Facing the Legacy of Erasure and Cultural Appropriation in Canadian Literature

By Gwen Benaway

When news of Hal Niedzviecki’s editorial on cultural appropriation broke on Twitter, I was recovering from a transition-related surgery. His editorial arguing against the existence of cultural appropriation and calling for an “appropriation prize” for writers who appropriate from other worldviews burned across my feed. My friend and peer, Alicia Elliott, was one of the Indigenous writers who had been directly impacted by Hal’s editorial, as her writing on cultural appropriation appeared in the same issue of Write magazine as his editorial. I immediately sent her a supportive text and then jumped into the Twitter fray.

For me, there was no question of the inappropriateness of Hal’s editorial. He has defended it as satirical and claimed that he never intended for an actual appropriation prize to be created. What is obvious from the aftermath of this incident is how little Hal appreciated the depth of racism in Canada. Almost instantly, racists and neo-Nazis from across the globe jumped in to tweet at Alicia, myself, and every other Indigenous writer on Twitter. White supremacists, alt-right agitators, and prominent white Canadian media personalities began to defend Hal, attack Indigenous cultures, and call for the silencing of Indigenous voices.

This is the legacy of racism in Canada. Racism against Indigenous peoples remains the last acceptable racism in this country. Other racialized communities also experience direct racism but it is often less public and more veiled through institutions or structures. I scrolled through the comments on many of the news articles which came out about the situation, discovering comments ranging from “tell the Indians to shut up” to “Indians should be happy if a white writer wants to talk about them at all.” To have so many prominent Canadian literary figures feel so comfortable expressing and advocating for Indigenous exclusion and denying the impact of cultural appropriation is a clear and certain sign that Canada, regardless of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work, still has an “Indian problem.”

I want to focus on my own response upon the response of the Indigenous community itself rather than on the reactions of the white Canadian literature community. I’m less concerned about debating the reality of cultural appropriation than exploring why we reacted so powerfully to Hal’s piece. Our anger is not just that Hal used an issue dedicated to Indigenous writers to make his “satirical” arguments or even that he has yet to fully apologize for his unprofessional actions, but the legacy of harm and cultural appropriation which still rests in our hearts as Indigenous peoples in this country. When we write, as Indigenous writers, we write with and through our ancestors.

Many of us grew up knowing family members who lived through the tremendous violence of residential schools. I was mentored and trained in my culture by elders who suffered profound violations of self at those schools. I carry stories of a violence which echoes for generations. All of us as Indigenous writers have grown up surrounded by racism. We’ve watched family members die or disappear from that violence. We have seen Indigenous women we love be harmed. We know children who were taken from their homes. The faces of the missing and the murdered are never far for us. We write inside this legacy and we speak back to a violence which continues into the present.

To be an Indigenous writer is to know a profound love and a deep pain. We have a profound love of our cultures, our peoples, and our communities. All of us, having known most of the Indigenous writers in Canada, are deeply connected to our roots. When you tell me that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist, I think of one of my elders fighting with a university department to return the bones of his family members back to traditional lands. I think of my grandmother lying in her coffin, both of her eyes still black and bruised. I think of watching a 14-year-old girl die of an overdose when I was working as a cultural educator. I remember reading the news article about a two-spirit trans woman being murdered in her home. I feel and remember that pain, not as a detached fact but as a personal reality.

This is the balance of love and pain which defines being an Indigenous writer in Canada. Knowing the stories of how Canada has systematically tried to destroy, mutilate, and starve our nations off our lands and knowing how we’ve fought back for generations to resist their destruction. I learned my traditional language from a woman who attended a residential school where they tried to beat her mother tongue from her. She would lie awake at night in the dormitory, whispering Ojibwe words in her head so she wouldn’t forget them while terrified that nuns would hear her and pull her out into the hallway to be beaten. What I have of my culture came to me through the love and courage of my community.

So when Hal made his satire about cultural appropriation, I was very angry because he was mocking that woman. He was mocking my grandmother feeding six kids on her own while living with my abusive grandfather. He was mocking how Canada denied my ancestors of their humanity, how it forced them through laws and institutions to work menial jobs, and live in poverty. He was mocking the courage of the man who ran away from residential schools more than three times who taught me my culture. He was mocking the collective will and resilience of my community as we meet violence with love, as we write ourselves back into being.

The reality is that cultural appropriation is another word for genocide. The other side of cultural appropriation is cultural assimilation, the driving force of Canada’s Indigenous policy for the last 150 years. You can’t tell the stories of my community unless you have looked into an 82-year-old woman’s eyes as she tells you about how the nuns bashed her teeth out against a radiator when she was 9. You can’t understand or appreciate what that feels like unless you are implicated in that experience. Mocking us for defending those stories is ignorant and cruel. We’re not trying to take anything from white writers, but we are refusing to allow them to harm the people and worldview we love.

This sits at the heart of why Hal’s editorial is so profoundly racist. He doesn’t see the humanity of Indigenous peoples. We are just stories to him, random facts strung together which anyone can weave into a pleasing and entreating narrative. For us as Indigenous writers, we are people that we love and cherish. We are families and lovers. We are names of those we’ve lost and those who’ve survived. The story of us is the story of how we live alongside a genocide which has never stopped trying to silence, murder, erase, and shame us. This why so many Indigenous writers, myself included, put down whatever we were doing to publicly take on Hal and the Canadian writers who jumped into the discussion.

As much as I did not want to spend my post-surgery recovery getting into Twitter fights with skinheads, I thought about my elders in residential schools. I remembered the way they resisted, the horrendous price they paid in blood to hold onto their culture and worldview. How could I, as their descendant, not defend that culture and worldview as passionately as they did? I remember being at an Indigenous writing workshop in Banff. Joseph Boyden was our instructor and he told us that the reason Indigenous writers were not more successful in Canada was because of how much we valued our cultures. If you didn’t care so much of your traditions, he said, you’d be much more commercially successful. We revolted and spent the remainder of the workshop challenging him.

Like Hal, Boyden didn’t understand our fury. He didn’t know how we were linked into our communities through bonds which stretch across generations. Like most of white Canada, he saw being Indigenous as a thing, a concept which existed outside of our voices or bodies. For us, being Indigenous is everything. It’s the foundation of our hearts, what we learned from our mothers and grandmothers when we were just born. It’s watching our fathers and uncles hunt on the land. It’s hearing the stories of our elders. It’s our friends, our lovers, and the people who hold us up and champion our successes. It’s our love, our connection as human beings to creation.

You can’t take that from us without killing us. Canada has tried to separate our worldviews from our bodies through force for generations and yet our love still resists them. They didn’t kill our languages, our ceremonies, and our stories. They live in us still. When Hal called for an appropriation prize, he was really calling for an intellectual genocide, a theft and denigration of our fundamental right to speak our truths in Canada. The murder of Indigenous peoples is not satire. The legacy of residential schools is not a joke. I’m not laughing about my murdered and missing sisters. As an Indigenous writer in Canada, the stories I tell and the words I write are an act of love and resistance. With every piece I write, I give back the love to my community which they have given me.

Until Canadian literature sees Indigenous communities as human and admits their participation in the ongoing erasure of Indigenous cultures in Canada, we cannot reconcile our relationships to them as Indigenous writers. I was heartened by the many POC writers and some of the white Canadian literature community who stood with us in our fight. Together, we fought back and forced Hal as well as others to step back from their viewpoints. In a way, I’m grateful that Hal demonstrated his ignorance so publicly. It opened up a wider conversation and exposed the deep racist roots in Canadian literature. What saddens me is that in many of the apologies I’ve seen from white writers who participated and from Hal himself, I don’t see an appreciation for why we, as Indigenous writers, reacted so strongly. Despite everything, they still can’t see the love we hold, the responsibility we carry, and how we respond to the legacy of racism in Canada.

In case you missed this the first time I said it, cultural appropriation is another word for genocide. Hal, I hope somewhere in your reflection on this moment in Canadian literature, you consider that more deeply. Read the TRC report. Listen to testimony of residential school survivors. Ask yourself what you would do if your sister went missing, if your grandmother was beaten for speaking in her language. For the first time in your life, consider us Indigenous peoples as people. Not different from you, not the noble savage in the forest, but as human and real as you are. Then ask yourself again, do you still think the theft of our humanity is something to celebrate?

The only thing that Hal’s editorial successfully satirized was the collective ignorance of Canadians about the reality of Indigenous nations in this country. Ignorant, willfully or not, he jumped into a history which has been evolving since Champlain set foot on these shores and demonstrated his lack of knowledge or empathy for that history. Writing is more than a commercial enterprise. Being a writer in many Indigenous cultures is a sacred profession, one which is accountable to the broader whole. We are artists in pursuit of artistic excellence, but being a good writer doesn’t mean disavowing the community which has nurtured and fed you since birth. Good art is not an act of violence but an extension of love. We know that truth as Indigenous writers and despite white racism and mockery, we continue to tell it.

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