Book Review: Indigenous Writes

In 2013, the Thompson Citizen shut down its Facebook page to deny a platform for, in the words of editor John Barker, “anti-aboriginal racists and haters (to) spew their evil.” Similarly, in late November 2015, the CBC suspended all comments for articles and features related to indigenous issues, citing the frequency of “hateful, vitriolic (and) ignorant” comments. (For its part, the Winnipeg Free Press restricts commenting privileges to subscribers only).

In the face of this public bigotry and ignorance, Chelsea Vowel wants to help shape our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians by engaging us in a badly needed, non-confrontational and — most of all — respectful conversation.

 

In her meticulously organized and highly accessible new book Indigenous Writes, Vowel, a Cree-speaking Métis writer and educator based in Montreal, both addresses and demolishes the many myths, misconceptions and stereotypes that have for so long poisoned public discourse and done endless harm to indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Writes is the latest release in Portage & Main Press’ Debwe series edited by the University of Manitoba’s Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair. While her title is a play on words which can be read several ways, it powerfully underscores Vowel’s agency as an indigenous author, which is consistent with Debwe’s mandate.

Over 31 brief chapters, Vowel maintains a personal and frequently humorous tone as she engages directly with non-indigenous readers (such as this reviewer) — or, more accurately, those “who form the European-descended socio-political majority,” with the recognition that the descendants of African slaves cannot be seen as “settlers.”

Such concern over naming might seem pedantic, but it is this care in establishing the basis for the conversation at hand that characterizes her thoughtful approach in responding to the misunderstandings over which our nations-to-nation relationships have foundered.

Many of these, she is quick to point out, are not entirely our fault: Canada’s history of colonization and assimilation through unequal treaty-making, unjust legislation, obfuscation and racialized oppression is bewilderingly (and in her view, deliberately) confusing. Much as she does on her outstanding blog, âpihtawikosisân, issues such as status and non-status Indians, “blood quantum,” the treaties, indigenous identity, cultural appropriation, rights and legal decisions on aboriginal titles are explained and clarified, often by contextualizing these within the legal foundations and rights enjoyed by non-indigenous Canadians.

More importantly, a host of pernicious myths are assiduously debunked, chief among them that aboriginal people pay no taxes. As she makes abundantly clear, the Indian Act tax exemption for on-reserve income and property is enjoyed by a mere 192,000 people, or 0.5 per cent of the population — hardly an undue burden on non-indigenous taxpayers who have, needless to say, benefited beyond all conventional financial measures from access to indigenous lands.

Significantly, she counters not just the common bread-and-butter arguments of misinformed anonymous commenters, but the writings of well-known Canadian media personalities such as Conrad Black, the Province’s Gordon Clark and public intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul.

Fortunately, Vowel is able to call on her law degree to provide easily understood explanations and contexts for the general reader, supported by extensive lists of recommended reading.

Yet it is all accomplished with such disarming informality and even nerdiness (she is a fan of Canadian science-fiction author Rob Sawyer and the Civilization video games) that the book is unabashedly engaging. In a brilliantly satiric turn, she even adopts the rhetoric of the online trolls themselves to demonstrate the colonial vapidity of the arguments so often made against inherent indigenous rights.

While subtitled A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada, it would be a mistake to see Indigenous Writes as a book primarily about indigenous people. Instead, it is much more about all of us — our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians, and how it has been shaped (and misshaped) by the historic and contemporary governance of these issues.

For any Canadian who wishes to have an informed opinion about the country that we share — or, more to the point, publicly share that opinion — Indigenous Writes is essential reading.

Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada.
By Chelsea Vowel
HighWater/Portage & Main Press, 240 pages, $22

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday September 24th 2016.