Feeding On Their Own Failure

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

Caregivers face a conflict of interest: Their advice, when followed, diminishes the demand for their services. Practising doctors and dentists make their living by treating health problems, not in eradicating their source. The dichotomy is reflected in many areas in which services are created to respond to preventable conditions.

The charity and poverty industries are examples. No one suggests that handing out soup and blankets to the homeless will affect the homelessness situation. Charity fundraising depends on whatever disease or disaster is the object of the campaign. Although fundraisers are rarely in a position to actively maintain the conditions that assure the need for their services, whole industries have developed around conditions for which the real remedy is fundamental change.

There is, however, a socially accepted industry that provides a product, the consumption of which actively increases the need for more. It is funded by Canadians through labour exploitation and taxation, and it is highly profitable. The Aboriginal Industry is an amalgamation of lawyers, consultants, anthropologists, linguists, accountants and other occupations that thrive on aboriginal dependency. The industry’s strategy is pushing atavism — reverting to the past for solutions to present problems.

The magnitude of the industry’s processes can be seen in the number of government agencies among the participants. In addition to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, almost every government department now funds an aboriginal division and numerous programs that target the aboriginal population. Such funding enables the Aboriginal Industry to pursue endless negotiations, the main function of which is to pave the way for more meetings.

It is important to point out, however, that the actions of the Aboriginal Industry are not necessarily a case of vulgar opportunism — like the hypothetical dentist proffering candy; its motivations are far more subtle and complex. Many members of the Aboriginal Industry are not even aware that they are part of it. There is no conspiracy being perpetrated by the lawyers, consultants and anthropologists working for aboriginal organizations. What exists is a natural impulse to follow material interests, to veer ultimately toward self-interest. It is understandable that industry members advocate policies that lead to jobs, contracts and payments to members of their group. Politics is all about interests, and so it is hardly surprising that political actors turn out to be self-interested.

What is notable about the Aboriginal Industry is its altruistic posture. Its members claim to be trying to “work themselves out of a job,” while they pursue initiatives that ensure the continual need for their involvement in aboriginal policy. The atavistic programs and services they advocate as aiding “self-determination” actually maintain native dependency and dysfunction, thereby justifying demands for increases in government funding. And while they may truly believe their intervention is beneficial, their interests tend to prevent them from examining inconvenient facts and theories that would reveal the destructive character of the initiatives they propose and implement. Their arguments supporting current aboriginal policies become a form of mystification, and everyone involved in the industry is inclined to support them because they are all benefiting from keeping the processes going.

It is important to point out that there is a diversity of motivations within the Aboriginal Industry itself. First, there is the idealistic group, emotionally motivated by a sincere desire to help native people. Some uncritically accept that the best future for aboriginals is some level of return to the Rousseauian ideal, whereby they will live in some kind of mythic pre-contact Eden. Others simply support whatever aboriginal organizations demand because of the belief that this must be what aboriginal peoples “want.”

A second group can, for lack of a better term, be considered professionals. They are hired to promote the cause within the capacity of their discipline. Their role is to fill the demand for a predetermined purpose; they may teach, consult, supply professional services and so on. Their attitudes range from cynicism to disinterest.

A third group often encompasses the attributes of the first two but is defined by the fact that its members are the initiators of the reactionary policies that maintain native people in the state of dependency that all three groups supply. They are the bureaucrats who instigate useless, money-gobbling policy programs, then quit the government and head the program. They are the linguists who promote unilingual native language teaching in elementary grades, then develop course materials and teach them, sentencing the children to a future of low academic achievement and the resulting social dysfunction. They are the anthropologists who encourage a backward spiritualism and mythology in which they themselves do not believe, but which keeps native people in a convenient state of passivity. And especially, they are the lawyers who collect enormous fees for conflicts they initiated, for agreements that require endless negotiations, for land claims settlements they use as retirement funds. – Excerpted from Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.