So, a colleague and I attended the sixth annual UBC – Laurier Institution Multiculturalism Lecture last night. I was held at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, and was hosted by the good people from CBC’s Ideas program. Incidentally, they will be broadcasting this event on June 25, 2009. I assure you that it will be well worth a listen.
After a welcome to the Musqueam territories, we were treated to a “conscious hip hop” performance by Miss Christie Lee, who hails from the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her music combined elders’ voices, funky beats, and rap lyrics in both Hunquminum (a Salishan language) and English. She emphasized respect and pride in culture, wherever we’re from. For me, her performance highlighted the dynamic, living nature of Aboriginal cultures in contrast to the static portrait we are often fed. Christie also plugged Beat Nation, where you can find out about a number of Aboriginal hip hop artists.
John Ralston Saul then took the stage. He spoke to the central themes of his latest book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. There is nothing surprising in Saul’s premise that Canada is a “small m” métis nation, i.e., that our politics and society have been shaped significantly by Aboriginal worldviews. His more provocative statement is that Canada will not move forward until we align our political structures with this reality rather than relying on 19th century, colonial myths – the two founding nations construct being one example.
Saul also criticized the political elite’s insistence on holding separate conversations with Aboriginal people and newcomers to Canada rather than involving both constituencies into the dialogue that began in earnest at the time of first contact. Immigration is one example of where Canada parts ways with its former colonial masters. We accept well over 200,000 new immigrants each year, 85% of whom become citizens within five years. Saul calls this immigration as adoption (an Aboriginal conceptualization) in contrast to the USA’s “melting pot” or the racialized approaches of many European countries.
BC Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Shawn Atleo and UBC Associate Dean for Indigenous Education Jo-anne Archibald then joined Saul on stage to answer questions from the moderator and, in turn, members of the audience. I am not going to lie, it seemed that some of the people asking questions wanted to hear their own voice rather than what the panellists might have added. In spite of this, they did manage to offer some interesting perspectives. At the end of the evening, Chief Atleo called on Ms. Archibald as well as Bruce Dumont, President of Métis Nation BC, to present Saul with a traditional First Nations paddle.
I was struck by a few little ironies throughout the evening. For example, it took the husband of the Queen’s former representative in Canada to bring recognition of Canada’s Aboriginal underpinnings into the mainstream discourse. Maybe this is appropriate given the Crown’s special relationship(s) with Aboriginal people; however, the Vice Regent also represents the colonial myths that Saul would have us abandon.
Another irony is that it took Saul’s tool of trade – the written word – to highlight the importance of oral traditions in constructing shared understanding. Finally, Saul’s new book was printed in the USA, the very bastion of the monolithic capitalist ideology that he also criticizes. I get that he would probably not describe himself as a nationalist in the conventional sense of the word, but it still seems incongruent given much of his message.
Nevertheless, I stayed for the reception after the fact and shelled out the $35.00 for a hardcover copy of Saul’s book so I could get it signed by the author. I am strangely gleeful to have this and, luckily, it is an engaging read thus far…