Three words that I usually save for separate use – except this time. This time all three fit in one title because I’ve come across a column that is so dumb, so vacuous, gets it’s so-called facts so wrong that it defies explanation. Yet it is precisely the kind of writing that I come across in so many Canadian newspapers posing as legitimate journalism.
Columns or editorials are written as “opinion pieces;” the writer is allowed to stray from the strict confines of factual journalism to express personal thoughts and ideas. The writing, however, is supposed to be based in fact otherwise any weird or bizarre idea might be foisted as fact upon unwary readers; remember Professor Phillippe Rushton and his discredited theories on race. That’s the rule in Canadian broadcasting, but apparently not in Canadian newspapers.
I refer to major Canadian daily newspapers, not grocery store tabloids like The Enquirer. Case in point: a column by Joe Quesnel that appeared in the Winnipeg Sun on Nov 28. It is entitled “Race and culture not the same.” It begins with a comment about a recently published book that (sigh) suggests the problem with Indians is that they insist on being Indians. Damn! Who wudda guessed?
The book in question is “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry.” Quesnel says it’s making waves in academic circles, which is supposed to imply a few things: that the authors have academic standing; that it challenges or debunks myths; that it is rigorously researched, and is accepted by the academic community. Wrong.
Just because an author puts letters behind their name does not make them academics or their book an academic work. Secondly, some academics can be idiots. Finally, anyone who writes a book that exploits and reinforces standard Canadian racial stereotypes about Indians is not debunking myths but is celebrating them.
I’ll get to the book in another post. This is about Quesnel’s column.
I’ve read Quesnel’s writings for some time. He seems confused. He does not appear to know who he is or where he belongs. In fact, I doubt he likes himself very much – or at least that part of himself that he describes in this column as “Mohawk and other Indigenous backgrounds.”
Like some people of mixed heritage, he seems to use either side of his lineage when it suits him; when its useful or profitable, for a job or a grant. He claims to be an “aboriginal” journalist, yet spends most of his writings explaining why he wants to eliminate that side of his identity.
Take this excerpt. It reveals more about the writer than the subject. Quesnel begins by referring to the authors of the book, then switches to a personal view of himself. He embraces the European side of his racial makeup, and dismisses the Indigenous within him. He takes pride in his European roots, but expresses shame about his Indigenous side. He finds common cause with the writers of the book, then applies it to his own views of himself.
The problem as they [the authors] see it is that well-intentioned academics, seeing the disadvantages First Nations face, feel guilty and as a result, never criticize First Nations, no matter how problematic some aspects of their cultures are for modern life.
I have Mohawk and other indigenous backgrounds. However, I am quite pleased my ancestors came into contact with Europeans. I do not think I would enjoy a low-technology, nomadic existence and being confined to subsistence agriculture. I appreciate the blessings of individual rights and modern women’s freedoms. I take advantage of modern medicine and science. I have French-Canadian heritage, but I do not regret that my ancestors encountered the British who held to a more efficient form of land ownership and a market economy, not to mention democracy.
Quesnel has his facts wrong. If he were Mohawk, he would know that the people who saw Cartier land in Montreal (Mohawk) cultivated huge corn fields and vegetable gardens, kept massive stores of preserved or dried food, knew more about herbology and natural medicine than Cartier and his men, were part of a major confederacy of nations with a constitutional government that allowed universal suffrage including women, was the envy of those Europeans who bothered to look beyond their racial prejudices to learn more about it.
Despite waves of epidemics that wiped out entire Indigenous cities (yes, cities), the Mohawk and their confederates held the balance of power over much of eastern North America even after they had lost numeric advantage over the European settler. Today, the Mohawk have mastered information technology and dominate the online gambling world. They have done so precisely because of the strength of their Mohawk culture, identity and traditions.
The authors come by their prejudices quite honestly – they’re Canadian. Many, and I suspect most, Canadians have never learned their own history. They’ve learned a very one-sided, deliberately blinkered version of Canadian history in which Indigenous peoples played water boy to the team. This allowed their governments to exploit, dismiss, and dispossess Indigenous peoples not only from the history of Canada, but in society as well. Instead of acknowledging this pattern of abusive behaviours, and acting like a civilized nation, Canada continues to try to remove, assimilate, and obliterate.
These aren’t arguable points. They’re historic fact stripped of the soft sell. But Quesnel isn’t interested in fact. He’s out to try to prove to whites in his writings that he’s just like them.
It’s as though Quesnel wants to eliminate the Indian side of himself. If he can prove he hates Indians just as much as they do, he might be able to pass, to belong, to join the white mainstream. Instead of dealing with his neurosis, however, Quesnel strikes out at those on the outside who are not ashamed of their Indigenous identity. They – not his self-hatred – become the problem.
First Nation people better honour their ancestors and their children by improving their conditions, which often means abandoning ways that do not subscribe to modernity.
Quesnel has learned nothing and knows less for his denial and self-loathing. Strong cultures and traditions are the foundations that allow peoples around the world to adapt to changes in the environment, technology, society – regardless of their homeland. Yet Quesnel and others like him ignore this view because it undermines or refutes their beliefs in social Darwinism and racial superiority, made all the more uncomfortable for people like Quesnel because it takes place within.
There’s a solution for Quesnel and others like him; people who take advantage of their Indigeneity when its suits or profits them but advocate the elimination of that same identity in others.
Stop switching between the sometime Indian and the white bigot whenever it benefits. Choose. Be white. Or be Indian. But end the hypocrisy.
As for the Winnipeg Sun and other daily newspapers that consider such columns responsible journalism… nobody ever said journalism was pretty. But it is supposed to educate, illuminate, and advance society. Newspapers like the Sun do not. They seek writers like Quesnel precisely because they affirm prejudices. Crap like this sells. People should know the difference.