Do non-Aboriginal people have the right to lead Aboriginal struggles?
This week, developments in the disparate fields of arts and law had something in common according to critics: the undue appropriation of Aboriginal voices by non-Aboriginal people.
In the first case, we find Tony Merchant, a controversial lawyer attempting to sue Canada on behalf of thousands of people who feel they’ve been unfairly denied the recognition and rights that go with Indian Status, a move some would likely argue is just another case of Merchant “exploit[ing] vulnerable clients in his quest for the big cheque.”
In the second case, we have artist Pamela Masik, whose exhibition of 69 paintings entitled ‘the Forgotten’ has been indefinitely cancelled by the UBC Museum of Anthropology after criticisms that her depictions of missing and murdered women (many of them Aboriginal) “exoticizes” and commodifies their subjects to the professional and material benefit of their creator.
Basically, Merchant and Masik both stand accused of ‘stealing’ or misappropriating an unfair share of the benefits that go with advocating on behalf of others.
To me, these situations offer a useful opportunity to discuss a larger question: when — if ever — it’s okay for non-Indigenous people to act and/or speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. In principle, the quick and easy answer is ‘never.’ In practice, it may be more complicated.
Typically, when I first come across a story of yet another non-Aboriginal person taking credit or cash for ‘helping’ Aboriginal people, my initial impulse is to presuppose their motivations are less than altruistic.
On the face of it, this is patently unfair and journalistically unprofessional. That said, one only has to examine the socio-economic status of the long-suffering majority of Aboriginal people in Canada to appreciate the source and basis of this presupposition. And, hey, there’s no shortage of examples where Canadian governments and business go back on their word or otherwise ignore/manipulate Indigenous interests (recent half-hearted, heavily qualified ‘support‘ of “free, prior and informed consent” notwithstanding). Any exception tends to prove the rule.
Ideally, however, we must try to approach every situation as unique and with fresh eyes. And while my history-honed instincts tell me to give these two the doubt of the benefit, I would briefly ask your indulgence as I explore the “grey zones” of this issue.
That Merchant is in this at least partially for the money is hardly a newsflash. He’s a lawyer in a litigious society. And what artist doesn’t appreciate notoriety?
The first question to ask here is whether an Aboriginal lawyer or artist could and/or would do the same things. Are people saying either of these acts are innately unethical (that is, in and of themselves) — or is it only because a Native lawyer or artist didn’t do them first?
Another question: absent these legal and artistic actions, would Aboriginal interests be better or worse off? Are there what might be deemed some “net” positive outcomes to their actions? If so, does that in any way justify the process that produced them?
(In the cases of Merchant and Masik, could one perhaps argue that more Canadians now know about the issues involved — the inequities in denying Status and the tragedy of murdered/missing women — because of the greater awareness generated by their respective actions?)
Yet another question: when is it critical that we as Aboriginal people take the lead on our issues, and when can we simply tolerate the ‘trade-off’ that comes with accepting help (from wherever and whomever it comes)? What cost-benefit criteria should we use to assess such trade-offs?
I think the debate is important because, like it or not, non-Aboriginal involvement and support in Aboriginal struggles is unavoidable. And, frankly, inter-ethnic solidarity can and does make a difference. The bigger question I suppose is where and when to draw the line. I invite you to pull out your markers.
[ Image: Pamela Masik Vimeo page ]