Controversy


[by Clifton Arihwakehte, Parul Sehgal, and Samir Hussein]

On January 28, 2003, students filed into a Canadian Public Policy class at McGill University to hear a guest lecturer. The speaker was Tom Flanagan, chief of staff to Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper and author of the self-proclaimed “controversial” book First Nations? Second Thoughts, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Under the guise of offering an equitable resolution to the “Aboriginal question,” Flanagan delivered a 45-minute treatise in flagrant and unchecked racism, imperialism, and elitism. Yet again, another politician/academic attempts to explain what the “aboriginal problem” is, and thankfully for us, proffers his “solution”. Yet again, seemingly progressive campus events like “Equity Week” and an “Anti-Racist Youth Conference” are rendered cosmetic embellishment over an immutable core of university life, course content redolent in racism, exclusion, and myopia.

There is little value in attempting to defensively refute Flanagan’s arguments ranging from his purported “aboriginal orthodoxy” to “the fiction of aboriginal sovereignty”. To do so places a smokescreen in front of the odious ideology which Flanagan embraces. Rather, it is important to elucidate the fundamental principles upon which Flanagan bases his conclusions and to realize that such a framework is an impediment to forging trusting and reciprocal relationships between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

The impunity of an academic Flanagan limits the terms of the discourse to civilizations, states, and governments, managing to simplify and restrict the discussion to parochial and superficial analyses of issues, which by their very social, economic, political and historical natures are complex. For example, he states that “[n]one of the aboriginal societies of Canada were civilized in a sense the term is used here” and suggests that the portrayal of the meeting of equals at the point of European contact “leaves out the main thing, namely the civilization gap between the Indians and Inuit, on the one hand, and the Europeans, on the other.” Flanagan is extremely selective in his discourse on historical facts about aboriginal modes of production, agriculture for example. Moreover, he gives no notice to Iroquoian agriculturists or their developed political and social systems. Furthermore, Flanagan silences all debate when he contends that “civilization as explained here is an objectively definable way of life, and societies that adopt it obtain a demonstrable increase in power over nature and over uncivilized societies.”

Flanagan’s use of the term “civilization” as being equivalent to and synonymous with “complex” is not only disconcerting but is simply inaccurate. “Civilized” nations throughout history have been characterized by inordinate levels of poverty and an institutionalized violence against their populations. While they may arguably be more “complex” in their structure, possessing perhaps sanitation systems, a hierarchical government, and a market economy, the correlation between this “complexity” and being “civilized” is tenuous, at best. Indeed, in the current era, it seems that “civilized” states are responsible for some of the most vile and large-scale acts of inhumanity in history (e.g. enslavement of whole peoples, initiation of germ warfare, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, government-backed pogroms).

The fundamental principles upon which Flanagan bases his conclusions impede any forging of trusting and reciprocal relationships between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. His work only seems to warrant the distrust with which Aboriginal society views the Canadian political elite, particularly the Canadian Alliance. His book is peppered with such intellectual tour-de-forces as, “[b]ut if one culture is simple and another complex, is not the latter also superior to the former in some sense?” From such a rudimentary base, Flanagan unabashedly metes out outlandish justification for the Canadian holocaust that saw millions of Aboriginal people slaughtered: “[o]wing to this tremendous gap in civilization, the European colonization of North America was inevitable and, if we accept the philosophical analysis of John Locke and Emer de Vettel, justifiable.”

The rhetoric touted by Flanagan can be likened to the dated concepts held by eugenicists, craniologists and social Darwinists – theories that have been disproved and discarded as racist and elitist. Such narratives as presented by Flanagan border on hate mongering, similar to that found in the writings of Ernst Zundel, the Toronto-based Holocaust denier. Flanagan and other “controversial” critics of Canada’s supposed “spoiled” Native population are given accolades for their “insight” and “honesty” in regards to their solutions to the “Native problem”. Their “solutions” only perpetuate a pervasive racist ideology. The Euro-supremacist process of “civilization” Flanagan subscribes to lends itself to overly facile parallels with Mein Kampf.

A selective history Flanagan has an impeccable ability to adopt the “might-is-right” ideal and is fairly selective in what he regards as history. At one point, he states: “But history does matter. Government depends on power. New and more powerful tribes – the European tribes – entered Canada and established a new political order, as must have repeatedly happened before the arrival of the Europeans.” Thus, while providing spurious evidence suggesting that this “might-is-right” ideology was espoused by those peoples living in North America prior to European contact, he never bothers to question the validity of this ideology, especially within the “civilized” society he purportedly lives in. With regard to his opaque grasp of history, he writes, “[i]n practice, aboriginal government produces wasteful, destructive, familistic factionalism” and later mentions how small Aboriginal communities are dispersed in remote areas over a capacious area. However, Flanagan foregoes contextualising the reality of Aboriginal people in an appropriate historical framework. He does not examine the stipulations of the Indian Act instituted by the colonial Canadian government as being the cause of many of the internal conflicts affecting Aboriginal governments, nor does he mention how decimated tribes were forcefully displaced from their original lands to the areas which they now inhabit. Such oversights can hardly be characterized as mere academic irresponsibility.

Furthermore, Flanagan offers few equitable solutions to the dilemma created by the creation of the Indian Act. Instead, he is content to point the finger at Aboriginals as part of the “white man’s burden” and as a waste of Canadian taxpayers’ dollars. The solution offered by Flanagan is to eliminate federal funding to Aboriginal peoples, end land claims and completely assimilate Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society. Flanagan’s approach is severely flawed: whereas he concedes nothing to redress the poverty and disease in Aboriginal communities, does he assume that those problems will be swept under the proverbial rug which is simultaneously being pulled out from under these communities?

Justifying the colonial-imperial project and the capitalist economy Unlike many of his contemporaries engaged in Aboriginal policy-making, Flanagan is not an apologist for the destructive effects of colonialism and imperialism. He repeatedly sanctions these ideologies, explicitly presenting them as historical inevitabilities: “Both of these process [e.g. spread of agriculture, extension of rule by organised states over stateless societies] are so prominent in human history that it seems almost beside the point to raise questions about morality. It is like asking whether it is right or wrong that child birth is painful, or that everyone eventually has to die, or that floods and droughts occur.” When speaking of the contemporary situation of Aboriginal peoples, Flanagan states: “One can debate the morality and practicality of assimilation.” By intentionally ignoring questions about morality and ascribing colonialist ideals as being as natural as childbirth, Flanagan sets a very dangerous precedent. Indeed, his realpolitik perspective ought to make anyone concerned with justice and freedom shudder in fear. Flanagan’s contention that “[t]he only economic system that has brought a high standard of living to a complex society is the free market” is farcical, if not loathsome. The truth of the matter is that the free market brings fortune to those few who already enjoy great privilege, while concomitantly further impoverishing and dispossessing marginalized populations, be they Aboriginal peoples, inner city populations or refugees in Canada. The colonial-imperial project cannot be extricated from the capitalist economy; they are two mutually re-enforcing entities. This interplay leads to such notions as: “The farmers [e.g. Europeans] are justified in taking land from the hunters [e.g. Aboriginal peoples] and defending it as long as they make the arts of civilization available to the hunters” or further, “I cannot see a moral justification for telling the agriculturists that they cannot make use of land that, from their point of view, is not used.”

Meanwhile, Flanagan fails to concede that more recent 20th century “advances” by hunter-gatherer Natives who adopted and thrived using agriculture instead of hunting, were forced out of this form of subsistence by their so-called “civilized” Euro-Canadian counterparts. Those Natives were forced out of farming because they posed a threat to profits of the Euro-Canadian farmers who complained to the Indian Agents. The latter seized and closed down Native farms and also had their farm equipment confiscated. Aside from farming, any and all forms of production in Native communities are stymied when perceived as a threat to the non-Aboriginal competitor in Canada, i.e. lobster fishing in the east, salmon fishing in the west, forestry in the north. The majority of Native peoples reaping rewards from the earth’s resources are minuscule and far less destructive than the multinationals that are at the top of the resource chain. The latent and pernicious flaw in Flanagan’s capitalist thinking is that the earth’s bounty is limited – whether the elite managers of the world wish to acknowledge it or not, this reality will not disappear simply by ignoring it. The short-sightedness promoted by the colonial-imperial project operating within the capitalist economy as initiated by the European powers – and continued by the attempt at instituting a Western hegemony throughout the globe – ensures that we do not question our own lifestyles. Indeed, it inculcates disdain for the lives of others at any instance we feel our ever-expanding freedom being compromised.

The double standards of “free speech” The inequality of “free speech” is nakedly exposed in a case like Flanagan’s lecture at McGill. By virtue of his position as politician and academic, Flanagan has easy access to “free speech” and despite the minor controversy surrounding his talk, his “right” to speak was staunchly defended by the campus press. Save the few students who attended the lecture in order to protest Flanagan’s racist arguments, there was no defense of Aboriginal people’s right to self-determination. Indeed, it serves well to ruminate over the protean obstacles, operating on institutional and interpersonal levels, which ensure that “radicals” do not enjoy the same access to “free speech” as politicians like Flanagan, thereby invoking Orwell’s dictum that “all men are equal, but some men are more equal than others.”

Had Flanagan chosen to defend the legitimacy of slavery or of concentration camps, there would have doubtlessly been a warranted outcry. Free speech does not sanction irresponsibility; it does not sanction the defense of oppression. However the silence surrounding the continuing treatment of Aboriginal peoples by the Canadian government and their racist depictions in the media is shocking. Aboriginal stereotypes are not only accepted and flaunted by politicians like Flanagan, but also reflected and condoned by the larger Canadian society, even validated in its universities. The acquiescence of bigotry towards Native peoples is somewhat akin to the current popularity of racist ignorance about Muslim and Arab populations; both reinforced by examples that are seen in the mainstream media.

Flanagan’s position is hardly novel. The qualifying of such offensive work as “controversial” is euphemistic and tacitly ignores its flagrant racism. This being said, such a work should hardly come as a surprise: given the exponential growth of the Aboriginal population (cf. 2001 census), conservative politicians in Canada are becoming progressively fearful of the prospect of having large populations of Aboriginal people becoming organized and empowered. Politicians like Flanagan continue to see the Indigenous population as subjects to be rendered docile and “civilized”. While the Canadian population is often at the forefront of pleading for justice in matters that do not directly affect them, they fall terribly short of the mark when it comes to doing the same in matters affecting those from whom this land was originally appropriated at great human cost. Flanagan’s book not only allows such complacency to thrive, but worse, encourages concerned citizens to adopt a mindset which espouses the subjugation of the Aboriginal population as one of its central tenets.

Clifton Arihwakehte Nicholas is a Kanien’keháka (Mohawk) from Kanehsatake and is a fourth-year anthropology student at Concordia University. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Parul Sehgal is an Indian-American political science student at McGill University. She can be reached at [email protected]

Samir Hussain is a Pakistani-Canadian graduating medical student at McGill University and a member of the Montreal-based Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment