You will be assimilated

One of the recurring memes that crop up in many discussions of ‘what is to be done’ with Canadian First Nations is the idea that multiculturalism in its current state is unsustainable, and assimilation is the only answer. My response to that is inevitably “you might be right. When do you plan to start assimilating?” You see, the argument is never that non-Aboriginal Canadians should begin to adopt the cultural, religious, and social traditions of Canada’s original people. The argument is always that those who have been colonized should, for their own good, simply acquiesce to the destruction of their way of life because, y’know… we’re bigger than them?

Of course I find this position both absurd and offensive. The problems we see endemic in many First Nations communities – lack of opportunity, abject poverty, substance abuse, take your pick – are not the result of a failed policy of multiculturalism. Nor is it the fault of those people who fail to adopt a “Western”* way of thinking and living. No, the reason we see these problems is because those people with power have failed, time after frustratingly-frequent time, to uphold their end of the bargain when it comes to providing adequate resources and support to these communities. When First Nations Canadians are perpetually considered the ‘other’, ignoring them and their needs become a matter of course.

Which is why I am particularly intrigued by this story:

In a forum that pulls together topics ranging from mandatory courses to traditional longhouses, Canadian educators and administrators are meeting this week to look at ways to better integrate First Nations values and culture into post-secondary institutions.

The first of its kind, the gathering Monday and Tuesday at the University of Fraser Valley is hosting over 250 guests. In workshops and meetings, participants are discussing what can be done to incorporate more First Nations perspectives in the curriculum, not just for indigenous students but for everyone.

“Indigenizing the academy is for everyone who comes into post-secondary education,” said Shirley Swelchalot Shxwha:yathel Hardman, UFV’s senior adviser on indigenous affairs. “Part of that is acknowledging the traditional territory where we live and work and go to school,” Hardman said. “It’s more than just the curriculum. Students flourish when they see themselves reflected and included in the everyday life of the institution.”

An animated .gif of a man mulling something over and then approving

I remember being a student at Queen’s University in Ontario. Queen’s has a long history as one of Canada’s oldest universities, and I remember how out-of-place I felt during orientation week when I was exhorted to sing the “Oil Thigh” and cleave myself to the university’s Gaelic history and thematic elements. It’s not that they were bad, it’s that they bore pretty much zero relationship to my values and my life. I remember subsequently being approached by several groups and photographers on campus, asking if they could use my image for promotional purposes. While this was something I was used to, it was the first time I said “hell no” and explained exactly why – Queen’s is a majorly-predominantly white school and I am not going to tokenize myself in order to lend the illusion of diversity.

I can only imagine how much worse that experience would be for a student coming from a First Nation, being surrounded by people celebrating their cultural hegemony and the creation of a system that has been steadily eroding your right to exist for generations. Why on Earth would I want to be a part of that orgy of colonial self-congratulation? Especially when the university, built on land stolen from my ancestors (in many but not all cases), shows no interest in making me a part of their traditions, ignoring me unless I can be used as a prop for them to pretend they are something other than what they are?

It is encouraging, therefore, to see this trend reversing. Depending on how it is handled, it may have the effect of making schools more welcoming to students coming from Aboriginal communities:

UBC Law had 54 aboriginal students enrolled last year. “We’ve been working on that for the last three or four years,” [UBC Professor Gordon] Christie said. “We see ourselves as leaders in this area.”

The incoming class for the general law program is 180 students. “We like to have a certain number of aboriginal students if we can, because that creates a sense of community.” The university also has programs in place to help aboriginal students through tutoring and financing. “There’s a perception in Canadian society that aboriginal students go to university for free, but that’s far from being the case.”

But above and beyond that, the shift is likely to benefit the education of non-Aboriginal students as well:

This year, University of B.C. Law will for the first time make aboriginal rights and treaties in Canada a mandatory course for first-year students. UBC has a plan in place to increase aboriginal content across the campus, said Prof. Gordon Christie, the director of First Nations Legal Studies at UBC.

This brings me back to my recurring thesis on diversity: it benefits everyone. Policies designed at actively increasing the number of perspectives present in an organization, whether that be a school or a business or a political movement, are going to make that organization better grounded in reality and less prone to make decisions that are rooted in a particular selective viewpoint. The benefits are going to be shared disproportionately by those who are on the lower part of the power divide, to be sure, but the simple truth is that everyone’s world gets better.

Of course, there are several arguments for why increasing the number of educated, involved, and empowered First Nations Canadians is the right thing to do – politically, historically, ethically, economically, medically, once again take your pick – but to me the ‘argument from mutual assimilation’ is a strong one, and (in my opinion) a big step in the direction of recognizing that First Nations traditions are an integral part of Canadian identity that have been too long neglected.

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*A phrase I hate – the world cannot be evenly divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’, and there are quite a few cultural traditions from the western hemisphere (including North American Aboriginal traditions) that are purposefully excluded from the term ‘West’.


  1. mynameischeese says

    I really like this idea. I hope it becomes a trend and spreads to the USA and Australia and other places. And I hope that all students in the future will get a less Eurocentric view of history.

  2. Quietmarc says

    John Raulston Saul’s “A Fair Country” discusses at length the impact that aboriginal history has contributed to Canadian Law, and highlights how our legal system differs from both US and continental European systems as a result, so it’s great the read about law schools taking this step.

  3. eric says

    Of course I find this position both absurd and offensive. The problems we see endemic in many First Nations communities – lack of opportunity, abject poverty, substance abuse, take your pick – are not the result of a failed policy of multiculturalism. Nor is it the fault of those people who fail to adopt a “Western”* way of thinking and living. No, the reason we see these problems is because those people with power have failed, time after frustratingly-frequent time, to uphold their end of the bargain when it comes to providing adequate resources and support to these communities.

    This is a great point. It also brought to mind that the U.S. reservations are probably exactly the types of communities we might expect to grow more common under far-right U.S. concepts of (predominantly local) government.

    Want to know what a community looks like when we don’t collect taxes across a broad base and redistribute resources according to need? Look there. For native communities, that is what ‘separate’ has really meant: it means the larger governmental organization in which they operate ‘independently’ doesn’t use the taxes collected across the state to improve their infrastructure or bring services to their communities.

  4. invivoMark says

    May I briefly derail? Where/when did the term “First Nations” replace “Native Americans”? Or is that a Canadian thing? Because I swear I have not heard that term until this year, and just in the past two months I’ve heard it several times. It confused the crap out of me the first time I heard it! Is “Native American” no longer a “correct” thing to say?

  5. smrnda says

    The whole idea being the need for groups to ‘assimilate’ is the idea that they need to remedy their ignorance of all things proper and “Western” At least there’s a growing consensus that say, white North Americans ought to remedy their ignorance of indigenous peoples.

    I’ve always noted that arguments in favor of ‘assimilation’ are usually made alongside the various ‘culture of poverty’ arguments – the idea that the person just has a deficient culture, and that if they adopted to the dominant values they’d suddenly find themselves to be incredibly successful. It’s kind of an excuse for racism, or for denying that the reason a group is struggling probably has nothing to do with anything wrong with them but more with a society that actively discriminates against them.

    In the US, I think that the record is that for every treaty the US Government made with Native Americans, it broke every single treaty as soon as was convenient.

  6. says

    There’s a wiki on the terminology here.

    I use First Nations rather than “Aboriginal” because there are issues that are distinct to Aboriginal people from Canada’s north that are not germane to the rest of the country, and they’re not really reflected in this policy change. Even then, none of them are “wrong” per se (except “Indian”, which you probably knew).

    I prefer to use ‘First Nations’ because a) it’s what I see them call themselves when forced to identify as a political group, and b) “Native” can mean a bunch of things, and I find the distinction laborious to make. There’s also c) it accurately reflects the fact that “Native Canadians” are actually a post-hoc collection of individual nations (in the same way that “Europeans” or “Africans” do not really share a uniform culture).

  7. Graculus says

    invivoMark: It’s a Canadian term. “Native American” refers to indigenous people in the United States, why should people outside of the US identify as USian? “First Nations” more accurately reflects Canada’s political & cultural history than “Indian” (Asia? really?)

  8. says

    This quote:

    “There’s a perception in Canadian society that aboriginal students go to university for free, but that’s far from being the case.”

    Gordon Christie should have followed up with “Even if it were true that First Nations students don’t pay tuition, this stereotype dismisses the price every First Nations individual in this country has already paid (i.e., cultural genocide), since the arrival of the first settlers.”

    Honestly, I’m tired of seeing this go unchallenged.

    And by the way, you might want to take a look at First Nations University in case you weren’t aware of it because no one talks about it:

  9. says

    P.S. “Indian” is still Eurocentric, as this label was first attributed to the First Nations by settlers. The First Nations still use “Indian”, “Native”, “Aboriginal”, and First Nations, but that’s their choice to make, not ours to make for them (i.e., as in Canada’s Indian Act, which is still in effect with the express purpose of causing their assimilation).

  10. says

    I’m referring to the stereotype that too frequently goes unchallenged, that First Nations have life on easy street and everything handed to them. The tuition myth being one example.

  11. Diana Goods says

    Good post. I am a Manitoban and we have a very high population of First Nations people here. It is so discouraging to hear the common negative stereotypes that are expressed by so many people who would not consider themselves “racist’ in any other context. It certainly is true that many people believe these people receive handouts and that we are not responsible for rectifying the injustices perpetuated by our ancestors, not recognizing that the majority non-First Nations continue to benefit today.Privilege rearing it’s head, as usual. My husband and I lived in Cross Lake, now called Pimichikamik, for three years and witnessed the incredible hardship that people are still living with. I hope that we will make progress with these issues, but the attitudes are pretty entrenched. When the federal government can not even decide to invest in providing clean water to the First Nations, it makes me feel pretty discouraged.

  12. Jesse says

    @WMD KItty — because so far all the compromises and “give” has been on one side.

    In the US one of the reasons the AIM people took over Alcatraz was to point this out. Every time the Native people ask for what they are owed by treaty someone comes along and says “let’s compromise.”

    For example: in Salamanca, NY, the town was built on Seneca land. The land was leased for 99 years. The Senecas, some 10 years before the lease ran out, started saying “guys, we plan to renegotiate and guess what, your rent is going up.” It is their right as a landlord. Under the dominant society’s very own rules.

    So what happens? Town officials dicker around because they figure there’s no way those Senecas would enforce their claim. Because they’re just a bunch of Indians. Well, that didn’t happen. 15 households were evicted, basically because they didn’t want to pay up. I might add that according to the treaty non-Senecas can’t own real property on the reservation where the town is. So anything that’s on the reservation and abandoned reverts back to the Seneca nation, though white town officials have largely resisted this.

    The sad thing is that it would not have been a big deal to just renegotiate the lease(s).

    That’s just one example. There are loads of others.

    So, how about this: why don’t the white residents of the US show a willingness to abide by the treaties that their government signed? Why won’t our government enforce them? How about that as a starting point? Half of South Dakota should be Lakota. But it was simply stolen — the government violated its own laws in the process.

    In Canada as I understand it the situation is a bit different, at least in a legalistic sense, since I guess Canada counts as a successor state to the treaties signed by the British crown, but someone else (Crommunist? Help!) will have to get into it since I am not familiar enough with how those obligations were set up once Canada wasn’t a province anymore. (I honestly have only the vaguest notion of the ins and outs of Canada’s relationship with British policy). But either way, the point about compromise stands: so far all the give in the give and take has been from one side. Time to remedy that a bit, I think.

  13. says

    Hmm. You’re right in that it has been almost entirely one-sided in the past, and that the governments (both U.S. and Canadian) have a long track record of screwing people over… yeah. Okay, I can see where compromise has failed. I just… I think there’s a solution that doesn’t involve the assimilation of one group by the other. What it is, I don’t know.

  14. ThoughtfulOne says

    Sorry, but your position is self-contradictory. How is “increasing the number of educated, involved, and empowered First Nations Canadians” – that being educated, involved, and empowered in “Western” institutions and culture such as University of B.C. – not the very same “assimilation” you deride earlier?

    While I certainly strongly support education and empowerment of disempowered minority groups everywhere (I’m from the U.S. and things are a little different here but there are basically the same problems) it’s silly to think this doesn’t amount to assimilating into the dominant culture. Merely having “Black Studies” (in the U.S) or “First Nations Studies” (in Canada) departments in Universities does nothing whatsoever to change that. The dominant culture is, by definition, the one with power; therefore, by definition, those individuals with power are part of it. If you don’t like the dominant culture than it needs to change; but mere so-called “inclusionary” policies don’t accomplish it. It’s like the naive imagining that “male-dominated” corporate culture will change merely by having a few women on the Board of Directors.

  15. Jesse says

    Well, to be fair, the whole point is that cultures aren’t going to change if nobody gets in the door, so to speak.

    In fact, there are real, concrete examples of that happening.

    For instance: in 1960 the “Mad Men” thing of pinching your secretary’s ass was considered fine and dandy. Why? No women in supervisory positions. Once there were more such women, once women became a big enough part of the workplace and political structure, you could get something like a harassment policy in place.

    Or casual racism. When I was a kid, certain jokes were common and oft-told. Now they aren’t. That didn’t happen by magic; it happened in part because it’s a lot tougher to tell black jokes when a black guy might be your boss.

    So in one sense, being included helps a lot, even if the included person is adapting to the dominant culture. Because it’s harder for the old dominant structures to work when the people who aren’t interested are around.

    Also, giving someone a job or an education or both means they are in a better position to defend themselves.

    When people talk about assimilation, though, (from the assimil-ees perspective) they are saying that they want to be able to decide how much and how far. There is a difference between “I choose to learn French” and being forced to while beaten for speaking say, Miqmaq or Cree, you know?

  16. invivoMark says

    Okay, cool, thanks for clarifying. I had always assumed that “Native American” included Canadian (as in, the (North?) American continent).

  17. says

    How about calling it ‘Occidental’ instead of ‘Western’? That word basically means ‘the culture descended from the Western European colonial powers’.

  18. says

    Native activist and law professor Pam Palmater has a very small poll, now closed, on her home page at where she asked readers which term they preferred. First Nation is the first choice.
    However, I have noticed in Pam’s writings, as well as other Indigenous bloggers, such as Chelsea Vowels, that the term Indigenous is now being favoured by many. That was not a choice on her poll, but I think the term is growing in popularity.

    In my own writings I have alternated between Aboriginal, which is the least liked on that small poll, and First Nations, but now mostly use Indigenous. I had an Indigenous law professor at UBC who told me she despised the term ‘Aboriginal’ because the prefix ‘ab’ denotes a negative, as in ‘abnormal’.

    And as Pam points out in one of her articles, whatever term is used should be capitalized.

  19. says

    In Canada as I understand it the situation is a bit different, at least in a legalistic sense, since I guess Canada counts as a successor state to the treaties signed by the British crown…

    Treaties that, to my knowledge, the British themselves broke multiple times before Confederation, and that Canada has circumvented multiple times.

    (here I go trying to remember Social Studies 11/12)

    The Royal Proclamation of 1763 guaranteed Indigenous right to negotiate. Subsequent acts did not withdraw this right (even though they messed with the boundaries that were set by the Proclamation without following the procedure set therein; the Quebec Act was one, and it was seen as one of the Intolerable Acts because the American colonists wanted that land), and it is explicitly referred to in section 25 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Thing is, it never really got listened to until very recently, when the courts starts paying attention to a law that’s been on the books for almost 250 years.

  20. sambarge says

    When we talk about the assimilation of First Nations people to a “Euro-Canadian” way of life, we fail to remember just how much of our culture is actually appropriated from First Nations people. This is the history we never tell. Canada looks the way it does because of its First Nations – their food, their technology, their skills, their political systems.

    We have to start talking about this in History class and not in a patronizing re-telling of the Pilgrims at the Thanksgiving sort of way but in an honest telling of what the First Nations meant to the success of Canada (and the US).

  21. sambarge says

    I’m from Northwestern Ontario and I hear you. I work with a lot of First Nations communities and the answers to their problems are not always so complex. But there is no political will and a disgusting racism at play when it comes to addressing Canada abysmal record of keeping its treaty obligations.

  22. says

    Sam, your comment made me think of the latest search for the Franklin expedition. The government wants to find the ship for propaganda purposes, and so is willing to rely on Inuit oral history in that search.

    On the other hand, the government frequently disregards Indigenous oral history when there are land or other rights at stake.

  23. Whistlz says

    In Canada, we use the term “indigenous” as well.

    We have Inuit, Metis and First Nations. The Inuit and Metis do not like being called First Nations, as it’s not how they identify.

    It’s also important to me, that many First Nations are getting more specific about who they are and where they are from – because the term “First Nations” could be used to describe someone from Ontario, or someone from BC.

    (Many of my friends identify with the actual village they belong to, as well as being First Nations.)

    Also – First Nations often refer to themselves as Indians – especially the older generation – but of course, that’s not an appropriate term for outsiders to use anymore.

  24. says

    Hey, call me whatever but just never call me a Squaw…Im N8V and only take offence when people over here in the UK call me Red Injun…Hmmmm. That and hijacking my heritage by selling some sub-standard tat at the local market under the name of Native. I could sell a lot as I am full blood but tbh? I wouldnt sell out my culture that way!!

    I had a point but got on a rant there sorry!!

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