What To Say or Not To Say to Create a Meaningful Dialogue

By Solen Roth

Some thoughts brought to you by: the IPinCH Graduate Student dinner, Digital Natives and The Land We Are


On April 5, 2011, five IPinCH Graduate Student Associates— Emma Feltes, Sarah Carr-Locke, Marina La Salle, Sean Robertson, and myself—gathered at the Calabash Bistro in Vancouver.

It was clear from the start that the conversation would be an animated, primarily issue-focused one, and yet we were somewhat miraculously able to maintain a convivial atmosphere. Our server was amused and a little bit intrigued, unsure of whether it was appropriate to interrupt us to take our orders. It is true that the repeated utterance of such words as “appropriation,” “activism,” “colonization,” and even “genocide” may have made it difficult for him to know whether we were at his restaurant to eat, or to start a revolution (even a small one). “I was waiting for a pause,” he told us when we finally noticed him politely waiting a few feet away from our table – oh, what a long wait that would have been!

In recent weeks, this rich conversation, along with two other events—the launching of the Digital Natives project and The Land We Are colloquium—have made me think about the roles of censorship, self-censorship, nuance, and provocation, in the generation of dialogue and action about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relationships.

This reflection began at the IPinCH student dinner, with Marina asking us to share our thoughts about the appropriateness of using the word “genocide” in one of her conference paper abstracts. Without going into the details of our exchange, the discussion focused on whether her use of the term in reference to the results of colonial processes in Canada would further or hinder her goals as an anti-colonial scholar and activist. Near the end of the conversation, I shared my unease with the fact that I could use “genocide” to describe the actions perpetrated by ‘imperial Canada’ (to borrow an expression from Edgar Heap of Birds – see below) without it provoking in me any significant emotional response, as if I were immune to its true meaning and its empirical (pun intended) implications. Is there a danger to fear from my acclimatization to the use of such words, to hearing lived horror stories, and to telling the tragic narrative of Canadian nation-building? I remember that I did not feel this way when I first moved back to Canada after ten years of living abroad, and was for the first time in my adult life being confronted with Canadian colonial history. What has happened in the span of five years that has made me be able to simultaneously become more aware of this colonial history and slowly feel less viscerally scandalized when it is being told to me and when I am telling it? It is as if my academic work as a graduate student (all the readings, all the papers!) and my experience as a resident of Vancouver (all the art, all the talks!) have gradually made my emotions (those that lead to action and not paralysis) retreat behind intellectualization, to the point that what initially felt like a spectacular and shocking “reveal” no longer sends shivers down my spine, urging me to stand up from my seat to do something, now. How can I combat this normalization, so that words like “genocide” do not roll off my tongue as if I were using it as a synonym of “disagreement”?

Historian Paige Raibmon asked a similar question in the position paper she presented as part of The Land We Are, a colloquium held at Simon Fraser University and organized in conjunction with the Aboriginal Healing Society about reconciliation processes.  She told us a story of visiting India and being asked to describe Canadian-Indigenous history by her hosts. As part of this conversation, she came to describe the economic and social disparities that exist in Canada and the unfavourable position Indigenous people often occupy in this unequal distribution of wealth and well-being. To this description, her Indian host responded with incredulity: how could Indigenous people be in such dire situations when he knows of many success stories of Indians migrating to Canada? It did not make sense to him that what she had said about Indigenous people, on the one hand, and what he had heard from these immigrants, on the other, could be part of the same picture. Yet many of us, like Paige, have come to think of this situation as “normal”—and by that I don’t mean “acceptable,” but something that has become “understood” or “obvious” because we have learned about aspects of our history that make us expect such disparities. Paige finished her intervention by urging us to become incredulous again about the narratives and corresponding realities that we have become so accustomed to hear about and experience. In addition to thinking about the logics that have led us where we are now, could we not harness the question “How could this possibly be?” to imagine and enact different realities?

This made me think about how this applies to my own work. Research I’ve conducted showed that, at best, only one in five item of Aboriginal-themed merchandise being sold in Vancouver’s tourism sites were made by Aboriginal individuals or companies, the remaining 80% made with minimal or no Aboriginal participation whatsoever. Several people with whom I shared these findings said that this was “not surprising” and in fact “better than what [they] expected.” These were certainly not the kinds of findings that could fuel a controversy, I was told. At the same time as I wanted to ask “why not?” I effectively had to agree. Yet if that is indeed the case, the scandal, then, lies in the fact that these findings are not scandalous to us. How did we come to such a domination of the market for Aboriginal-themed merchandise by non-Aboriginal people? Or, rather, how did we come to expect this situation to the point that when it is described to us, we do not ask “How could this possibly be?” There is no doubt that we have to continue interrogating our relationships and histories to keep such situations from becoming completely normalized into our ways of thinking the current state of affairs and of imagining the future.

One group trying to do just that is the collective behind Digital Natives. As part of Vancouver’s 125th birthday celebration, project curators Lorna Brown and Clint Burnham solicited twitter-sized messages from Native and non-Native artists and writers, to be posted amidst regular advertising near the Burrard Street Bridge. Three of the messages created for the project were censored by the company managing the billboard on which they were to be broadcast—censorship that the curators, the City, and the Squamish Nation (who owns the land on which the billboard is situated) are now contesting. One of the three censored messages particularly caught my attention, Edgar Heap of Bird’s “Imperial Canada awarded sexual abuse from black robes now proudly bestows bronze, silver, and gold medals with Indian image.” Thinking about what exactly prompted the decision of the billboard company not to post this comment, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Marina’s question about the usefulness of momentary self-censorship for the purpose of drawing people into the conversation. Whose sensitivities and interests are being protected by refraining from using certain words in a conference abstract? Is it a similar or a different protective impulse that has kept Edgar Heap of Bird’s message from being broadcast on a public billboard? How does catering to those sensitivities and interests enable or on the contrary infringe on the goals set forth by the curators of Digital Natives, which include the generation of meaningful dialogue on the question of decolonization? And what does this kind of silence, self-imposed and not, say about the very relationships that such projects address and seek to transform?

One thing that provides me strange (dis)comfort—not the kind that makes me feel immune, the kind that gives me hope—is that Heap of Birds’ message referencing the experience of sexual abuse in residential schools and the irony in the fact that the same nation that allowed this to happen takes no issue at decorating itself and its Olympic guests with Aboriginal imagery. This message did make me feel ill-at-ease, did make me ask myself difficult questions, did give me reason to believe that our commitment as scholars and citizens to shed light on particular aspects of our histories in the hopes to challenge the legacies of the atrocities it contains is not vain. But as Dorothy Christian pointed out during the colloquium The Land We Are “Intellectual babble is not enough. There is urgency. Let’s get to work.”

Photograph courtesy of Solen Roth.