SSHRC Aboriginal funding as seen through the eyes of an Aboriginal (not quite) cynic

Recently I was invited to a two day meeting at the Social Science and Humanities Council (SSHRC) to undertake discussion on Aboriginal research at SSHRC, part of SSHRC’s new Aboriginal Advisory Circle. The meeting was an intense, professionally organized and ably led dialogue that included a clear and well-organized agenda that was peppered with breaks and a good mix of group discussion and small group reflection. Many of us had been to past SSHRC deliberations (one in the early 2000s and another in the mid 2000s) but numerous new faces, many of them Aboriginal and all working on Aboriginal issues, were also in attendance.

Following the event, I retreated to my Facebook to make a typically adolescent comment about what I saw as an underlying philosophical thread in which “Aboriginal research” was conflated with specific epistemologies and even ontologies, fueled conceptually by nearly two decades of Education-based Indigenous methodology literature. As people began to comment on my status update, however, I began to read my original status update as less “jokey” than I had intended it to be, hedging toward the snarky. More importantly to me, several of my junior colleagues, new to the SSHRC Aboriginal deliberations, justifiably took me to task for what they saw as my excessively negative tone. For them, the meetings were exciting, intellectually invigorating, and well worth a trip to Ottawa.

As I absorbed my more junior colleagues’ comments, I began to think about why I remained so cynical – if not skeptical – about the likely outcome of our deliberations. I thought back to the original meetings in 2002 in which a senior Education professor told me, point blank, that the statistical work I did wasn’t considered “Aboriginal” because I didn’t make use of an Indigenous methodology. My work was important, the professor assured me; it just wasn’t what this research-funding envelope was intended for. I was relatively new to the professor racket back then and lacked the vocabulary to articulate what I saw as an erroneous presumption – terribly wrongheaded, narrow in its application of Indigenous knowledge and, as such, potentially dangerous. Especially dangerous, perhaps, given the power of statistics in contemporary Canadian society, the categories used to measure selected aspects of our communities, while marginalizing others.

Flash forward to 2014. The two-day meeting was geared toward moving the discussion in particular directions of Aboriginal policy relevance to SSHRC. In this context, the SSHRC representatives were nonetheless quite respectful of the diversity of our opinions and as such, we managed to cover quite a lot of intellectual ground. At the end of the meeting, I was gratified by the discussion, and in particular the extent to which my (possibly contrarian) views were not just listened to but respectfully deliberated on. I didn’t expect everyone would agree with me (though that would make things easier) but nonetheless, I didn’t expect the level of discussion and agreement that ensued from my original statements.

But: I still felt cynical about the probable outcomes of “Aboriginal research”, because they still seems wedded to an “Aboriginal-as-different” model in which any subject areas or methodologies that non-Indigenous people engage in arguably fall outside the bracket of the distinctive epistemologies and/or ontologies of Indigenous communities. The issue is slightly more complex than this but at the same time, we can easily understand the protective ethos that undergirds it – Indigenous communities (and thus knowledge) are at risk; non-Indigenous researchers have undertaken research on, rather than with, Indigenous communities without outcomes that benefitted them but not the community; and non-academic Indigenous expertise (“wisdom”) was marginalized or denigrated in these research projects. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these assertions but as Maggie Walter and I wrote in our recently published book Indigenous Statistics, all these same things can happen in the context of statistical projects as well.

In the interests of offering a “finger crossed” discussion of what I hope future discussions of “Aboriginal Research” at SSHRC will think about (I’m neither naïve nor petulant enough to expect these to be incorporated in toto but nonetheless, I see them as important facets of future conversations relating to this subject matter):

  1. We need to stop worrying so much about how to differentiate between “Indigenous” and “western” knowledge. Obvious and not so obvious differences exist (though I would argue that these are less ontological than they are political), but it seems to me that funding only particular forms of knowledge production – “Indigenous knowledge” – misses an important aspect of the extent to which Indigenous communities are embedded in modernity. In this context, Indigenous communities/nations/peoples need all kinds of projects and methodologies to undertake issues of concern or desire, only some of which would count as “Indigenous knowledge”. I am not suggesting that SSHRC funds only narrowly conceived “Indigenous knowledge”-based projects. Having sat on a number of relevance and adjudication committees, I can personally attest to the wide array of high-quality Aboriginal issues research that has applied for funding through SSHRC. Nonetheless, presuming that we know what counts as Indigenous knowledge or that Indigenous knowledge is less important in any given instance than “western” knowledge, seems a fundamentally wrong-headed way to build robust research relationships with Indigenous peoples, a relationship that SSHRC arguably leads the world in.
  2. We need to think more broadly about what we mean about increasing Aboriginal “talent”, to include space for non-Indigenous allies. As various Australia-based Whiteness studies scholars have explored the complications of, part of a just society must involve the creation and transmission of a “retrospective” or “historical” consciousness among non-Indigenous people. Toward this end, it is nearly as important to award and to teach non-Indigenous researchers to engage in respectful research relationships with Indigenous communities and nations as it is, for example, ensure quotas of funding for Aboriginal researchers, regardless of our methodology or intent. The logical endpoint of this is not that SSHRC will end up funding only non-Aboriginal researchers but nonetheless, this kind of “equity” argument should continue to complicate this discussion. But in sum, we need to ensure that “Aboriginal research” make room for non-Indigenous allies and that all researchers build and maintain respectful relationships with Aboriginal communities. 
  3. Although SSHRC made Aboriginal research a priority area for its various granting programs (Insight, Partnership, etc.), perhaps it is time to think about the ways in which SSHRC funded research (and likely CIHR funding as well) has tended to privilege on institutionally “formal” communities like Indian Bands or communities with formal research centres. To what extent have Métis communities or urban communities lost out in this “institutions race” vis-à-vis their First Nation counterparts? This isn’t a criticism of the communities and nations that have received funding: in relative terms such funding is a pittance in comparison to the number of issues we need more research on, and in many cases, the research funding pockets advocate for direct research with rather than on Indigenous communities. Nonetheless, Métis, non-status Indian and urban communities are usually more fluid and less institutionally formal and have lost out on this funding. To be clear, this is not because of anything SSHRC has done or even anything relating to their existing policies and priorities. Instead, these kinds of communities are simply less able to put together the kind of proposal – in many cases have little or no researchers to assist – that would go before a SSHRC committee, let alone be awarded a grant.

Let me end my admittedly ranty screed by being clear about two things: 1) these are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else on the committee or SSHRC more broadly; and 2) I have been lucky enough to form professional relationships with many program officers at SSHRC and have never felt anything other than respected in our dealings together. This is not a criticism of the aspects of SSHRC I am most familiar with, nor the people I have interacted with. Instead, this post simply asks us to think more broadly about what SSHRC’s current construction of “Aboriginal research” might mean in practice and how we can think beyond those horizons, as welcome as they might be.

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Marginalizing Métis histories through Treaty Territory Acknowledgment

In the last decade or so, it has become a fairly accepted practice in Indigenous Studies circles for scholars presenting on Indigenous issues to begin their talks with some form of acknowledgment of the Indigenous peoples upon whose territories they are presenting. In western Canada, home of several so-called “numbered treaties”, scholars often go further to more specifically acknowledge the treaty territory upon which they present: “I’d like to acknowledge our presence on Treaty 4 territory…” or even the historical names of the peoples on those territories. Scholars have also begun to acknowledge their presence on treaty territories in their book manuscripts and articles. Others – among them graduate students – have added treaty acknowledgments to the signature lines of their emails, some taking the time to find the proper Indigenous terms for the territory. In certain cases, universities have even begun to acknowledge this presence during their convocation ceremonies.

All of this is welcome news. It is relational. It is respectful. And it goes without saying that it is long overdue. Unfortunately – at least in western Canada – one of the unintended effects of acknowledging only the treaties has been to, in the words of sociologist Löic Wacquant, “reify ethnoracial struggles of the past”. How do we unpack this phrase? Wacquant uses it to refer the phenomenon by which we take for granted the categories we use to make sense of the world. This makes a lot of sense at one level, since categories are often fundamental to our ability to make any sense of the social world. They profoundly structure our ability to think and talk with others on any given issue. In taking for granted the categories we do, however, Wacquant argues that we naturalize the historically rooted relations of power that produced them. In short, the language we use today “reifies” the hierarchies and inequalities that shaped those histories.

What does this have to do with treaties? As many students of Canadian history know, Canada attempted to secure its lawful title to Indigenous territories in what is now western Canada through the negotiation of a series of numbered treaties. The extent to which these treaties were actually negotiated as opposed to unilaterally imposed, and the extent to which a “meeting of the minds” about what they were actually supposed to do occurred, is hotly contested. Nonetheless, the idea of the treaties themselves and the relationships they were supposed to have set out has become a powerful symbolic stake in many contemporary negotiations between First Nations and the rest of Canada. Scholars, students, certain segments of the public and even universities have begun to reintroduce a “treaty vocabulary”. This is a good thing and it should be seen as such. The way we talk about things publicly has a powerful effect on the legitimacy they come to hold. In other words, how we talk about things holds the power to actually conjure them into existence. This is how “reification” works, for good and for ill. And in this case, it’s good because it re-concretizes something – treaties and their relationships – that far too often have been viewed as nebulous or far-fetched.

However, while many of us are aware of the historical treaty process, far fewer are aware of the options Métis were given to “surrender” their Aboriginal title. Certainly, it is possible to envision the Manitoba Act as a form of treaty, since it involved its own forms of negotiation between Métis representatives and Ottawa. Likewise, various historians have noted instances in which Métis individuals and families signed into treaty with their “First Nations” relatives. Nonetheless, as historical geographer Frank Tough has explained, most Métis were forced to make use of the “scrip system”, a system of land alienation that involved individualized coupons, worth $240 or 240 acres. The scrip system had little of the protections afforded to treaties, like non-saleability to non-Crown entities, collective ownership or on-going annuities. To greatly simplify a complex story, what Tough has termed “scrip speculators” received much of the eventual wealth generated by the scrip system. In comparison, only a small portion of Métis ended up receiving any land. Métis were left destitute. More importantly, Canada regarded their formal relationship with the Métis as complete, a position that has remained largely unchanged to this day.

The larger point to take away from this, conceptually, is to understand the acknowledgment of treaty relationships with so-called “Indians”, and the largely ad-hoc creation of a “scrip system” with “Halfbreeds”, as historical forms of ethnoracial struggle in the terms posed by Wacquant, above. Treaties are on going. Scrip was not. One effect of these historical government policies is that Métis have largely been denied a formal relationship with the federal government. Even despite the recent spate of court victories, we are not recognized in the manner First Nations are. This lack of recognition extends far beyond court decisions, however; to give several random examples, the National Household Survey (which replaced the long form census) currently cannot differentiate between “racialized” and “national” Métis self-identifications. Likewise, the massive 5,000 page Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples accorded only a single chapter in one volume to Métis histories, “perspectives and realities”, in comparison to the thousands of pages dedicated to First Nation and Inuit issues. More academically, Métis specific issues receive a pittance of the Tri-Council funding – both SSHRC and CIHR – dedicated to “Aboriginal” issues – First Nations and Inuit projects receive the lion’s share. This First Nations and Inuit focus is also reflected in publications, where they also predominate the Canadian scholarly field. Even the British Museum in London, with its comparatively large collection of northern Plains artifacts, has completed erased the Métis from its map of the mid-nineteenth century northern Plains.

None of this is to blame anyone for intentionally attempting to marginalize Métis histories, issues or concerns. Nonetheless, speaking again in terms of Wacquant’s “ethnoracial struggles of the past”, this is the effect of these decisions. Every book or article written on northern Plains history, for example, that doesn’t include the Métis, is to marginalize our Indigeneity. Every acknowledgement of “Metisness” in terms of a racial category (i.e. Métis as “mixed”) delegitimizes our peoplehood. And – the point of this post – every acknowledgment of your presence on treaty territory without an accompanying acknowledgment of the historical and contemporary Métis presence, does the same. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you mean to disrespect the Métis peoples or our histories. The effect of acknowledging your presence on treaty territories or even on “the territories of the Cree” or “the territories of the Ojibway” without also acknowledging the Métis presence, has the very same effect. And it perpetuates the marginalization that began with Canada’s refusal to acknowledge our Indigeneity in the same manner as they did that of First Nations.

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Heart of Darkness: the RCMP, our Stolen Sisters and the morality of statistics

Last week, the New York based Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada. This report detailed various abuses of Indigenous women at the hands of the BC policing forces, including instances of physical and sexual assault. This report surprised far more people than it should have, given that it is the latest report in a series of more longstanding efforts to document the colonial violence endured by Indigenous women in Canada. In 2004, for example, Amnesty International put out at report titled Stolen Sisters that detailed the various structural inequalities that have produced not only alarming rates of violence against Aboriginal women but hundreds of cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women as well. Following this report, in 2005 the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) embarked on a research initiative entitled Sisters in Spirit.

The Sisters in Spirit initiative included a number of stages. The first stage included a diligent attempt to document the high rates of violence committed against Aboriginal women. In doing so, NWAC created a database that detailed nearly 600 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, a number that, although growing, cannot be documented, since with their typical wisdom and compassion the federal government cut funding to the program in 2010. Nonetheless, this number has since become the symbol around which NWAC and their allies have attempted to demonstrate the brutal impact of colonialism on Aboriginal nations and our women.

It is probably fair to say, then, that NWAC and likely many others were caught off guard by a recent CBC interview in which RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Julie Gagnon suggested that the RCMP database on missing and murdered Aboriginal women could confirm only 64 of the nearly 600 names in the NWAC database. That’s roughly 10 per cent. Caught off guard, indeed. Current NWAC president Michéle Audette responded, stating in a recent NWAC media release, that

“it is incredible that the RCMP is publicly doubting the number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls that has been documented in the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Database! The high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls that has been documented was based on accurate secondary source information that in many instances came directly from police reports that had further been corroborated by NWAC researchers with various police agencies”[1].

Adding insult to injury, the RCMP appeared to point the finger at NWAC, explaining that at least part of the problem stemmed from NWAC’s refusal to provide information from their database to the RCMP. In an email to the CBC Sgt. Gagnon wrote that “The RCMP is concerned with the over 500 possible victims from the Sisters in Spirit database that have not been shared”[2]. As I explain below, good reasons exist for this “failure to share” that relate directly to the long and often dark relationship between the RCMP and Aboriginal communities in Canada.

At one level we should probably defend against claims that the RCMP was effectively dismissing 90% of the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. In fact, they were merely suggesting that they lacked sufficient evidence of their existence. For example, of the 118 cases that NWAC had shared with them, only 64 appeared on their own database. But surely that’s the point. Though it may sound strange, statistics are not, and have never been, primarily about the numbers they produce. Whatever the numbers eventually arrived at, they should instead be understood as effects of more or less complex sets of actors making various kinds of interpretive decisions at various points in a usually agreed upon process. As sociologist Bruce Curtis once dryly remarked, statistics do not already exist “out there” like mushrooms waiting to be picked. The decisions we make about the categories we use to collect information – what we ask, who we ask, when we ask and how we ask – directly impact the numbers we end up with, whatever those numbers end up being.

So we might ask: how is it possible that the RCMP and NWAC could arrive at such different sets of numbers? Unfortunately, this is not a situation in which we can simply agree to disagree about who are among the missing and who are not: grieving communities and families – brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, cousins, aunties, uncles, kokums and mushums – continue to endure the nearly unbearable weight of these women’s absence, whether they make the statistical grade or not. Likewise, the statistical differences between the datasets tell us little because they are so far apart as to defy logic. Certainly, part of the difference results from the fact that the RCMP does not collate data from provincial and municipal policing agencies and so would not count such cases. But this cannot account for all or even most of the discrepancy, since many of the cases would fall within their policing mandate.

NWAC has been quite open about the methods they used to collect their data on missing and murdered Aboriginal women[3]. First, their researchers engaged in extensive secondary research that included compiling scholarly research, government reports, media sources and yes, even co-creating, with the RCMP, an information pamphlet titled Toolkit: Navigating the Missing Persons Process[4]. Second, over a number of years they engaged in equally extensive primary research with the families and communities of the missing and murdered women. Conversely, the RCMP database is – can only be, in fact – based on longstanding investigative methods which have been proven, time and again, detrimental (if not hostile) to the interests of Aboriginal communities and families in Canada. NWAC president Audette states as much when she says that “It appears now that the RCMP has chosen aggressive bullying tactics to re-direct public attention away from its own internal issues”.

Hence, in stating that only 10% of the NWAC Missing and Murdered Women database appears in the RCMP’s, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Julie Gagnon was being technically accurate.  But it was also incomplete. That is, she forgot to add the word because: as in “our database only contains 64 verified cases”

Because the Aboriginal community in Canada does not trust us;

Because we have done little to earn that trust;

Because we acted in ways that created historical enmities between our police force and Aboriginal communities;

Because we continue to act in ways that intensify these enmities;

Because clearly, we don’t care about missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Numerous reasons exist for the many Aboriginal communities’ lack of trust in the RCMP, reaching back to the force’s late nineteenth century beginnings as the North West Mounted Police and their involving in enforcing the reserve “pass system” following the so-called North West Uprising in 1885, their involvement in enforcing the removal of First Nations children to residential schools and their role in removing women and their families who lost status under sexist provisions of the Indian Act and as such, who were forced to move away from reserve communities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have detailed the more recent failures of policing agencies more generally to protect Aboriginal women, producing further vulnerability among an already vulnerable population.

The thing is, though, the RCMP knows all of this. They have acknowledged their poor relationship with Aboriginal communities on various occasions and, although minimal, have taken steps to address it[5]. We can thus only imagine what was going through the head of RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Gagnon – or the RCMP more generally – to challenge the NWAC numbers, numbers that were collected in a far more sophisticated manner than those used by the RCMP. Indeed, it takes a special kind of arrogance to express concern over the lack of reciprocity with NWAC over information that the RCMP has, by its own (lack of) words and action, indicated little interest in creating on its own.

The RCMP could have taken this occasion to look into their own organizational heart, to take stock of their past failures and to admit their past mistakes. Instead – and with a depressingly predictable lack of public relations and community building acumen – they shot themselves in the foot with ridiculous statements like that of Sgt. Gagnon. All of which might occasion a simple if bemused headshaking, except for the fact that the numbers of stolen sisters are likely far higher than even those uncovered by NWAC’s diligent work. Aboriginal women are going missing, are being murdered, while the RCMP continues to play a petty and ridiculous blame game.

Ultimately what is needed here is a national public inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The RCMP could play a powerful role in such an inquiry, since they sit on the front lines of these events. A public inquiry would not only allow a sober exploration of the structural inequities that has produced this national tragedy, but it could, as many inquiries do, represent a powerful moment of reconciliation and trust-building between Aboriginal nations, communities and families, on the one hand, and policy agencies, various levels of government and the public, on the other. However, this would require a level of introspection and acknowledgement of responsibility that seems permanently beyond the reach of the RCMP, as most policing agencies. And in remaining so, the RCMP continues to reveal its own heart of darkness: not only its inability to protect Aboriginal women from colonialism’s darkest moments, but its inability to admit its own responsibility in producing the events themselves.

[1]  “NWAC shocked with recent RCMP comments on CBC”.

[2] “RCMP questions claim of 600 missing aboriginal women”. (Retrieved 19 Feb 2013).

[3] Voices of Our Sisters In Spirit: A Report to Families and Communities, 2nd Edition, March 2009

[4] Toolkit: Navigating the Missing Persons Process

[5] Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Persons

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Winnipeg Sun editorial blames violence against Aboriginal women on reserve corruption *face palm*

In its editorial published this past Friday, the Winnipeg Sun argued that there is no need for a national inquiry on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, suggesting that it would amount to a complete and massive waste of time. This is a long (though I hope not rambling) counter-analysis to the Sun’s assertion that the real culprit of missing and murdered Aboriginal women is…wait for it….wait for it….corruption on reserves.


Having written on the role of public inquiries in reaffirming the legitimacy of nation-states – in Canada as elsewhere – the editors and I agree on the fact that public inquiries can be useless. However, we part ways in two significant respects. First – and more briefly – I argue that they are not inherently useless. Instead, their relative worth is the result of a complex mix of mandate, the force of personality of their champions and the level of buy-in from different sectors of society. Public inquiries can be meaningless, but this is an empirical question rather than a pre-ordained fate.

The Winnipeg Sun’s editorial team follows up this assertion with a whopper, though, by arguing that that a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women would be useless because none of the women are missing or murdered due to their “race” but rather, because their poverty and high risk lifestyles. To quote them directly:

  • most of these women aren’t being murdered because of the colour of their skin, nor does their race factor into why so many of these killings go unsolved. No, this is a problem of poverty and lifestyle, not race (Winnipeg Sun, Friday June 29th, 2012 – online edition).
The first thing that came to my mind upon reading this was: WTF?

There is a couple of different ways to try and make sense of their logic (or lack thereof). First, notice the binaries they set up:  this important issue isn’t about race, they suggest, but is instead, about poverty and lifestyle. The question we might ask though, is since when, in a Canadian context, are these three elements not connected? The Sun editorial uses a fairly commonsensical definition of race as being linked to physical appearance (“most of these women aren’t being murdered because of the colour of their skin”). A quick glance at the pictures of the missing and murdered Aboriginal grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters and aunties will confirm this assertion. A wide range of physical features have suffered the effects of this violence. But does this actually mean this isn’t about race?

Of course it doesn’t. Not least, because race has never – anywhere – been just about physical features, as much as the Winnipeg Sun seems to want to contain it in such narrow parameters. As numerous scholars have argued, race the world over has always been connected to a wide – and unstable (meaning they changed over time and context) – array of elements otherwise unconnected to physicality. Since physical features have never been useful benchmarks for determining race, even in Canada they have always been accompanied by decisions that linked “race” to cultural and religious choices, lifestyle and even, in many cases, moral comportment. Biologically “mixed” Aboriginal individuals, for example, have variously been legally/racially defined as “Indian” and/or “Half-breed” and in many cases, individuals and families have hopped back and forth between such racial dividing lines like the Indian Act precisely because colonial authorities could not come to firm decisions about who they were solely with respect to their biological signs of race.

Secondly and more specifically, race has never been separated from lifestyle in Canada or any colonial locale. Ever. Which is why there are various instances in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan of one brother living and “Indian” lifestyle took treaty while another, in the same family, might live a “half-breed” lifestyle (for example, in a wage economy) leading him and his family to take Half-breed “scrip”. Lifestyle has always been a powerful factor for making sense of race in Canada, and this remains as true now as it was then. Thus, as poor as existing statistics are, it would not surprise any of us to learn that Aboriginal women are more likely to suffer violence and more likely to be involved in so-called “high risk” lifestyles.

In making this point, let’s be clear about two things, however: first, most Aboriginal women are not involved in “high risk” lifestyles that increase the dangers of such violence being committed against them; second and perhaps more pertinently, these lifestyles are not higher risk in and of themselves. If alcohol or drug use was inherently risky, the middle class housewives who prop up the North American wine and pharmaceutical industry would demonstrate similar rates of violence committed against them. The don’t, and there’s no reason to think victimization surveys would be less likely to capture this victimization than that committed against Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women suffer this violence because they live lifestyles that put them into contact with men who perceive them in particular ways – as “available Brown bodies” as one of my colleagues put it – that middle class white women don’t need to worry about to the same degree. And, less we tuck this away as the result of “deranged scumbags” as the Winnipeg Sun editorial suggests, violence committed against Aboriginal women is far more pernicious and ubiquitous, occurring at the hands of partners and strangers, Aboriginal and non-.

But all of this tells us little about why this is about race. Lifestyle was involved in historical decisions about race but does that mean this is still the case today? It most definitely is, though not for reasons that are immediately apparent for readers of the Winnipeg Sun’s editorials. To trace this complexity, we need look no further than the case of Pamela George. Pamela George, an impoverished (i.e. broke) Saulteaux women who worked part time in the sex trade, was beaten to death by two white, middle class university students, Steven Kummerfield and Alexander Ternowetsky, otherwise hardly the “deranged scumbags” who the Winnipeg Sun blames for this violence against Aboriginal women.

(Incidentally, an excellent overview of these events can be read in Sherene Razack’s academic article “The Murder of Pamela George”. A more accessible view can be had at Amnesty International’s Stolen Sister’s site:

The Winnipeg Sun editors suggest that the federal government has to shoulder its share of blame for these missing and murdered women. But what does that mean? They likely meant it to suggest that the government needs to “do more”. From a perspective of linking race to lifestyle, however, we can understand how the Indian Act – an explicitly racial instrument – lead to the creation of circumstances under which women like Pamela George were forced to move to the cities and the circumstances they found themselves in once they arrived: few employable job skills and a general hostility that have greeted thousands of urban Aboriginal migrants before her. In Ms. George’s specific case, parts of her First Nations were flooded and farmland opened up for (need I say white) farmers, destabilizing longstanding local economies for the First Nation and forcing many to move off the reserve, into the city – a scenario that, though for different reasons, has been replicated on a national scale.

More broadly, like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples before it, the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented the powerful impact of residential schools on the well-being of multiple generations of Aboriginal “residents” in terms of the violence and degradation committed against them and with it, the loss of self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and, in a story repeated the Indigenous world over, the eventual impact of alcohol and drugs into their communities and, with it, the endemic poverty that has come to be so stereotypically associated with Aboriginal communities.

For the editors of the Winnipeg Sun, however, the impact of the Indian Act on First Nations people – both in terms of loss of land and the attempted destruction of their society – pales in comparison to the real culprit of these missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Corruption on reserves. That’s right – not racism, not intensive resource extraction that has decimated traditional economies and ways of life, and not residential school that has exerted its powerful and negative impacts on these communities. To quote the editorial:

  • Many of these women that have tragically disappeared came from reserves where corruption is rampant. They lived in poverty while woefully inadequate chiefs and band councillors made preposterously huge salaries. Home ownership was never an option for these women, as every piece of land on the reserve is controlled by the band. And there was little incentive to get an education, as far too many chiefs gave jobs based on loyalty, nepotism, and friendship, not skill.
  • The broken communities many of these women came from might improve over a long period of time if these problems were addressed. And if that happened, they might be better equipped to handle living in major urban centres such as Winnipeg.
  • That’s the reality. Some of the answers are in plain sight.
The Winnipeg Sun’s analysis is both bewildering and stupefying. So much so that, upon reading their argument, my jaw actually dropped. So much so that, upon reading their argument, my first thought was that I was/we were being “trolled”. Does anyone actually think that reserve corruption plays a comparable role to a century of the Indian Act,  intensive resource extraction and the racism that, against Aboriginal women, has categorized them as “easy” or “available”? Or that the current corruption in many First Nations (currently largely anecdotally documented) can be understood without reference to these same relations of power that have structured the relationships between First Nations and the federal government?
Unless and until we can get beyond such inexplicably simplistic discussions, we will never be in a position to examine these issues – complexly interconnected – with the attention they deserve. A national inquiry may or may not be the way to go. On the other hand, the Winnipeg Sun’s editorial adds little to this debate and obscures a great deal that we should instead be talking about. 
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No such thing as Aboriginal culture?

As I was procrastinating on Facebook today, I came across an article written titled “Why there ain’t no such a-thing as “Aboriginal culture”, written by Dan David ( In the article, the author criticizes the kind of “plastic” and crassly consumeristic kinds of “Aboriginal culture” promoted at venues like powwows. The problem, he says, is not simply that the Aboriginal culture found at powwow venues overshadows other kinds but rather – and more radically – he argues that there is no such thing as Aboriginal culture. More specifically, he writes “By falling for this one word, we encourage a process that erases our national identities and helps dissolve us all into one big tasteless, meaningless pot of cold mush”. As one example, he laments the fact that “Aboriginal Day” has turned into a holiday, sheared of much of its roots of solidarity and turned into fount of tourist attraction superficiality.

Is this actually (or only) what’s going on, though? On the one hand, the author is correct to say that the Canadian government has attempted to “dissolve us into one big tasteless, meaningless pot of cold much” (also known as “Indians” and to a lesser extent, Metis and Inuit too). On the other hand – as the longstanding national Aboriginal organizations will attest to – “Aboriginal” also serves as a rallying point for the ways in which colonization has impacted our ability to live lives of dignity and happiness. “Aboriginal” isn’t a sell-out term, as David suggests: “A little money and we forgot to stand in unity for our rights, for our existence and uniqueness in this world”. Rather, it has been used as a term of solidarity through which Indigenous peoples, despite our differences, have come to mark our similarities in our resistance to government attempts to eradicate our territories and histories.

David makes a further distinction: between “race” and “culture”.  That is, to the extent that we self-identify as Aboriginal we are reinforcing racial stereotypes while as long as we continue to identify with our nations we are being cultural. He writes further:

  • [s]trangely, disgustingly, I rarely hear anyone talk about their nations or their nationality anymore. They do on the southern side of another great construct called the international border. Down there, they call themselves the “Ojibway Nation of…” someplace, or “the Seminole Nation of…” someplace else.

There are any number of responses to this, not the least of which is “dude, who are you hanging out with?” But perhaps living in western Canada among the Cree, Metis, Dene Nakoda and Blackfoot, I’m spoiled by being around people who think nationally (or “culturally” as he would put it). Despite this, his solution – to exchange ‘Aboriginal’ for other, more ‘authentic’ Aboriginal names – holds some merit. Indeed, last month the Anishinabek Nation reacted to the renaming of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development by stating that ““We are not Aboriginal, we are Anishinabek,” said Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee. “Trying to lump First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples together might save space on the minister’s business card, but it is disrespectful of the truly distinct nature of the communities with whom he needs to establish better relationships” (APTN News, May 18th, 2012).

So, the point here is not that David’s argument is wrong. Rather, it is incomplete. “Aboriginal” doesn’t necessarily mean sell-out or a lack of unity or uniqueness as David suggests. We can – and should – continue to use the term “Aboriginal” with eyes wide open, employing it for what it’s worth. We have done it for 30 years and before that, for another 100. But – and here I agree with David – we should also be speaking in terms of the distinctive Indigenous nations that make use of the term. Not one or the other, but both. That is, we are – or can be – both Aboriginal and Cree (or Haida or Seminole or Comanche, etc.). Identity is never exhausted by a single use of a term and this is as true for ‘Aboriginal’ as it is for many other terms. Moreover, dismissing it as part of a larger culture of “selling out” misses its many uses over the past 30 plus years in advancing our rights and ideals in the courts, the legislature and in popular culture more generally.

And besides, I can think of worse things than what National Aboriginal Day has turned into. In many of Canada’s larger cities, the day has turned into a massive social and cultural happening, with local and national news media and top singers and entertainers that draw in thousands of people, both Aboriginal and non-. And that produces its own forms of solidarity that are not reducible to “fake” versus “real” culture.

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Riel (House) and the Battle of 1812

Recently, the Conservative government announced major cuts to Parks Canada, the government agency primarily responsible for funding various national historic sites in Canada. Among the sites hardest hit by the funding cuts was Riel House, where Riel’s body lay “in state” following his execution in 1885 following the so-called Northwest Uprising (and where his wife later passed away). While the House itself is not being closed completely, an important part of its distinctive historical storytelling – told by the St. Boniface Historical Society – will be cut. This means that only self-guided tours (with information panels, etc.) will now provide context for the Riel House’s material culture and presence.

Like all national historic sites, Riel House sits at the crossroads of a number of different narratives: perhaps the most obvious of these is its links to Louis Riel and his family, but it is also an example of Metis social relations more generally. Alternatively, it can be legitimately presented as part of Manitoba’s early history and, for that matter, of western Canadian history. Like all symbols, then, its meanings are never obvious, never singular and perhaps most importantly, never exhausted by its official renderings.

Many have seen these funding cuts as evidence of the Conservative government’s war on Canadian history. This is certainly part of the story. But there is more going on here than can be explained by simple repression narratives. Indeed, as scholars in numerous disciplines have explained, national historic sites represent important venues for the telling of national histories – and, like all national histories, they are as selective in what they “forget” to tell (and thus marginalize) as what they remember (and thus emphasize). As one of my colleagues perceptively stated in a Facebook conversation we were having last week, it’s too bad Louis Riel didn’t fight in the War of 1812: given the absurd amount of money being spent on its commemoration, who knows what kinds of improvements and upgrades Riel House might have been in store for?

The improbable budget for the War of 1812 provides a different story about the relationship between history and the Canadian nation-state. That is, history is not simply (or only) being expunged. Rather, something more constitutive is going on here, because, as various pundits in the media and in the academy have explained, Harper and his officials are not merely erasing history, they are melding it to specific policy objectives. In this case, this includes casting Canada as a militaristic nation, one with a martial history “we” can be proud of. Pouring money into the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812 demonstrates a constitutive, rather than merely repressive, character of official history. Harper said that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once his government was finished their work – constituting and suturing together official national narratives represents important venues through which this rewriting of Canadian history will take place.

But, to those worried about the reduction of historical narratives at Riel House, take heart: perhaps Parks Canada (or for that matter, the Department of National Defense and Canadian Forces) will find money in their budget to reenact the violence at the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks. Or perhaps, with their permission, historical interpreters will find a budget to pop off a couple of long-range buffalo gun shots at the Sioux in a reenactment of the 1851 Battle of Grand Coteau (a battle at least as “Canadian” as the War of 1812). For that matter, the martial potential of the Red River Rebellion or the Northwest Uprising have barely been scratched. Because the Riel House cuts notwithstanding, if the Conservative government can turn the War of 1812 into a paragon of Canada’s military history, the Metis’s military “relationships” with the Canadian state is a financial windfall just waiting to happen. By my math and according to the Conservatives militaristic rewriting of “Canada’s” history, 2016 ought to be a big year, commemoratively speaking, for the Metis.

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The strange disappearance of mid twentieth century Metis

Have you ever wondered why academics seem to know so much about nineteenth century Metis history and so little about the twentieth century, especially between about the end of WWI and the 1960s? Certainly, academic scholars have written about Metis in the twentieth century. But these seem to end around World War I and pick up again in the 1960s and in any event, are dwarfed by the amount of books, articles and book chapters on nineteenth century Metis people, places and events. Even people who know next to nothing about Metis history seem to know something about our role in the fur trade and the events of 1869-70 and 1885 that led to our political demise, and entirely too many people have an opinion on whether or not Louis was crazy.

No doubt, much of the history on the Metis written in Canada today is fueled by the spate of court cases on Metis harvesting rights that have gone before the Canadian courts in the last decade, which for fairly complicated jurisprudential reasons is more interested in nineteenth century histories than those of the twentieth. Likewise, historians have sought to explore the complicated corporate roots of fur trading companies that helped animate the social and economic conditions that led to initial unions between “First Nations” women and fur traders, an enterprise that favours the eighteenth rather than twentieth century. It is no surprise, then, why so much is written on Metis of the nineteenth century and so little on Metis of the twentieth.

Moreover, I should say here that there is nothing wrong with researching and writing about Metis history of the nineteenth century (or earlier). It not only fills longstanding gaps in what we know about the origins of Metis communities and the Metis people; if we care to look, it contributes greatly to a more complex understanding of Canadian history as well. I have learned much of what I know about the place of Metis in Canada’s colonial creation and growth through such scholarship and my thinking, and the thinking of others, is undoubtedly richer for it.

Nonetheless, there is something violently abstracting (to borrow a term from Derek Sayer) in how many government agencies, many Metis organizations and a depressing number of academic scholars return again and again to nineteenth century events when trying to make sense of the kinds of issues Metis communities and individuals face today. It seems that nearly any text you pick up today that bothers to include Metis history (that is, that lacks the salutary “the issues of Metis, while legitimate, are beyond the scope of this book” disclaimer that echoes through nearly every book written on “Aboriginal” issues in the last three decades) does so by reference to 1885 and/or the unjust hanging of Louis Riel as evidence of Canada’s willingness to use violence against its Indigenous populations when necessary.

A broad silence, coupled with a apparent (if tacit) agreement among historians to “hit the breaks” on the study of Metis history at 1885 and its immediate aftermath, have conspired to create a historical “black hole” of nearly a half century, from about the end of WWI to the beginning of the formal political organizing of the mid 1960s. And, while we have a surprisingly decent historical accounting of Metis politics in the twentieth century, this is the exception instead of the rule. For the most part, we are left explaining late twentieth and early twentieth-first century Métis issues by reference to nineteenth century events and their immediate aftermath, as though the twentieth century – which bore witness to some of the most profound ruptures in social relations ever experienced – never happened.

Stepping away from the orienting power of 1885 opens up a whole new world of Metis history, one that can begin to look at what Maori scholar Brendan Hokowhitu has elsewhere termed the “Indigeneity of immediacy”: how have subsequent modernities – Canada’s and our own – shaped our sense of collective self as we adapted to/became embedded in/resisted the changing economic and cultural “pitch” of Canadian society? What did it mean to be Métis in the various regions and eras of the twentieth century, particularly those of “les trente glorieuses” following WWII? What comprised our everyday experiences? What practices, strategies and material culture shaped “self” and “other” in how we understood ourselves as Métis? How were broader government policies – and “softer” cultural forms (like popular culture) – manifested in the various domains of social life and how did we become invested in and/or resist? To put these issues less academically, the mid-century popularity among Metis men of, for example, white jeans, ducktail hairdos and Elvis Presley cannot be explained in any linear terms by the Northwest Uprising.

These are all questions and experiences that we know very little about. I suspect, however, that further historical analysis of Metis origins or the events of 1885, no matter how detailed, would shed little additional light on them. Moreover, exploring the deep complexity and social embeddedness of these people and places – producing a “thicker” description, to misuse anthropologist Clifford Geerz’s term – vastly complicates the abstract linkages continually drawn between contemporary Metis issues and historical processes. In a very important way, focusing on twentieth century events allows for a more complex discussion of Metis identity, one embedded in the social and material aspects of its time and space, rather than in tired and increasingly treadless narratives about our supposed “hybridity”.

Our twentieth century history is rooted in the happenings of the late nineteenth century but it is by no means limited to it: neither should our historiography be.

So, to all you academics out there: if you or your students have an interest in Metis history, please feel free to stop talking and writing about the Northwest Rebellion as though it explained everything we needed to know about how and why Metis act as we do or the conditions we find ourselves in today. Likewise, please stop teaching or writing about Metis as though all you or your students needed to know about Metis was our links to the fur trade (important as they were). Please remember that origins are just that, and they do not and cannot by themselves ever fully account for Metis identity today, anymore than the War of 1812 can explain Canadian identity (the Conservative government’s recent and somewhat bewildering expenditure on its commemoration notwithstanding). Undertake or encourage your students to undertake an exploration of twentieth century Metis sociality and don’t be shy to embed it in the contexts of time and place.

“But Chris”, you might say, “I don’t even know where I would begin to look for information on twentieth century Metis history”. You’re in luck: among others, the Gabriel Dumont Institute headquartered in Saskatoon, SK has a wealth of information – documents, stories, music, artifacts – ably documenting twentieth century Metis history ( Likewise, some non-academic histories of twentieth century Metis exist in the form of personal memoires and community-written histories (and you can feel free to contact me for a partial bibliography). Or if all else fails, try talking to a Metis who is still living and breathing. You will enjoy it – I guarantee it.

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A primer on how to talk racially without using the word “race”: Canadian “Metis-as-mixed” tropes

OTTAWA, Tuesday, March 27, 2012 – Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples

Senator Sibbeston:  The Metis are a Canadian phenomenon.  Metis are really the result of White people who initially came into the country joining up with the First Nations and creating Metis.  I think it is a great outcome.  You get the best of two races, kind of like a super‑breed.

The Chair:  I think that is a little bit over the top.


In a recent evidence hearing from the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, Senator Sibbeston of the Northwest Territories explained his understanding of Metis identity as a result of White people “joining up with the First Nations” to create a “super-breed”. Though we do not know its tone, the chair replied “I think that is a bit over the top”. As someone who has been writing on the racialization of Metis identity for more than a decade, the immediate question that sprang to mind for me upon reading this was, which part?

The senator’s eventual use of the term race is what most people would justifiably look to as evidence of his of his comment’s “racial” tone. For me, however, his final statement adds nothing to the “raciality” of his explanation and his comments are no more or less racial with its addition: it is instead his conflation of Metis identity with “mixedness” that we can look to for this evidence.

The Chair’s reply that the senator’s comments were “over the top” was likely in reaction to his explicit use of the term “race”, rather his pairing of Metis identity with “mixedness”, as this pairing is hardly abnormal. Indeed, there is probably no more taken-for-granted fact about Metis identity in Canada than that we are “mixed”. Mixed ancestry, post contact origins, even the fact that many of us seem to look more like whites than “Indians”: all of these are taken as deeply revealing signs of what differentiates us from other Indigenous peoples who are, presumably, not of mixed ancestry, not of post-contact origins, and not “white-looking”. I argue additionally that all of these are examples and effects of “race talk”.

This is, however, something quintessentially Canadian about this exchange. Whether or not they know it, Canadians are experts at talking “racially” without using the term. The widespread discomfort with using the term itself is perhaps because it seems too American, and too many Canadians pride themselves on not sharing this vocabulary with the U.S.. Many Canadians seem to think that “thinking racially” must involve use of the actual word.

However, Canadian society has built an entire artifice of words and phrases (and gaps and silences, too) that does the work of “race” without ever explicitly naming it. Most of the now-massive scholarship on race suggests that it has two major dimensions: 1) a socially constructed symbolic dimension; 2) and a material effects dimension. To say that something is symbolic is just a fancy way of saying that it helps us make meaning in our everyday lives, helps us make sense of our social worlds. “Blacks are better athletes”; “Asians are good at math”; “Indians can’t hold their liquor”: in each of these, presumed attachment to a narrowly imagined physical or cultural group (such as “blacks”, “Asians” or “Indians”) is used to make sense of individual behavior. Crucially, such “racialized” groups are not simply different, they are lesser than.

“Race” also has a material dimension in that categorizing individuals and groups racially can powerfully impact their life chances and opportunities (think about the division of wealth in Canada between those categorized as “Indians” and those became “white” and who were able to share in the bounty opened up by the signing of historical treaties). “Race” has the effect of privileging, just as it marginalizes.

Part of the power of “race” in contemporary Canadian society, however, stems from the fact that often, we don’t see it at all. Instead, it has become a kind of “common sense” that often sinks below the level of conscious thoughts and ideas. It often “goes without saying” and is all the more powerful for its ability to do so. It becomes, as many scholars have termed it, “hidden in plain sight”, making it difficult to spot and alleviate.

Thus, we can easily see why, until his final words, Senator Sibbeston’s comments might not immediately be seen as an example of “race talk”. Nonetheless, they are profoundly “racial” insofar as he reduces the deep complexity of Metis identity to biological intermixing. They are “racial” because, as they must, his comments presuppose the “purity” of “Whites” and “First Nations” and in doing so, place the legitimacy of Metis Aboriginality “beneath” those of First Nations and Inuit. As part of this trope, Metis become “a people in between”, “walking between two worlds”, or any number of additional expressions that denigrate our Aboriginality.

Senator Sibbeston might have, following others in the evidentiary hearing, positioned Metis identity in terms of national logics such as collective identification with particular people, places, events, symbols and territories, or peoplehood logics that look for evidence of our formal relationships with other peoples. His failure to do so, even if well intentioned, beggars discussions not only of Metis identity but of all Indigenous identities. And, in quintessentially Canadian style, he did so without ever invoking the term race. That is, he eventually used it, but he didn’t have to; his argument was already so thoroughly saturated with racial logics that his eventual use of the term actually masked the extent to which this was already the case.

Canadians, it seems, are experts at using racial logics without using the term. Largely, though not solely, because they don’t know they are doing it. Racial logics operate most powerfully when they structure particular ways of thinking about the world – whether or not we ever invoke the actual world itself. “Metis-as-mixed” tropes are thus racial tropes because they structure our understandings of Metis identity according to racial logics and anyone who uses them, well intended or not, is reproducing Canada’s colonialism and the symbolic and physical violence that sit at its core.

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Don’t Blame the Pollsters – The Alberta Election by the Numbers

In addition to the fall of several high-profile Progressive Conservative (PC) incumbents, one of the surprising victims of Alberta’s recent election has been the legitimacy of the political polling data. Not only did these polls widely indicate a neck and neck race between the PCs and the Wildrose Party (WP), some even predicted a Wildrose majority. As it turned out, the PCs took more than three times as many seats as the WP (61 to 17), a result that no polls (and few pundits) predicted. Embarrassing to the WPs, certainly. But embarrassing to the pollsters as well?

Perhaps. The National Post ran an article titled “‘We were wrong’: Alberta Election pollsters red-faced as Tories crush Wildrose” and quoted a pollster as stating “we were all wrong…we were all equally wrong”. Wrong, Ian Large of Leger Marketing argued, for two reasons: “strategic” voting on the part of traditionally non-PC voters who voted PC to keep out the WP; and a large number of undecided voters who, the day of the election, decided to vote PC or at least, decided not to vote WP.

There’s a strange contradiction at work in this mea culpa and its explanation, however. On the one hand Mr. Large is acknowledging “he got it wrong” while on the other hand providing a perfectly logical explanation for why events did not turn out as the polling numbers predicted. Fundamentally – assuming the data collecting was technically accurate – one cannot believe in both ideas: that is, if the pollsters were wrong, the outcome of the election cannot be explained by the large contingent of undecided voters. Conversely, if the election was decided based on undecided voters, the pollsters were not wrong.

To better understand the contradiction at work here requires a bit more explanation on polls and statistics more generally. Statistics – in this case, polling data – are only as stable (as “good”) as the social relations they are drawing their data from. Certainly, most of us tend to understand the data collected by polls and then analyzed by statisticians as measuring behaviours and attitudes that are “out there” to be collected. In a memorable analogy, sociologist Bruce Curtis described this as the “mushroom picking theory” – information exists as mushrooms to be picked by data collectors.

Of course, we know this is not true. The kinds of questions we ask, who we ask, how we ask them, when we ask them and how respondents feel at the time of the questioning, all complexly shape the kinds of information we receive and thus, the data that can be analyzed. In this way, statistics can be thought of as a sort of conceptual “fisherman’s net”. The kinds of nets you use powerfully shapes the kinds of fish you catch. Changing the size of the net or where and when you fish changes your catch. Statistics work in an analogous manner but they may only do so when, to mix a metaphor, there are “fish to catch”.

If the predictive value of statistics only work as well as the “firmness” of the social relations they attempt to measure, their inability to predict results in an unstable political climate are not “wrong”: “stable” data cannot be collected in an unstable social context. Polling data does not “produce” social relations (despite the growing body of scholars who have attempted to argue its constitutive power), it is the other way around. As such, unstable social relations will produce unstable data, whether or not we position them as such.

There are many folks who are likely embarrassed by the results of Alberta’s provincial election. The pollsters should not one of them.

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