Disrobing cultural assumptions

Calgary author Albert Howard shakes up status quo thinking about Canada’s aboriginal policy

Not all cultural traditions have value. The guillotine and the stocks for example are thankfully consigned to the history books says Albert Howard co-author (with Frances Widdowson) of a controversial book recently shortlisted for the Donner Prize. It’s when he starts applying that thinking to aboriginal culture in Canada however that the discussion becomes a bit uncomfortable.

In Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation the authors’ main bone of contention is that an “aboriginal industry” — their term for a group of mainly non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants — are siphoning off funding that should be going to education health care and other services in communities.

And making matters worse that same industry group is encouraging aboriginals to cling to their cultural practices and beliefs which only serves to make them more isolated and more beholden to the lawyers and consultants says Howard who dismisses the importance of culture in the classroom and in social organizations.

Widdowson currenty teaches policy studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary where the couple lives. Howard is a former teacher and consultant and is currently writing another book.

It’s important to note that the couple is not calling for a decrease in overall funding for aboriginal people but rather would like to see the current funding distributed differently with the federal government playing a stronger role in delivering social services.

Here’s what Howard has to say about his years in Yellowknife the state of aboriginal education and cultural alienation.

Fast Forward: What were some of your first impressions of Yellowknife?

Albert Howard : I thought that with a population like that that I would have a very mixed social life that half of my friends would be native. But it was quite segregated…. There is a culture clash when native people go from a native community to a non-native society and that cultural clash is not the same as that of Chinese Italians or other Europeans. The whole point of the book is that the cultural gap between aboriginal people and the rest of the world is huge… in terms of the actual development of the cultures. So we have people who have a culture that’s rooted in hunting and gathering and [we are] putting them into third-period capitalism.

Part of that cultural gap is our economic system?

I’m not pro-capitalist in any way but I realize that theses are the circumstances in which we live and we are talking about the problems that native people have. Not the problems that they deserve but the problems they have.

What about the alienation that aboriginal people feel because they’ve been disconnected from their culture? How does that fit in?

Well don’t you think that alienation has something to do with them clinging to cultural characteristics that other people have abandoned? You and I come through similar European backgrounds where people were cruel to animals. There was human sacrifice. People were put in the stocks. We don’t have a yen for that. We don’t say we have to preserve our culture…. But the non-aboriginal industry that encourages aboriginals to remain in this cultural [state] encourages ideas such as that Turtle Island is the place where the Creator put native people. Native people came from Africa like everybody else. That’s a reality. Why are we encouraging native people to think otherwise? It keeps them in this attitude that native people think differently than other people. That’s nonsense.

Isn’t there something to be said for being culturally comfortable especially while learning?

Why are we assuming they are uncomfortable? It’s like saying you won’t like school unless the teacher is your aunt…. The idea of this comfort level I think it’s made up by the aboriginal industry…. The government should take the responsibility as they do for everyone else to develop the programs to address their needs. Money should not be given to aboriginal industry-run organizations because that money is being wasted. It’s not a question of not having the money. If more money is required then so be it. But I don’t think it should be going towards all these law firms and consultants that are just there to make sure that aboriginal people stay where they are and need those services.

What’s the solution?

I’m not sure what the solution is but I do think a solution should be sought…. I think as we interrelate with other cultures we affect one another. When cultures come together the better parts of both come together and the negative parts are dropped.