Soft Sovereignties and Strokes of Genius: Situating the Indigenous Humanities within Canada

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Mercredi 6 juillet 2011

Len M. Findlay, University of Saskatchewan

This entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on Indigenizing the academy and Indigenous education.

Canadian Literature is now so well recognized domestically and internationally that both CanLit, and the notion of recognition itself, can be interrogated outside the binary of dismissal and hype:  that is to say, dismissal by the mother country and the ‘proper’ guardians of the mother tongue versus uncritical promotion by cultural nationalists in the former British colony. Such interrogation is being undertaken in many venues and modes, under and beyond the aegis of the TransCanada Institute directed by Smaro Kamboureli at the University of Guelph. For instance, CanLit is being rethought and remade by those who insist on Canadian literatures in the plural, a move instantly productive of a different politics of distinctiveness and difference in much the same way as insisting on Americas in the plural frees inquiry instantly, though not necessarily permanently,  from the neo-imperial frames of America in the singular.

CanLit is also aptly unsettled and resettled by linking  literacy to orality and to cultural forms that access other senses or even the fully embodied and hence racialized, sexualized, and classed  human sensorium, and in so doing contest the presumptions and privileges of CanLit  as the production and consumption of texts written in English by ‘real’ Canadians. Admittedly, one does not want always to be eager and willing to critique the literary as such and its institutions, because the enforcers of the new instrumentality, the new usury, and the pseudo-democratic effects of first-world dumping of its pop cultural products on other worlds, like nothing better than us doing their work for them in acts of self-indenturing and self-destructive labour.

In this context of equity mattering I feel compelled to a certain robustness of critique: and to target my adopted country and academy, not least because that critique offers a key way of resisting and replacing the instrumentality, usury, and dumping which I just mentioned. I engage with the determinants of cultural and scholarly production at a grim moment in Canada’s history, a moment when the Canadian government has taken up the toxic legacy of the United States government in the form of renewed militarism, social conservatism, semiotic thuggery, fiscal and environmental exceptionalism, and selective amnesia such as Harper himself employed at the G8 meetings in Pittsburgh in September 2009 in declaring that “Canada has no history of colonialism.”  In such mixes of arrogance and ignorance our national government now enjoys its majority status by advancing an agenda that bids fair to replace the Ugly American with the Ugly Canadian.

In this short blog I will connect a few components of this disappointing and damaging process to analogues in Indian country, that is, to the capacities of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples to educate white-settler elites and their diasporic accretions into practices that might lend more legitimacy and purpose to Canada’s pretension to be an honest broker on the international stage and a poster democracy at home.

Soft Sovereignties
What do I mean by “sovereignties”? I look to the plural form to insist on Canada as a site of multiple sovereignties rather than a state singularity. The origins of Canada as a French and British colony, followed by imperial dominion status en route to sovereign statehood is rooted, more or less willingly, in recognition of the antecedent and inalienable sovereignty of Canada’s Indigenous peoples as generous hosts  and equal partners in treaty federalism. The legal, political, and socio-cultural realities of treaty federalism can, as John Ralston Saul has recently argued, be seen as shaping Canada as A Fair country; or, treaty federalism can be seen as preventing Canada from  realizing its neocolonial, neoliberal destiny, an interpretation promoted by an assiduously rewhitening cohort who construct ‘our’ Aboriginal peoples as incurably backward or infuriatingly obtuse.

From the perspective of our current federal government, the Scramble for Arctica requires it to admit and commend Canada’s Inuit as guarantors of a national entitlement to land-mass and seabed and the oil and gas beneath them. However, the Inuit are also a nuisance and embarrassment, a scattering of inconveniently resilient, observant, and articulate witnesses to the effects of global climate change. Moreover, ‘our’ Inuit are also contributors to the circumpolar solidarity of Indigenous peoples whose transnationalism from below exposes the arbitrary avarice behind the current map of national borders in the Arctic and the need for, and achievability of, collective environmental stewardship envisioned as a planetary practice.

Either “there goes the Indigenous neighbourhood” or “there goes national sovereignty.”  But softness of this indigenous sort should not be mistaken for weakness. Rather, it is hardness that needs to be exposed as weakness, because Canada’s hard stand on arctic sovereignty is a cover for state capitulation to multi-national oil and gas interests whose fluid scutcheon morphed recently into a mega-Rorschachian blot lethally dispersing in the Gulf of Mexico beyond the reach of even Ed Burtynsky’s incomparably wide lens. Brittania never did rule the waves, and nor does British Petroleum, yet this myth persists in political and commercial empires.

The Inuit are of course only one source of soft sovereignty within Canada as a multi-nations state, though a crucially important source that nourishes cross-cultural solidarity in initiatives like the Art and Cold Cash Collective whose extraordinary work Smaro Kamboureli brought to the TransCanada Three conference in New Brunswick in 2010. Canada has often aligned itself with initiatives such as the banning of land mines (Lloyd Axworthy in particular played a key role in promoting the Ottawa Treaty of late 1997); and Canada has traditionally done so in order to demonstrate that soft power works. And the notion of soft power is clearly part of the national aura to which Queen Elizabeth the Second attested when, in her 1991 speech on Symbols of Nationhood, she declared: “Canada asks no citizens to deny their forebears or forsake their heritage – only that each should accept and value the cultural freedom of others as he enjoys his own. It is a gentle invitation, this call to citizenship, and I urge those who have accepted   Canada’s invitation to participate fully in the building of the Canadian society and to demonstrate the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.” Of course there is much colonial violence as well as paternalistic ‘gentleness’ in this invitation to enter participatory parliamentary democracy, and claims of gentleness accord ill with the experience of state power by non-canonical Canadians.

The language employed by the Commonwealth’s one and only Queen is much preferable to the language employed in Canada’s new Citizenship Guide. I have not time to go into this in detail here, but the Guide is an alarming national rebranding produced with the assistance of academics who really ought to know and demand better, but whose complicity with a neoliberal narrating of the nation helps, as we will see, to explain the rise of the Indigenous humanities. Soft sovereignties, multilateralist, transculturalist, and treaty-based, including those performed by resurgent Aboriginal cultures and their nonviolent long marchers within Canada’s legal, political, and educational institutions, function increasingly as a brown precinct within  a white practice both politically assertive and economically abject, and especially vulnerable to cultural interruption and indictment in work that celebrates “the insubordination of signs” – most notably in work by Aboriginal writers, musicians, curators, and performance artists.

Strokes of Genius
Let me turn now to another of my key terms, namely “strokes.” The multiple implications of this deceptively simple term “strokes” afford opportunities for unsettlement that writers and literary scholars are well positioned to pursue. As my title suggests, I engage particularly with the idea of strokes of genius, an expression associated with important breakthroughs but also with their rarity (and perhaps unpredictability). The dominant national narrative in Canada holds that we have a genius for compromise and hence for diplomacy, a claim supported by the quality and accomplishments of our public service and foreign service, the contributions of our many NGOs, and by our honourable connections to the United Nations. With regard to the latter, we can point proudly to the role played by John Humphrey, a legal scholar from McGill University, in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This accomplishment led fairly directly to Lester B. Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize and the internal and external expectations, within and beyond the British Commonwealth, that Canada operate as a peace-keeping middle power and effective advocate of soft power. Even in Harperland, this is still a vital part of our national imaginary reinforced by educators at all levels and by the media and much of the political class.

But when Ted Moses, Leroy Little Bear, and Sakej Henderson play roles at least as important as Humphrey’s and Pearson’s in drafting and bringing to fruition the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, what do we find in much of Canada?  A deafening silence rather than a celebration of the enrichment of our national and global citizenship and an eager embrace of the fact that Canada remains a “significant player on the world stage” by virtue of the diplomatic skills of its Indigenous peoples and not because of the blustering of the Canadian Falstaff, retired General Rick Hillier, and his realpolitiking admirers inside and outside the academy.  The Harper Government, given the racializing imperatives of its tough-on-crime domestic agenda and its hard-nosed unilateralist foreign policy, at first dismissed the Indigenous Declaration as merely “aspirational” but still posing problems for Canada’s  legal sovereignty, and then modified its refusal to sign the Declaration in ways tokenist at best before doing the right thing for the wrong political reasons.

Canada was for too long an ugly and almost solitary holdout on this matter, contradicted at home by Aboriginal organizations, the Parti Québécois, and the federal opposition parties, on an initiative promising the reconnection of legal recognition to economic redistribution, and to an Aboriginal-led shift from knowledge economies to knowledge ecologies. Unless the Declaration is embraced as a stroke of genius from Canada’s better self, then the Ugly Canadian will become even more brazen and prolific, making a mockery of “the duty to consult” Indigenous peoples before starting the next version of the gold rush on their territory and contributing thereby to the divided and divisive neocolonial, neoliberal flows of poison and prosperity. The recent Declaration was a laboriously accomplished stroke of collective genius on behalf of collective rights and an invaluable rethinking of the human, and those who oppose or trivialize it betray, usually in the names of modernity and knowledge, their own clinging to outmoded and unsustainable privilege and to a deliberate ignorance of the Other essential to the construction and subordination of that Other.

The Indigenous Humanities in the Neocolonial Academy
One of the major features of the current Canadian moment as I have described it, is a governmental need to both disdain academic work and depend on it while directing it into ever narrower channels. At the core of this endeavour is the belief that the so-called logic of the market should drive the decisions of all institutions, including universities and colleges. A rabid neoliberalism mistakes market muscularity for economic rationality while avoiding most of the consequences of casino capitalism and its crony cousin. Consequently, university leaders used the passive and uncritical voice when explaining massive budgetary shortfalls and their academic consequences in face of the “economic meltdown or downturn” or “the need to press the reset button.”

This silence and passivity in high places go largely unnoticed in Canada, as do demands to deregulate tuition and further casualize academic labour in the humanities and fine arts, so that the corporatization of education matches the corporatization of government.  Humanists in particular are faced with careerist temptations to undervalue teaching, to make spurious claims to direct wealth-generation, to resent or feebly mimic the claims and practices of their colleagues in the “hard” sciences, or to be grateful for the crumbs of legitimacy and comfort thrown their way.

The Canadian humanities’ deep complicity with colonialism has now morphed more emphatically into a complicity with, or subjection to, the imperatives of 21st-century capitalism. The situation is far from hopeless. But the audacity of hope associated with Obama must be critically connected to its veracity, as expressed in Kant’s use of the Horatian tag, sapere aude, dare to know. And daring to know means daring to know the limitations of your white enlightenment universals, the provinciality of your Eurocentrism, and the implications of your ignorance of Indigenous languages and knowledge systems. And in order to understand and mitigate your ignorance, you need to learn to listen, and listen to learn from Aboriginal knowledge keepers and seekers.

And hence the development of the Indigenous humanities as an insurgent, explicitly decolonizing formation whose agenda has roots in education, visual culture, the co-operative and social economies, literary and cultural studies, and law. Within our group, the example of Sakej Henderson is especially instructive and inspiring in that, over the past twenty years, while participating in the Indigenous working group at the United Nations, he has both passed and refused to pass by the standards of the Euro-Canadian academy. In so doing he has developed a variety of techniques for Indigenizing the humanities so as to decolonize the university. His is a distinctive hermeneutics relying on a double gesture of compliance and circumvention,  first studying and counter-colonizing such terms as imperium (control of jurisprudence), and dominium (control of lands), concepts from canon law that underwrote Mi’kmaw relations with the Holy See. Henderson then deployed anew or for the first time within the flows and portages of treaty federalism a series of transformative formulae: most notably Aboriginal tenure, sui generis citizenship, First Nations jurisprudence, Indigenous diplomacy, and dialogic governance.

At the same time, Henderson revitalized Indigenous resistance and renaissance via Mi’kmaw and Great Plains legal orders and languages, and by means of postcolonial ghost dancing and ledger drawings, using cultural practices in different media to animate more fully the force of his blackletter legal analysis. In North America, how the west was won was intimately connected to how the west was spun, and Henderson continues to show how resistance entails cultural as well as legal performance while refusing entrapment in either law or culture (or relations between them) as Eurocentrically understood.

Sakej Henderson’s and Marie Battiste’s commitment to protecting Indigenous knowledge and heritage required them to envisage the reconstitution of academic disciplines – and all their relations – via the key hermeneutic notion of the Honour of the Crown, according to which, as Canada’s judiciary has increasingly recognized, the treaties do not support textual finality and interpretative closure but rather ongoing cultural performativity whereby all colonially scripted ambiguities or conflicts must be resolved generously in favour of the Indigenous parties , in a much fuller realization of the promise of the treaties and the Canada they can still make possible.

While the Canadian state resorts to iterative particularism, dividing up issues, territories, and peoples with all the arrogance that capitalism more broadly has brought to the division of labour, the neoliberal university eagerly follows suit, espousing assimilationism in virtually every aspect of its teaching, recruitment, retention, and reward, while publicly avowing precisely the opposite. (The recent treatment of the First Nations University of Canada is particularly revealing as regards the federal and provincial governments’ dispensing of tough love and restructuring that the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation would be proud of, while university presidents across the land maintained a disappointing silence.)  University autonomy may seem like a lesser analogue of political sovereignty, but it is more courtly than critical in face of corporations and their government proxies. Meanwhile, under an increasingly withering Aboriginal gaze, and increasingly effective coalitions of indigenous and non-Indigenous humanists building on traditional and new forms of capacity and accomplishment, federal power has turned into parochialism and resentment, while academic institutions’ desires for global eminence are premised on ongoing ignorance of the knowledge systems of the prior occupants of the land on which our campuses have without exception been built.

State stonewalling of recognition and redress based on Aboriginal and Treaty Rights has required great patience and tenacity on the part of Indigenous humanists in the courtroom and the classroom and many other venues. But endless rehearsal of evidence and arguments, case by case, has had the effect of making aboriginal scholars, creators, and litigators more fluent and compelling while exposing ever more clearly the ignorance and incoherence of many federal policies and practices. The arts of opposition and circumvention are nowhere better understood than in Canada’s Indian country, as is the need for change beyond redress. And just as surely as culture and education were essential to the completion of colonial projects instigated by main force and economic power, so decolonizing is undertaken on all these fronts, with the Indigenous humanities an emergent formation and usable model for those who wish to live in a truly fair country.

Decolonization and the Indigenous humanities
I conclude, then, with a simple listing of five key features of this strategic formation.

First, there is our preference for Indigenous leadership in our research projects, so as to model  the realities and promise  of Indigenous knowledge instead of the persistent construction of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples as damaged and dysfunctional affronts to an otherwise peaceable kingdom.

Second, there is the confidence born of our growing experience in effecting the convergence of distinct decolonizing forces: one force located within the traditional humanities and therefore primarily revisionist and oppositional; the other deriving from Indigenous traditions which refuse the academic servitude of the native informant in favour of plenary scholarly authority and creative agency.

Third, there is collaborative authorship combined with a collectivist politics of citation from the margin, this quasi-nepotistic practice being our way of countering the worst academic excesses of possessive individualism and the cult of celebrity.

Fourth, we regularly guest-teach in each other’s classes and occasionally co-teach, making regular declarations of dependency on each other and on our students as we do so, for, as Ojibway legal scholar John borrows reminds us, we need far fewer declarations of independence and many more declarations of interdependency.

Fifth, and lastly, we practise internationalism from below, building on the modes of production and eventual success of the UN Declaration, invoking powerful covenants of the International Labour Organisation and contributing to the invaluable work of UNESCO, as well as developing relations with other groups across Canada, and in New Zealand and Australia.

This may not sound like rocket science, but then it does not have to, because cognitive justice has a far different trajectory than that of the military-industrial-academic-complex.

Len M. Findlay, FRSC, is a professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan, co-Director of a SSHRC on ‘Animating the Mi’kmaw Humanities’, and a  researcher on the ‘Postcolonial University’ project.


Len, so good to see your astute analysis and prescription here.

Joyce Green
University of Regina

Thank you, Len, ascerbic and adroit as always. Your formulations of strategy are both straight-forward and entirely radical in their simplicity -- if those of us inhabiting academic posts could mix and match these in our daily interactions (or if we could even intertwine any two!), we could start the difficult yet important task of unravelling the cords of colonialism that currently bind our system.
Recently, I've been following the machinations of a process in Vancouver called the Dialogues Project, its intent apparently to bring Aboriginal and new/immigrant communities together to create some form of understanding. On the surface, and, I have no doubt, within the particular working groups, this is doing that task admirably, but it also reminds me of how those of us engaged in serious anti-racist activism in past decades were so mindfully wary of the term 'dialogue.' On whose terms was this writ, we would ask, and to what ends (and whose gains)? Dialogue seemed to be the desired start point for those who exercised considerable privilege, not totally unlike oppressive regimes proffering apology and then demanding said apology be duly accepted (sounds familiar, i know). Don't get me wrong: I'm not against dialogue, unless you think of how any of us must necessarily be 'against,' as in pressed-up-beside-and-forced-to-look-at-critically any 'thing' that is placed forward as either a panacea or an instant step in the right direction. Rather, I want to take that aforementioned criticality _into_ the dialogues or apologies or otherwise positively-constructed actions and ask the difficult questions that can only come from, well, from the featured strategic formations you mention in your conclusion. It's a difficult path to follow, certainly not the one of least resistance, but to change our worlds, it's a must-follow path. Thanks for the words, the analysis, and the commitment.

Thank you. This is the best thing I have read in a while that cuts through to the fundamentals of academic decolonization: its a project that is firmly rooted in a context that is not elsewhere but pervades and intertwines with the individual and collective elsewhere.