5. AN ISSUE OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH

At any given moment there is a sort of self-prevailing orthodoxy, a tacit agreement not to discuss some large and uncomfortable fact. – George Orwell

The most powerful mea culpa (in relation to the election  of Donald Trump as President of the United States) was from Will Rahm of CBS. He blogged about “the unbearable smugness” of the media, including himself. “Journalists, at our worst, see ourselves as a priestly caste, we believe we have access to a greater truth.”- Conrad Black 1

To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men. – Abraham Lincoln

Cultures commonly employ the methods of cults, making their members subject and dependent. And nations at intervals march lockstep to enormity and disaster. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. In a democracy, abdications of conscience are never trivial. They demoralize politics, debilitate candour, and disrupt thought.–Marilynne Robinson2

Why do Indigenous Canadians have the highest rates of victimization in the country? Because, as the latest data emphasizes, they live in the most violent communities in the country. The fact that I have to point this out, and that doing so will be met with anger, shows the embarrassingly primitive state of our national discussion on this issue. -Scott Gilmour3

At times of great cultural catastrophe, an intellectual’s task is not to offer   consolation, but to secure the foundations of humanity endangered by ideological lies, to find anew seeds of good sense, ethical norms with which to resist despondency. – Czeslaw Milosz 4

The quest for truths is synonymous with intellectual controversy. -Samuel Huntington 5

A consideration of what pre-contact Indian culture was really like is rarely engaged in. As stated, Indian spokespersons stay on the general, merely declaratory level in this regard, because to descend into the realm of facts and particulars and to seriously consider them makes one realize immediately how shallow, dogmatic, constricted and almost dishonest so much of the current discourse is on this topic.

It’s useful to compare various aspects of Indian culture as they were before European contact with how they evolved after. Many of these aspects are obvious and accepted as self-evident by most ordinary Canadians. In fact they’re so obvious they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. But they do have to be, if only for the novelty of just doing so, because despite them being self-evident they are rarely acknowledged or discussed by anyone in a position of leadership in politics, academia, the media or by anyone in the Indian and non-Indian establishments generally.

Rather, from these people and interest groups, one hears the continual assertion, expressly or by implication, that traditional Indian culture is unique, alive and well, that the billions of tax dollars spent on it to keep it separate are fully justified, and that with the expenditure of only a few million or billion dollars more each year, it will be even better and more authentic. And this even though the majority of Indians live in cities, and even though Indian culture, such as it is, is now epitomized by the reserve system, something that obviously didn’t exist at the time of European contact!

Hearing these unrealistic assertions causes a huge disconnect to occur in the minds of ordinary people. We know they’re largely not true. But we also realize that it is indeed an “emperor has no clothes” situation, and that we’d better duck, keep quiet and stay out of it. As Christopher Hitchens wrote:6

There is, not infrequently, a considerable social pressure not to take note of the obvious.

Marilynne Robinson put it more elegantly this way:

We internalize prohibitions, enforcing them on ourselves- prohibitions against, for example, expressing an honest doubt, or entertaining one. This ought not to be true in a civilization like ours, historically committed to valuing individual conscience and free expression. But it is.7

Disputing this officially-sanctioned orthodoxy will only bring trouble down on the head of the disputant, including suffering the moral blackmail of having his economic livelihood threatened and being spuriously called a “racist.”

They must to keep their certainty accuse

All that are different of a base intent;

Pull down established honour; hawk for news

Whatever their loose fantasy invent

And murmur it with bated breath, as though

The abounding gutter had  been Helicon

Or calumny a song… 8

And Marilynne Robinson:

The present dominance of aspersion and ridicule in public life is a reflex of the fact that we are assumed to want, and in many cases perhaps do want, attitude much more than information…Arbiters of attitude instruct us as to what is safe to say and cool to think. That is, they short-circuit the functions of individual judgment and obviate the exercise of individual conscience. So it is to a greater or lesser degree with the media in general. It is painful to watch decent and distinguished people struggle to function politically in this non-rational and valueless environment.

Poor, decent Senator Lynn Beyak, from Thunder Bay,  suffered a heavy dose of that aspersion and ridicule when, in 2017, she wrote that Indians should voluntarily give up their special legal status and join the Canadian mainstream as legal equals, (that ultimate goal, complete legal equality, being the main point of this essay), and that at least some good came out of residential schools, a view shared by eminent Indian author and residential school- attendee Basil Johnston, (see c. 12, The Essential Humanity of the Migrators to Canada, below),  and a view fully endorsed by Indian playwright Tomson Highway, the latter of whom said:

“All we hear is the negative stuff, nobody’s interested in the positive, the joy in that school. Nine of the happiest of years of my life I spent at that (residential) school. You may have heard stories from 7000 witnesses that were negative. But what you  haven’t heard are the 7000 reports that were positive stories. There are very many successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn’t have happened without that school.” 9

For making these defensible assertions, in respectful and careful terms, she was excoriated by politicians from all parties, including her own, and mocked as an ignorant rube by most of the media. She was taken off the Senate Indigenous Affairs Committee and all other committees she served on and there were calls for her resignation from the Senate. In January of 2018, after she allowed some overwhelmingly  non-racist letters of support (both of her opinion, but more  importantly, of her courage in exercising her right to free speech on this issue and her responsibility to exercise this right),  to be posted on her Senate website, 10 she was kicked out of the Conservative Caucus entirely. It all constituted a shameful example of what Scott Gilmore described above as “the embarrassingly primitive state of our own national discussion on this issue”.  And it showed the continuing and   disgraceful failure on the part of our elites to uphold the principle of free speech, a crucial right and value enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In my personal case, in the Spring of 2019 I was scheduled to host a “Meet the Local Author” event at the Chapters store in Sudbury, to promote this book. When Chapters, at the last minute, realized the full tenor of the book, they peremptorily cancelled the event. 11About this retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Jack Major, (who also spent a large part of his youth in Espanola), said:

The thought of Chapters cancelling your event for fear that the truth is unacceptable is appalling. It baffles me that such a majority look to a past that was nonexistent and persist in looking to preserve or create what logic makes so clear is so counter-productive. 12

William Wuttunee, until his death  a victim of the non-rational Indian Industry environment, urged caring, non-Indian Canadians to put aside their fears and speak out. In Ruffled Feathers (above) he wrote:

Many thinking Canadians who are familiar with the Indian situation are reluctant to openly criticize the attitude of the Indian people. Because they are careful of the feelings of the Indian people, they tend to be silent when they should be openly critical in order that some change may take place.

Aboriginal writer Calvin Helin, in Dances With Dependency, (above), referring to speaking out against abuses of power by Chiefs and Band Councils on reserves, wrote:

Generally, non-Aboriginal observers have been reluctant to raise this issue as well because, in the current climate of political correctness, they might automatically be labeled as racist.

(And, see chapter 50, It’s Not Impossible (Nelson Mandela Proved It), regarding this writer’s experience with his Law Society in this regard.)

The cumulative effect of this fear-based censorship, self and otherwise-this terrible situation where, on this issue, “fear is put at the core of individual consciousness”- 13 sadly and disgracefully supported by the too-often, seemingly “culturally clueless”14“priestly caste” (above) that governs the media and most of social sciences academia, is a collective decision on the part of ordinary Canadians to dare not speak truth to power about this issue, and to silently hear and see power itself lie to the people about it (a phenomenon central to life in totalitarian states).

Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings. …How little attention has been paid to the nature of our ability to deny in thought and action whatever happens to  be the case. 15

And all the while the vast majority of Indians – the ordinary, powerless, neglected, vulnerable ones (especially the children) – get further disadvantaged, damaged, marginalized and forgotten. It’s a real disgrace.

And it’s not just ordinary non-Indian Canadians who are afraid to speak out. This fear-ridden reality applies to Indian-Canadians as well.  Calvin Helin, in Dances With Dependency, (above), echoing William Wuttunee from 35 years before, wrote extensively about the “reprisal atmosphere” and the “banana republic-like mindset” existing on too many Indian reserves:

Many grassroots band members are uncomfortable talking about corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in their communities. They do not want to promote a backlash and often vicious retribution from their Band Councils… On many First Nations, anyone who dares question the actions of incumbent  leaders runs the  risk of being “BCR’d”. That stands for “band council resolution”, an edict forcing you off the reserve… Many Aboriginal youth are voicing the opinion that might be summarized as “God save ordinary members from the Mugabe-like dictates of some of the Chiefs.”

…I would suspect that, on a per-community basis, the incidences of abuses of power greatly exceed the incidences in non-Aboriginal municipalities. If these problems exist, they should be discussed openly and real solutions sought. If there are problems, to paraphrase Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “let transparency and openness reign from the mountains.”

It’s not that ordinary Canadians don’t want to help Indians. We desperately do. But we’re not permitted to get involved except on the fallacious and unacceptable terms laid down by the Indian and non-Indian establishments.

We’re in effect told that to be involved and heeded, to be allowed into their conversation, we cannot question or challenge their prepackaged orthodoxy.  We cannot use our own heads and think for ourselves. We cannot discuss or unpack so many plain, unpleasant and burdensome facts concerning this issue that are staring us all in the face. We cannot question the very existence of the Indian Act, the  reserve system, and the “separate but equal” status quo generally. So, fearful and unable to stomach that – unable to cope with the Alice in Wonderland nature of it – reasonably fearful of being unfairly mocked or dismissed or being told that our reasonable opinions and feelings constitute prejudice- we find ourselves forced to stay out of it and, like the decent and caring Senator Beyak, we find ourselves expelled from the arena of public debate and engagement on this issue and forced to stand back and helplessly watch the terrible social damage being suffered by Indians continue and increase unabated.

This is tragically and dangerously wrong. “We must have the courage to hear things, else there is hardly anything we can talk about.”16We must  break with the habit of deference to all and sundry of our categories of “great men” (and women.)

Great men may make great mistakes…Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and often possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By our reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all. 17

It’s also an impoverishing tragedy that our Indian and non-Indian establishments can’t seem to grasp the crucial importance of widening the parameters of debate on this profound national issue- of encouraging other viewpoints to be expressed. They would do well to heed the words of the political scientist Harry Clor:

There are truths to be discovered, but they are complex and many-sided; the best way to get to them is by engaging contrary ideas in a manner approximating dialogue.

It would also be in the country’s best interest if they could shed some of their reflexive defensiveness, expressed too-often as outright hostility towards people who disagree with them. This is particularly true of our academic elites, now  known more for suppressing free speech than for defending it.

Would that they were all less about pride and position and more about humility and curiosity. Would that they had the confidence and open-mindedness to try to live the precept of the French philosopher Montaigne, who wrote:

When I am contradicted it arouses my attention, not my wrath. I move towards the man who contradicts me; he is instructing me. The cause of truth ought to be common to both of us. 18

Or the the similar precept of Emerson:

The wise man throws himself on the side of his assailants. It is more his interest than it is theirs to find his weak point. 19

The Indian and non-Indian establishments, for their own sometimes selfish purposes, contrary to the cause of truth, and contrary to one of the most fundamental values of democracy – free and open debate on important public issues –  have in effect declared a ban on free speech around this profound political, economic, constitutional and human rights issue – effectively erecting “no trespassing” signs around it, thus preventing needed discussion and exposure of their “weak points”. For ordinary Canadians, only those who “dare to be a Daniel” 20 go past those signs. So the obvious goes continually unspoken and thus the duty, need, and sad novelty of saying some of it in this essay.

Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790,  expressed this profound duty of citizenship, as he saw it, thusly:

I have taken a review of what has been done by the governing power in France. I have certainly spoke of it with freedom. Those whose principle it is to despise the antient permanent sense of mankind, and to set up a scheme of society on new principles, must naturally expect that such of us who think better of the judgment of the human race than of theirs, should consider both them and their devices, as men and schemes upon their trial. They must take it for granted that we attend much to their reason, but not at all to their authority.

NEXT CHAPTER

References

  1. From Conrad Black, Morning in America, The National Post, November 12, 2016
  2. From The Tyranny of Petty Coercion, in The Death of Adam, above.
  3. Canada’s Unspoken Crisis, Maclean’s Magazine, December 19, 2016
  4. Nobel prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, from Milosz, A Biography, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017
  5. Quoted by Robert Kaplan in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, above
  6. From Letters to a Young Contrarian, above
  7. From The Tyranny of Petty Coercion, above
  8. From The Leaders of the Crowd, by W.B. Yeats
  9. Joshua Ostroff, Tomson Highway Has a Surprisingly Positive Take on Residential Schools, Huffington Post, December 15th, 2015, and, for Basil Johnston, see Setting Indians Free From Their Past, chapter 40, below.
  10. Apparently the one really offending letter, the sole letter that was the coup de grace for her, was a dumb letter that basically said that indigenous people just wait for things to be handed to them. Dumb. Not true. But Ms. Beyak’s overall public statements made it clear that she herself did not think that and that it was unreasonable to attribute that to her. Her punishment- career capital punishment- was ridiculously disproportionate to the alleged misdeed.
  11. Thus making a bit of a laughingstock of their Toronto, in-store posted mission statement to the effect that Chapters/Indigo ” is here to be your place for connecting with others who share your passions, your belief in ideas, and your commitment to making the world a better place. But not if it’s a respectful, contrarian, fact-based idea on how to make the world a better place for Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
  12. From a personal email to the author, July 17th, 2019
  13. Phrase from Jonathan Brent, The Order of Lenin: Find Some Truly Hard People, The New York Times, May 22, 2017
  14. Margaret Wente, Did racism and sexism elect Donald Trump? The Globe and Mail, November 19, 2016. She says that they did not, and that the “culturally clueless” media were and are wrong to obsess as much as they do over alleged “racism” and “cultural identity” issues in this regard. The same applies to the Canadian media and our “native” issue.
  15. Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics, from a collection of some of her essays, Crises of the Republic, Harcourt, Brace & Company
  16. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  17. Karl Popper, The Open Society & Its Enemies, New One-Volume Edition, Princeton University Press, 1994- italics added.
  18. This, and the Harry Clor quote, from Peter Wehner, In Defence of Politics, Now More Than Ever, The New York Times, October 29, 2016
  19. Emerson, from his essay, The Conduct of Life
  20. A hymn, in the past, sung in Canadian Sunday Schools, the refrain being:
    Dare to be a Daniel!
    Dare to stand alone!
    Dare to have a purpose firm!
    Dare to make it known!
    (Full lyrics of this old, rousing Christian standby at Hymnary.org.)

By: Peter Best