We’ll tread that fine line…

I hope nobody mistakes my approach to racism and cultural tolerance as ‘the right way’. People a lot more well-versed than I am in the vagaries of anthropology, history, sociology, and psychology (just to name a few relevant fields that I am utterly clueless in) have time and again failed to find the surefire path forward to diplomacy and harmony. I can barely sweet-talk women at the bar. If there is a ‘right way’, and I don’t believe that there is one, I’m an unlikely candidate to be the one who comes across it.

That being said, I know that some methods are better than others. There may be few things that we know to be surefire correct, but there are a hell of a lot that we know to be just plain wrong. There are, like logical fallacies or lousy apologetics arguments or privileged whines, arguments that are uttered pre-refuted. We know colour blindness doesn’t work, we know that ‘reverse discrimination’ isn’t what people say it is, we know that dividing the world into ‘racists’ and ‘non-racists’ is a house built on the sand of bad psychology. We can dispose of these arguments just like we can the “well then why are there still monkeys” ‘proof’ that evolution is a liberal conspiracy from the Muslim atheist devil.

Some situations, however, are quite a bit more tricky:

No aboriginal prayer ceremonies, please, and no kindergarten plays about dead fish: The request from Taseko Mines Ltd. seeks to reshape the federal environmental review for its new Prosperity Mines application. The review is expected to get under way as early as this week, with the appointment of a panel and terms of reference, after the company’s first proposal for a copper and gold mine was rejected because of significant adverse environmental effects.

With the Harper government clamping down on environmental opposition in the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, first nations leaders are worried that Ottawa is now sympathetic to the request to limit their opposition to the massive open pit mine. “It scares us, we’re afraid this company will influence them,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government. He said the company should abandon its project if it isn’t willing to respect the community’s traditions, which include prayers and drumming.

Now I have no idea what the path forward here is, but sometimes it helps to try and see the whole board.

The argument from racism

First off, this request reeks of racist paternalism:

In a letter to federal environment minister Peter Kent, Taseko president Russell Hallbauer complained last November that the “fairness and objectivity” of that the first panel review was tainted by allowing a first nations activist to sit on the panel.


However, [Minister Kent] said it may be appropriate for the panel to try to limit the “hyperbole” around a given proposal.

Oof. Implying, no wait I’m sorry that’s the wrong word, outright stating that a hearing process is tainted because a member of the community being impacted by the hearing’s decision is fairly clear-cut. Of course a First Nations activist can’t be fair and objective. I hope that Mr. Hallbauer also insists that anyone with financial ties to Taseko also be removed from the panel, as well as anyone who is a political appointee, as well as anyone who lobbies for any mining concerns, as well as anyone who lives in the area. After all, they’re all just too ’emotional’ about the destruction of the land (or the money filling their pockets). We wouldn’t want the ‘objectivity’ of this process to be compromised by something so silly as people who actually have some skin in the game.

This is one of those coded language issues, where ‘fairness and objectivity’ usually means white skin (and often testicles). Anyone remembering the furore that was kicked up when Sonia Sotomayor made the entirely reasonable point that a Latina would bring a new (and heretofore unrepresented) perspective to the Supreme Court will certainly understand why implying (this time it’s correct) that First Nations advocates cannot be ‘fair and objective’ rubs me decidedly the wrong way. Telling everyone to tone down the ‘hyperbole’ of their homes being destroyed is also a very nice touch.

The argument from secularism

“That is who we are,” he said in an interview Monday. “If you don’t respect our culture and our spirituality as a company, then pack up and leave, this is the way things are in the Tsilhqot’in. We are spiritual people.”


…Science was given short shrift when the panel allowed a group of kindergarten children to present a play “in which the children wore fish cut-outs on their heads, moved around the floor, and then all fall over simultaneously, symbolizing the death of the fish.”

This too rubs me the wrong way. I am a firm believer in evidence-based policy, and I do not recognize ‘spirituality’ as evidence. I don’t think my government should either. Insofar as ‘spiritual’ beliefs are an intrinsic part of life for the Tsilhqot’in Nation, any assessment of likely impact will have to take that into account. At the same time, whenever I hear Christians whine about how cracking down on religiously-motivated anti-gay bullying is an infringement on their right to ‘religious freedom’, I have to put on 4 or 5 more pairs of glasses just so I have enough eyes to roll. Asking for an environmental assessment to be hinged on ‘spiritual’ beliefs elicits much the same response.

The argument from politics

A federal panel appointed under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act ruled in 2010 against allowing the proposed Prosperity Mine to proceed.


The federal government, which is bringing in sweeping legislative changes to make it easier for companies to get approval for natural resource projects, announced in November it would let the company file a new application based on a plan that doesn’t include destroying Fish Lake.

First of all, if it weren’t illegal, I would try to throw each and every single member of this government just to see how far I could trust them. Since rising to power, they have attempted to smear and steamroller every form of opposition by demonizing and undermining them rather than engaging the arguments. I have little trust that they will suddenly discover a streak of impartial fairness when it comes to greenlighting this project, especially considering the fact that they took large chunks out of the environmental regulatory mechanism in the most recent budget.

This smacks of political opportunism running afoul of the noises they’ve made about redefining Canada’s relationship with First Nations Canadians. Considering the huge blowback they’re facing over their pet pipeline, I can’t imagine they’re too happy about this latest development. After all, considering the deft skill for diplomacy they demonstrate on a regular basis, I’d think they’re in quite a bit over their heads.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I do know that I think it’s even less likely that Stephen Harper’s government is going to find an equitable solution than it is that I will. I know I haven’t really listed all of the movie pieces of this story quite yet, but at least it’s a start.

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P.S. In case you’re curious about the reference in the title


  1. Jen says

    I struggle with this constantly in my career as an advocate for environmental protection and against destructive industries. We are on the right side of the question for the right (i.e. legal and scientific) reasons, but we have to deal with partners who bring up extraneous arguments based in emotion and religion all the time. Unfortunately, my colleagues are all to happy to give those perspectives a platform, for reasons that I don’t understand or don’t agree with.

  2. MatthewL says

    Perhaps if we would recognize the importance of art and cultural practices as a part of the human environment we could have a rational discussion of such things in relation to the natural environment without recourse to privileged “spiritual” arguments.

  3. says

    In my (extremely) limited understanding, ‘spirituality’ among many First Nations cultures is not so much a question of ‘art’ or ‘culture’ as it is an existential issue. It is very much bound up in the way they see themselves in relation to the rest of existence (the phrase is “being-in-itself”, which probably sounds better in French). Spiritual practices are therefore not something they do, it is something they are. It’s an extremely tricky nut to crack.

  4. MatthewL says

    I would argue that art and culture are what define any distinct group of humans and as such should be of great significance to how we behave and what decisions we make as a species. I don’t think it’s appropriate that anyone gets a sacred trump card over and above this.

    There is of course an argument for special consideration for cultures that face an existential threat due to a history of oppression and genocide.

  5. left0ver1under says

    “We’ll tread that fine line”? Implications?

    Whether deliberate or accidentally, it sounds like Crommunist is channelling Queen’s “Innuendo” with this story:

    While we live according to race, colour or creed
    While we rule by blind madness and pure greed
    Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion

  6. thaismcrc says

    I just came back from Australia and I found the same issues being raised with regard to Aboriginal people there. The statements I read from Aboriginal people all claimed that they were a “deeply spiritual” people and that that spiritually was bound up with the way they related to the land they occupied – which is why they couldn’t be expected to simply relocate, or give up traditional forms of life. And though of course reparations must be made to everyone whose land was robbed, and of course the government has to find ways to close the gap in standard of living between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities (which is unfortunately a fact all over the world), I have a problem with public policies that in any way promote or endorse spirituality or religion.
    Here in Brazil, things are even more complicated, IMHO.There is a tendency among defenders of aboriginal rights that these communities should simply carry on living as their ancestors (or as much as their ancestors as they’d like). But does that mean they should get to resort to traditional healing instead of modern medicine? Does that mean that their spiritual/religious beliefs should be taught as facts at school? Does that mean we should accept gender discrimination in the name of respecting tradition? Even though I’m inclined to answer “no” to every one of those questions, I can see the inherent imperialism in my position.
    So, yeah, I can see what you mean. I have no idea what the answer would be.

  7. left0ver1under says

    I got most of the way and caught the gist of it, then wrote. (It’s not like I was disagreeing or confronting you.) Sometimes people put words together by chance that sound like existing things, which I what I thought happened.

    “He wouldn’t write ‘argh’, he’d just say it…”

  8. John Horstman says

    Matters of existential perspective are cultural; “culture” basically describes all non-physical (and even some physical) aspects of a group’s existence. Basically, if it’s defined or mediated by ideas (or ‘discourses’, as opposed to direct stimulus-response, like spinal reflexes or the way carcinogens impact DNA), it’s “culture” (for example, agriculture, which is a set of discursively-constructed behaviors that impact the physical environment in ways that allow the production of food).

    That said, I don’t necessarily think there’s value in preserving a cultural status quo. The desire of many anthropologists to preserve aboriginal cultures, for example, comes off as informed more by a fetishization of difference rooted in colonialist or paternalist attitudes than by the well-being of the group in question (uses of “quaint”, “spiritual”, “natural”, or “connected to the land” are screaming red flags). Not all cross-cultural influence is cultural imperialism; if there’s conclusive evidence that a given idea or practice is truly ‘better’, on average, in ways that a group holds to be important, adoption of that idea or practice is a good thing. Fetishization of ‘tradition’ by outsiders is colonialist – it holds the desire of the outsider to preserve a cultural status quo because ze thinks it’s interesting or otherwise enjoyable to be more important that the well-being of the persons located in that cultural space. Fetishization of ‘tradition’ by insiders is reactionary and frequently religious – it holds that the way things are or were at a given point in time is ‘best’ irrespective of evidence, and again elevates the importance of a given practice or idea (or a constellation of them) above the well-being of the group.

    I think the null hypothesis should be that cultural violence is, on the balance, harmful; one needs strong evidence that it’s ultimately more helpful in order to ever justify it. I find a framework that treats the status quo as a null hypothesis (versus either the strong relativist framework that holds it sacred or the imperialist framework that holds it irrelevant) subject to change if there’s evidence that something else is better for the well-being of a group/the persons in a group is an effective strategy. For example, fighting genital cutting of children is a good thing to do because there’s a lot of evidence that violating people’s bodily autonomy, and especially in situations where they are unable to assert agency or when they actually do but it is ignored, is ultimately a bad precedent to set for cultural practices, as well as being specifically harmful in individual cases. Fighting the use of cosmetics is more complicated, as the evidence isn’t nearly as clear, nor is there as much of it. In this way, cultural practices, values, etc. are still given weighted value, but are also not given any privileged status – they are subject to evidence-based evaluation and need to be justified in contrast to alternatives on their own merits.

  9. ender says

    Call me cynical, but whenever I hear news stories of indigenous peoples opposing environmentally destructive plans using “spiritual” or “traditional” arguments, I think 3 things:

    1. The fact that spirituality/tradition was invoked might be the only reason I read about it in the media.

    2. Indigenous people know this.

    3. It’s good political theater that panders nicely to New Age/environmentalist liberals.

    Mind you, I am not saying that it is necessarily experienced as “only political theater” by the participants. Although in many cases the selective use of traditional dress, rituals, etc. is very planned out for maximum political effect by savvy leadership.

    What I am saying is that indigenous appeals to tradition and spirituality are powerful in a way that other claims on the (western, white) power structure are not. They appeal to a superiority that mainstream culture feels over indigenous people that you touch on nicely in this post. Something like: They are natural/spiritual/traditional, we are rational/scientific/modern. “Spirituality” poses claims in ways that are nonthreatening to the power structure, as they are interpreted through an essentialist lens that reinforces the racial/social status quo.

  10. Annie says

    “…whenever I hear Christians whine about how cracking down on religiously-motivated anti-gay bullying is an infringement on their right to ‘religious freedom’, I have to put on 4 or 5 more pairs of glasses just so I have enough eyes to roll.”

    Did you know…I love you so much for this gem? 😉

    Anyway, this lovely episode of Creepy Internet Girl has been brought to you all by your delightful pal Annie!

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