Canadian Indigenous leaders wrongly say that their traditional Indigenous cultures still exist. Or, to the extent that they acknowledge that their ancestors’ cultures are dying or already gone, they wrongly blame non-Indigenous Canadians for this, as if we or our ancestors intended this to happen. The old cultures of the ancestors of Canada’s non-Indigenous peoples are all dying or already gone too.
History shows that all cultures naturally evolve out of existence, or into something different, or one way or another, come to an end. It’s a basic fact of human life and history – a basic rule applicable to all human cultures, to which Indigenous cultures have been no exception.
Indigenous spokespersons also wrongly say that the assimilation of Indigenous and non–Indigenous cultures was and is a bad thing. It’s not at all. In fact, it’s very natural and positive. Assimilation, an aspect of biological evolution, is a process which has been occurring continuously since the beginning of life on earth, and since the origin of humans. It’s been fundamental to the development, adaptation and progress of our species.
To bewail and decry it and to want to somehow opt out of it is really to want to be segregated from a healthy and natural life process that is inherently a part of life on earth – that is inherent to being human. It’s to want to be excluded from a fundamental evolutionary process – to step outside of history itself – which no one can do.
This point was very recently forcefully made by Historian Sir David Cannadine, in his instructive and inspiring book, The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond our Differences.[i] He wrote:
“Civilizations were not hermetically sealed off from one another, but interacted creatively, and this borrowing and cross-fertilization was the key to progress…Human advancement is the outcome of the co-mingling of ideas through the contact of different groups…Civilization is everywhere the stimulus evoked by the friction of one group upon another.”
One of the world’s most remarkable and resilient cultures in the world is that of the Jews, which has received, absorbed and survived as many shocks, slings and arrows as any culture in history. A key to its survival has been its adaptive, assimilationist nature.
Israeli writer and humanist Amos Oz wrote:[ii]
“What does Jewish culture comprise? It comprises everything we have amassed over the generations. Elements born inside it, as well as those we have absorbed from the outside, which become part of the family.”
The late Canadian humanist/historian Erna Paris, in her inspiring book, From Tolerance to Tyranny- A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth Century Spain,[iii] a paean to the benefits of human mixing of all sorts, writing of Canada’s early years of development, which wrongly civically excluded our Indigenous peoples, wrote:
“Canadian pluralism…grew not from ideology, or theology, for that matter, but from a pragmatic need to develop sparsely populated tracts of land. No matter the origin, the outcome was the same. Mixed populations ignited an explosion of raw energy and inventiveness.”
Indigenous leaders who oppose legal integration and further assimilation with their fellow countrymen are fighting these natural, stimulating and enlightened processes, and by doing so are actually hurting their people rather than helping them. They’re ensuring further segregation, and thus further cultural stagnation and loss, rather than cultural rejuvenation.
They’re also acting in an unintentionally racist way because a logical assumption underlying their opposition to integration and assimilation is that to them, persons of other races are somehow inappropriate to mix with. This is the dark side of their arguments against integration and assimilation.
Humans have always been a wandering species- for 100,000 years constantly migrating from one place to another- always in a state of flux- forever mating, mixing and matching with new peoples.
Fundamental to all the different types of human collectives has been the ever-present reality of change– those collectives transforming from one cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, social or political state to another.
Whether the collective is or was a clan, a tribe, an ethnic, linguistic, religious, or racial group, a nation or an empire, this constant, impersonal, grinding, stimulating process of change, adaptation, mixing and assimilation has always been at work.
Canada itself has a vastly different culture than it had one hundred years ago. We’ve changed – assimilated – from a French-English dominated polity to a multi-ethnic one. Those of us who claim French or British heritage can justly say that we have “lost” our old dominant culture.
Indeed, we have, but we didn’t lose it in the sense of losing something we “owned.” Culture is intangible and is not property, and thus is incapable of being owned by anyone. That “culture,” such as it was, is now irretrievably gone. Beneath our eyes, unsuspecting or not, under the influence of inexorable and timeless factors like migration, human interactions, and technological change, it imperceptibly morphed into something different.
British culture itself, as it existed at the time the first English migrators came to Canada, was itself the final product of an “indigenous” culture first existing in Great Britain around 12000 BC, which was then continually transformed by a series of later influxes of new peoples- Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Vikings, Normans and countless others. New migrators merged, mixed and assimilated with indigenous, “host” populations to create a new, usually more dynamic culture for both.
This same universal historical process of change took place in France, our other European founding country.
Sixteenth century France was the end result of a long series of migrations, invasions, alliances, and other types of cultural fertilizations, cross-pollinations and assimilations, voluntary and otherwise, involving the “indigenous” tribes of original Gaul and firstly, Romans, and then Goths, Huns, Franks, Vandals and numerous other ethnic and linguistic peoples.
The cultural result of all that movement and mixing in Europe-all those migrations, mergers and cultural exchanges- all that stimulation and assimilation – by the time of Europe’s first contact with the Americas, was the Renaissance – one of the most creative and dynamic watershed periods in the relatively short history of the human race, and a prime example of how assimilation leads to good and progressive ends.
Essayist/scholar Simon Leys argues[iv] that it is all these changes and exchanges that create this kind of higher form of culture:
“Culture is born out of exchanges and thrives on differences”.
And unfortunately, the opposite is true. As he writes:
“The death of culture lies in its self-centeredness, self-sufficiency and isolation”.
This means, in the case of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, that the more their elites and Canada’s elites strive to further legally, physically and mentally segregate Indigenous peoples from the rest of Canadians, for instance by way of their joint UNDRIP Action Plan, the more they ensure the death of what remains of traditional Indigenous culture.
The Roman Empire was one of the longest-lasting empires in world history. Edward Gibbon, in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,[v] attributes this partially to its “genius” of always following an assimilationist policy. He writes:
“The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of its ancient citizens, had checked the fortune, and hastened the ruin, of Athens and Sparta. The aspiring genius of Rome sacrificed vanity to ambition, and deemed it more prudent, as well as honorable, to adopt virtue and merit for her own wheresoever they were found, among slaves or strangers, enemies or barbarians.”
The Roman Empire brought peace to the civilized world for two centuries. It meant prosperity for the world, and within it, peoples of different races, religions and customs learned to live harmoniously with one another.
Tenth and eleventh century Moorish Spain had, at the time, the most tolerant and sophisticated culture in Europe. The key to its success was the promotion of social assimilation.
Erna Paris writes in From Tolerance to Tyranny (above):
“Accomplishment grew from a foundation of cultural pluralism, which welcomed new people, new languages, and new ideas; conversely, the exclusive ideology of Christianity set roadblocks in the way. The intellectual, artistic and cultural brilliance of Arab Spain was the harvest of an open cross-fertilization unimpeded by religious rejection.”
As historian Robert Kaplan wrote in his book, In Europe’s Shadow, [vi]the over 400 year-lasting Ottoman Empire showed the same assimilationist genius, legally “treating all creeds and races as one”, thusly creating “an extraordinary civilization”:
“Ottoman soldiers and administrators hailed from the western Balkans, Poland and Ukraine; the harem at Topkapi numbered women from Greece, Russia and Circassia: The Ottoman system provided the opportunity of rapid social advancement for those taken initially away by force from their families, however obscure their origins. As the historian Arnold J. Toynbee puts it, the Ottomans “served a positive political purpose by providing the Orthodox Christian world with the universal state which it was unable to achieve for itself.”
Empires were cruel in their way but also allowed a mechanism for intercommunal existence, where borders and identities built on race, language and religion mattered less, since everyone obeyed the same sovereign. The horrors of the twentieth century had as their backdrop the collapse of empires and the rise of modern, uni-ethnic states…We still live in the aftershocks of that nightmare. No solution has yet been found in the Middle East for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.”
From the 1830’s to the 1970’s, the policy of every Canadian government regarding Indigenous peoples reflected these lessons from history- reflected this wise, liberal, compassionate, realism-based goal of assimilation. It was only after that, with the combination of the illiberal way section 35 of the Constitution has been interpreted and the aforementioned UNDRIP laws, that, inexplicably and with no debate with or input from the Canadian people, this long-standing, assimilationist policy was reversed.
Canada’s policy regarding Indigenous peoples is now officially segregationist, with First Nations reserves, once assumed to be only temporary way stations between pre- contact Indigenous tribalism and self-supporting, Indigenous integration and assimilation into the modern Canadian mainstream, which reserves are now reasonably viewed as permanent ghettos.
As history shows, the process of cultural change and assimilation – the result of millions of individual instincts, thoughts and decisions – acts out as a virtually unconscious, automatic, unstoppable, old-culture pulverizing, collectiveforce. Court decisions and social-engineering legislation can’t stop this.
Novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writes:[vii]
One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch- of the entire universe and all it contains-is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep, without which we would stand still. The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the background of us all. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.17
In all the above cases of cultural change, the long-term “loss” allegedly suffered was often not one that actually diminished in any way the essential humanity or dignity of those affected. It just changed them and, objectively viewed, more often than not for the better. This is the certainly the case with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, all of which, by their conduct, clearly show that they do not want to revert to the pre-contact, pre-literate, paleolithic, tribal lifestyles of their remotely distant ancestors.
Canadian Indigenous culture as it existed prior to contact with European migrants, like European Renaissance cultures that existed then, like Canada’s culture of one hundred years ago, for the same reasons, has almost totally disappeared. Little of it remains. Why should it?
Indigenous tribal societies, being so fundamentally and typically human, were and are naturally subject to the same implacable laws of migration, mixing, technological and material change- the same agents of change- as were and are all other racial, ethnic or other such groups that make up the human family.
This basically blameless phenomenon was happening on a regular basis in North America long before European migrators arrived.
Clovis, Adena, Arctic Mongols, Shield Archaic, Woodland Trend, Dorset – these are only a few of the exotic names given by anthropologists to the many extinct forbearers of the Indigenous tribal groups that existed in Canada at the time of contact.
Globalization has now accelerated to the point where there are no authentic, pre-contact, “traditional” Indigenouscultures left here in Canada, or anywhere else in the world.
As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in Sapiens- A Brief History of Mankind:[viii]
Today almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognized states); the same economic system (capitalist market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least theoretically); and the same scientific system (experts in Iran, Israel, Australia, and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis…
…We still talk a lot about “authentic” cultures, but if by “authentic” we mean something that developed independently, and that consists of ancient local traditions free of external influences, then there are no authentic cultures left on earth. Over the last few centuries, all cultures have changed almost beyond recognition by a flood of global influences.
Presently, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, most of us breathing the same levelling, democratizing air of large towns and cities, and all of us constantly scrolling on our iPhones, have far more in common with each other than either group has with their respective ancestors, the hardship realities of whose lives none of us, imprisoned in our modernist zeitgeist, can properly imagine, as this linked-to, beautiful essay by writer Michelle Stirling evocatively illustrates.
Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens:
“The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere…The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology.”
Yet despite this obvious reality, Canadian Indigenous elites, more in an effort, not to show that traditional Indigenous culture exists, but rather, to make it merely appear to exist, constantly talk about their supposedly distinct “traditional cultures.”
But except insofar as Indigenous people experience on average a larger degree of poverty and social misery than all other Canadian racial or ethnic groups, largely because of them being mentally, physically and legally segregated from non-Indigenous Canadians by their civically infantilizing reserve culture, there’s no credible evidence that, aside from that, any distinct or “traditional” Indigenous culture exists today anywhere in Canada. Merely declaring that it exists doesn’t make it so.
A culture is a particular form or type of social living which manifests itself in actual, demonstrable human behavior. If what is merely talked about is not practiced, that’s not evidence of a distinct culture. Nowhere do Canadians see distinct or traditional Indigenous cultures demonstrated in the way Indigenous people act out their ordinary lives.
Modern Indigenous economic culture is characterized by a form of parasitical capitalism, fundamentally dependent upon preferential race-based laws and various forms of subsidization by Canadian taxpayers. Its assimilative, daily, personal reality is perfectly personified by Chief Clarence Louie of the B.C. Osoyoos band, pictured on the cover of his autobiography, Rez Rules, (reviewed by this writer), staring confidently at the camera through dark sunglasses while seated on an expensive, “hog” motorcycle, wearing a Montreal Canadians hockey sweater.
Fully assimilated Indigenous leaders, like Chief Louie, have, for ongoing power and money purposes, sentimentally invented, firstly, the myth of an Arcadian Indigenous past, and secondly, the myth of a culturally distinct Indigenous present. The first is false and the second is impossible. About this self-flattering, self-seeking, myth-making phenomenon the Australian-born historian and art critic Robert Hughes writes:[ix]
Nationalism always wants to have myths to prop itself up…And if you ask what the aim of these efforts to roll history and myth together was, in every case the answer is the same. Self-esteem…But the desire for self-esteem does not justify every lie and exaggeration and therapeutic slanting of evidence that can be claimed to alleviate it. The separatism it fosters turns what ought to be a recognition of cultural diversity, of real multiculturalism, generous and tolerant on both sides, into a pernicious symbolic program.
The reality of Indigenous culture in the modern age was starkly and succinctly stated in 1971 by the late Indigenous lawyer William Wuttunee, one of the co-founders of what later became the Assembly of First Nations, in his book, Ruffled Feathers – Indians in Canadian Society,[x] which advocated, (like this article), for the end of the reserve system and the completion of the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into mainstream society. He wrote:
” Real Indian culture is just about dead on the reserves.”
Canadians search for positive, hopeful solutions to difficult or tragic situations of cultural loss, and there is one to this situation.
Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican intellectual, in his most famous book, The Labyrinth of Solitude,[xi] challenged his countrymen to see themselves as “a cosmic race… where the old plurality of cultures, postulating various and contrary ideals, and offering various and contrary views of the future, has been replaced by a single civilization and a single future”,
and to regard themselves as bound by the idea of living inter-racially, as absolute equals, in a new form of creative participation. This universalist idea has borne dynamic cultural fruit in Mexico, and it can bare the same fruit for Canada.
It’s the vision of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and William Wuttunee- the vision personified by Chief Louie (but tragically not advocated by him or any other of Canada’s very comfortable Indigenous elites) – the vision that, when realized, will provide a new, creative and dynamic way for Canadians of all races to share our beautiful geographic and civic spaces together as equals.
Non-Indigenous Canadians readily admit the obvious fact that we are complete strangers to the lost cultures of our ancestors. This doesn’t mean that we don’t partially self-identify as Canadians by celebrating our respective heritages. We do, and it’s wonderful and enriching.
What it does mean is that we don’t wholly define ourselves by who our ancestors were or how they lived. We don’t pretend that we live in the same world as them or that, in any real, present-day sense, we are acculturated in any way like them.
To achieve success in modern Canada- to realize their potential as human beings- Indigenous Canadians have to admit this same obvious fact about themselves- that they too are complete strangers to their distant ancestors’ lost cultures- that they too are essentially modern beings with modern sensibilities, like Chief Louie, living in the modern world like and alongside their fellow Canadians.
But that’s no real loss, in fact it can be regarded as a gain, because they too, like the rest of us, can still keep and celebrate their heritage and still partially self-identify by it, while at the same time living in the present in a clear-eyed, forward-looking way.
William Wuttunee branded a “red apple Indian”, (red on the outside but “white” on the inside), by all the race-obsessed, Indigenous shouters and dividers who feared him in his day, and by all the same types who would fear him and put him down today, loved his people and his cultural heritage as much, or more than his detractors.
His love and concern constituted an adult, selfless love – a love based on hard-life experience, extensive knowledge, a clear-eyed view of reality and a regard for what was best for his people rather than what was best for his people’s elites. He wrote in Ruffled Feathers:
Indian culture does not mean wearing feathers and hopping around on one foot; It means the belief in the Great Spirit who inhabits the sun, the stars, the wind, and all of nature. It means that one is honourable, brave, generous and kind. It means that one has a sense of responsibility to his immediate family and to the other members of the community with whom he is in contact.
There is a great deal that Indians can give to the Western way of life. There is a sense of relaxation in their concept of time, and there is an appreciation of living close to nature without polluting one’s surroundings. Indians show a warmth for family life; they express a deep concern for their fellow members in the community; and they show a sense of humour even in dire circumstances. They can endure great pain without apparent emotion. Theirs is a culture which could emphasize peace and contentment.
Canadians must correct the wrong turn that Canada has taken since the passage of section 35 of the Constitution Act and, acting in accordance with the timeless lessons of history and human progress, put Canada and its Indigenous peoples back on the road to full integration and assimilation.
Only in this way, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians inhabiting a common civic space, can the remaining excellences of Indigenous culture be best preserved, and the lives of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians be best improved and enriched.
January 27, 2024
[i] Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013
[ii] In Dear Zealots- Letters from a Divided Land, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, New York, 2018
[iii] Cormorant Books Inc. Toronto, 2015
[iv] In his essay, The Paradox of Provincialism, an essay in his book, The Hall of Uselessness- Collected Essays, published by The New York Review of Books, New York, 2013
[v] The writer’s version of this classic was published by The Folio Society in 1983.
[vi] In Europe’s Shadow, Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, Random House, New York, 2016, an historical primer on the evils oof ethnic, national or racial group thinking.
[vii] In Teach Yourself Italian, The New Yorker, December 7, 2015
[viii] McLelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2014
[ix] In The Culture of Complaint- The Fraying of America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993
[x] Bell Books Ltd. Calgary, 1971 (out of print)
[xi] Grove Press Inc. New York, 1985
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