Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language1
But these fine words with which we fumigate and becloud unpleasant facts are not the language in which we speak. – George Eliot 2
The adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause. When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices. – Christopher Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning3
Since there was, in essence, one language, the Serbs, Muslims and Croats each began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness. – Christopher Hedges
One of the things I’ve come to understand is that the central functional axiom of Western civilization is that language is the process that keeps chaos and order in balance, and that when language is corrupted we careen into chaos or pathological disorder.- University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson 4
Words such as “Indian” and “band” have come to seem vaguely derogatory, even though they are embedded in the constitution and legislation; and so Canadians, wishing to be polite, say “First Nations” instead. – Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts5
THIS IS INDIAN LAND – Painted on the side of the Huron Central train bridge crossing the Garden River in Ontario’s Garden River First Nation 6
In this essay, I will not be using the common terminology foisted on Canadians when reading or hearing about this topic and which they themselves may feel forced to use when speaking about it.
The reader may have already uncomfortably noted that I have been repeatedly using the word “Indian.” This is deliberate.
Indian is the most legally accurate word to use and it is bluntly and uncomfortably to the point. Indian is the precise, legal and denotative term for what is in fact a purely race-based legal category of persons in Canada. It’s in the title of the Indian Act and used throughout that statute. It’s in the constitution of our country, referring to that class of aboriginals who inhabit southern Canada.7 It’s used by our courts in their many decisions emanating out of this burgeoning area of law.
Indeed, in a very recent and important Court decision, Keewatin, (discussed below), the court extensively discussed what it clearly regarded as the important and worthy concept of Indianness. In another recent case, Montour,8 the Ontario Court of Appeal discussed the legal concept of the core of Indianness.
To me, it’s offensive and counter-intuitive to our basic, civic values that we should still have and want to permanently keep any category of Canadians defined solely on the basis of their race, and who would possess a whole series of special legal rights and entitlements based solely on the mere fact of their race- the mere accident of their birth. To me, Canada’s ultimate goal in this regard should be for us all to have no need or desire to have the word “Indian” in our constitution, in any of our statutes or to be a meaningful legal term generally.
Canadian history at least provides us with an explanation and a reasonable “excuse” for the original legal separation of Indians from non-Indians. But now there is no such excuse for our courts, our governments, and our governing classes generally, to further entrench and expand this inherently illiberal and segregationist situation. But even though they have the best of intentions, that’s what they’re doing.
Therefore, in order that the essentially segregationist and benignly racist nature of this situation be brought to the fore and kept there, in order to continually highlight how this situation runs counter to our modern Canadian, liberal, humanist hard-wiring, and in order that the wrong and discomfiting nature of what is happening be not just read, but felt, I will usually use, (but not exclusively), as if it were a verbal hairshirt, that precise, legal, racial term- Indian.
If the reader feels uncomfortable seeing and reading the word everywhere because it “sounds racist,” then good! That’s the point! In today’s Canadian context it is inherently racist! And as such it’s inherently wrong that it’s in our constitution, statutes and court decisions in the way it is.
For the same reason- clarity of unpleasant thought- I will be trying to avoid as much as possible the use of those other sanitized, progressive-sounding terms now being used to denote Indians: terms such as: “natives,” “elders,” “urban elder” (see below), “Aboriginals”, “indigenous” Canadians, “Survivor”, complete with the overblown capital “S”, in relation to anyone who attended an Indian residential school, regardless of his or her experience there, (see Setting Indians Free From Their Past, below), and “First Nations”; the last a complete recent fabrication, nowhere to be found in the historical record or in the wording of any of the original treaties.
These are soft, vague, relatively modern, very emotive terms, too often politically inspired and biased, connotative of pre-fall Edenic perfection, and poorly supported in law or history. They’re favoured and used by governments, by the media and academia, and by the “Indian industry” (see below) generally, all of whom use the word “Indian” only when, usually for legal or technical reasons, they absolutely have to, and they all have the deliberate effect of masking the fundamentally (albeit unintentional and benign) racist, segregationist nature of the current situation.
They also have the Orwellian effect, as most mandated politically-correct terminology does, of clouding clear thought, of preventing people from seeing and discussing the situation in a different way, of discouraging legitimate disagreement, and of dictating terms of reference, thus tending to pre-ordain debate and discussion outcomes, and thusly, overall, constraining and debasing free speech and public discourse on this issue.
So I will speak in my own way.
I have already used the term “Indian industry” and I will be using it frequently throughout this essay (with apologies to George Orwell). I intend this term to include all those Canadians, Indian and non-Indian, who have an economic, political or otherwise close and direct personal stake in the maintenance and perpetuation of what I consider to be the hopelessly negative status quo in this area of Canadian life. I don’t mean to use the term in the sarcastic or dismissive sense. I intend it to be a neutral, basically descriptive term.
Others are not so charitable. British Columbia aboriginal writer/lawyer/businessman Calvin Helin, the son of a Tsimshian Nation chief, in his book Dances with Dependency, Out of Poverty Through Self-Reliance, 9has a harsher view of what he also calls the “Indian Industry.” He writes:
If lasting solutions are to be found (to eliminate the “dependency mindset” forged by welfare economics) the real Aboriginal social and political problems must be discussed openly and frankly…Aboriginal citizens must squarely face the Industry of Non-Aboriginal Hucksters and “consultants”, and those Aboriginal politicians who are openly profiting from this sea of despair and poverty. In spite of what they say, this “Indian Industry” has no real interest in changing a system from which they are profiting.
I acknowledge that, for me, “Indian industry” is one of those terms that is an over-generalization of something extremely complex and multi-faceted. But generalizing, coming up with “short-form” terms for complex things, seems often (as here, for this woeful writer) to be the only way to encapsulate some essence and to economically get on with the story– the only way to not bore or frustrate the reader (more than otherwise) with an unduly long and pedantic exception and qualification-laden narrative. Some precision, alas, must be sacrificed to flow. So, in this regard, I beg for some slack from the reader- some indulgence, understanding and perhaps gratitude.
On the other hand:
If you really care about a serious subject or a deep subject, you may have to be prepared to be boring about it. 10
My argument, lacking the “rhetorical energy and polemical brio” of the grievance, guilt and social injustice-infused lamentations and accusations of the proponents of the status quo:
…can be put only slowly and with empirical caution. The tortoise is not merely a slow runner, but an ugly one. (Still, he did win the race.-author) 11
Members of the Indian industry include, but are not limited to, Indian band elites, (chiefs, band councillors and band employees), the new Indian “development corporations” springing up everywhere to take advantage of the new “consult and accommodate” legal windfall recently granted to Indians by our Supreme Court, (see The Haida Nation Case, below), Indian federations, alliances, assemblies, associations and other such Canadian taxpayer-funded, Indian advocacy and lobbying organizations.
Also included are politicians, our civil service elites, the so-far quiescent and incurious media, the faculties of “native studies” at our colleges and universities, academia generally, and finally, members of our non-Indian business and professional classes who act as consultants, advisors and contractors to Indian bands and organizations and who provide them with the modern technocratic assistance necessary to maintain and expand this negative situation. The involvement of this disproportionately huge non-Indian segment of the Indian industry is crucial to the realization of any type or degree of “self-government,” the Holy Grail of Indian elites.
(But as author Tom Flanagan asks in First Nations? Second Thoughts:
Is aboriginal government really self-government when, even though the elected officials are band members, the technostructure of administrators, accountants, and other professionals consist largely of non-aboriginals?)
The people who comprise the Indian industry are good people, many of whom feel strongly, even passionately, about the social and moral utility of whatever part it is that they are playing in it and about their contribution to what they regard as the struggle to improve the situation of Indians in Canada.
On the other hand however, it can’t be overlooked that a strong motive for the involvement of many people in the Indian industry, as much as anything else, is the universal, simple, basic need to maintain their businesses and keep their jobs, to make money, to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads and to otherwise just keep going on successfully with their work lives. That’s grimly understandable and basically reflects the world we live in.
But in the debate I’m trying, with this essay, to get started, this sometimes enormous self-interest and the resulting fear of change and loss that so often accompanies it, can affect their judgment and open-mindedness. It can create a noise in their heads that prevents them from hearing or acting on the voices of their better angels. Thus this self-interest factor should always be openly acknowledged and factored in.
What has happened over the past thirty years or so with respect to the situation of Indians in Canada has been the result of an essentially private conversation amongst our courts, governments, governing classes, Indian elites and the Indian industry generally.
Ordinary Canadians, individual and corporate, have been excluded from it, even though most affected by it. We have not been trusted to be brought into it. This needs to end. We need to demand to be meaningfully included in this conversation. The parameters of the conversation itself need to be liberated and expanded. Ordinary Canadians need to be, to use the phrase of the era, consulted and accommodated.
The stakes are high for all Canadians, especially for the vast majority of ordinary, powerless Canadian Indians who are suffering so badly under the present segregationist, elites-driven system.
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language: An Essay. New York: Typophiles, 1947.
- Daniel Deronda
- Christopher Hedges. War is a Force That Gives us Meaning. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
- Christie Blatchford, Need your own pronoun? Well, no. National Post, October 22, 2016
- Tom Flanagan. First Nations? Second Thoughts. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.
- Photo from Canadian Geographic, Jan/Feb 2014.
Indians don’t want non-Indians to call them “Indians”, for the reasons stated herein, and they have non-Indians conditioned well in that regard. But for their own select purposes, sometimes involving aggressive political posturing, such as in the Garden River photo, they often use the term. And in those situations the message seems to be: this is our separate, race-based piece of Canada, so if you’re not of our race, you might not be welcome!– It produces a most uneasy, unpleasant feeling- a feeling opposite to any kind of sense of reconciliation. (See well below) And it reinforces the negative impression that Indian reserves are a kind of “poor man’s gated community” (See Indian Reserves- Canada’s Gated Communities, below)
- The other two legally defined types of aboriginals in the constitution are “Inuit” and “Metis”.
- Montour v. City of Brantford, 2013 ONCA 560
- (Ravencrest Publishing, Woodland Hills, California, 2008)
- Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books, 2005
- Adam Gopnik The Illiberal Imagination, above