Offended by Offence

Tweaking the Devil’s Tail: Observations from the 2010 “New Directions” forum

Well, we are all continuing to decompress from the “New Directions in Aboriginal Policy” forum (2010) at Mount Royal University (held a few weeks ago now!).  Contrary to the insinuations that additional security would be needed, everyone acted in a very collegial (although sometimes passionate) manner.  Important lessons were learned about the benefits of public debate.  Censorship and professed “offence” will not help us to understand and address complex and difficult policy problems.  A number of faculty members from Mount Royal University chose to boycott the forum, but many others stated that, while they disagreed with many of the opinions that were expressed, censorship was an unacceptable response in an academic environment.  I even witnessed Gary McHale and Wes Elliott having a long and polite conversation with one another in the Faculty Centre. 

Mount Royal University should be commended for standing up to the intimidation, and allowing such an historic exchange to take place.  Once again, the Provost and Vice-President, Academic, Robin Fisher, the Dean and Associate Dean of Arts (Manuel Mertin and Sabrina Reed), and the Department of Policy Studies (especially the Chair, Bruce Foster) have shown themselves to be leaders in supporting academic freedom and critical inquiry.  The other sponsor of the forum, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, should also be thanked for providing partial funding for the event.

Over the following days, additional materials will be posted on the “New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forums” page on this blog.  I have already posted my opening remarks – “The Kindly Inquisition Influencing Aboriginal Policy Formulation”.  It is hoped that these additional materials will further stimulate debate on aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  I am already starting to think about next year’s forum – to be held in the first two weeks of May 2011 (it is still not clear when the best time is for the event).  It is hoped that with the additional contacts that I am making that next year we can begin to have more of an organized exchange on three questions concerning native economic development, aboriginal governance and “indigenous knowledge”/education/research.  It is also hoped that, on each panel, there will be two speakers directly supporting or opposing a question concerning a particular aspect of aboriginal policy, much like the Intelligence² debates on the BBC.

The keynote speaker, Don Sandberg, gave a very interesting overview of his thoughts on “The State of First Nations in Canada Today”.  In this presentation, Mr. Sandberg focussed on a number of the most significant challenges facing aboriginal peoples, especially in the areas of governance, economic development and education.  I was also interested in Sandberg’s comments about some of the problems concerning “traditional medicine”; in his presentation, Sandberg noted that some people in an aboriginal community were afraid that “bad medicine” was being thrown at them, causing them a great deal of  stress and unhappiness. 

The first panel, “Private Property and Native Economic Development”, featured a spirited exchange between Tom Flanagan (University of Calgary) and Albert Howard (Independent Researcher) about whether private homeownership could improve economic conditions in aboriginal communities (Flanagan stated that he disagreed with practically everything that Howard said, except for Howard’s comments about rentierism).  Albert Howard’s presentation will be posted on this site soon, and it is an encouraging development that Flanagan’s ideas are now being subjected to critical analysis, rather than being dismissed as “offensive”.  Joseph Quesnel also provided an interesting commentary on how the unviability of reserves could be addressed.

The second panel, “Aboriginal Sovereignty, Indigenous Nationalism, and the Rule of Law”, had presentations from Ron Bourgeault (University of Regina), Gary McHale (CANACE), Mark Vandermaas (Caledonia Victims Project), and Wes Elliott (Six Nations of the Grand River Territory).  It was unfortunate that Bourgeault’s work, which is very significant and underutilized in academe, was upstaged by the arguments concerning the Caledonia dispute.  Wes Elliott provided a diagram of his vision for achieving reconciliation in Caldedonia.  McHale and Vandermaas’ presentations contain too much memory to be posted on this site, but they can be accessed on the “Caledonia Victims Project”  website –   There is also a video recording of McHale and Vandermaas’ presentation on this site for those who are interested..

The third panel, “Traditional Cultural Revitalization and Aboriginal Education”, had presentations by Joseph Lane (Independent Researcher) on Australian education policy, Andrew Hodgkins (University of Alberta) on bilingual education in Nunavut, and an exchange between David Newhouse (Trent University) and myself on “indigenous knowledge”.  I will be posting PowerPoint slides and the written comments for my presentation in the next week or so on the “New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forums” page of this website.  It is also hoped that David Newhouse will submit his slides.  In my opinion, the exchange between Dr. Newhouse and myself was the most cordial and intellectual that I have ever seen with respect to this subject.

Although it is a very busy time of year because of the upcoming Congress, I will do my best to post these materials in a timely manner.  I also want to put out a call for presenters for May 2011.  An aboriginal member of the audience made the comment that she felt the panels were “stacked” in favour of the integrationist/assimilationist position.  I informed her that I had tried for months to obtain representation from people who would sit at the same table and challenge the views of Flanagan, Howard, McHale & Vandermaas, and myself, but was told that they did not want to be a part of such an event (fortunately, Wes Elliott called me and stated that he wanted to debate McHale and Vandermaas – an encouraging development).  Funds are limited, but we usually have enough for two or three speakers (depending upon where they live).

4 thoughts on “Tweaking the Devil’s Tail: Observations from the 2010 “New Directions” forum

  1. I also found the conference very spirited and vigorous.
    I had a chance to speak to the one female Aboriginal in the attendance who mentioned “stacking” of the panels. I mentioned to her that in context, there is not a lot of venues to debate aboriginal issues from a dissident perspective. Looking at the CPSA and other forums, the speakers are focused on one direction as well, but the other one.
    This forum attempted to provide a good sample of different sides. I even noted to her the different perspectives on private property, capitalism and traditional knowledge. She acknowledged that was an oversight.
    I hope it continues, especially with the exchange format you mentioned. That would be a great way to generate interest.

  2. Gary McHale and Mark Vandermaas do not represent Caledonia. Neither are elected or appointed spokespersons for the community.

    Regardless of Mark Vandermaas’ argument that Gary McHale received 1800 some votes in the last federal election from Caledonia, Vandermaas neglects to inform the parties present at the conference that the vast majoritiy of people in Caledonia who cast a legal ballot for representation voted for someone other than Gary McHale That is a fact that cannot be argued or denied and the proof can be found in the postings of none other than Gary McHale on his own website.

    I have one question for Dr. Widdowson; Why did you not look to find anyone from Caledonia to parttake in your conference?

    True to form, the truth of matters relating to Caledonia and Six Nations will not be found in the writing and verbal representation provided on May 5, 2010 at Mount Royal.

    This comes as no surprise to me whatsoever.

  3. Wes Elliott came forward and wanted to present a viewpoint in opposition to McHale and Vandermaas. Anyone from Caledonia who wants to put forward an opposing viewpoint is encouraged to do so. However, no person has been willing to put their name behind their convictions. If such a person would want to do so next year, I would be more than happy to accommodate them.

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