As a commentator on Indigenous issues, I am often appalled by the monumental ignorance that exists among the public when it comes to First Nations and Métis issues.
For the past week we have witnessed a drama of ignorance, regret, anger and some humility over the issue of cultural appropriation.
It started as a tempest in a very small teacup. The Writers Union of Canada publishes a quarterly magazine and the current quarter was dedicated to aboriginal writers. The magazine editor Hal Niedzvieki thought he would be either cute or provocative and he wrote an article stating that he didn’t believe in cultural appropriation. He stated that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”
That statement was fine. It opened the door to a discussion about cultural appropriation and what various groups thought about it. It is not only an Indigenous issue but it other groups and people of colour often find their culture appropriated and treated poorly by the majority.
But Niedzvieki didn’t stop there. He continued with his racist rant suggesting there should be an appropriation prize for an author that writes a book about people that aren’t like him or her.
At this point the story heads in two directions. The aboriginal writers were incensed. They had allowed their stories to be printed in a magazine that flippantly offered a prize for appropriation.
On the white peoples side of the equation, the story got legs and people began to donate money for the prize. It wasn’t a bunch of Internet trolls who came forward it was some of the most powerful media people in the country.
Ken Whyte, a former senior vice-president of public policy at Rogers led the charge on Twitter and offered to donate $500, urging others to do the same.
Allison Uncles, editor-in-chief of MacLean’s magazine offered to pony up $500. The National Post’s editor-in-chief Anne Marie Owens made a pledge and Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC’s newscast the National, tweeted he would throw in $100.
It was all fun and games until reality caught up with them. Reaction from the aboriginal community was swift and outraged. People couldn’t believe the ignorance of the senior personnel. Some thought the whole idea was a joke, if it was it got away on everyone.
Then the blood flowed. Hal Niedzvieki quit his position at the writers union. Jonathon Kay quit his position at the Walrus magazine, not because he donated money, but because he came out in support of the idea and Steve Ladurantaye was reassigned to CBC’s content division.
For Indigenous peoples, cultural appropriation is theft. It’s the story of our history in the Americas. The land was stolen; our children were stolen in the ’60s scoop or the residential schools that came before. Our language and culture was taken from us and our form of government was replaced with colonialism.
This happened across the Americas and the Caribbean in different forms. The Spanish were ruthless and without any regard to the beautiful Indigenous cultures they encountered. In Canada, they were also ruthless and without respect to our language, culture and political leadership but we were set upon by missionaries, bureaucrats and social workers.
We don’t have much left and what remains is deeply personal and valuable to us.
This episode with the media was just one more example of the complete ignorance to our culture and attitude of white privilege that permeates the Canadian media.
But less I end on a negative note, by week’s end a crowd-funding campaign had raised $34,000 for a literary prize for emerging Indigenous writers. Robin Parker, a Toronto lawyer was appalled at the reaction to the glib editorial and the response by Canada’s media establishment. She began the crowd-funding campaign on Monday and by Wednesday evening she had raised three times her original target of $10,000.
This incident has illustrated how out of touch Canada’s media is to the creative flower that is blossoming in Indian Country. The CBC developed a list of 60 books by Indigenous authors, many of which had literary awards. The same renaissance is occurring in the visual arts, performing arts and all other areas of the artistic world. It’s about cultural appreciation not appropriation.