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Disrobing the Aboriginal industry

By Joseph Quesnel - posted Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Mainstream Aboriginal commentary and books rarely deviate from accepted thinking. Predictably, such thinking claims Aboriginal societies existed as nation-states and were just as advanced as European societies, that “cultural loss” and colonisation are to blame for current Aboriginal problems, and that self-government will solve everything.

A new book from two Calgary authors offers a new perspective, candour and honesty on such issues.

The two authors - Marxists - asserts that real left-wing analysis of Aboriginal policy requires a “critical eye rather than a bleeding heart”. They make the case that the problems afflicting First Nations are more cultural than political.


For those interested in a serious debate about Aboriginal politics in Canada, it’s evident the discussion is skewed. To see evidence, one need go no further than the Aboriginal issues section of any local bookstore, or academic journal articles on the topic. Most publications tend to rarely deviate from the following narrative: Aboriginal societies existed as nation-states and were just as advanced as European societies; all of the problems which beset indigenous communities can be attributed to “cultural loss” and colonisation; and to restore full powers to First Nation communities will solve everything. To dispute any of the above assumptions is to be a “racist” or “Euro-centric” or against Aboriginal people.

Occasionally, some thinkers take these shaky assumptions to task.

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry is such a work. Written by Frances Widdowson, a political scientist from Mount Royal College, and Albert Howard, a former Aboriginal and government consultant, the work is a monumental achievement of clear thinking and a direct assault on the so-called Aboriginal Orthodoxy. It is worth reading for its honesty on so many Aboriginal issues, in particular for its refreshing analysis of cultural incompatibility.

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry should be situated within a tradition of dissident literature on Aboriginal issues. University of Calgary Political Science Professor Tom Flanagan, in his trailblasing First Nations? Second Thoughts, clearly set the path with his clear presentation of the assumptions of the Aboriginal Orthodoxy. By dismantling each of these assumptions in turn, Flanagan demonstrated the logical inconsistency, historical revisionism and Aboriginal political advocacy that distorted Aboriginal policy, particularly in light of the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

BC lawyer Mel Smith also set the path with his work Our Home or Native Land that demonstrated the problematic aspects of the Indian land claims industry. The newest work within the tradition is Dances with Dependency by Aboriginal author Calvin Helin. This work was unique in that it was by an Aboriginal and expressed within the context of Aboriginal history.

What sets Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry apart is its perspective, candour and honesty on the cultural issues, and the wealth of experience from which the book is derived. This book is the first critical look at Aboriginal politics from a leftist point of view. Widdowson and Albert Howard self-identify as historical materialists -Marxists, in layman’s terms, and argue economic forces determine culture.


The authors asserts that real left-wing analysis of Aboriginal policy requires a “critical eye rather than a bleeding heart”. They make the case that the problems which afflict First Nations are more cultural than political. For example, insofar as Aboriginal communities remain focused on pre-capitalist, kinship-based thinking still attached to traditional conceptions of governance, corruption is the result in the modern context. It is, Widdowson and Albert assert, what keeps Indigenous people from enjoying the benefits of modernity.

The authors bring a unique perspective to the debate as they both worked within Aboriginal communities and witnessed first-hand many of the problems now analysed.

Widdowson and Albert recount an experience while they worked with the Northwest Territories government. There, they discovered that the government was interested in aboriginal “traditional knowledge”, despite not being able to define it and which anyway interfered with actual science. The main problem, as they see it, is that this knowledge is derived from pre-scientific animistic beliefs. A central problem for the authors is the unavoidably spiritual dimensions of so much thinking on Aboriginal issues which, they caution, inform public policy and make empirical observations problematic.

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First published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy on February 4, 2009.

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About the Author

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who focuses on aboriginal matters among many other things.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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