lawyer and entrepreneur, Calvin Helin's, book Dances With Dependency, was also released in 2006; I believe his book substantially contributed to the move into the Culpability Era. Helin argues that aboriginal welfare dependency should be replaced by "self-reliance." He strongly believes in aboriginal cultural preservation, but he asserts that aboriginals should not be dependent on government funding to make this happen; they should develop alternative sources of revenue, e.g., from natural resources.

Helin believes that certain provisions of the Indian Act give far too much power to the chiefs and council. For example, only the chiefs can elect the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief. Although there have been attempts by some aboriginal spokespeople to change the AFN rules so that voting rights are extended from just the chiefs to band members, (in fact, some have lobbied for voting to be extended to urban aboriginals), none of these attempts have been successful. In the last AFN election in July 2009, John Beaucage ran on a universal voting platform and only received 15 per cent of the vote on the first ballot.

Don Sandberg, a Cree who is president of Nistanan, "Canada's first aboriginal policy think tank," says that aboriginals need more leaders with "education, drive and imagination." He feels the reason why chiefs often vote against necessary reforms is because they are afraid to take risks. I agree with Sandberg's assessment, and I hope a greater number of aboriginals heed his advice.

Although many non-aboriginal Canadians are concerned about the native situation for one reason or another, they often prefer to stick their heads in the sand in the hopes that the situation will improve on its own. And it likely will get better as long as people like Helin and Sandberg continue to speak out. But it will improve a lot more quickly if non-aboriginals, particularly federal, provincial and municipal leaders, start to look at how their own views are contributing to the problem. Citizens can help improve government policies by making their concerns known to their elected representatives.

The outmoded cultural relativism and white privilege doctrines contribute to appeasement strategies that ultimately do not help either side of the equation. If culpability is first established, then constructive solutions are more likely to follow.


• Both Helin and Sandberg have addressed the fact that intimidation and harassment are sometimes used by aboriginals in positions of power in order to maintain their power base. 

• A colleague recently made me aware of the writings of some aboriginal women who state they have been rebuked by aboriginal males and females if they deviate from the standard positions held by some aboriginal elites.  They have been accused of being sellouts, and have sometimes suffered professionally.

• The above factors could explain why some natives refused to side publicly with me, although I can't be sure. 

For Further Information

Aboriginal Reserve Governance

• Curry, Bill. "Big Influences, Tiny Reserves," Globe and Mail, August 13, 2009 <>

Caledonia Crisis

• Caledonia Victims Project
• Caledonia Wake Up Call
• International Free Press Society-Canada
• Jeff Parkinson
• Voice of Canada

Helin, Calvin

Dances With Dependency. Vancouver: Orca Spirit, 2006.

Ipperwash Situation

• Voice of Canada's "Caledonia and Ipperwash Resources"

Sandberg, Don

• "Wanted: Productive Native Reserves," National Post, October 7, 2010 <>

1 comment:

  1. [Posted by counterpoise on Don Sandberg's behalf because he does not have OpenID.]

    "I admire your work, keep going, you are on the right path." Email from Sandberg, August 19, 2012.

    "Leith, please continue to write. We need more people bringing the hot topics out if we are to improve the lives of native people everywhere." Email from Sandberg, May 24, 2010.

    Posted with Sandberg's permission.