Cultural Competence: Situating the Self

[I recently took a course on Cultural Competence through the Library Juice Academy which I found very thought-provoking, especially because of the extensive reading and essaying with which we were tasked. In subsequent posts I will adapt selections from these essays.]

In the early 1990s I took some diversity training (but under another name I can’t recall) and was surprised to learn that my Irish ancestors in pre-Civil War America were once despised and subjected to racist stereotypes. At the same time, I also learned thanks to an aunt’s genealogical research, that one of my Dutch-American ancestors was a slave owner. While I’d always been concerned with racial justice, for the first time in my life I experienced myself as racially-situated and implicated in racism. 

I am aware that in almost every way I have benefited enormously from intersecting privileges and good fortune. As a white male generally — and in particular as a white male in a female-dominated and overwhelmingly white profession — I have had a very rewarding career. My university has been supportive of my research into what is generally a marginalized topic (the identity of Shakespeare), but here again most people engaged in this issue are, like myself, white, male and older. My parents were emotionally and financially supportive, which gave me the freedom to pursue my career goals and prevented me from incurring excessive debt. I married young and happily so have been in a stable, rewarding relationship for more than 30 years. We own (well, pay a mortgage on) a home. At the same time, we’re not wealthy – as a single-income household we can’t afford a car or to take the kind of vacations my colleagues seem to take on a yearly basis. But I have tenure in a unionized employer so have long-term job security.

My professional interests in librarianship are largely concerned with intersectionality and power relations, but I am keenly aware of my highly privileged position in carrying out that work.

What really resonated for me in the first week’s reading, “Why Diversity Matters: A Roundtable Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Librarianship” was the notion that academic libraries are an “epistemological project,” and that curating knowledge and making it accessible are political acts. As such, integrating persons of diverse backgrounds to these processes does more than introduce a brown (or disabled or queer) body to an institutional space, but brings with it diverse knowledge systems – which can only serve to strengthen and enrich those political acts. At the same time however, I also agree that simply hiring a more diverse workforce is not enough, if we are not at the same time challenging and replacing the unjust structures our institutions are built upon or are a part of. 

Book Review: 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act.

Scan the online comments section of any major media outlet following an article about Indigenous issues and you will inevitably encounter some variation of “Why don’t they just get over it?”

Bob Joseph has the definitive response to that racially charged rhetorical question — and, more importantly, to the ignorance behind it — that the Indian Act has made “getting over” colonialism impossible.

In his slim but powerful new book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Joseph documents the harsh discrimination, controls, humiliations, political dysfunctions and “catch-22s” successive Canadian governments have imposed on Indigenous peoples for the purpose of subjugating and assimilating them.

Joseph is a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation in the Queen Charlotte Strait region of British Columbia. A certified trainer, Joseph is the CEO and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., which he founded in 2002. His father is Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, who is the Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council.

Yet like his father and many others in the Gwawaenuk Nation, “Bob Joseph” owes his legal name to the assimilationist requirements of the Act and an unknown Indian agent who travelled through Joseph’s ancestral region decades ago, imposing Christian names on the band and thereby erasing their traditional hereditary and clan names.

Joseph shows how this was just one of the many ways the Indian Act controlled and harmed the lives of generations of Indigenous people. Since its passage in 1876, the act (with its various amendments) was responsible for creating the reserve system and residential schools, stripping women of their Indian status if they married a non-status man and denying Indigenous people the vote — or granting them the vote at the cost of their status.

The Indian Act imposed European-style farming practices on reserves, but made it impossible for bands to sell their produce to non-Indian customers. Even if these sales had been permitted, it would have required leaving the reserve by obtaining written permission of the Indian agent, which was rarely granted.

Joseph makes this difficult history quite accessible, methodically describing these and other human rights violations in a highly readable prose over a brief 160 pages. Following the main text is a glossary of terms, a chronology of the history of residential schools and the text of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book also includes discussion questions and suggested further reading, making it ideal for book club or classroom use.

In the book’s closing pages, Joseph offers a selection of damning quotes from former prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald and Duncan Campbell Scott (who oversaw the cruelties of the residential school system between 1913 and 1932 and made attendance compulsory), including the latter’s fervent wish that “Indians… finally disappear as a separate and distinct people” through their assimilation.

The book’s final chapter sets out what Canada must do next: dismantle the act and instead work with Indigenous people on forms of self-government and self-determination, allowing First Nations to generate their own revenues through development royalties and taxes and thereby become self-reliant.

We may not as Canadians ever be able to “get over” our colonial past — nor should we — but in the future, Joseph prescribes, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians will be able to transcend it and build true nation-to-nations relationships in the spirit of reconciliation.

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act.
By Bob Joseph.
Indigenous Relations Press. $19.95, 194 pp.

Original review published in the Winnipeg Free Press, April 14th, 2018.