(Image Credit: Habila Sani Mazawaje via Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
The topless protester at the Juno Awards has rekindled the complaints that Indigenous issues are often used for unrelated objectives by activists who don’t necessarily have the best interests of Indigenous people at heart.
WHEELS OF THE BUS
Following reports that went international (see this link from BBC and this one from the Rolling Stones) that a topless protester had disrupted the performance of the singer Avril Lavigne at the recent Juno Awards function, I saw a long-standing issue re-emerge on Twitter. On a side note, this is just one of the many perennially unsettled issues in Canada; I have explored this phenomenon at length in my earlier article ‘Structural Dysfunction’. The complaint is that some people, with their own agenda, often use Indigenous issues as a means of gaining leverage for their own objectives that have nothing to do with the welfare of the Indigenous people.
I think the bottom line here (at least in the context of the present discussion) is that the gaps between the assorted points of contention rarely gets bridged, if ever. The various differences of opinion are therefore caught in a trap from which they cannot make their way out. For example, the most glaring gap that I have seen between to ideological beliefs is that all Canadians are supposed to (a) be allies of the Indigenous people, and (b) not offer any opinion or engage in any action if they are not of Indigenous ethnicity. Clearly, one cannot abide by both the dicta. The ’progressive’ side tackles this contradiction with the ‘solution’ that as long as one agrees, in toto, with the progressive position on any issue pertaining to the Indigenous people, there is no contradiction.
For the average non-progressive Canadian, this offering does not resolve their dilemma. The most common reaction to this predicament is that most of these Canadians simply ignore these issues; they have their own troubles to contend with, and engaging in this interminably fractious and irreconcilable debate only takes away from their limited resources. In any case, whether the issues get resolved or not does not affect them in any manner whatsoever. So they leave this matter to the professional agitators on both the sides, plus the Indigenous people for whom these issues are gravely important.
An added difficulty here relates to the specific (I would go so far as to say ‘esoteric’terminology that is used in these issues, the meaning of the terms not being entirely clear. For example, I have encountered words that were not part of my vocabulary until I saw them, such as ‘Gidimten’, ‘wampum’ and ‘Go back to your canoe’. Given the aforementioned finiteness of their resources and preoccupations, many Canadians simply do not bother to familiarize themselves with the meaning and nuances of these terms. This applies with even greater force to new immigrants, who have more than their fair share of challenges to face. With the proportion of new immigrants in Canada rising continuously, this means that an increasingly greater percentage of the population is disengaged from Indigenous issues.
Let us focus on the argument that Canadians who are not Indigenous are supposed to refrain from being engaged in Indigenous issues. While I don’t like to divide people into groups, here it would be useful – and hopefully fruitful – to see how the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people respectively react when a non-Indigenous person becomes involved in an Indigenous issue. Thankfully, I have some personal experience to share on this matter.
As many of you may know, for the past 20+ months, I have been following up with the Ontario & Federal governments on the long-standing issue of mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows (see my pinned tweet from July 04, 2021 here). My experience so far has been the exact opposite of the contention that as a non-Indigenous Canadian, I should not get involved in this issue. The people who have given me support and encouragement over this period are a truly diverse group. In contrast, the disapproving comments about my involvement have come almost exclusively from white Canadians.
In the group that is happy with my involvement, apart from the non-Indigenous people of different backgrounds (e.g., white, black & South Asian), the Indigenous people in this group include First Nations individuals from Alberta & Saskatchewan, a Mohawk businessman, an Inuit person living in the far North, a Metis businesswoman from Manitoba who is also a veteran, all the way to an Apache lady from the US who was kind enough to donate a non-insubstantial sum of money via my website (Note: In obedience to my declared pledge that I would not derive any material benefit from my pursuing the Grassy Narrows matter, I donated food of an equal amount to my local food bank). Lastly, I must make mention of a white Canadian grandmother in British Columbia whose son is a status First Nations.
I acknowledge that the size of this group of Canadians is not statistically significant enough to derive firm conclusions, one way or the other. Moreover, since we are friends on Twitter, there may be ‘confirmation bias’ at play here. But my experience does give me some food for thought. Specifically, what factor makes the engagement of a non-Indigenous person in an Indigenous issue acceptable (or not)?
SHOW & TELL
From my point of view, one major factor here is the exhibitionism that many activists display in their ‘allyship’. Additionally, since there is no follow-up action to their protest (or even leading up to it) that can make an iota of difference in the problematic situation about which they are protesting, their protest ends up being purely performative. There is at least a hint of craving for the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. For example, the topless protester is reported to have said that ‘she thought Avril Lavigne was going to give her the mike at Junos’. She certainly seems to be basking in the media attention following her protest (which it would be fair to characterize as a stunt).
Without engaging in self-aggrandization, I can say with all humility that I have been able to stay away from taking this approach; my work in this area is know only to those who follow me / whom I update from time ti time on Twitter, plus a few journalists that I reached out to and the combined total of just over 4,000 people who have read my 3 articles on Grassy Narrows. My focus is on getting the job done, not on creating a public hubbub. In fairness, I must admit that sometimes, creating a hubbub is useful in getting the job done – but I guess the defining difference lies in how one goes about doing that. If it is focused on the person doing it, then it ends up being exhibitionism.
A second factor is conflation of two or more issues; it often gives a whiff of self-interest (as opposed to a real concern for Indigenous issues). The most common example here is the environmental / climate change issue, where it usually feels like the Indigenous concerns around a particular fossil fuels project (which may or may not be real or unanimously shared by all the Indigenous people in its vicinity) have been tacked on to the original grievance so as to add gravitas to the objections against the project. On the progressive side as well as their opponents, it is common to think of the Indigenous people as a monolith. The progressive side opposing an energy project tends to present any Indigenous objections to the project as being unanimous, and in the process brushes aside all the Indigenous people who may be in favour of the project. One First Nations Twitter friend of mine calls this ‘environmental colonialism’, in that it seeks to impose poverty (or lack of economic opportunity, more generally) on Indigenous people, and the people doing it are non-Indigenous & mostly white.
To compound matters, if and when an energy project has been successfully blocked, the self-proclaimed allies of the Indigenous people disappear from the area, thus proving that they were merely using the local Indigenous people and their issues as a fulcrum to achieve their objective. Once that objective is achieved, they have no interest in the continuing welfare of these people.
DIVIDE & MISRULE
Telling non-Indigenous people to stay away from Indigenous issues divides the society, and as is common with all instances of divisiveness, creates resentment. This is very useful for the political class, because a divided people resentful of each other do not see eye-to-eye and therefore are easier to control. The front-line troops in bringing about this division and resentment (the self-proclaimed allies) are, in the indelicate expression coined by Lenin, the ‘useful idiots’. The way out of this predicament is for non-Indigenous Canadians to allocate time and energy to engage in Indigenous issues in a way that is not performative or bound by dogma or prejudice. The engagement has to make a tangible contribution to the actual reality on the ground rather than end up being lofty but cliched and/or performative expressions, whether verbal or as acts of protest. This includes rejecting ideas that have become articles of faith on the progressive side, such as ‘We are all settlers, regardless of when we came here’, because this also divides Canadians into ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Settlers’. An idea that is ostensibly about uniting all Canadians (as ‘allies’) is actually a deceptive tactic to divide us.
In the era of colonialism, and stretching as far back as the Roman empire, ‘divide & rule’ was a highly effective tactic of an oppressive ruling class. But times have changed, and I believe that we are living in an era of ‘divide & misrule’. However, one of the greatly useful changes has been the empowerment of the individual. If we, as individual Canadians, make a determined effort, we will be able to thwart attempts to divide us. Hopefully, we may even be able to turn the tables on the ‘misrule’ part of the formula and bring about good governance.
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