You can log on to Amazon today and for only $20.76 you can order an imperfect but essential piece of gutsy whistle-blowing by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation.
Their core argument employs classical Marxism to expose a cabal of lawyers, consultants, anthropologists, and so on who form what they call the “Aborginal Industry.” They assert that this entity, impelled by its own economic interests, acts, whether conscious of it or not, to maintain aboriginal people in a perpetual state of backwardness and dependency.
Though their tradition is haunted by at least three generations worth of broken dreams, not to mention 60 or 70 million dead bodies and the humiliating fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book demonstrates that at least some Marxists are still pretty good at doing what journalists love to do also: follow the money. This, plus my familiarity with some of the circumstances that led to Frances Widdowson’s unjustifiable dismissal from the Government of the Northwest Territories in the late 1990s, aroused my interest.
I’m also keenly aware of the dysfunction and maladministration that plagues aboriginal and quasi-aboriginal institutions in northern regions, as well as the cynical venality displayed by some of the non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants who profit by ventriloquizing their figurehead employers. Like more than a few northern journalists who have inhaled the stench of corruption more than once, I’m intuitively receptive to the message that Widdowson and Howard are attempting to sell.
The book is old news now, as some of you may know. You may also recall that after McGill-Queens published it in the early winter of 2008, it gave immediate rise to an effusive torrent of venomous malediction. Here’s a little taste, penned by a sock puppet by the name of Fire Witch: Genocidal Marxists Pen An Anti-Indian Tirade. Fire Witch is not without her charms, however, as is evidenced by this delightful slogan: “Come at me with crapitalist white male supremacy and I’ll burn you.”
Your humble content provider read a lot of this stuff at the time, as well as excerpts and the odd review published in what deep thinkers with high foreheads call “the popular press.”
A predictable pattern emerged. Conservative commentators, such as Jonathan Kay in the Feb. 3, 2009 issue of the Financial Post, mostly liked it:
I don’t usually use this space to praise the work of Marxists. But in the case of Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, I’ll make an exception. Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation — excerpted elsewhere on this page — is the most important Canadian policy book I’ve read in the last decade.
If you follow the link above and read his piece, you’ll see that Kay at least makes an attempt to engage with the argument that Widdowson and Howard attempt to make. So does Joseph Quesnel in the Feb. 6 issue of the Calgary Herald.
But most of those commentators who claim to possess progressive values don’t do that. Here’s a sample, from the Winnipeg Free Press, scribbled by an academic called Kathy Buddle. Note her unwillingness to actually rebut the case that Widdowson and Howard try to assert: Treacherous political path Look at “aboriginal industry” an inept rant.
It is not possible to conduct a rigorous analysis of the painfully inept political rant their assertions represent. The “argument” is so fatally flawed as to defy serious treatment.
In any event, much school-yard name-calling ensued. Frances Widdowson had to defend herself against some colleagues at Mount Royal College who, essentially, called on the school to purge her from the faculty and censor her ideas. To their credit, Mount Royal College administrators stood up for the principle of academic freedom and, instead, organized a debate.
One of the more revealing far-left screeds attacking the Widdowson-Howard book was excreted March 5, 2009, by an academic called Peter Kulchyski, in Canadian Dimension, an organ devoted to the tattered remnants of what used to be called the New Left.
I harvested Kulchyski’s review and made a PDF, which you can download by pressing the link below. I did this so you can scroll to page seven of that document and read a lengthy comment posted by the archeologist Robert McGhee:
If you’re into logical fallacies, Kulchyski will give you a ton of fun. There’s that venerable standby, argumentum ad hominem — “I had previously written these authors off as ‘kooks’ from the far right” — and a variant of the tu quoque fallacy, when he offers this rather prissy comment on the authors’ accounts of corruption and criminality on the part of some aboriginal leaders.
These parts of the book read so distastefully that it is difficult not to feel “slimed” simply in allowing ones eyes to slide over these pages. They never mention Conrad Black or Brian Mulroney, those standard bearers of the high moral values of contemporary culture.
Get a grip, Peter. Or get a ghost writer. Better yet, go to Nunavut or Nunavik and listen to those ordinary Inuit beneficiaries who are fed up with the appalling conduct of some of their elected leaders. Ask them, for example, about the $1.5 million in bonuses that directors of Inuit-owned First Air, most of whom are office-holders at Makivik Corp., agreed, behind closed doors, to pay themselves just last year. And if you believe that such two-wrongs-make-a-right analogies are valid, consider that the $600,000 in corporate bonus gelt that Makivik president Pita Aatami has never denied receiving is twice the amount that Brian Mulroney is alleged to have received from Karl-Heinz Schreiber.
Though Widdowson and Howard go to great lengths explaining the distinction they make between race and culture, Kulchyski hurls the racism bomb at them anyway, libelling certain passages of the book as “pernicious racism” and “overt racism.” He does this with a big fat petitio principii circular argument that makes no attempt to explain why that distinction is not valid.
Kulchyski simply provides even more material in support of Widdowson and Howard. So much for that morally and intellectually bankrupt political faction that still insists on calling itself “the left.”
As I said, the document posted above does contain a rebuttal comment by Robert McGhee, who actually appears to have read the book carefully and does so with a refreshing degree of subtlety.
You’ll find it by scrolling down to page 7 of the PDF. You’ll see that McGhee eviscerates Kulchyski’s review rather nicely, but at the same time, does not embrace Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry in its entirety either:
Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry is a flawed book, but also a very important book and one that should serve as the basis for open debate on the relationship between Aboriginal and Canadian societies. The vehemence of its dismissal by Kulchyski demonstrates that such a debate is long overdue.
In another piece, published in the March, 2009 issue of the Literary Review of Canada, McGhee offers — guess what! — a balanced view of the book. In it, he criticizes the way in which Widdowson and Howard develop their theory of cultural evolution. I would love to post my PDF version of that LRC issue, but I can’t, because I would commit a copyright violation. But if you’re interested, you can go to the LRC website and buy your own copy for a small amount of money, and they’ll email it to you.
I too have a few problems with Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, but I’m going to save those for a future post. Stay tuned.