Wednesday 16 December 2020

Seven Fallen Feathers and Beautiful Scars: Two Books about Indigenous Canadians

 In the last couple of weeks I’ve read two books about Indigenous Canadians.

Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga  (house of Anansi Press, 2017) investigates the deaths of seven Indigenous teenagers in Thunder Bay, Ontario since 2000. All were registered in a local high school established and managed by Indigenous individuals, especially for teenagers whose own reserves were too small and underfunded to support their own high school. The children, as young as 14, boarded with adults in the community and were obliged to obey a curfew, so that if they went missing, the community and the police could quickly mobilize to search for them. The community usually mobilized before the police did and searched much more thoroughly.

Sadly, many of these children, disoriented and feeling isolated from their families, spent their evenings drinking and using drugs.   

Three (I think) of these teenagers died by drowning near a popular drinking spot. In all cases the police concluded it was death by accident, assuming thee children had fallen into the river while drunk. Yet parents could not understand how children brought up near water would drown. And the brother of one drowning victim almost drowned himself, but recovered consciousness and swam to shore.

This makes me wonder if there is not a serial killer on the loose in Thunder Bay, preying on Indigenous teenagers.

Talaga’s accusations of police neglect of these deaths is not without substance. A review of the Thunder Bay Police Force conducted in 2018 found that “TBPS investigators failed on an unacceptably high number of occasions to treat or protect the deceased and his or her family equally and without discrimination because the deceased was Indigenous…Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions about how Indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted, or refrained from acting, based on those biases. …[S]ystemic racism exists in TBPS at an institutional level.

Aside from the problem of inadequate (at best) policing, the causes of these tragic deaths are largely systemic. They stem from both the legacy of colonialism, and neglect by the federal agencies that are supposedly charged with the welfare of Indigenous people living on reserves. Schools are underfunded compared to schools funded by the provinces. As a result, as Talaga explains, the children moving to Thunder Bay to complete high school often all ill-prepared.

Also, living conditions on Northern reserves are often abysmal. A disproportionately high percentage of Indigenous peoples suffer from malnutrition, partly because of the high costs of food in northern communities (despite government subsidies) and partly because they have lost their traditional hunting skills. Many reserves do not even have clean drinking water.  Government promises to rectify these problems often remain that; empty promises.

The second book I read was Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home by Tom Wilson (Doubleday Canada, 2017). Wilson is an internationally known, Hamilton-based musician and songwriter. Not being at all conversant with contemporary music, I knew nothing about him and did not even know that he had lived in the block behind me for many years until someone pointed him out to me at our local gym.

Born in 1959, Wilson was raised in poverty in working-class Hamilton by older parents, Bunny and George. George was blinded in World War II and ran a candy and cigarette stand in Hamilton’s main post office for many years. Tom’s parents were absurdly strict, forcing him, for example, to go to bed at 5:00 PM on summer nights when all the other neighbourhood children were out playing. He sometimes visited the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve near Montreal (the site of the 1990 Oka crisis ), but was told it was because one of his aunts had married a Mohawk man. Gifts such as beaded moccasins occasionally arrived for him when he was a child.

Remarkably, despite his dark coloring and taunts of “Indian, Indian” from his schoolmates; and despite once hearing his mother tell a doctor that she had never given birth, Wilson did not put two and two together until he was in his 50s.  Like many musicians, much of his life was dedicated to sex, drugs, and drinking. Having chatted with him at the gym and having read his book, I have some inkling of how much he suffered during those years. Fortunately, he had married and his love for his children gave him something to hold on to, even when his wife threw him out and he was sleeping in his car in the parking lot of the church just down the block from me.

Tom’s adoptive mother, of Irish and French-Canadian heritage herself, did not want him to know that he was Mohawk. When he occasionally asked about his origins, Bunny said she would take her secret with her to the grave, and she did. I won’t reveal precisely how Tom found out that he is actually Mohawk, but only after Bunny’s death did he discover his actual parentage and his Mohawk roots.

This is such a sad story. Why would a woman who raised a son as late as the 1960s and 70s fear to tell him he was “Indian”?  Did Bunny have racist views about Indigenous people, or did she think she was protecting Tom against racists by not revealing his roots to him. In any event, she denied him the pride that he now has in his Mohawk identity and in the many Mohawk men who worked as “skywalkers” (construction workers in high rise buildings) in New York and elsewhere.

Monday 7 December 2020

Free Speech and Liberal Education: Book Review


Free Speech and Liberal Education, by Donald Alexander Downs: Book Review.

In 2011, a young Jewish student at York University in Toronto filed a complaint of anti-Semitism against her professor. She had heard him say in class that “Jews should be sterilized.”  This sounds horrendous, but it seems the student had been asleep for most of the class. The professor, himself Jewish, was discussing what might or might not be considered a legitimate point of view in a university classroom. What he had actually said was something like, “For example, the statement that ‘Jews should be sterilized’ is not a legitimate opinion.” Even after this was explained, however, the student continued to argue that it was anti-Semitic to even mention such a statement. As I wrote to the Canadian Jewish News at the time, this appeared to mean that professors should teach their students fairy tales, rather than teach them truthfully about history.[1]

This seems to be the problem with the new stress in many North American campuses on “trigger warnings.” These warnings are meant to protect students from encountering facts or analyses that might upset them. On the other hand, such analyses and facts might teach students quite a bit about the evils than men and women do.

Donald Alexander Downs, a legal philosopher retired from University of Wisconsin-Madison, addresses this problem and others in his Free Speech and Liberal Education: A. Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance ((Washington, D.C.:  Cato Institute, 2020) Downs is not an alarmist, and does not oppose all new “identity politics” trends on university campuses. He acknowledges, for example, the beneficial role that feminism has played in opening up new academic questions. (pp. 164-5) He presents examples of academic excesses but does not dwell on them.

Downs is not a free-speech absolutist: he refers frequently to US Supreme Court decisions on the limits of free speech. He also carefully differentiates between academic freedom and freedom of speech. The former is subject to standards of scholarly rigour. Professors should not be permitted to say whatever they want in a classroom: academic freedom has “competence-based limits” and requires “commitment to intellectual standards of proof, evidence and reason.” (pp.8, 58)

Freedom of speech, by contrast, is not subject to standards of scholarly rigour. Everyone on campus, whether faculty member, administrator, staff member or student, should enjoy the right to say whatever he or she wants outside of the strictures of academic discourse. Downs rightly condemns the Orwellian approach of Rhodes College, which in 2008 instructed students to report insensitive statements made by their fellow students in private conversation. (p.70) He is worried about the bureaucratic and administrative apparatuses that police freedom of speech, even going so far as to refer to the “surveillance university.” (p. 11) This surveillance extends well beyond American legal limits on freedom of speech, to include in some cases, as at the University of Oregon, policing of “insensitivity” and “lack of awareness.” (p. 87) Citing de Tocqueville, Downs calls these measures “soft despotism.” (p. 22) 

Downs opposes the “heckler’s veto,” now used against people considered right-wing or insensitive to identity politics, yet in earlier decades used against left-wing speakers. (p.72) Such a veto was attempted in Toronto in 2019, when feminist Meghan Murphy opposed certain transgender rights on the grounds that they might interfere with women’s rights.[2] Even Mayor John Tory opposed the principled stance of Vickery Bowles, Toronto’s chief librarian, who permitted Murphy to speak at the Palmerston Library.[3]

Downs agrees with the British sociologist, Frank Furedi, about the dangers of “therapy culture” on US campuses.[4] Young people, says Downs, are infantilized, protected from any ideas that might be perceived to upset—and therefore “harm”—them. Instead, Downs and Furedi believe, young people should be exposed to ideas with which they might at first disagree and trained to debate them. Young people should develop strength of mind to accompany their strength of body.

Downs also believes it is unfortunate that some universities now assume that “social justice” and “human rights” are opposing terms. “Progressive” universities pursuing a social justice mission focus on inequality. At the same time, they downplay the classic liberal values such as freedom of speech, and expand their bureaucratic and administrative governance over their individual members. (p.6)

Yet as Downs asserts, “Social justice without liberal rights is oxymoronic.”(p. 7) In this he is correct. Just as “social justice warriors” do, so also human rights advocates want everyone to be treated equally, whether with regard to civil and political rights such as the right to vote, or to economic, social and cultural rights such as to health care, education, or housing. In polities that restrict freedom speech and freedom of academic inquiry, social justice goals are unlikely to be realized. Take, for instance, the rights to adequate nutrition and to be free from starvation, protected by Article 11 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When citizens are tortured or murdered as punishments for speaking out against their governments, they are unable to let their governments know when they are starving, as in China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-62) or in North Korea or Venezuela today.[5]

Despite the continuing need for freedom of speech on US campuses as elsewhere, Downs shows that recent surveys of student opinion reveal a disturbing trend to prioritize sensitivity over freedom of speech. (pp. 125-48) This does not mean that Downs opposes attempts to be sensitive to students’ emotional needs, for example by creating “safe spaces” on campus. Students have the right to form “self-referential groups,” he argues, especially when they feel besieged by the larger society. (p. 88) On US campuses today, such groups may well include Black and transgendered students.

At the end of his book, Downs presents some guidance to readers on how to overcome politicized bullying of faculty members and students. He grounds his advice in his own twenty-year experience as a member of the University of Wisconsin’s Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights. Most of his suggestions are moderate, and take carefully into account the legitimate grievances of marginalized students, without ceding grounds of academic freedom or freedom of speech. Unfortunately, however, he does not present details of the cases he helped resolve, presumably because of privacy reasons.

Down’s most important contention is as relevant to Canada as to the US, even though both Canada’s hate speech laws and its approaches to diversity differ from those in the US. The university, he argues, should be a shared intellectual polis, in which students should be just as much participants as their professors. (p. 111) In this shared polis, not only the rights of speakers but also the rights of listeners should be protected: students and others have the right to listen to unpopular ideas. (p. 245, n.11) Exercise of the right to freedom of speech promotes intellectual courage among students, an important part of what it means to be a citizen, a participant in public debate. Citizens should be capable not only of intellectual conviction, but of civic doubt and an appropriate degree of distrust of government. (pp.176-81)

A university is not only a training-ground for future employment: it is, or ought to be, a training ground for active life-long participation in the public realm. For this to occur, both academic freedom and freedom of speech are absolutely necessary.

[1] Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, “’Offended’ by reality”, Canadian Jewish News, November 24, 2011, p. 8.

[4] Frank Furedi, What’s Happened to the University?, New York: Routledge, 2016.

[5] Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, State Food Crimes, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.