Offended by Offence

Let asses bray!

The Ann Coulter episode in Canada has been quite instructive.  Coulter, a right-wing provocateur, was invited to speak at the University of Ottawa.  Some insulting remarks made previously by the media commentator led Francois Houle, the vice-president academic and provost, to send a letter that warned Coulter to use “restraint, respect and consideration” in her speech.  As a result of Coulter’s publicization of the incident, crowds of people – both protesters and people wanting to hear her speak – arrived at the university, which made it necessary to cancel the speech out of concerns that the venue was too small.

Fortunately, the balance of opinion on the matter is highly critical of Francois Houle.  Perhaps we are finally turning the corner in this country, and realizing that “words that wound” do not constitute “violence”.

There are two important matters that should be underlined with respect to Houle’s letter.  The first is the problem with trying to encourage “restraint” and “respect” in public discourse.  These qualities are already constraining speech to the point that honest discussion about sensitive topics is non-existent.  Self-censorship prevails out of fear that one might “offend” some group or other.  As a result, we have a very limited understanding of the causes of a number of problems currently facing us as a species.  More specifically, we need to discuss how certain cultural features (learned behaviour) have negative social implications, but this is inhibited when criticism of culture is equated with “hate”.

Secondly, the Coulter episode raises questions about the problems of “hate speech” laws more generally.  As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, Canada already has laws that prohibit the incitement of crime and violence.  Section 13.1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, however, is an addition to these basic protections, and can be used to clamp down on speech that is controversially truthful.  Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, gives the example of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book by a Harvard historian that alleges the complicity of German civilians in the Holocaust.  The thesis of this book, argues Borovoy, is arguably “likely to expose” German people to contempt.  This has led Borovoy to ask: “To what extent might it then become an offence to tell the truth about the Holocaust? And that’s the thing about these sections. Intent is not a requirement, and truth and reasonable belief in the truth is no defence” (  

There needs to be an acknowledgement that demands for “restraint” and “respect” and prohibitions against “hate speech” are being used by people who want to prevent frank discussion about inconvenient truths that threaten vested interests.  Although most of the commentary provided by Ann Coulter – recommending that an Islamic person take a camel instead of an airplane, for example – is insulting and adds little to intelligent debate, it is impossible to predetermine whether or not this will be the case.  It is much better to allow people like Coulter to speak and then criticize, and even ridicule, the innane comments that might emerge, then judge, before the fact, what speech is socially acceptable.

Frank Elliott: educational malpractice advocate

Today I received an email from the Chair of my department, which forwarded a letter from Frank Elliott, a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta, to him and Hope Knudsen, the President of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.   His letter was protesting my speech at the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association (GETCA) conference on February 26, 2010 (a PDF version of the letter, which includes a 19 page bibliography, is posted on the Aboriginal Policy page as “Letter from Frank Elliott”).  Elliott objects to the fact that I called the graduate students attempting to to censor my speech “disciples” of professor Cora Weber-Pillwax (“this type of personal name-calling indicates a level of discourse which should have no place in academia and particularly not from an individual given a venue to voice personal opinions disguised as fact at an ATA conference”).  He then goes on to shamelessly compare my views with those of Jim Keegstra, the holocaust denier, and seems to think it is appropropriate not to copy me on correspondence about my conduct.  It also should be made clear that my reference to “disciples” was made in an email to Weber-Pillwax, and did not occur at the GETCA conference, which could be inferred from Elliott’s letter (in the email I was referring to Cora Weber-Pillwax’s encouragement of graduate students to demand censorship rather than engage in an evaluation of arguments and evidence, and I didn’t “personally implicate” any particular student in this remark). 

More importantly, Elliott maintains that I was “voic[ing] personal opinions disguised as fact at an ATA conference”.  He offers no substantiation for this assertion.  He argues that “there is an immense amount of sophisticated thinking about Aboriginal education”, but does not show how this is the case.  All he does is refer to an attached bibliography (presumably the one that he compiled for his Ph.D. dissertation), which contains a number of highly questionable sources on “Native science”, including works by Gregory Cajete and Leroy Little Bear (“What’s Einstein got to do with it?”).  These works are not academically rigorous; they have a romantic view of history and constantly assume that spiritual beliefs are a “kind of science”.  Little Bear even argues that aboriginal people before contact had an understanding of the theory of relativity, a modern advancement in physics.  He seems to think that this knowledge was possible to acquire without even having the benefit of a rudimentary numbering system.

To get some understanding of where Elliott is coming from I found one article about his views on the University of Alberta website entitled “Diversity Institute raising awareness of holistic approaches to education” (   The article discusses an event sponsored by the “Diversity Institute”, where sixty educational students at the U of A listened to Francis Whiskeyjack, a Cree Elder, “drum as he sang about mother earth and the Aboriginal love of nature”.  Whiskeyjack evidently “believes in a holistic approach to obtaining values”, which consists of the following insight: “Education is a lifetime journey”.   Whiskeyjack also uses a feather and rattle to “[accentuate] the four elements of nature”, maintains “that in Aboriginal tradition, everything, whether animate or inanimate, has a spirit” and promotes “the power of the circle and of working together”.

This “holistic and personal approach to education” promoted by Whiskeyjack is enthusiastically embraced by Frank Elliott, who was interviewed in the article.  Elliott argues that “if you are going to learn the meaning of something, then you need to understand it subjectively”.   Elliott, according to the article, “encourages students to look at their own belief structures as a way of moving beyond objective understandings”.  In the words of Elliott, “understanding your own belief structure may help you in your teaching. Hopefully you might begin to see the world in another way”.

If we were to accept Elliott’s assertions, and incorporate them into the curriculum, this would constitute an extreme form of educational malpractice.  Should students be encouraged to “[move] beyond objective understandings”?  Is there evidence to support the assertion that “everything…has a spirit”, that there are “four elements of nature”, and that the circle has “power”?  And what if a student decides to challenge these assertions?  Will they be reprimanded as “culturally insensitive” by Elliott?  Promoting these irrational beliefs does not help students at all to acquire the knowledge, skills and disciplines to participate in a wide range of occupations.   Under the auspices of “diversity”, aboriginal students will be kept segregated from the mainstream and forever dependent upon condescending enablers like Frank Elliott.

Islamic Awareness Week

This week at Mount Royal University we have had to endure “Islamic Awareness Week”.  Tables have been set up on Main Street of the primary building on campus so that leaflets and books can be distributed on topics such as “status of Women in Islam”, “Life after Death” and “What does Islam say about terrorism?”.  A talk on “Jesus in Islam” was held today, where a Calgary Imam analyzed the Qur’an and the Bible in an attempt to “disprove” the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God.

After listening to the talk and reading the literature provided, however, it appears that “awareness” is a misnomer.  A better description would be “Islamic Propaganda Week”.  Being somewhat aware of the more pernicious teachings of Islam concerning the treatment of women, homosexuality and apostasy, I raised one of these matters with one of the ardent believers manning the tables.  In response to the question of whether he accepted the Qur’an’s dictate that husbands should beat their wives if they are disobedient, he denied that this command was issued by Mohammed.  Two other men also denied that this was part of the Qur’an.  Then, however, a woman at an adjoining table conceded that a wife-disciplining dictate did exist in the Qur’an, but that the proper word was “slap”, not “beat”. 

For those who are unaware of the frightening content of the Qur’an, the section in question is 4:34.  It appears as follows in the translated copy provided to me by the organizers of “Islamic Awareness Week”:

“Men are in charge of women because Allah has conferred abundantly on one of them over others, and because they spend (to support) from their wealth.  Thus the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands) who guard in (husband’s) absence what Allah has ordered them to guard (their chastity, their husbands [sic] property, etc).  But those (women) whom you fear their rebellion, admonish them (first), and (then) leave them (alone) in the beds, (and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful), then if they obey you, then you do not seek against them a way (excuse to punish).  Surely, Allah is High, Great” (Houston,, 2006, p. 68). 

In two other copies of the Qur’an in my possession the offending comment is translated as “Admonish those women whose surliness you fear, and leave them alone in their beds, and [even] beat them [if necessary]” (brackets in the original, India: Goodword Books, 2000) and “As for those women whose refractoriness you suspect, first admonish them, then have them go to separate beds, and beat them” (Fount Paperbacks, 1988).

Now, if this week was actually about raising “awareness” about the true nature of Islam, wouldn’t this dictate be discussed in the “status of Women in Islam” pamphlet being distributed?  Instead, it is noted that there is an “erroneous perception in the West, that Islam subjugates women folk”.  The pamphlet argues that “Islam…treated [women] on an equal footing with men, and in some cases, as a mother for instance, clearly gave them precedence over men”.  Marriage, according to the pamphlet, is based on “mutual peace, love and compassion” and Dr. Jamal Badawi is quoted as stating that “the mutuality and complementarity of husband and wife does not mean ‘subservience’ by either party to the other”.  It is even noted that Mohammed “helped with household chores”(!). 

In discussions of the treatment of women in Islam, we are constantly fed the line that Islam granted women more rights than they had historically.  But the Qur’an was written in 700 A.D.  We are currently in the 21st Century, and it is taken for granted that women should have rights to property, employment, and non-coerced marriage.  What differentiates Islam from enlightened societies is that, in the latter, women are not expected to be “obedient” to men and it is unacceptable for husbands to beat their wives (no matter how “lightly”).

One of the most shocking aspects of the Qur’an is its intended audience – men.  Women are only referred to in the third person, as objects to be controlled by men.  There is even a chapter entitled “The Woman”, which outlines what men should or should not do to them (including women who are slaves).

The Qur’an has to be promoted on the basis that Mohammed was a “prophet”, because otherwise this primitive morality would never be accepted.  The only evidence for Mohammed being a prophet comes from the Qur’an, which is a circular argument.  To the critical thinker, there are two far more likely possibilities that can explain the Qur’an’s “final revelation” – madness or charlatanism.  No rational person believes someone who claims that God spoke to them.  Why do we take seriously the same delusion when it occurred 1300 years ago?

Sarah (Auger?) comments on the GETCA speech

Below is a message posted by “Sarah” (presumably Sarah Auger) last week on the contemptuously delusional website of Mohawk “warrior” Taiaiake Alfred (  “Sarah” is one of the people responsible for the press release condemning my GETCA speech and advocating censorship in discussions of aboriginal educational policy; she attended the speech as a parent, and is not a graduate student as I had assumed.  I apologize for the error.

It is also interesting to note that the press release that Auger and al. distributed was printed before I gave the speech, not after.  Therefore, “Sarah” (Auger?), Michelle Rost, Cora Weber-Pillwax, etc. had made up their minds without even listening to my arguments.  This is particularly disheartening with respect to the release’s reference to my “racist…views”, when one considers that a person in the audience (I think it was Rost, judging from her picture in the Edmonton Sun) asked me what my definition of racism was and then requested that I link this definition to a comment that I had made in an interview opposing direct monetary transfers to aboriginal individuals (I had stated at the time that these transfers were unlikely to address aboriginal deprivation because “the money gets spent on pickup trucks and, in the worst case scenario, gambling and drugs” and this “doesn’t do anything to address the developmental problems that exist in Aboriginal communities” –

I thanked the person (Rost?) for the question and said that I was glad to have the chance to clarify the matter.  I explained that racism was the ideology that one group should be subordinated to, and oppressed by, another because their racial characteristics are believed to make them “inferior”.  After providing this definition, I pointed out that the answer that I had given in the interview about the monetary transfers being spent on consumer goods applied to all marginalized people, regardless of racial characteristics, and concerned how deprived and uneducated people react to a monetary windfall.  No one is advocating that monetary transfers be given to impoverished people living in, say, Regent Park in Toronto, so as to address low educational levels in this deprived community.  What is required is high quality services – health care, education and housing, not distributing funds directly to individuals.

After giving this answer, I thought that great progress had been made in educating people about the actual nature of racism, and how a critical analysis of cultural features (which are changeable) cannot be considered racist.  All cultures have negative and positive characteristics, and therefore we all need to critically analyze cultural influences so that decisions can be made about what is best for humanity.  Unfortunately, for people like “Sarah” (Auger?), whose mind is made up so as not to be confused by the facts, having such an open and honest debate becomes impossible. 



Sarah Says:
March 1st, 2010 at 7:54 am


I was at that session on invite from the ATA after a group of us at the University of Alberta learned of her appearance the day before. We contacted the ATA and asked for her removal from the program, and asked who had invited her in the first place. We also offered Aboriginal scholars concentrating on Aboriginal education as a replacement. We were refused the first, and denied information about the second. Although, I’ve learned since (on Widdowson’s blog where she’s written about this) that the invite came from the President GETCA, Hope Knudsen. Two of us went to the session as guests to listen firsthand to Widdowson and walked away certainly less than impressed. I think there was some expectation that we would engage Widdowson in some debate, which I think is unfair given the short timeframe we had, and our positioning as audience members rather than panel presenters on equal footing. And this is more about the institutionalized racism that exists within Alberta education that allowed this to occur in the first place than it is about her. I have been listed on her blog as a graduate student, which I’m not. I was there as a parent. I do not want Widdowson’s ideology anywhere near our children either directly or indirectly.

After the session we stood outside and handed out a media release that went out that same morning to different news outlets, the Ministry of Education and the ATA.

This is the text we handed out:

The Alberta Teachers Association is complicit in furthering the racist and assimilationist views of Frances Widdowson by inviting her to speak at the Greater Edmonton Teachers Convention February 26th, 2010 on the topic of Aboriginal education. Widdowsonhas openly denied the existence of Aboriginal histories or knowledge systems relevant to Aboriginal education: “If there was a more realistic assessment of what the historical circumstances of Aboriginal people were actually like, few would be advocating a return to the past…there is no history of literacy, science and mathematics in aboriginal societies, and therefore little expertise exists to improve native educational levels”. The presence of Widdowsonsuggests a strong disregard for Ministerial Order #016/97 which recognizes “the importance of respecting students’ human dignity” and outlines the responsibility of teachers to “establish, with different students, professional relationships that are characterized by mutual respect, trust and harmony”.

The ATA licenses teachers, wields great influence within the ministry of education and post-secondary teacher education, and holds responsibility for teachers’ professional development, defined as “any planned activity that provides teachers with an opportunity for growth in knowledge, skills, and attitudes leading to improved teaching practice and enhanced student learning.” Teachers have a responsibility to ensure the safety and human dignity of students, and the presence of this anti-aboriginal scholar as a guest at one of the largest gatherings of teachers in Canada must be recognized as a threat to the sense of security of every Aboriginal child in Alberta. The ATA represents thousands of teachers and its decision to provide Widdowson a platform to promote her views that traditional Aboriginal knowledge is meaningless to formal schooling constitutes a direct attack on Aboriginal students in this province.

Contact with Indigenous scholars from Alberta and internationally are accessible to the ATA, the University of Alberta and the Ministry of Education, all of whom are implicated in the selection of Widdowson as a GETCA speaker on Aboriginal education for Alberta teachers. As the protectors of our Aboriginal children, Elders and communities, we cannot trust that the ATA would support and promote the safe-guarding of our children now that we have witnessed their support of professional development that denies the existence of Aboriginal knowledge and, essentially, of Aboriginal humanity. In presenting Widdowson as an Aboriginal education specialist, we see that the ATA has chosen to add its weights to the ignorance and oppression of racism that counters the efforts of compassionate and respectful Alberta educators.

New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forum 2010 – Update

Things are beginning to firm up for the New Directions in Aboriginal Policy Forum at Mount Royal University.  The forum is free and open to the public and is intended to stimulate public debate on aboriginal policy.  People with very different perspectives on aboriginal economic development, governance and education have been invited because it is assumed that bringing together opposing viewpoints enables all people to move closer to the truth.  The tentative program and confirmed participants are cut and pasted below.  I am still hoping to find more people who can present arguments supporting aboriginal sovereignty and indigenous “ways of knowing”.



New Directions in Aboriginal Policy, Free Public Forum in the Nickle Theatre, Mount Royal University, May 5, 2010

8:30-9:00, Coffee

9:00-9:30, Opening remarks – The kindly inquisition influencing aboriginal policy development

9:30-11:30, Panel I – Aboriginal sovereignty, indigenous nationalism, and the rule of law

11:30-1:00, Lunch break

1:00-2:45, Panel II – Private property rights, the Indian Act, and economic development

2:45-3:00, Coffee Break

3:00-4:45, Panel III – Indigenous “ways of knowing”, critical thinking and education

5:00-8:00, Reception

Confirmed participants (in alphabetical order)

Ron Bourgeault (University of Regina), Tom Flanagan (University of Calgary), Andrew Hodgkins (University of Alberta), Albert Howard (Independent Researcher, Calgary), Joseph Lane (Independent Researcher, Australia), Gary McHale (CANACE), David Newhouse (Trent University), Joseph Quesnel (Frontier Centre for Public Policy), Don Sandberg (Frontier Centre for Public Policy), Mark Vandermaas (CANACE), Frances Widdowson (Mount Royal University)

“Indigenous scholarship” and Weber-Pillwax

Below is a description of the research of Ghislaine Goudreau, a graduate student who was supervised by Cora Weber-Pillwax.  The article gives readers some idea of the kind of research that is being undertaken under the auspices of “Indigenous scholarship”.  Weber-Pillwax then collaborated with Goudreau in an article published in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Aboriginal Health, which was entitled “Hand Drumming: Health-Promoting Experiences of Aboriginal Women from a Northern Ontario Urban Community”,  (



Gillian Osler, “Aboriginal researcher enhances cultural strength”, January 29, 2007 (

Research shows that through the reintroduction of female hand drumming into an Aboriginal community, women are again finding their voices.

Ghislaine Goudreau, ’06 MSc, originally derived the concept for her thesis, Exploring the Connection between Aboriginal Women’s Hand Drumming and Health Promotion (Mino-Bimaadiziwin), during orientation week for new students at the Centre for Health Promotion Studies (School of Public Health.) Participants were asked to draw how they saw themselves in five years time. Goudreau, who is an urban Aboriginal woman, drew herself holding a drum. She had a vision of what she needed to do for her research, and this involved drumming, a cultural tradition close to her heart.

Prior to the influx of Europeans into North America, it was common for Aboriginal people to engage in drumming. Western research related to Aboriginal communities violated the established ways of knowing, focused on negative issues rather than devising solutions. In the process, important traditions were lost. Using this history as a backdrop, Goudreau decided to contact her Aboriginal community and requested their involvement in a unique research project.

Goudreau designed a study with the collaborative efforts of her community and co-researchers, who are Aboriginal women hand drummers, to investigate the relationship between hand drumming and health promotion. She found that the participatory research approach – where the researcher becomes a facilitator who works collaboratively with research participants – and indigenous methods largely paralleled one another. “I have seen the connection between how Aboriginal people live traditionally and health promotion research methods,” says Goudreau. “Both methods apply the principle of working collectively with the community.” The Master of Science program in health promotion was, for Goudreau, a stepping stone to completing this research and increasing awareness and participation of her community.

Many sacred Aboriginal traditions were incorporated into the research process, including the use of sharing circles instead of focus groups. Customs such as starting meetings with prayer, using smudging ceremonies, presenting tobacco, working with the leadership of the Elders, and having the Creator bless each meeting – which became known as “thesis gatherings” – were used throughout Goudreau’s research. For instance, when she approached the Waabishki Mkwaa hand drumming circle and the women Elders, she presented them with tobacco as a sign of respect. This allowed her to involve them in a research process with a spiritual component. 

Aboriginal culture is an inherent part of Canadian history and so Aboriginal populations are a critical group to include in initiatives. This research is innovative as, to date, most health promotion research has focused on Canada’s mainstream population.

Goudreau’s thesis supervisor, Dr. Cora Weber-Pillwax, commented on the Aboriginal tradition of drumming explaining that, “Amongst many Aboriginal peoples, drumming is an act that is not supported as appropriate for women.” She praised Goudreau saying, “She moved forward in the face of such challenges, and accepted the teachings that took her back to her own ancestors who were women hand drummers. This shows a young Aboriginal woman who stands on the horizon of exceptional Indigenous scholarship and leads by action and example.”

Goudreau grounded her research and project in theory and knowledge that came from both the European and the Anishnaabe traditions. Through her research approach and writing, which was based on her experiences with women’s hand drumming circles, she created an opportunity for healing effects to flow between the Anishnaabe women in the hand drumming circle. Weber-Pillwax goes on to say that, “Their shared stories point to the wonderful healing benefits of the process and activities associated with hand drumming and singing.”

The results of Goudreau’s research have been very encouraging. “Aboriginal people need to know there are lots of gifts in the community. Research focuses mostly on alcohol, drugs, or diabetes in Indigenous societies, and this is largely negative. By focusing on positives in this project, the eyes of the women would light up. They felt as though they had something to offer and it was very good for them to hear that,” says Goudreau. She goes on to say that, “There has been a ripple effect. The women desire to get involved now, and they are finding their voices through singing and the opportunity to speak.”

The impact of her project has been vast. There is a heightened sense of culture and pride for the women who were involved and they have often been asked to be part of local conferences and events. The result has been a sense of being accepted by society and increasing self-confidence. Cultural awareness and social support networks are determinants of health that emerged as two key elements of Goudreau’s research.

In addition, there have been physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of Aboriginal women’s hand drumming demonstrated in this study. The women perceived that their overall health improved as a result of this hand drumming initiative.

The Aboriginal Women’s Hand Drumming (AWHD) Circle of Life framework, which is a modification of the traditional medicine wheel, is an outcome from the thesis work. This framework will aid in studying other traditional Aboriginal activities and will support Aboriginal researchers to continue to gather evidence of their merit.

Goudreau is pleased to have had her research accepted in academic circles. In fact, she is this year’s recipient of the Western Association of Graduate Schools (WAGS) Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award that will be presented in March at WAGS Annual Meeting in Portland Oregon. This is the first time that a University of Alberta student has received a WAGS Award.

Goudreau is proud when other Aboriginal students ask to use her thesis as an example. It gives them some insight into how to conduct research in Aboriginal communities through the use of a very effective example of Indigenous research. There is a resulting sense of confidence in their research.

Goudreau’s research demonstrated that the health promotion concept of capacity building is very viable. When leadership is found within an Aboriginal community, it can help to enable other community members to enhance their research abilities and direct programs that are important to their region and culture. Lessons learned from Goudreau’s work will be helpful when developing other initiatives in both Aboriginal and other populations.

Goudreau entered new territory by successfully implementing a methodology that incorporates Aboriginal traditions. The impact of her work, including increasing cultural pride, is a distinguished example of community based health promotion and creative research.

Is Israel an “apartheid state”?

As March 4-11 is “Israeli Apartheid Week”, it is appropriate to ask the question – can Israel be accurately chracterized as an “apartheid state”?  Various Zionist organizations claim that it is not, but instead of refuting the charge, they argue that such an allegation constitutes “hate speech” and therefore should be censored.  These arguments are now being taken seriously by politicians; a resolution was drafted by the provincial Conservatives in Ontario, which was supported by the Ontario Liberals and the NDP,  that accused supporters of Israeli Apartheid Week of “inciting hatred”.  Conservative MP Tim Uppal is now proposing a motion that, among other things, “explicitly condemns any action in Canada as well as internationally that would equate the State of Israel with the rejected and racist policy of apartheid”.

There are two issues that are of concern.  The first pertains to freedom of speech.  In a democratic society, should people be prevented from criticizing the actions of any state?  Even if these critics are wrong, should they be subject to legal prohibitions aimed at censoring their opinions?  Should being wrong be a crime?

This brings me to the second issue – are those who maintain that Israel is an “apartheid state” wrong?  According to Cheri DiNovo, a NDP MPP in Ontario, for example, the use of the word “apartheid” in the context of Israel is “inappropriate”, but is this actually the case?  The question is an empirical one, and a weighting of evidence, not political posturing, should be the means used to come to a conclusion on this matter.  To do this, one needs to identify the characteristics of apartheid and then determine if Israel meets these criteria.  If the answer to the latter is yes, then Israel is, by definition, an apartheid state. 

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, apartheid is “a policy of racial segregation”.  Na’eem Jeenah, an academic from South Africa, extends this definition somewhat by understanding apartheid “as a system of privileging and advantaging one group of people over others on the basis of race or ethnicity”   (  Jeenah maintains that such a circumstance does exist in Israel, especially with respect to the issues of citizenship and land ownership.   With respect to citizenship, Jeenah points to the Absentee Property Law and the Law of Return.  In the case of land ownership, Jeenah asserts that Palestinian citizens of Israel (non-Jews?) are prohibited from owning or using land that is classified as “national”.

Now, I have not studied the debates on this subject extensively, and so maybe evidence exists that would refute Jeenah’s assertions.  But prohibiting discussion on the question of whether Israel has policies and laws that privilege and advantage a group on the basis of ethnicity gets us nowhere.  Furthermore, asking which countries in the world constitute “apartheid states” is an important academic question, and studying this could shed light on political processes more generally.  The Canadian Israel lobby, and its expedient use of the accusation of anti-Semitism to equate criticism of Israel with racism, needs to be faced head on.  Historical injustices suffered by groups cannot be used as a weapon to prevent people from trying to understand what is happening in the world.

Some comments from Asinimanido (G. Deschamps, B.A., LL.B.)

This comment was posted on my Aboriginal Policy page, but it deserves a wider readership.  I will be contacting Dr. von Gernet, and hope that he will respond.



Professor Widdowson:

I’m an aboriginal lawyer, grad student and a citizen of the Ojibwe Nation. I have read a number of articles condemning you. I do not agree with your various theories, but I think it is very important that your voice be heard. I do not think that you are a racist; however, I believe that you have very little knowledge about Aboriginal cultures, histories or aspirations.

It seems to me that your observations and opinions of aboriginal peoples are overwhelmingly negative. What are you objectives? Do you want to help aboriginal peoples?

Your colleagues Prof. von Gernet and Mr. Flanagan espouse an assimilationist agenda with regard to aboriginal peoples. Speaking of the aboriginal industry, according to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty website, Prof. von Gernet was paid more that $321,000.00 Department of Indian and Northern Affairs between July 10th, 1999 and October 31st 2002. Prof. von Gernet has testified as an expert witness for the Crown no less than eleven times in Native Rights/Land Claims cases. In each instance his testimony has directly contradicted evidence brought by the First Nations band or individuals involved.

Residential schools were part of the assimilationist policy (explicitly and tacitly). Excuse me if I am wrong, but I read that you defended the residential school system. And now you are wondering why you are being attacked and censured! That’s just foolish. Your opinion regarding residential schools is tantamount of the opinions of Ernst Zundel and his ilk. As a child my aunt died in residential school and her body still lies in an overgrown graveyard in Chapleau, Ontario where the school used to be. My family has never been told how she died.

Canada’s aboriginal peoples are sovereign regardless of the view of the Canadian government. As far as the tax dollars of Canadian citizens are concerned, they can keep it. Aboriginal peoples want their fair share of the trillions of dollars of resources that are being extracted from our sovereign territories.


Asinimanido (G. Deschamps, B.A., LL.B.)

Cora Weber-Pillwax, self-serving censor

In today’s Edmonton Sun, there is a column by Andrew Hanon about the continuing controversy concerning the speech that I gave at the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association (GETCA) on February 26, 2010 (  One professor from the University of Alberta, Cora Weber-Pillwax, and Michelle Rost and Sarah Auger (who I believe are two graduate students at the same university), have put out a press release condemning the Alberta Teachers’ Association for allowing me to speak in Edmonton.  These “humanitarian” censors make the libelous claim that I have “racist and assimilationist views”, and therefore am “unfit to speak to school teachers” and a “threat to the sense of security of every aboriginal child in Alberta” (see Press Release – Weber-Pillwax et al. on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog). 

Fortunately, both GETCA and the Alberta Teachers’ Association are standing up to this intimidation.  Patrick Loyer, the Association representative who debated me after the speech, realizes that it is important for teachers to hear critical viewpoints and that aboriginal educational policy should be openly debated and discussed.  Hopefully the integrity and courage of these organizations will enable others to express their critical opinions and we can actually have real debate, as opposed to school yard name-calling, on aboriginal policy in this country.

What also needs to be recognized is the reason behind Weber-Pillwax’s opposition to frank speech about aboriginal education policy.  Weber-Pillwax has a Ph.D. in “First Nations Education” from the University of Alberta, which values the incorporation of indigenous “perspectives and experiences” and “indigenous ontologies and epistemologies” in the educational system.  She also teaches a course entitled  “Indigenous Research Methods” that explores “culturally appropriate research methodologies for Indigenous peoples”. Some of these “methodologies” are “interpretive” and are developed “within the context of Indigenous research ethics, paradigms and strategies…” and “structured in the context of the relationship between formal research and the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples” (  Her views have been published in two articles (“Indigenous Research Methodologies”, Canadian Journal of Native Education, 2001 Vol 25(2) 166-174 and “Principles of Indigenous Research Methodology”, Journal of Educational Thought, January 1999).

Now, while I have not examined the rigour of Weber-Pillwax’s work, her use of the qualifier “indigenous” before “research methods” is indicative that the personal authority of various indigenous “knowledge keepers” will be uncritically accepted. This means that unsubstantiated opinions and spiritual mythology will be accepted as “knowledge” within the education system.  Weber-Pillwax wants to prevent the expression of ideas that would delegitimize her position as a “Specialization Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples Education” at the University of Alberta.  Pretentious arrogance and bullying are the only ways to prevent her dubious teaching philosophy and research agenda from being disrobed.

While many well-meaning people might condescendingly support Weber-Pillwax so as to raise aboriginal “self-esteem”, accepting the notion that there are “indigenous research methods” is very destructive to the educational achievement of native students in Alberta.  The disturbing statistics about aboriginal education are well known; how will these be improved if aboriginal students are not provided with high quality educational services that enable them to become critical thinkers and understand and use rigorous methodologies?  Aboriginal students need highly qualified teachers who will help them to acquire the skills that they need to participate in a wide variety of occupations.  Schooling them in “indigenous research methods” will only act to justify their marginalization from the mainstream and further entrench their dependency on the non-native “helpers” in the Aboriginal Industry.

Speaking frankly about aboriginal education at GETCA

On Friday February 26, I spoke at the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association (GETCA).  I was invited to speak by Hope Knudsen, the President of GETCA, after she heard me interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC radio on June 14, 2009 about Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (the interview is available on the Video/Audio/Interviews page of this blog and the CBC’s website).  In the interview, I argued that funding for aboriginal education was being diverted to non-aboriginal lawyers, consultants, and comprador aboriginal elites, and this money should be spent on hiring specially trained teachers to improve native educational deficiencies.

Ms. Knudsen was honestly responding to the ideas that were being presented, and was unaware that they were controversial.  She was unprepared for the fact that there are a number of people in Canada who do not want critical viewpoints on aboriginal policy development to be expressed, either because of their vested interests or the fact that they are “humanitarian” opponents of free speech – an ideology that is discussed in “the kindly inquisitors” post on this blog.  “Humanitarians” maintain that ideas should not be criticized if this “causes hurt” or “gives offence” (especially if the ideas are being put forward by groups that have been the historical victims of oppression). 

The first I became aware of the opposition to my speech was on the arrogantly irrational website of Taiaiake Alfred, a romantic indigenous “warrior” employed in the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Governance advocacy program.  A posting from “Barry” on February 10, 2010 noted that “unbelievably, Ms. Widdowson is being allowed to speak at an upcoming Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association (GETCA) convention at the end of this month. Upon finding this out today I have contacted one of the Local presidents of the Alberta Teachers’ Association as well as the president of GETCA to find out how this has happened and to inquire if they know who it is they have invited. Ms. W. is not part of a panel (this I would have encouraged) but will, to my understanding, have a captive audience with her as the sole presenter. I am appalled! However, I promise that I will condense many of the arguments presented here and confront her when she appears in Edmonton.  I am expecting she will be as slippery as anything I have heretofore encountered” (

It was no surprise, therefore, when, upon returning from dinner the night before I was scheduled to speak, I found a message on my answering machine inviting me to come for a drink with the conference organizers.  Upon arrival, the organizers informed me that one professor and two graduate students from the University of Alberta had been lobbying to have me excluded from the program.  Fortunately, GETCA was standing firm but they were concerned about the reception that I might receive; I assured them that I was not worried, and hoped that the humanitarian censors from the University of Alberta would attend the session and engage me in a civil debate.  It was then decided that another session, presented by Patrick Loyer, “Addressing Aboriginal Learning Outcomes”, would be cancelled so that he could comment on my speech (presumably so that the convention could meet the demands of people like “Barry”, who were concerned that I would have a “captive audience”).  Loyer’s session was intending to show that “it is becoming increasingly important for all teachers to know about aboriginal history and culture to address curriculum outcomes”.  He was also going to distribute a document entitled Education is Our Buffalo: A Teachers’ Resource for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education in Alberta” (produced by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, and also available on the internet – ).

Although I was pleased that Loyer would be providing comments, because bringing together opposing viewpoints is how we move closer to the truth, his response to my speech “Speaking Frankly About Aboriginal Education” (the transcript/speaking notes is available on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog), was very disappointing.  This was because Loyer appeared not to have read my work and did not provide any evidence for his criticisms, but instead relied upon the biased commentary of people like James Frideres and Peter Kulchyski.  Loyer began with the inane observation that my speech “was only words”, and then went on to make the following points:

1. That I discussed technological development that had occurred in Europe but had not recognized the sophistication of aboriginal technology (when pressed, the example that he came up with was the canoe).

2. My presentation gave the appearance of being reasonable and offering conclusions, but it did not “meet the minimum of research” (the wording of the unsubstantiated argument was very familiar, and was likely plagiarized from a speech given by James Frideres in December 2008  that was subsequently posted on the internet).

3. That I had a “euroecentric” view of science and used methodology that was akin to “logical positivism” (an argument that was not substantiated and appears to have been plagiarized from Sandra Tomsons). 

4. I was guilty of “intellectual dishonesty” (a claim that was not substantiated, and presumably plagiarized from Peter Kulchyski);

5. Aboriginal peoples also had made advancements in science, mathematics and logic; the substantiation for this claim was the example of the Mayan calendar. 

6. That I had dismissed aboriginal oral traditions, which have value because they have been around for a long time.

While these criticisms were superficial and largely unsubstantiated, there was some fruitful dialogue that took place in the question period.  One of the most important outcomes was that I was able to articulate how important science was for all people, and that assertions about “eurocentric science” discouraged non-Europeans from accessing this essential educational tool.  The fact that GETCA stood up to the political pressure and allowed the talk to go forward also was a victory for science and a blow to the “humanitarian” agenda of censoring ideas under the auspices of professed offence.  As Rauch points out, we have to realize that “humanitarianism” is contrary to critical thinking and scientific progress because it fails to understand that “knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it.  We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire.  Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter.  Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously.  As others prod and test and criticize our ideas, we feel angry, hurt, embarassed” (Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors, p. 125).

The kindly inquisitors

I have just had the pleasure of reading Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (  Although the book was published in 1993, all of its arguments continue to have relevance today. 

In the book, Rauch outlines three threats to free thought – what he calls “fundamentalism”, “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism”.  While the threat of fundamentalism – those who are convinced that they know the truth, and therefore do not need to listen to criticisms and opposing points of view – has been extensively documented, the impact of what he calls “egalitarianism” and “humanitarianism” is not well understood. 

According to Rauch, “egalitarianism” appeals to the ideal of fairness and has two principles – one simple and the other radical.  In the case of the former, it is maintained that “all sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect”, while the latter is modified so that it is “the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups [that should] get special consideration” (p. 6).  Egalitarianism essentially denies the validity of the scientific method for improving our understanding of the natural world, and it maintains that oppressed groups, because their views have been historically excluded from the academy, should have their “perspectives” incorporated into the educational system.

Humanitarianism, on the other hand, is a “challenge from compassion”.  It argues that words, as well as physical harm, can be “violent”, and therefore no one should cause offence.  Humanitarianism is the driving force behind the howls of outrage that greet any person who dares to question the assumptions informing gender feminism, multiculturalism and “queer theory”.  One should not criticize the claims of historically oppressed minorities, it is argued, because this would lower their self-esteem, resulting in further marginalization and oppression.

Egalitarianism and humanitarianism are related, in that the eqalitarian idea that all beliefs deserve equal respect cuts the legs out from under the argument that sometimes it is necessary to offend to be able to pursue the truth.  The egalitarian assumption that there is no truth, only “equally valid” truths, justifies the assertion that it must be hatred of “the Other” that drives criticisms of cultural relativism.

It is these two ideas – egalitarianism and humanitarianism – that shape a great deal of public discourse today, including many university courses.  Particularly informative is Rauch’s discussion of the argument, common in various “advocacy studies” programs, that “only-minorities-can-understand” their circumstances.  As Rauch points out, this argument is “denying the very possibility of …science, whose premise is that knowledge is available to everyone and comes through public inquiry and criticism, not from the color of your skin or your ethnic heritage or your social class” (p. 146).  He goes on to point out that it does not make sense to claim that there are racially-based perspectives since “within any racial or ethnic group that you care to define, perspectives are much more different than alike.  Knowing a man’s color or descent tells you nothing whatever about his ‘perspective’; nor does it make him a bit more or less credible as a player in the game of science.  No personal authority is allowed – nor any racial authority”.

With this statement, Rauch is able to clarify how egalitarianism and humanitarianism are undermining science, and to encourage people to “stand firm” on the following principles:

“No one is allowed the right to end any debate, or to claim special control over it or exemption from it.  No one under any circumstances is excempt from criticism of any kind, however unpleasant.

No one will be punished for the beliefs he holds or the opinions he states, because to believe incorrectly is never a crime.

Criticism, however unpleasant, is not violence.  Except in cases where violence or vandalism is threatened or incited, the very notion of ‘words that wound’ or ‘verbal harassment’ is to be repudiated and junked.

Those who claim to be hurt by words must be led to expect nothing as compensation.  Otherwise, once they learn they can get something by claiming to be hurt, they will go into the business of being offended” (pp. 158-9).

More on research ethics and aboriginal peoples

Frances Widdowson, Ph.D., Department of Policy Studies, Mount Royal University, 4825 Mount Royal Gate SW, Calgary, Alberta T3E 6K6, Email:, Telephone: 403-440-6884

February 14, 2010

Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics, 350 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON K1A 1H5

Dear Colleagues,

I am a political scientist who studies aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations, and I would like to comment on the second draft of Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS).  Quite frankly, I find this chapter very disturbing and a threat to the principles of sound academic inquiry.  The threat lies in the Chapter’s attempt to politicize research, resulting in the justification of the suppression of findings that are contrary to the agenda of various aboriginal political organizations.  In fact, Chapter 9 seems to be much more interested in pandering to the political concerns of the aboriginal leadership than in ensuring that research is conducted in an ethical manner.

The politicization of research is apparent in the first paragraph of Chapter 9, when it states that the recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights in the Canadian Constitution “implies an ethical duty for those involved in research to acknowledge and support the desire of Aboriginal Peoples to maintain their collective identities and the continuity of their cultures”.  This statement confuses politics with ethics.  It should be recognized that the Constitution Act, 1982 was the result of a great deal of political gamesmanship (the reference to the “supremacy of God” in this document, for example, was incorporated because a number of evangelical Christians lobbied the government of the time, but this does not mean that researchers should be required to “acknowledge and support the desire” of these groups to assert the existence of “God”). Therefore, it is very dangerous to try to impose this political agenda on researchers.  What if a researcher finds that the maintenance of certain aspects of “collective identities” and “the “continuity of…cultures” are socially destructive? Should they be prevented from documenting this in their research?  Chapter 9 notes that “Aboriginal peoples are particularly concerned that research should enhance their capacity to maintain their cultures, languages and identities as distinct peoples and to facilitate their full participation in and contribution to Canadian society”, but this is a political argument and not the basis for a scientific research agenda.  What if the aboriginal “capacity to maintain their cultures, languages and identities as distinct peoples” conflicts with “their full participation in and contribution to Canadian society”?  Should a researcher avoid coming to this conclusion even if it is warranted by the evidence?

More specifically, there are two areas of the TCPS that are particularly destructive to the acquisition of knowledge about aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  One involves “community control” over research.  The second pertains to assertions that “Indigenous knowledge systems” should be “respected” by researchers.

With respect to “community control” over research, Chapter 9 notes that “while continuing to respect individual autonomy, this Policy acknowledges the role of community in shaping the conduct of research, in particular, research that affects First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples”.  To achieve this end, it is maintained that “collaborative research should be relevant to community needs and priorities and should benefit the participating community as well as extend the boundaries of societal knowledge”.  Research, therefore, “should be relevant and have the potential to produce valued outcomes from the perspective of the community and its members”.

But what if the “role of the community in shaping the conduct of research” conflicts with “respect [for] individual autonomy”?  And what if “community…priorities” are intent on opposing “extend[ing] the boundaries of societal knowledge”?

These statements in Chapter 9 are completely oblivious to the possibility that “community control” over research can be used to oppose the acquisition of knowledge.  This has been seen in two of the examples referred to in Chapter 9 – the “violation of community norms regarding the use of human tissue and remains” and the “dissemination of information that… stigmatized whole communities”.  With respect to the use of “human tissue and remains”, some aboriginal leaders have tried to obstruct the study of ancient skeletons because it was feared that this knowledge would challenge their claims to the land based on original occupancy (the case of Kennewick man, for example). Finding the Long Ago Person Found skeleton even resulted in the remains being cremated in a “spiritual ceremony”, resulting in the destruction of a priceless piece of archaeological data that could have been used indefinitely to increase knowledge about the people living at that time.  The research of Spencer Wells into genetics also has been obstructed because a number of aboriginal leaders did not want their creation myth to be refuted with DNA evidence.  In addition, concerns about “stigmatization” have been used to suppress research on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, AIDS in native communities and reserve corruption.  The muzzling of these research findings under the guise of “community control” has prevented an understanding of the seriousness of these problems and the urgency of the policy response needed.   

These problems about “community control” of research are related to the other major difficulty found in Chapter 9 – the dictate that research findings should be interpreted “in the context of cultural norms and traditional knowledge”.  It is maintained that researchers should “respect…Indigenous knowledge systems by ensuring that distinct world views are represented wherever possible…”, but “indigenous knowledge”  is defined as including “feelings”, “spirit”, “the land as a living entity that reveals the way to living a good life”, and “spirituality expressed in traditional or Christian practices, relationships with ancestors and responsibilities to future generations”.   With this definition, Chapter 9 is confusing knowledge with belief, and is therefore mandating researchers to accept untrue beliefs and opinions as “knowledge”.  This will not have the effect of “extend[ing] the boundaries of societal knowledge”, but the opposite.

Chapter 9 refers to circumstances where there has been a “devaluing of Indigenous knowledge as primitive or superstitious”, but there are numerous examples of “Indigenous knowledge” where such a label would be appropriate.  Throwing beaver fetuses into the water so that they can be “reborn” is just one such instance.  This is a belief that existed before the development of scientific wildlife management practices, and it could, therefore, be characterized as “primitive”.  Also, the definition for “superstition” is the following: “an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome” or a “belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance”. The views of some aboriginal people, like all who believe in the supernatural, can be characterized as such.  Why should researchers be prevented from making such an accurate declaration if the beliefs in question are consistent with this dictionary definition?

The demand that that research findings should be interpreted “in the context of cultural norms and traditional knowledge” is very destructive to the research process and will result in the acceptance of research findings that are not supported with evidence.  This has the capacity to undermine research that is being undertaken in all academic disciplines.  In the case of political science, for example, pressure to accept the viewpoints of certain aboriginal people as “knowledge” is already resulting in the acceptance of incorrect information in our discipline.  One example concerns claims about the “Iroquois Constitution”.  Aboriginal political scientists like Kiera Ladner, for example, maintain that the Iroquois political system influenced the American Constitution, despite the paucity of evidence to support this contention.   Arguing that aboriginal viewpoints must be accepted as “knowledge”, however, is preventing these dubious claims from being subjected to scholarly criticism.

Another example concerns the claim by the aboriginal “oral historian” Stephen Augustine.  According to Augustine, his “reading” of a wampum belt indicated that it was a component of the “Mi’kmaq Constitution”.   An in depth investigation of the matter by the University of Toronto anthropologist Alexander von Gernet, however, found that the belt had nothing to do with the Mi’kmaq, but had actually belonged to a French aboriginal group that gave it to the Pope as a present.  In this case, would the dictate to “respect…Indigenous knowledge systems by ensuring that distinct world views are represented wherever possible…”, mean that researchers would have to put forward Augustine’s highly suspect “interpretation” as a form of “knowledge”?   If so, how would the two “world views” be reconciled in terms of trying to understand the actual nature of the wampum belt or the political traditions of the Mi’kmaq?

Chapter 9 needs to determine its purpose.  Is its goal to appease the political demands of aboriginal organizations or increase knowledge in academic disciplines?  These two objectives are often incompatible with one another.  As has been shown above, mandating aboriginal “community control” over the research process and respect for “Indigenous knowledge” often results in incorrect ideas being incorporated into academic disciplines such as political science.  Not only will this seriously undermine scholarship on aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations; it is also condescending to aboriginal people and prevents them from becoming legitimate actors in the research process and actual contributors to social knowledge.


Frances Widdowson

Howard-Hassmann on Research Ethics and Aboriginal Peoples

Below is a letter from Rhoda Howard-Hassmann to the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics concerning Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement (I have also posted a PDF of this letter on the Ethics page of this blog).   Many very important points are raised in this letter, which will be of interest to all who study aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  I will also be providing my comments shortly to the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) and to the Interagency Advisory Panel (due March 1, 2010), and urge others to do the same.  Interestingly, Graham White, the President-Elect of the CPSA, wrote me on January 22, 2010 asking for feedback on Chapter 9 because he had been asked “to coordinate the Association’s reponse to one aspect of an important, ongoing process relating to the ethics regime for academic research in Canada”.  This request is somewhat surprising since I was intending to present a paper on this “important, ongoing process” at the CPSA’s 2010 Annual Meeting, but the organization decided that my paper did not “fit” within the program, and subsequently relegated it to a “poster” session.   Because of the CPSA’s recognition of the issue’s importance, one would think that it would jump at the chance to have the matter discussed on a panel, as well as having a scholarly paper on the subject posted on its website.



February 5, 2010

Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics, 350 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON K1A 1H5

Dear Colleagues,

I am pleased to have the chance to comment on the second draft of Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. I am copying this letter to the Associate Vice-President, Research, at Wilfrid Laurier University, to the WLU Faculty Association (WLUFA), and to the CAUT.  These are my own comments, and should not be understood as the views of WLU, the WLUFA, or the CAUT.

Since the Panel intends to post comments on this draft on its website, I wish to clarify my own background before presenting my concerns. I am a scholar of international human rights; I have also been teaching comparative genocide studies for twenty-five years. Although I am not a scholar of aboriginal affairs, I believe that a strong and compelling argument can be made that Aboriginal Canadians are victims of cultural genocide. Thus, I believe that attempts to preserve their languages, indigenous religions, traditions, and cultures are very important. At the same time, however, I do not believe aboriginal communities should be essentialized as unchanging and without internal cleavages and disputes. Moreover, as a specialist in human rights I am concerned about academic freedom and freedom of speech as it pertains to research on Aboriginal communities, as it pertains everywhere else.

I am pleased to see that some of the problems I noted in my earlier letter to you of January 19, 2009 have been remedied. Some, however, remain, or new problems have emerged. While I agree with most of the principles set out in this version of Chapter 9, I am still worried about what happens in cases of conflicts of interests between communities and researchers, and conflicts between communities and individuals. I also have some concerns about aboriginal knowledge, and about some potential legal matters.

 Academic Freedom

 The Draft still sidesteps the question of whether a community can absolutely block a research project. There may be occasions when communities and researchers cannot come to an agreement on research. If this happens, does the researcher have the right to continue with her research—perhaps by contacting individual members of the community—or not?  Article 9:10, lines 3678 ff states that a community can engage nominally or not at all in research,  Can the community deny the researcher access? 

 The idea of “partnership” (e.g. line 3363) between scholars and research subjects assumes no conflicts, or conflicts that can be resolved with good will. One would hope that such resolution would be the case, most of the time. But if conflicts can’t be resolved, whose views take precedence if there are disagreements over questions, methods, results, or conclusions? Line 3468-69 notes Aboriginal communities have often not had the chance to correct misinformation or ethnocentric interpretations. While this is true, what onus, if any, is the Panel putting on researchers here to accept such corrections, if offered?  Does the researcher have the right to reject offered corrections? Article 9:17, lines 3870-77 imply that the researcher does have such a right: but the Panel should make it clear that the researcher is entitled to have the last word. Similarly, with regard to Article 9:11:, lines 3704-3705: If there are “mutual responsibilities” in analysis and interpretations, production of reports and dissemination of results, does the researcher enjoy the academic freedom to publish her own analysis and interpretations in event of disagreement? Does she enjoy the academic freedom to disseminate her findings wherever she wishes?

These matters must be clarified: as it stands, this draft waffles about what happens in case of conflict between researchers and aboriginal communities. If researchers do not enjoy the normal rights of academic freedom, then Chapter 9 should begin with an Article that states clearly that researchers on Aboriginal affairs do not enjoy these rights. As I stated in my letter of 2009, if the principles of academic freedom are to apply to all research except research about aboriginal communities, then this should be clearly stated so that researchers on aboriginal matters know they are operating under a different set of rules than they are used to.

 Individuals and Community

 This draft, like the earlier version, still assumes that individual aboriginal Canadians do not have the same rights to autonomy as all other Canadians. The foreword states that First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities, but not individuals from these communities, are invited to respond to the draft. A community is defined (line 3178-79) as “a collectivity with shared identity or interests that has the capacity to act or express itself as a group.” This definition ignores communities within which interests many not be shared, even if identities are.

Throughout, references are made to Aboriginal communities as if all Aboriginal individuals live in such communities. Many do not. How is research on urban aboriginals without ties to any Aboriginal community to be conducted? If, for example, a researcher wishes to conduct research on Aboriginal university graduates living in Toronto, how is she supposed to do so?

The phrase, “while continuing to respect individual autonomy” (l. 3139-40) is not sufficient to protect the autonomy of Aboriginal individuals, an autonomy considered in other parts of the Policy Statement as key to respect for all non-Aboriginal Canadians. The Policy does not yet clarify what a researcher is to do if the interests of the “community” (or those who represent it or purport to do so) do not coincide with the interests of individuals. Indeed, the Policy still does not present guidance on how researchers can by-pass community leaders to access individuals who may wish to participate in research that the community leaders do not wish to see conducted.

I repeat what I said in my letter of 2009: there must be some statement that aboriginal leaders or elders do not have the right to veto research in which individual aboriginals might be interested in participating. The possibility of not engaging with the community in some situations must be allowed; for example, if all the community leaders are members of extended family x, and do not want extended family y’s circumstances to be investigated, the researcher must be permitted to circumvent the community leaders and go directly to family y. Aboriginal leaders do not always serve the collective welfare of the individuals within their communities (l. 3239). Lines 3330-31- state that when the “welfare of relevant communities is not affected…informed consent of individuals is sufficient.” Who decides when the welfare of the community is affected? This statement presumes, once more, that community leaders enjoy the support of all members of the community and make decisions that do not adversely affect any community members. In no other Canadian community is this assumed. 

 The Chapter as a whole glosses over real and potential differences between individual and community interests. Acknowledgement of diversity among and within Aboriginal communities, and the statement that such diversity “increases the important of clarifying mutual expectations and obligations within the community” (line 3338-44) is facile, and does not confront the hard question of whose interests take precedence when there is conflict. The statement in lines 3389-93 that “First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals…enjoy freedom of expression as does any other citizen [and that] “they are free to give informed consent…” is not strong enough.  This statement should be front and centre in this chapter and it should be made clear that potential research participants enjoy this freedom whether or not the welfare of the community is likely to be affected by their decisions and whether or not community leaders agree with their decision.

Similarly, the paragraph starting at line 3510 should be front and centre. It should refer not only to “subgroups” but to individuals, whether vulnerable or not.  It should clarify that research among these people should not be viewed as covert. The Panel should be supporting overt research in communities even when there are intra-community conflicts and especially when there are risks to participants. Canada is a democracy: no citizen should have to fear that her or his rights as an individual will be undermined because of her or his decision to participate in research. This paragraph is written as though Aboriginal communities are not legally obliged to protect their citizens’ individual rights.

The larger question here is whether Aboriginals are citizens of Canada, or only members of their own Aboriginal communities. If they are citizens of Canada, then they have the same right as any other citizen to make up their own mind as to whether to participate in a research project, irrespective of the wishes of community leaders. No other competent Canadian adult is obliged to take into account any opinion but her own before deciding whether to participate in a research project. If collective decision-making is merely a “complement” to individual decisions (l. 3272) in research projects on indigenous peoples outside Canada, then it should be clear throughout this document that within Canada as well, researchers may have direct access to individuals, who may make their own decisions about participation in research regardless of their community’s views. If, however, individual Aboriginals are to be denied the autonomy that all other competent Canadian adults are assumed to enjoy, that should be clearly stated at the outset of the Chapter. 

Indigenous Knowledge

 “Indigenous knowledge” is now defined as “holistic, involving body, mind, feeling and spirit” (lines 3208-09). As far as I can determine, however, this Draft still refers not only to statements of fact that are empirically verifiable according to normal scientific standards, but also to non-verifiable Aboriginal beliefs and myths, as knowledge. There is still no suggestion that this “knowledge” could be inaccurate. Yet academic freedom implies that any researcher can investigate anything an individual or a group claims to be its “knowledge”; we do not, for example, protect non-aboriginal Christians who insist on the empirical accuracy of their Biblical origin myth from academic inquiry into it, even if falsification of such a myth might undermine their Christian identity.  I find it patronizing that this Draft assumes that Aboriginal Canadians—alone among all the peoples of the world—are incapable of withstanding normal academic challenges to what they construe to be knowledge, and incapable of differentiating between verifiable scientific knowledge and unverifiable beliefs or myths.

Moreover, I question the statement (l. 3211-12) that “indigenous peoples value their relationship with the land as a living entity that reveals the way to living a good life.” This may be true of many indigenous (as well as some non-indigenous) individuals, but it is a romanticized view of many others, some of whom live in such situations of severe poverty and social dislocation that their relationship (if any) with the land is unlikely to figure largely in their worldview.  That such poverty and social dislocation is a consequence in large part of past Canadian genocidal and colonial policies does not mean that all indigenous people would, if they could, value their relationship with the land. Aboriginal knowledge is here essentialized as a consequence of an undifferentiated, romantic view of Aboriginal people that does not take account of social reality.

As a minor point, why assume that indigenous Canadians can express their spirituality only through traditional or Christian practices? Does the Panel possess evidence that no spiritual indigenous person practices any other religion?

Legal Matters

Surely the statement that Article 9.1, (a), lines 3300-3302, applies to “lands over which a claim has been asserted but not settled,” is too broad. What about non-Aboriginals living on such land, as in the current concern over land claims in Caledonia, Ontario? Are researchers to be precluded from access to such individuals because the land claim is not settled?  Does the Panel have the authority to pre-judge legal claims in this manner, making authoritative statements about the responsibilities of researchers based on hypothetical outcomes of legal cases? 

Also regarding Article 9; 1, lines 3310-3311. Canada did not vote for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Surely this should be noted, whether one agrees with Canada’s negative vote or not. How can a publicly funded organization refer Canadian researchers to an international document that the Canadian government has not accepted, without noting that fact?

Article 9:18 re intellectual copyright. Has the Tri-Council Panel come up with proper guidelines on this? Individual researchers in fields such as anthropology probably do not have the capacity, even with complete good will, to negotiate appropriate intellectual property guidelines. Do individual REBs now have the responsibility to assist researchers in copyright matters? This is an extremely complex legal field. Legal advice is absolutely necessary to both researcher and the Aboriginal group concerned. Theft of traditional plant knowledge by private corporations, for example, is now common in many indigenous communities. Are there budget lines in the three Councils’ grant applications for the researcher(s) to seek appropriate legal advice? If so, will these budgets cover the costs of consulting with lawyers who may well charge up to $1,000 per hour?

Surely the three councils should be drafting a document with legal guidelines, having consulted with top-flight intellectual property lawyers, separate from the Research Ethics document, on the problem of intellectual copyright?

Smaller questions/concerns

Article 9.1: does this refer only to research on human subjects, or is it meant to apply, e.g. to statistical research about Aboriginal Canadians?

 Article 9.8 line 3555-56. Are Aboriginal cultures predominantly oral in 2010? Surely most Aboriginal Canadians are literate and many if not most of their laws, if not customs, are written down?

Article 9:14. I agree that research projects should support the enhancement of skills, education and training of Aboriginal peoples. However, do the individual granting agencies now have budget categories to make such training possible? Are there budget lines to cover costs such as feasting and gift-giving (lines 3822-28), which in other contexts would be considered illegitimate bribery?

I hope that the Panel will find my comments useful.

Yours sincerely,

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann

Cc. Dr. Paul Maxim, Associate Vice-President, Research, WLU

      Dr. Judy Bates, President, WLUFA

      Dr. Jim Turk, CAUT

With friends like these, Haitians don’t need enemies

On Wednesday February 3, 2010, the CBC surpassed its usual efforts to promote irrationality.  The show in question was aired on the radio program, The Current, hosted that day by both Anna Maria Tremonti and a CBC producer, David Gutnick (  Also featured was an interview with Wade Davis, the unctuous pontificator featured in an earlier post on this blog (Davis was selected by the CBC to present the 2009 Massey Lectures, where he celebrated a wide variety of dubious beliefs as “ancient wisdom”).  Davis has been called upon again for his “expertise” because he is author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness – books that evidently “explore Haitian voodoo, magic and zombies”.

Tremonti, Gutnick, and Davis are all ardent supporters of voodoo, and the only opponent given air time is a silly Christian missionary with her own brand of religious nonsense to spout.  We are told by Tremonti et al. that viewing voodoo as a primitive relic is a “stereotype”.  One of the main practices of voodoo, the horrific spectacle of animal sacrifice, is not mentioned; instead “voodoo priests” are commended for instilling in people “a deep sense of responsibility toward the other”, helping the poor and downtrodden to “live with life and loss”, and providing “a set of ideas that tries to deal with the mystery that death implies”.  It is even pointed out that “there are a lot of people who think Voudou [sic] will actually play a major role in how Haitians rebuild their capital city for the 21st century”.

In addition to voodoo’s purported capacity to “help” people deal with suffering, the role of voodoo priests in “healing the sick” is also mentioned.  This viewpoint, however, fails to examine how the religion enables its practitioners to extract funds in the name of quackery.   Although Jean-Bertrand Aristide warned Haitians in his autobiography  to be “careful to distinguish the voodoo priest from the charlatan who deceives people through sleight of hand, and whose aim is to get rich”, how can a legitimate “voodoo priest” and a charlatan be differentiated from one another?  In the case of AIDS treatment, for example, a “voodoo priest” charges $1,400 to pray to “voodoo spirits for guidance”, administer an emetic, and to dispense vitamins “to promote blood flow”.  This is in contrast to a three-month supply of antibiotics to treat AIDS-related infections, which costs $350.   As the result of a belief in voodoo, ineffective and expensive “cures” are provided in lieu of scientifically valid treatments. 

What is particularly outrageous is the CBC’s promotion of Max Beauvoir, “a friend and mentor” of Davis – a person referred to as the “pope of voodoo”.  Beauvoir, a person educated in scientific methods in the U.S. and France, had no interest in voodoo until his dying voodoo priest grandfather beseeched him to follow in his footsteps.  He now has a grand residence on the outskirts of Haiti where he and his followers “dance around a giant totem to the beat of drums”,  “light bonfires to summon the spirits’, and “drain the blood of animals like that scrawny white goat to, among other things, heal the sick”.  This “voodoo priest” is not universally admired.  On the contrary, Amy Wilentz, in her book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, describes Beauvoir as an opportunist who has “the oily manner of a man whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone with your money or your child”. 

Even more disturbing is the fact that Beauvoir has been linked to the Duvaliers – the brutal dictators that controlled the country for decades while bleeding it dry – and even had to flee to the United States after Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was exiled.  Part of the Duvaliers’ power, in fact, was made possible by the “voodoo priests” that the CBC is legitimizing.  It has been noted, for example, that Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier managed “to persuade and coerce Haiti’s leading voodoo priests to work with him to neutralize his enemies”, which helped him to instill widespread fear in the population.  As Claude Douge, a religious scholar, points out, “once he had the priests in his hand, he had the Haitian people”.

It goes without saying the Haitian people have suffered terribly over the last centuries because of colonialism, imperialism, and other horrendous circumstances that were not of their own making.  Unfortunately, however, many misguided people, such as many journalists working for the CBC, seem to think that supporting voodoo will somehow “empower” the country.  But voodoo is merely a tool of the powerful to keep the Haitian people submissive, and it should be exposed for what it is – a collection of ancient superstitions that are preventing Haitians from understanding the nature of their oppression and fighting against it.  It is disgraceful that smarmy romantics  like Wade Davis are enabling charlatans like Max Beauvoir to increase their wealth and power by exploiting the ignorance and suffering of the Haitian people.

What’s new at Canada’s aboriginal university?

Recently, there have been a number of newspaper articles about the ongoing troubles at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC).  Since its designation as a university in 2003, the educational institution (the title of “university” is somewhat of a misnomer, since its degrees are granted by the University of Regina) has had continual problems with governance.  In 2005, a taskforce was formed after Morley Watson, the chair of the Board of Governors, dismissed several administrators, copied faculty and student records from university computers, and removed staff from their offices.  There were also allegations that academic freedom was being suppressed.  The taskforce recommended that the 29-member board, largely made up of representatives from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) be reduced to 13 people, where only six would be appointed by the FSIN.  This recommendation was intended to ensure that the board remained at arm’s length from the FSIN, so that academic freedom could be protected from political interference (for a further discussion see ( and

These taskforce recommendations, however, were never implemented, and the problems continued to worsen.  The latest episode concerns Murray Westerlund, the Chief Financial Officer, who was fired after he prepared documents in November 2009 alleging financial improprieties.  According to the CBC, “Westerlund raised the alarm about $265,000 in vacation leave paid out as cash to senior staff at FNUC, including $98,000 paid to FNUC president Charles Pratt over four years”.  Westerland also discussed “a $6,500 trip to Las Vegas for three senior staff, approved by Pratt, for a one-day seminar that could have been held in Regina” and $47,000 spent on trips to Montreal and Hawaii. In addition, $2.57 million was spent on a “massive teepee” on the FNUC campus as “a tribute to First nations veterans”.  Westerland maintained that, out of this amount, “$216,000 was paid to veterans and other First Nations people to review plans and ‘monitor progress’” (

The controversy has led Murray Mandryk, a columnist for the Leader-Post, to speculate about the future of FNUC.  He notes that there are only three things that are currently keeping the university open – “the puzzling ability of the taxpaying public — whether motivated by indifference to what goes on in ‘Indian Country’ or by white-guilt fear of being viewed as too colonial — to overlook the FNUniv mess”, lack of decisive action by either the provincial or federal governments, and “reluctance to mess with a conceptually strong and valued institution”.  He argues for the development of a new board structure, but maintains that the reluctance of the FNUC board to do anything about this will likely result in the eventual Canadian governmental intervention (

But what about Mandryk’s assertion that the FNUC is a “conceptually strong and valued institution”?  What are the strong concepts that shaped the university’s formation, and how is it valuable?  Why is it necessary to have a separate university (existing in name only), with a large autonomous bureaucratic structure, when much more academic and administrative integrity could have been maintained if the FNUC had remained a college affiliated with the University of Regina?

The FNUC came into existence for two reasons: 1) it allowed for much larger rents to be extracted from the government and distributed to native elites and members of the Aboriginal Industry; and 2) the new designation enabled a lower standard of university qualifications to be awarded to aboriginal students under the guise of “cultural sensitivity”.  Lower qualifications have the advantage of artificially inflating aboriginal rates of participation in post-secondary education, as well as the promise of increasing employment with unsuspecting employers. 

The dubious academic merit of the institution can be seen in the romantic nonsense it proudly proclaims in its “vision” and “mission” statements, where cultural indoctrination masquerades as education.  It is declared that “We, the First Nations, are children of the Earth, placed here by the Creator to live in harmony with each other, the land, animals and other living beings. All beings are interconnected in the Great Circle of Life”.  Concerning educational processes, the following is noted: “the university is a special place of learning where we recognize the spiritual power of knowledge and where knowledge is respected and promoted. In following the paths given to us by the Creator, the First Nations have a unique vision to contribute to higher education. With the diversity and scope of the First Nations degree programs, the university occupies a unique role in Canadian higher education” (

Even worse is FNUC’s “Department of Science”, which is “guided by a strong and caring team of Aboriginal Elders, faculty, students and community representatives” and offers “Aboriginal content and traditional knowledge in science courses where appropriate” and “spiritual…support services and workshops” ( Dr. Herman Michell, who used to be the previous “Department Head of Science”, is now the Vice-President (Academic).  In his “Message from the Vice-President (Academic)”, Michell informs students that “as you begin a new year of study, be aware that people who work to acquire knowledge about the world, and about themselves, receive spiritual power from the Creator. Each of us has been given a special path to follow by the Creator, and so your academic year encompasses not just course subject matter and assignments, but also opportunities to learn more about yourself in a friendly, constructive atmosphere enriched by First Nations perspectives, values and beliefs” (

While it is bad enough that the religious denominations have control over educational institutions, and thus are able to legitimize their religious propaganda as a “form of education”, the First Nations University of Canada’s mandate is more pernicious because it conflates irrationality with ancestry (race).  Aboriginal peoples are seen as being naturally “spiritual” and teaching scientific viewpoints, such as the theory of evolution, is perceived as offensive because of their capacity to wreak “cultural genocide” upon a people.  Although the cultural indoctrination is justified under the guise that it will raise aboriginal “self-esteem”, it is very destructive because it encourages aboriginal people, as an ancestral group, to forego critical thinking (at least it is accepted that Christians can “lose their faith” and Muslims can become apostates).  This idea of the inherent spirituality of aboriginal people is now even intruding into secular educational institutions, where prayers, smudging, and sweatlodges are offered to the native population so that they can “receive spiritual power from the Creator”.

A true understanding of the academic standards at FNUC will only emerge from a rigorous and disinterested comparison of the curriculum, faculty, and administration with other universities in Canada.  Various “aboriginal” degrees and a focus on spirituality, elders’ “wisdom”, and “indigenous knowledge” will ensure that aboriginal students will not acquire the skills needed to participate in actual occupations; they will only be able to work in Indian Affairs bureaucracies or aboriginal communities.  Unqualified aboriginal participation in the latter is particularly disturbing since it will mean that lower standards of services will be provided to isolated Natives, further entrenching their dependency and marginalization.

The injustice of Victim Impact Statements

There is an interesting story in The Globe and Mail about a sentencing hearing for the killer of Hunter Brown, an elderly man stabbed to death while delivering Christmas cards (Romina Maurino, “Outpouring of grief at killer’s sentencing hearing”, January 19, 2010, p. A7).  The article inadvertently raises questions about the nature of the Canadian justice system when it is noted that six relatives and neighbours gave Victim Impact Statements “to describe the anguish they have suffered since finding the beloved grandfather, described as a warm and gentle man, laying in a pool of blood, undelivered cards at his side”. 

According to the John Howard Society of Alberta, “Canadian legislation concerning Victim Impact Statements was proclaimed in force in October, 1988”.  This legislation, Bill C-41,  “allows victims to describe in writing the harm done to them or the loss suffered as a result of the crime” and also requires the court “to take statements into consideration for the purpose of determining sentence…” (

While this legislation is justified under the guise that it attempts to “meet the needs and interests of crime victims” by allowing them to be involved in the process, the John Howard Society points out that Victim Impact Statements have been opposed by those who “argue that their use makes sentencing an arbitrary process, shifting the focus from the offender to the victim”.  Furthermore, critics argue that their use “creates classes of victims, leading to stiffer sanctions for those who offend against particularly eloquent, loved or upper class victims”.

What if Mr. Brown, for example, had not been a “beloved grandfather” and a “warm and gentle man”?  Would this mean that his murderer should receive a more lenient sentence?   By shifting the focus from the offender to the victim, sentencing becomes inconsistent with two principles that are fundamental to ensuring that there is equality under the law.  These principles, described by Julian Roberts and Carol LaPrairie, are “proportionality”  and “equity” – that “the severity of punishments should be directly proportional to the seriousness of the crimes for which they are imposed” and “a sentence should be similar to sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences committed in similar circumstances”.

It is perfectly reasonable to try to ensure that the victims of crime, such as the friends and family of Mr. Brown, receive whatever support they need to try to deal with the grief that they are experiencing.  Sensitivity to the suffering of others, however, should not be used to justify a two-tiered justice system.  The poor, orphaned and despised deserve the same legal treatment as the rich and popular.   Victims should be able to express their pain as much as is necessary, but public grieving should not subvert the essential goals of a justice system – impartiality and fairness.

The strange world of Women’s Studies

On January 12, 2010, the CBC Radio program, The Current, investigated the topic of “Women’s Studies” in universities today (  It noted that, with these programs, “women created a new field of study… one centred on their own experiences and perspectives”.  There was also a discussion of the fact that Women’s Studies programs are transforming themselves into “Gender Studies” and “Sexuality Studies” because it is becoming difficult to attract sufficient numbers of students to major in these programs.  To investigate this topic, Catherine Porter (a columnist with the Toronto Star)  and Barbara Kay (a columnist with the National Post) were interviewed

Although a number of important criticisms of Women’s Studies were expressed by Barbara Kay, the columnist’s anti-feminist stance inhibited an understanding of the troubles the have been brewing for quite a while in these interdisciplinary programs.  As has been argued in Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge’s Professing Feminism and Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism?, one can be a feminist while still being opposed to the field known as Women’s Studies.  This is because it is currently not a program that focuses on women as a subject (a valid and important topic for academic study) that can be analyzed with a wide range of theoretical perspectives.  Instead, it insists that women must be studied in a particular way, which, as Patai and Koertge have pointed out, results in all sorts of ideological policing. 

The main problem, which was not discussed on The Current, is the insistence of Women’s Studies programs that biology determines knowledge (i.e. “perspectives”).  Women have a special “way of knowing” that is different from how men understand the world.   Those who do not study women in the right “way” are not welcomed into the postmodern sisterhood.  The result is the isolation of the study of women from mainstream disciplines, and an entire body of research that has not been scrutinized by scientific methods accessible to all.

Studying women is very important to the knowledge of humanity as a whole, and it should not be immune from rigorous scholarly evaluation.  To do so makes the entire field subject to wishful thinking, demagoguery and superstition.  Instead of understanding women’s role in history and the social and economic conditions influencing female-male relations, the field is contributing to sexual segregation.  Taking the arguments of Women’s Studies seriously would mean that women cannot participate equally in scientific research and modern occupations because their “way of knowing” would prevent them from collaborating with men for the benefit of all.   This obstructs, rather than facilitates, the achievement of gender equality.

Academic freedom, scholarly debate and the CPSA

Stuart Soroka, the 2010 Programme Committee Chairperson for the CPSA, had a message posted on the Women’s Caucus listserve before it was moderated (see Email from Stuart Soroka – January 4 on the Ethics page of this blog).  In this message, Soroka assured members of the Women’s Caucus that my paper was transferred to a poster session because it “did not easily fit into a panel with other papers from the REIPP [Race, Ethnicity, Indigenous Peoples and Politics] section”.  He goes on to point out that the “the committee approved of the decision (as the committee must approve of all section heads’ decisions for CPSA conferences)” and that “the charge of any unprofessionalism on [Kiera Ladner’s] part is, to be frank, wholly unfounded”.

While “the charge of any unprofessionalism” could very well be without merit (it was merely noted that Ladner “seems to have left herself open to a charge of unprofessionalism”, and this suspicion was based on Ladner’s previous inability to be objective about my work on aboriginal policy), there are a few things that should be mentioned in response to the committee’s decision about my proposal’s lack of “fit” within the REIPP section.  I have been told that the CPSA, in the past, has been concerned about placing me on a panel with other scholars who study aboriginal politics out of fear that my ideas could create a hostile reaction (a circumstance that was realized at the 2008 conference).  The creation of the REIPP section has exacerbated this problem because it has tended to move presentations about aboriginal peoples and aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations out of more traditional academic sections (comparative politics, Canadian politics, etc.), and into a section that is influenced by an “identity politics” orientation.  Therefore, the idea of “fit” could have more to do with trying to avoid conflict than with academic considerations.

Second, it seems odd that the CPSA would not want to have a proposal concerning research ethics and aboriginal peoples, aboriginal epistemology, etc., discussed in a formal panel.  The CPSA devoted a section of its report on research ethics to “Research involving Aboriginal peoples”, and the second draft of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans’ chapter concerning “Research Involving Aboriginal Peoples in Canada” has just been released for scholarly consideration.  Brock et al., in their letter “Racism, chilly climate, our responsibility and the discipline”, even suggested that a “major CPSA *Plenary on Responsibility Difference and the Discipline* might be productive” and “would attract a phenomenal attendance and would generate the kind of constructive professional debate we desire within the CPSA, and would be a mentoring opportunity for graduate students and junior faculty” (the people recommended for the plenary, however, did not come from a wide range of perspectives and were largely supportive of the existence of different “ways of knowing”). 

Past CPSA sessions also have sparked considerable interest in these topics.  The panel that Albert Howard and I participated in with Sandra Tomsons in 2009 was packed and led to a lively, but restrained, discussion.  Kiera Ladner’s proposal last year entitled “Decolonizing the Discipline: Respecting Indigenous Knowledge & Using Indigenist Methodologies” was also accepted.  The abstract for this presentation was as follows:

“Since Columbus was discovered, knowledge of the Americas and the peoples who lived there captured the minds and imaginations of some of Europe’s greatest political philosophers: More, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Spencer, and Engels, to name but a few. Despite the fact that Indians of the Americas have occupied the imaginations of the world since the time of ‘discovery’, Indians have not occupied the imaginations of modern political scientists. Political science has ignored Indigenous political traditions and studied contemporary Indigenous politics only from the vantage point of the western-eurocentric tradition. Simply put, most have been unable to escape their paradigm paralysis to understand the politics of the ‘other’ on its own terms or as separate from the western-eurocentric experience. In so doing, political science has perpetuated a western-eurocentric understanding that virtually denies ‘others’ a voice within the discipline. This paper draws on the theoretical undertaking of my dissertation and updates the uncirculated paper presented at UofA (the abstract of which led to a heated exchange at CPSA). It engages the discipline’s construction of the Indigenous and argues that it is necessary to understand the ‘other’ not from the vantage of the western-eurocentric intellectual tradition as this readily perpetuates misunderstanding but from the vantage of their own intellectual and political traditions. It argues that proceeding as such enables a trustworthy post-colonial/decolonizing understanding of Indigenous politics within political science and that the effect of such a paradigm shift has the potential to be of great benefit to the discipline as a whole not just the study of Indigenous politics”.

A number of assertions put forward by Ladner still need to be analyzed and debated (for some reason, Ladner did not produce a paper fleshing out this abstract).  What are the “Indigenous political traditions” to which Ladner refers?  How do we “understand the politics of the ‘other’ on its own terms”?  And what is a “trustworthy post-colonial/decolonizing understanding of Indigenous politics within political science” and how will this “be of great benefit to the discipline as a whole not just the study of Indigenous politics”?  Once again, we seem to have the contradiction of saying that there should be a “different” understanding that only the identity group can have (i.e. it cannot be evaluated with universally accessible social scientific methods), yet this “understanding” must be accepted by all as a benefit to political science.

Ladner’s proposal was included in a workshop on “‘Race’, Racism and Anti-racism as Political Science: Framing and Re-Framing Relationships”, which also included presentations on “Race, Empowerment and Crisis Management: Black Political Leadership and Hurricane Katrina” and “Beyond Racial Exceptionalism: Explaining the Convergence of Mixed-Race Census Categorizations in Canada, the US and Great Britain”.  Interestingly, the two latter presentations are very dissimilar from Ladner’s and do not really concern epistemological matters.  Ladner’s presentation, in fact, would have “fit” much better with the presentations of Tomsons, Howard and myself, but, for some reason, Ladner was not included on our panel, which largely concerned epistemological questions.  Therefore, “fit” appears to be a very subjective determination of the programme committee.

It should be noted that unscholarly responses to work critical of the prevailing “aboriginal orthodoxy” have been occurring for quite some time, and so it should not really be surprising if this is continuing in my case. Radha Jhappan, for example, stated publicly that “fundamental racism” formed the basis of Tom Flanagan’s book First Nations? Second Thoughts even though no evidence was provided to sustain this accusation. Similar problematic conduct occurred when Flanagan’s book was awarded the Donald Smiley Prize. The chair of the jury, Gurston Dacks, quit when he was outvoted, displaying contempt for a process that he had agreed to participate in (rejecting it only when he lost the vote).  Joyce Green has noted that the political science community was “fractured” because the jury’s decision “implicated us all in rewarding something that many of us felt was deeply wrong” (Marci McDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper”, The Walrus, October 2004,

Green’s comments reflect the deep problems that exist in political science with respect to the study of aboriginal peoples and aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  What is meant by saying that someone’s scholarship is “deeply wrong”?   Shouldn’t political scientists be concerned about the quality of the arguments and the amount of evidence that is being put forward to support them?  Unfortunately, the characterization of Flanagan’s work in moral terms has prevented a comprehensive analysis of his arguments.  Postmodern political scientists feel justified in dismissing Flanagan’s arguments as reprehensible, when engaging with them would help us all to more fully understand aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  One does not have to agree with arguments to critically analyze them; avoiding opposing viewpoints because one dislikes their preconceived implications, however, is anti-intellectual and is harmful to the academic integrity of the discipline of political science.

Mike DeGagné responds

Click here to find out more!The following letter was printed in the National Post today(  I have been invited to respond, and will be doing so shortly.  There was one error in my column (and original blog entry); I assumed that the executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was non-aboriginal, since his ancestry/identity was not stated in his bio.   Determining whether or not someone is “Aboriginal” is becoming increasingly difficult since in certain cases (hiring at Memorial University, for example) one only has to check a box “identifying” as such to be considered an indigenous person.  This means that many people who now identify as “Aboriginal” have little in common with the isolated members of the native population who, because of their marginalization, are the focus of social policy. 



Aboriginal healing group responds

Re: The Aboriginal Healing Boondoggle, Frances Widdowson, Jan. 4.

It is false that “the only ‘evaluation’ of Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) programs has come from the organization itself.” The AHF and the programs it funds have been audited and evaluated by independent third parties in government and the private sector. These evaluations are available for public view on our website in their entirety. Only in this limited sense are they “from” the organization.

More important, Frances Widdowson’s dismissal of healing itself insults survivors of institutional physical and sexual abuses, mocking the front-line workers who dedicate themselves to battling root causes of poverty, violence, suicide and despair in aboriginal communities. It is these 950 front-line workers, hired by the aboriginal community, who Ms. Widdowson is certain are politically selected persons of privilege.

If she had made a two-minute phone call to the AHF, she would not have described the AHF’s executive director as “the most significant non-aboriginal player”). He is aboriginal.

Other points: healers, whether trained in aboriginal traditions or Western academic methods, have the appropriate credentials; AHF research in aboriginal health is more than a collection of press releases; the AHF operates entirely on interest earned from careful investment of the money entrusted to it and has committed more money to community projects than it has received; a focus on residential schools does not prevent, but rather promotes, understanding of why “many aboriginal people who did not attend residential schools are also suffering from the same symptoms.”

It is understandable that Ms. Widdowson denies the efficacy of aboriginal organizations; positive outcomes are inconsistent with the premise of her book. But the facts would reveal that the AHF is exactly what Ms. Widdowson espouses– a funder of high-quality services that are tailored to the special needs of the aboriginal population.

Mike DeGagne, executive director, Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Ottawa.

More censorship from the postmodern sisterhood

Subscribers to the Women’s Caucus listserve received a message yesterday with the following information:  “Due to the volume and content of recent messages on the WC-CPSA list serve, and following consultation with members of the WC, the WC-CPSA is now a moderated list-serve. Its purpose is to share information about job opportunities and future events of interest to WC subscribers”.  It is also noted that Janice Newton is the person who will moderate the listserve (see Email from Jane Arscott on the Ethics page of this blog).

And just when things were starting to get interesting.  I had posted a message (see Widdowson Letter to Women’s Caucus – January 4 on the Ethics page) in response to an email from Jill Vickers, who was warning Janet Ajzenstat about the perils of “casting aspersions on a  colleagues’ [sic] professional  reputation using   this public medium without [key]  information” (see Email from Jill Vickers – January 3).  Then, Rhoda Howard-Hassmann told me she was intending to send a message to the listserve encouraging the Women’s Caucus to support the presentation of my work (see Email from Howard-Hassmann – January 4).  Unfortunately, members were prevented from receiving Howard-Hassmann’s message, which also provided some important criticisms of research ethics restrictions on the study of aboriginal peoples.

Now, I would be a little more open to the idea that the listserve is only supposed to “share information about job opportunities and future events of interest to WC subscribers”, if it had not been used for a month in 2008 to make libelous claims about my conduct.  “Casting aspersions” about my “professional reputation” was certainly not objected to; rather it appeared to be enthusiatically supported.  Janice Newton, the person now appointed to “moderate” the listserve even compiled the anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations that “overt and blatant racism” had been expressed at a CPSA panel – “aspersions” that were then distributed on the listserve and then made public on the Women’s Caucus’ website.

There is one other interesting piece of information in Arscott’s message.  It is noted that the decision to go to a moderated discussion occurred “following consultation with members of the WC”.  But who are the “members of the WC”?  All women in the Canadian Political Science Association?   All women who subscribe to the listserve?  I am a female member of the CPSA who subscribes to the listserve, but I was not consulted.  This means that “members of the WC” are actually a clique masquerading as the voice of women within the CPSA.