Friday, July 31, 2009

Being called an "assimilationist" seems to be one of the worst criticisms levelled by certain First Nation activists. I have been called such by one blogger. I was accused of being a part of the "assimilationist" crowd.
The problem is I do not really understand this criticism. Most First Nation people have become integrated into the Canadian Western mainstream over the last several generations. This does not mean they have forgotten their languages, their history or do not practice some form of indigenous spirituality.
This means they have integrated to some degree into the market economy (they buy things from non-Aboriginal businesses, they do not all engage in traditional subsistence economic activities, like hunting, trapping and fishing). This also means they have adopted some mainstream values as their own. This also in most instances means they do not dress or necessarily act as their ancestors did.
But, this is all a part of the natural, inevitable process of cultural contact. European societies all changed as they encountered different peoples and value streams.
In the words of the post-modernist, let's "deconstruct" or "unpack" this concept of "assimiliation." In the way that indigenous critics use it, it is as term of derision for someone who has adopted European ways. But, as I explained above, this is illogical as ALL indigenous peoples (with the exception of the most remote Inuit or First Nations) have "assimilated" to some degree. This is the case of the pot calling the kettle black. I mean, I always find it funny, that these Native Studies-types criticize others for being "assimilationist" when they are part of a "colonialist," white-initiated university system.
Here is my view: Everyone has a right to retain their culture and be proud of it. I have never told an indigenous person to forget their roots, to abandon their language or even encourage them to move off the reserve.
My only concern is with values. I make no bones about it, I don't accept the notion that all cultural values or practices are equal. Some practices in our modern context are downright despicable. When I call for First Nations to respect a regime of individual rights, that may mean some practices have to go. I believe individual rights must include the right to dissociate yourself from a community. Thinkers like Taiaiake Alfred define freedom for indigenous peoples, but only freedom as connected to one's place within indigenous community (this is how I read his arguments in his good book Wasase). I believe you can accept that, but it is not necessary. There must be space for all First Nations to view themselves as humans first and foremost. I say the same thing for my own French-Canadian heritage. I am a human deserving of certain rights and then a member of a community, which I can associate with or not associate with.
This is why I argue that the rights of the individual need to be fleshed out BEFORE self-government arrangements are figured out. Why? Because I think without that, you exchange one form of oppression for another. You go from being under the subjection of the Indian Act and under oppressive chiefs, to under a self-governing system where you still have oppressive chiefs. You need to figure out the package of rights for all citizens first. I also believe accountability measures need to be figured out now before the great self-government experiment. Ultimately, I think that is best for indigenous communities.
So, I do not accept the label of "assimilationist." I am a human rights advocate over a cultural advocate. Let people practice their culture, language and religion as they see fit, but do not use any of those things as a cover for individual oppression.
'Nuff said.

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