National Post Barbara Kay: A lone academic dares to challenge accepted narratives about Canada’s residential school system

National Post - Tuesday May 23rd, 2017

Photo by Keith Morison for National Post
Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard are authors of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation.

As the token conservative on otherwise liberal panels, I have been a regular contributor to CBC radio’s comedy news trivia program, Because News, since September 2016. I was let go from this panel last week for my politically incorrect views on indigenous cultural appropriation (that I did not even express on CBC). I can now empathize (as opposed to merely sympathize) with the individuals who have paid a far greater price for the same reason.

Thankfully, there are a few independent thinkers on this hot-button issue who are protected by academic tenure from excommunication. They may experience collegial hostility, and be obstructed by their administrations or professional associations, but they cannot (yet) be fired or silenced. One such individual is Frances Widdowson, an associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. On June 1, Widdowson will present a paper on aboriginal issues at Ryerson University at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) that is likely to be considered politically incorrect. It’ll be yet another instance in which this courageous scholar dares to poke a stick into the intelligentsia’s groupthink hive.

Widdowson was already wearing her metaphorical beekeeper suit when I interviewed her recently by phone. She has been dealing with “culturalists” (as she calls them) for many years. In 2008, she and co-author Albert Howard published a book entitled “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation.” The title gives you the drift of her position.

Widdowson presents a paper on aboriginal issues that is likely to be considered politically incorrect. She is daring to poke a stick into the intelligentsia’s groupthink hive

Speaking at that year’s CPSA annual meeting, Widdowson argued that Canada’s land reserve system and the policies that encourage First Nations to live separately from mainstream society only further societal dysfunction. Assimilation, she said, would better close the “development gap” between First Nations and non-indigenous Canadians. Out came the angry bees. Some members called her talk “hate speech” worthy of a Criminal Code investigation. One colleague asked if she’d “like to take it outside.”

Aghast at the meltdown, the CPSA formed a committee to consider “ethics in research,” and to monitor what papers got published and who got to present. They tried to exclude Widdowson one year, until she convinced them not to. Instead, the CPSA started a new section: Indigenous Peoples and Colonized Peoples. Widdowson is not welcome to present on these panels. Her Ryerson presentation will therefore fall under the “Political Economy” section, where she is the only speaker on aboriginal issues. She plans to attend the Indigenous Peoples and Colonized Peoples panel, she says, but is expecting people from that quarter to boycott her presentation.

Widdowson’s paper is provocatively entitled “The Political Economy of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ (TRC): Neotribal Rentierism and the creation of the victim/perpetrator dichotomy.” She characterizes “rentierism” as the extraction of “rent”— i.e. monetary transfers — from the Canadian government by an industry of aboriginal consultants and lawyers. Widdowson identifies three distinct transfer processes: payment of royalties generated from commodities — like minerals, water or oil — that are located on aboriginal territory; government transfers for services; and compensation for past wrongs committed by the Canadian government. She notes that the latter form of transfers took off in the 1990s, as lawyers initiated lawsuits over the residential schools and “dramatically changed how these institutions were perceived.” Residential schools became a cash cow for some lawyers. (Most famously, the Merchant Law Group has earned tens of millions in fees for the $5-billion settlement it was involved in negotiating on behalf of residential schools victims, and has since become embroiled in a legal dispute with the government over whether it should have to pay back millions for allegedly inflating its billings.)

Widdowson sees the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a sort of therapeutic enterprise that often does little to pursue objective truths

Widdowson’s unease with the latter transfers in particular is that they can be based on loose evidentiary processes, and can encourage a kind of grievance inflation. She sees the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a sort of therapeutic enterprise that often does little to pursue objective truths. One of the TRC’s major methods, for instance, has been to rely on the “unquestioned use of oral histories in documenting the effects of these institutions,” even though these testimonies may not be representative of all students’ experiences or reliable accounts of the past. Widdowson’s academic detachment in questioning inflammatory concepts like “cultural genocide” will resonate with Canadians like me, who were educated in an era where dispassionate research and vigorous debate were the norm. But those norms are long gone, and challenges to accepted narratives – evidence-based or not – are seen as “re-victimizing the victims.”

Widdowson is aware that her scholarly approach to this subject is passé. She told me that she was last taken seriously as an academic authority in 2008. “Mobbing,” she said, “is the new discussion.” At a debate panel she hosted last year at the University of Calgary (that she described as “the most disruptive event of my life”), she was told by some of the Aboriginal individuals in the audience that she had no right to speak because she was a guest on their territory. This claim shocked and disturbed her. If a university campus is indigenous territory where Aboriginals are the “hosts” and non-Aboriginals are the “guests,” the fundamental concept of the university as a public space has been corrupted.

In my conversation with Widdowson, I was struck by her eagerness to understand her adversaries’ positions. She is willing to engage in debate, and wishes they were too. As she put it, “I’m not trying to win the argument; I’m trying to have the argument.” Alas, that is increasingly more difficult in today’s climate of insouciant speech suppression. Widdowson has the stomach to face down her critics, but what university today will hire anyone who upholds the principles she embodies? (Mount Royal, Widdowson emphasized, has been “stalwart in their defence of academic freedom.”) My fear is that the lonely academic furrow Widdowson ploughs will be buried when she retires. And though her writings may endure in “samizdat” form, she will be remembered — cultural appropriation intended — as the last of the Mohicans in her field.  

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