Review of “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry”

Today’s Online Opinion publishes a review by Joseph Quesnel of Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard’s book “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation”.

The book, which is available here, looks at the “Aboriginal Industry” in Canada, says that “Native people in Canada continue to suffer all the symptoms of a marginalized existence – high rates of substance abuse, violence, poverty. Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry argues that the policies proposed to address these problems – land claims and self government – are in fact contributing to their entrenchment.”

Quesnel’s review states that “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.”

Quesnel also says:

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.

29 Responses to “Review of “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry””

  1. 1 dalec

    YM, Your point/s being???

  2. 2 keza

    There’s an interview with Francis Widdowson here (on the Canadian Frontier Centre for Public Policy website).

    Widdowson attacks not only the nepotism and corruption which he sees having taken root in Aboriginal communities as a direct result of the inappropriateness of kinship based thinking in a modern context, but the way in which a similar process has occurred in the “Aboriginal Industry” which feeds off it.

    eg :

    FC: In your book Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry you criticize the Aboriginal industry, the layer of non- Aboriginal lawyers and consultants who grow rich from the land claims process etc. What are the problems with this industry and can its influence be changed?

    FW: The problem with the Industry is that it exists because of Aboriginal dependency. Therefore, the Industry doesn’t really have an interest in trying to address that dependency. In fact, it proposes programs that maintain Aboriginal dependency, ensuring that the funds keep flowing. To get rid of the Aboriginal Industry, the funding diverted to it has to be withdrawn; pressure must be placed on the government to provide high quality and sensitive services to the native population, instead of offloading its responsibility to the Aboriginal Industry.

  3. 3 Chris W

    What exactly is the authors’ problem with “pre-scientific animistic beliefs”? If the problem is lack of evidence, they should look to researchers such as Paul Stamets (Fungal intelligence), Donald R. Griffin (Animal Consciousness), as well as Rupert Sheldrake (Animal telepathy and morphic resonance), Fred Alan Wolf (the link between Quantum Physics and Consciousness) – all of which supports “Indigenous” and “Shamanistic” knowledge.

    Likewise, using the idea of “advancement” in culture using a contemporary (although shifting) measure of economic prowess (ie. lots of money) is increasingly outdated if you take a good look at the negative global impact of unchecked consumerism – the link between Western cars, global change and third world civil conflict has been written about widely (see James Martin and Stephan Faris for just two examples).

    Not only do Widdowson and Howard have a bizarre perspective, but they really ignore steps forward in the Aboriginal community using Western means while at the same time maintaining spiritual knowledge, but they also ignore their own skewed world view that ignores such evidence I mention above.

    Compared to other writing about indigenous, global and socio-political out there, “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry” is kind of like the ramblings of a drunk who watches too much Fox News.

  4. 4 Arthur

    Yep. Progress is outdated. Stone age spiritualism is the very latest fad!

  5. 5 barry

    Chris W expresses perfectly what those of us who support progress are up against. The sad reality is that such views, especially the second paragraph, are widely accepted. I think of it as an ethos that has permeated our culture – though maybe (and hopefully) it’s only the cultural elites who are so affected. Fox and MTV and nearly all of the mass media present such ideas as legitimate.

    Will the overturning of such reactionary assumptions happen suddenly – a single spark? They’re very entrenched, as I see it; though, on the positive side, they’re not at all difficult to debunk. It’s just that us humans are being made to feel so damn guilty for what we’ve achieved thus far.

  6. 6 youngmarxist

    “They’re very entrenched, as I see it; though, on the positive side, they’re not at all difficult to debunk”.

    What do you mean by “debunk” though? I assume you mean “Demonstrate, using the laws of logic, that a claim is untrue”.

    Sure that’s easy, but I suspect that people cling to these sort of beliefs for emotional reasons, so logic will sail right past them.

    Perhaps a better emotional response is to say something like “if you want to take back what the white man’s taken from you, you’d better learn his ways so you can make yourself strong”.

    I also don’t think attacking traditional animistic beliefs *in themselves* is useful, as it will create unnecessary resistance to modernity – rather, when animistic beliefs clash with what is needed by an indigenous community, modernists in that community will need to convince their peers that ideas need to change.

  7. 7 Arthur

    YM, my impression from the links was that Widdowson and Howard were putting forward a similar line to Noel Pearson.

    Chris W’s response illustrated an aspect of the problem – open promotion of keeping Aboriginals in a cultural museum to preserve pre-modern culture instead of helping integration with modern society. There wasn’t much pretence that this was some specific solution to Aboriginal problems. The problem according to Chris is modern society – we would ALL be better off with pre-modern belief systems.

    My one liner and Barry’s response addressed that. I don’t think the discussion should be about tactics in arguing with Aboriginals who do hold pre-modern belief systems. There are plenty of Aboriginal modernists who are in a much better position to handle that than any outsider (whether by debunking and attack or by persuasion according to taste).

    I’d like to take up the issue Barry raised, out of the context of the original review and Aboriginal issues. This stuff certainly isn’t entering the mainstream from Aboriginals. Its being propped up among Aboriginals as a side effect of it becoming mainstream.

    We really do face a quite extraordinary situation where in the 21st century there is a growing section attracted to pre-scientific animist beliefs. This certainly damages Aboriginals in Canada as well as Australia since without the “respect” for “spiritualism” Government programs promoting the Aboriginal Industry would have been exposed as absurd long ago.

    In some ways the more fundamentalist Christians have a better grasp of that reality than average – correctly identifying it as variety of the paganism the paganism that Christianity traditionally fought with a less absurd world view.

    Most people still perceive these raving loons as some sort of expression of modernity rather than as the extreme reactionaries they are. Their opposition to capitalism, from an extreme reactionary perspective is confused with opposition to capitalism from a left perspective.

    Part of the problem is that this mush has been pushed by the ruling class as an antidote to left opposition to capitalism. But its become a problem for them too.

    But another reason its popular is for the same reason that reactionary ideas have always been popular. One reaction to modernity has ALWAYS been “reaction”. Since reactionary ideas haven’t got much to argue with, they ALWAYS resort to obscurantist, “spiritual” mysticism.

    We need to take them more at face value as obscurantist reactionaries and debunk or persuade them from that assumption. Instead people try to argue with them as though they aren’t what they are.

  8. 8 Frances Widdowson

    I am in complete agreement with what Arthur is saying. It needs to be understood that being anti-capitalist does not *necessarily* mean being on the left of the political spectrum. Advocates of what is called “parallelism” in Canada – separate paths for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people – espouse a racist and aristocratic ideology. They argue that some people (in this case, Aboriginals) have the right to exploit and oppress those ancestral groups who were not given a “divine right” to control a territory by “The Creator”.

    These politically reactionary arguments are also untenable from an economic point of view. Although, as a species, we need to think through what needs to be produced, and how it should be produced, no one would support going back to productivity levels of the Stone Age. This would mean that economic security through control over the food supply would be greatly reduced. All people, regardless of their cultural background, appreciate the comforts of a modern existence; the problem is that these benefits are not distributed evenly in the world today and that the profit motive encourages many anti-social and life-negative forms of consumption.

    I have no idea why anyone would promote “pre-scientific animistic beliefs”, or how these can be conceptualized as a form of “knowledge” (citing a few dubious “authorities” on this matter is not convincing). The only support for this viewpoint seems to be due to the incorrect conflation of capitalism with science. Although economic growth in a capitalist system has been enhanced by the technology made possible by the scientific method, and some of this technology has been destructive for humanity (as is the case with nuclear weapons), this is a political problem, not a scientific one. The scientific method should not be confused with the uses to which it is put (which can either be socially harmful or beneficial).

    What is happening with the aboriginal question is that the terrible treatment of aboriginal peoples historically is being used to justify a number of initiatives that are socially harmful. Although one can understand why the Aboriginal Industry supports these circumstances (because they benefit from the continued marginalization of the aboriginal population), as well as bourgeois governments (because promoting aboriginal “ways of life” justifies aboriginal circumstances and fragments political opposition), it is not clear why those who see themselves on the left are adopting romantic and reactionary arguments. Perhaps it is because the silencing of debate by so-called political correctness has prevented the social consequences of this political direction from being understood.

  9. 9 Bill Kerr

    hi Frances,

    Apologies, I have not read your book, but you might be interested in reading some of Noel Pearson who appears to have applies an analysis similar to yours in a creative way to the situation of Australian indigenous people. Recently a collection of his writings has been published: “Up From the Mission” . Here is a recent and excellent review by Peter Sutton: Here I Stand

    On a related topic, the GreenLeft has decided to challenge noel pearson at his book launch at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, September 9 (link )

    Their article is full of bullshit, such as:

    His ideology is based on blaming the victim. He has no capacity to strip away the lies and the half truths of colonial history or assert the rights of Aboriginal people to land and country

    Judging from that they have not read Pearson nor heard him speak, their challenge will be a lame affair but in the event of real discussion Pearson has the intellectual and rhetorical power to chew them up and spit them out.

  10. 10 Bill Kerr

    Here is the link to the GreenLeft article, refer to previous post:
    Noel Pearson does not speak for us

  11. 11 Frances Widdowson

    Thanks very much for the links Bill.

    I am not familiar with the ideas of Noel Pearson, and unfortunately neither Peter Sutton’s review nor the ad hominem comment provided by Sam Watson gives the reader much of an understanding of what Pearson is arguing. One point that I do agree with that Peter Sutton attributes to Pearson is that pressure should be put on the government to provide high quality services – education, health care and housing – to the aboriginal population. In Canada, as also appears to be the case in Australia, services to aboriginal peoples in remote communities are largely provided by indigenous organizations. These organizations, which are controlled by the Aboriginal Industry (a non-aboriginal group of consultants and lawyers), coopt the leadership so that funds can be siphoned away from those communities requiring assistance.

    Does Pearson argue for market solutions for aboriginal marginalization? This is the position of a few aboriginal leaders in Canada (Calvin Helin, for example). Although many of the points made by these leaders have been instrumental in challenging the racist, reactionary and self-serving arguments of the Aboriginal Industry and the comprador leadership it has created, they are really only workable in exceptional cases – when aboriginal communities have some capacity to become economically viable (a rare circumstance in Canada).

    One book that I did read recently is Peter Sutton’s “The Politics of Suffering”. This is an excellent book that, among other things, addresses some of Watson’s prejudicial remarks about “blaming the victim”. The book is very valuable in that it examines how cultural factors contribute to the continuation of aboriginal marginalization. What the book by Albert Howard and I does is to link the promotion of aboriginal cultural preservation as a “solution” to the aboriginal question to the interests of the Aboriginal Industry (an entity that is also recognized by Sutton, but not discussed at any length).

    Although our book might not be easy to find in Australia, those interested might want to read a short summary of our arguments in a Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star on April 25, 2009 etitled “Exposing the Aboriginal Industry” (available onlilne at I, often in collboration with Albert Howard, have also written a number of more academically oriented papers for the Canadian Political Science Association, all of which are available for free on the CPSA’s website (

  12. 12 Bill Kerr

    hi Frances,

    I read your Toronto Star article. Yes, there does seem to be a parallel evolution of both the problem situation and growing awareness of the problem in both of our countries, with the aboriginal industry being one important part of that.

    Peter Sutton has done the hard yards

    Some of Noel Pearson’s articles can be found at the Cape York Institute web site: including essays on economic viability, which you asked about. His book is a coherent collection of some of his more important essays

    My favourite Pearson essay is “White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre”. The following links to either pdf or html version:

    He has also been influential in changing government policy wrt welfare reform in Queensland (quarantine of welfare payments based on certain conditions) and did have some influence over the thinking of the former Howard Australian government in its final years

  13. 13 Arthur

    Hi Frances,

    Just a quick note for now to STRONGLY recommend you follow up Bill’s links to Noel Pearson’s material.

    I sort of took it for granted from the little I saw of your material that you would already be in direct contact with each other.

  14. 14 Arthur

    Unfortunately I don’t have time to go into this stuff thoroughly, but here’s some more quick notes.

    1. There are HUGE differences between the circumstances of Australian Aboriginals and Canadian “First Nations” (and nothing in Australia that could be confused with either Metis or Inuit). I would guess there would be more comparison between Canada and New Zealand Maoris (and perhaps also Torres Strait Islanders).

    2. Nevertheless, there appears to be an important commonality in problems with an “Aboriginal Industry” (though there isn’t much resembling Canada’s casino and duty free situations – the Aboriginal side of the industry in Australia has much less of an economic base other than dependency on government and is overwhelmingly less important than the non-Aboriginal “consultants”).

    3. The same sort of vicious attacks as those on Widdowson and Howard were successful here for a long time in suppressing critiques. Noel Pearson played a key role in breaking through and making it possible for other Aboriginals to speak out instead of being intimidated by accusations of selling out to white racists. He’s also a very serious independent theoretician and a very skilled political strategist and tactician who now has a LOT of allies. Essentially Aboriginals took the initiative in breaking through and non-Aboriginals have been emboldened to support their initiatives.

    4. I would imagine there would be LOTS of quotes about the nature of the “Aboriginal Industry” from Noel and others like Marcia Langton that could be very useful in making Canadians more confident to speak out.

    5. A very recent development has been a huge fight over the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program which has already almost brought down the Northern Territory government. Some really blistering quotables have been coming out since Alison Anderson resigned in protest.

    6. I’m not that familiar with Aboriginal issues but suspect the commonality reflects a much wider (in fact world wide) problem of real confusion about the role of “welfare” bureaucrats, NGOs etc in maintaiining dependency.

    7. Frances comment on being in “complete agreement” actually strikes me as reflecting a less developed position than we have here on the role of the pseudoleft in this stuff. eg:

    it is not clear why those who see themselves on the left are adopting romantic and reactionary arguments. Perhaps it is because the silencing of debate by so-called political correctness has prevented the social consequences of this political direction from being understood.

    8. For “complete agreement” we would have to agree that it is very clear why those who claim to be on the left are adopting romantic and reactionary arguments – namely that their claim to be on the left is simply false (even when sincerely believed by themselves and their opponents) since they are in fact romantic reactionaries, as demonstrated by their views. Moreover their reaction goes to extremes far beyond anything Marxists had to combat in previous centuries when reactionaries more modestly proposed a retreat merely to medievalism.

    9. We’re certainly in agreement that “political correctness” has been used to silence debate so that the social consequences of reactionary policies are not understood. Such suppression comes naturally to all sorts of reactionaries.

  15. 15 Frances Widdowson

    I am in complete agreement with Arthur’s point #8 – perhaps I was being too tentative in this regard, or did not express myself clearly(!). I think that the people who advocate romantic and reactionary arguments ARE pretending to be on the Left (even if this is unintentional, and they truly believe that they are on the left). In Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, Albert Howard and I have a chapter entitled “Denying the Developmental Gap: Preserving Culture in a Jar”, which explores the development of romanticism in the context of aboriginal policy in Canada (but this analysis probably has a wider application), and how thse arguments are actually right-wing.

    What I am still a little perplexed about is why these arguments are so widely held by people who identify as being on the “Left”. Is it because they have not been exposed to open debate about this subject (due to “political correctness”), and have therefore not thought through the arguments in any depth, or is it because it is in their interests to pursue these arguments (presumably because the state is encouraging these viewpoints as a less threatening “alternative” to actual left-wing arguments)? In Canada, for example, there are all sorts of financial incentives to hold romantic viewpoints; those who don’t are basically ostracized from academe and journalism – two main areas for the disseminatio of ideas. A major funding agency in Canada – SSHRC – will not fund research that opposes romanticism.

    From what I have now read of Noel Pearson’s arguments, there are some points of agreement and disagreement. We agree about the influence of the Aboriginal Industry and the current dysfunctional state of aboriginal policy (I also admire his fearlessness in opening up debate in this area). The major point of disagreement concerns “building economies” in isolated aboriginal communities. If the circumstances in these communities are anything like what exists in Canada, this is highly unlikely and is probably an attempt of the aboriginal rentier class to gain access to government transfers. I will wait until I read more of Pearson’s writings before making any more comment, however.

    One other body of work I should mention is that of Elizabeth Rata in New Zealand. Her stuff on the Political Economy of Neotribal Capitalism is very insightful, and probably can be applied to the international development literature and the NGOs that are maintaining dependency. She has a new book out, which I have not yet obtained (written with Roger Openshaw). It is entitled The Politics of Conformity in New Zealand.

  16. 16 Bill Kerr

    hi frances,

    > The major point of disagreement concerns “building economies” in isolated aboriginal communities

    if you type this exact phrase into google:
    “There is an increasing suggestion in the contemporary debate that remote communities are not viable”
    then it will take you to a short essay from Pearson’s book, pp. 296-8 (in google books) which summarises his current views on remote indigenous community viability

    He is saying the important thing here is education and mobility. Once mobile then aboriginal people have a choice. Without education they have no real mobility and no real choice. He also points out that pushing many remote indigenous people into urban areas would not work and outlines the reasons why.

    Pearson: “It is far too late in the day for arbitrary decisions to be taken to(once again) forcibly relocate Aboriginal people to where the latest policy says is best”
    (I’m not saying that you are suggesting that but it’s a nice quote)

  17. 17 Arthur

    When I googled the phrase the top item was Homes Built On Despair which is a .pdf of 2008 newspaper article presumably same but easier to read than copy in google books.

    I haven’t followed these issues closely enough, but my assumption would be that remote communities will always remain unviable and those Aboriginals still living in them will eventually migrate to urban or urbanized areas as have the majority of people throughout the globe.

    Pearson downplays his assimilationalism but fundamentally I think he’s advocating the classic marxist position that it is precisely genuine self-determination that encourages the general mobility that results in amalgamation of peoples whereas forced assimilation promotes isolation on both sides. That classical position seems to be almost unheard of these days – the terms themselves have been turned around in common usage so that supporting pseudo-self-determination as a means of (openly) seeking to retard assimilation is done without any embarassment by the pseudoleft.

    Among the HUGE differences I mentioned between Australia and Canada I think its important to grasp that welfare dependence in the more remote communities is total. It isn’t just a question of rentiers seeking transfer payments to live off. That explains the tendency of the “industry” to perpetuate the situation. The completely disfunctional remote communities basically have no OTHER income than transfer payments!

    Simply shutting them down could be done easily, but there would be a lot of completely broken people left to die either on the outskirts of country towns or in urban ghettos. The mobility has to be established first. BTW Australian country towns are themselves becoming unviable. Our population is far more concentrated in metropolitan cities than either the US or Canada – closer to Singapore or HK in urbanization.

    I suspect the actual policy direction is to shut down the outlying communities by focussing facilities and welfare income in smaller numbers of larger ones and moving people relatively short distances. But this isn’t being trumpeted openly as that would only increase resistance, especially from the industry.

    Re the perplexities. My short answer is that there simply isn’t a left at the moment. I remain perplexed as to why there isn’t and what to do about it. I do not find it at all surprising that the bourgeois state promotes reactionary ideas and does not intentionally provide funds for researching progressive ideas. Nor do I find it perplexing that the inhabitants of bourgeois academia and journalism generally conform to the world outlooks they are paid to promote. What is perplexing is the absence of open (minority) rebellion.

  18. 18 keza

    I just listened to a speech given by Frances Widdowson at the
    Frontier Centre for Foreign Policy” (If you click on the link you will see an interview with Widdowson, at the very bottom of the page is a link to the actual speech).

    It’s mentioned at the beginning that “an angry mob” had actually broken up the meeting about half an hour earlier, and throughout the speech there is the sound of drumming and singing in the background, presumably coming from demonstrators outside.

    Widdowson begins with a short comment on this, saying that “you just try to brace yourself” and avoid increasing or accelerating animosity with the Aboriginal community. She refers to Arthur Schopenhauer: “All truth happens through three stages, first it is ridiculed, second it is violently exposed, third it is accepted as self evident”.

    Then she goes on to say that it is the Aboriginal Industry which has deliberately attempted to incite animosity. She defined the Aboriginal Industry as being mainly made up of “non -Aboriginal people, mostly lawyers and consultants”. These people are “opposed to frank discussion on the issue because they thrive on the continuation of Aboriginal dependency and dysfunction”. There’s an “Aboriginal leadership” which is not part of the Aboriginal Industry but is rewarded by sinecures, jobs associated with Aboriginal organisations, not because of capacity to do the job, but because they have a symbiotic relationship with the Industry. (Mentions anecdotally hearing a Chief on the radio with members of the Aboriginal Industry “murmuring behind him”.)

    Following this, Widdowson raises what she sees as the most controversial aspect of her work, namely the idea that there is a developmental gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture, noting that historically and for accidental (rather than biological/genetic) reasons, some human groups became more productive and colonised other groups. She says this, she points out , not to justify it but because it happened , and needs to be understood as having been the product of the fact that some humans were able, due to circumstances related to things like the distribution of plants and animals, to develop farming, mettalurgy, the wheel, writing systems (etc) much earlier than others. And this led to more complex political systems where people unrelated by blood and marriage could live together under one government (which is still not the case in Aboriginal communities). Related to this, literacy and numeracy made great advances in human understanding possible (science, mathematics, philosophy, logic).

    At this stage, she makes the point that although the sort of ideas she’s expressed have been discussed most openly in the right wing media, such ideas underpinned the way in which Marx and Engels thought.

    I’ve attempted to transcribe the rest of her speech where she talks about the way in which her views have been smeared as being right wing and goes on to discuss the way in which supposed left wingers have tried to shut down the debate. (There are some gaps in my transcription where I missed particular words and names).

    Assumptions about cultural development have also been embraced historically by political economists like Karl Marx and Frederich Engels who used that as the basis of their theories and claimed that increasing co-operation and the productivity of labour directed our evolution as a species…. and a big part of Marx’s political economy is understanding that evolutionary process.

    But despite the evolutionary thesis of Marx and Engels’ theories, theories that Albert and I have studied and incorporated into our work, the accusation that an acceptance of cultural evolution is a right wing viewpoint is one of the mean tactics that is used by the Aboriginal industry to stifle debate about Aboriginal circumstances. It’s profoundly disturbing, that charge, to most ….academics anyway, and intellectuals in Canada today who identify to some extent with the notions of social justice and egalitarianism. They see themselves as being left wing – so if you say this is right wing, they’re not going to be very keen about supporting the idea.

    So we’ve had an anthropologist [missed name] from the University of Manitoba, this was the review (of our book) in the Winnipeg Free Press, resorting to the tactic of calling our book “a (..) mixture of rightwing sanctimoniousness and moral hysteria [missed name], Director of the School of Indigenous Governance of the University of Victoria labels our research as “low class, right wing, stooge scholarship” Both without elaboration of course.

    So many people who might otherwise have contributed to debate on this subject remain mute in public, they just stay away from it…”I don’t want to be a right winger, I don’t want to be associated with the right wing, so I’m not going to get into that area”

    Academics like [missed name] and Alfred in fact engage in name calling, rather than analyisis so as to prejudice the reaction to our ideas and understanding of development more generally.

    In addition to the right wing smear tactics, another more disturbing allegation is common. Accusations of racism. Although we put considerable effort into showing that cultural evolutionary theory concerns learned behaviour not racial characteristics, and that the Aboriginal industry was using such accusations to smother debate about difference in cultural development, this tactic persists. [missed name], professor in Political Science at the University of Toronto even replies that our ideas are associated with the development of Nazi ideology! Of course she fails to show how this is the case.

    Outrage, once again trumps analysis, and that’s just the common tenor of debate that’s going on right now.

    All the accusations that our work is right wing and racist have largely fallen within Schopenhauer’s first stage of the opposition to truth – “ridicule”(which has been going on for about 12 years now). There are already signs that this is now falling into the violent opposition stage, hence the angry mob outside etc etc. This violence to which I refer is not a threat of assault…… I don’t think that violence is going to break out as physical violence, or hopefullly not, rather it’s attempts to use street corps, and through the use of censorship to prevent these ideas being discussed.

    This transition can be seen to some extent in the use of “hate” to refute our work – it just came up on the radio this morning, the accusation . The first time I heard this description was at a Canadian Political Science Association conference in Vancouver in May last year where it was stated, again without evidence being provided, that my presentation indicated that I obviously hated Aboriginal people. At the time I thought it was an odd accusation to make in a scholarly setting. I never heard of comments like that before. A few months later however, the reason for this use of language became clear. I heard that my presentation was the subject of discussion at a Canadian Political Science Association women’s caucus meeting where certain members raised the question of whether my arguments constituted “hate speech” under the criminal code. Interestingly a similar argument was made in the Winnipeg Free Press earlier this week in anticipation of this talk, when a local doctor evidently wrote that in his opinion, the authors, that is Albert and myself, need to be charged with hate crimes under the criminal code. So this seems to be the next stage of this process. First you ridicule people, dismiss them, don’t take them seriously and then when you can’t help but take them seriously, then you begin the course of violent opposition to those ideas.

    If the offence being taken over our work enters this next stage there will be terrible consequences for meaningful political debate in Canada. It will mean that professed outrage at hurt feelings will take precedence for desire to seek the truth. There will be added difficulty in addressing the challenges facing the Aboriginal population.

    In order to solve a problem it is necessary to first understand its cause. But by clamping down on public debate, the causes of Aboriginal dependency, social dysfunction will continue to remain elusive. It will further entrench the position of the Aboriginal Industry which requires the misdiagnosis of Aboriginal problems so as to justify policies that are actually unjustifiable.

    Thank you

  19. 19 Frances Widdowson

    For those of you who are interested, below is the written copy of a speech that was given a few months after the Frontier Centre talk, for another organization in Canada (my apologies Keza – I would have done this sooner and saved you some time; however, there were some comments at the talk you transcribed that were spontaneous – to do with the demonstration outside, etc., that were not in the original copy). Also, here is the link for the radio interview that I gave just before the Frontier talk – the Q&A contains some of the most interesting stuff. As I mentioned in the talk, in the case of the Vice-Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, you can hear murmuring in the background that appears to be the Aboriginal Industry telling him what to say –

    Also interesting is a panel for TV Ontario program “The Agenda”:

    Good afternoon. I would like to thank…the Knights of the Round Table for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today about this subject…

    As can be seen by the reaction to Margaret Wente’s piece in The Globe and Mail in October, as well as the a number of book reviews – especially one in the Winnipeg Free Press and Canadian Dimension magazine, a great deal of outrage is being expressed about Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation – the book co-written by Albert Howard and myself. Although this has not been pleasant, it was not an unexpected reaction. In fact, we recognize it as a necessary a process that has to be gone through in order for a real debate to take place about aboriginal policy in this country. Currently, many people are reluctant to speak candidly about this issue because they are afraid that their views may cause offense.

    But there needs to be an understanding that, in a healthy society, ideas cannot be censored simply because a person or group chooses to feel “offended” by what is said. After all, offense is subjective and so people can be offended by almost anything. As Oliver Kamm has pointed out “Free speech does cause hurt, and – other than in cases of incitement to crime – we should accept that there is nothing wrong in this” He goes on to state that the offended “may be offered sympathy on a personal level [but] they are entitled to no restitution whatsoever in public policy. The state of their sensibilities must be a matter of indifference to a free society. If they find they receive compensation for injured feelings, then mental hurt is what they will seek out”.

    The profession of offence that Albert and I have encountered in response to the publication of our book, in fact, brings to mind a statement made over one hundred years ago by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Schopenhauer,

    All truth passes through three stages.
    First, it is ridiculed.
    Second, it is violently opposed.
    Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

    There is one caveat that should be made with respect to Schopenhauer’s insight, however, as not all truthful statements face public opposition. It is only when truth threatens entrenched interests that it encounters hostility. Entrenched interests, in fact, are behind the offence being expressed about Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, and this is what I will speak about today.

    My assertion about the existence of entrenched interests raises two questions: 1) Which entrenched interests are hostile to frank speech about aboriginal policy?; and 2) What are the ideas that they are opposing?

    The group that is trying to smother honest discussion about aboriginal issues is the Aboriginal Industry. It should be made clear that this group is not aboriginal. It is made up of non-aboriginal people, mostly lawyers and consultants, who work for aboriginal organizations.

    This Industry is opposed to frank discussions about aboriginal circumstances because it thrives on the continuation of aboriginal dependency and social dysfunction. The reality of the Aboriginal Industry is that grievances result in the dispersal of government funds, and so its members benefit from perpetuating, rather than alleviating, aboriginal deprivation.

    It should be noted at this point that the aboriginal leadership is not part of the Aboriginal Industry. The leadership is pushed ahead of the Aboriginal Industry so as to disguise the role of non-aboriginal people in this process. They write speeches for aboriginal leaders, provide advice at meetings, and even tell them what to say in radio call-in programs. In order to obtain support from the leadership, however, Aboriginal Industry Initiatives offer rewards of financial transfers and sinecures in aboriginal organizations. As a result, the leadership that has been created vehemently supports the transfer of funds to aboriginal organizations and disbursements to the non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants who negotiate land claims and self-government agreements.

    This brings me to the second question, which is far more controversial than the first. After all, a number of aboriginal commentators, including Patrick Brazeau, Calvin Helin (B.C.) and Jean Allard (Manitoba), have identified the existence of the Industry and its self-serving character. The more contentious aspect of our book concerns the main idea that is being opposed. This is the fact that there are developmental differences in culture, and the unevenness in cultural development that exists in Canada must be acknowledged before the aboriginal question can be adequately addressed.

    But what do we mean when we talk about unevenness in cultural development? Essentially, what we are referring to is the ongoing process whereby some states are able, because of their greater productivity, size and complexity, to colonize and oppress groups that are smaller and less productive. This is in no way justifies the colonization process; it just recognizes that this is one of the causes that must be understood in order to address aboriginal marginalization.

    It also should be stressed that the unevenness in development between aboriginal cultural features and modern requirements has nothing do with race. It was accidental environmental circumstances, not the biological or genetic characteristics of certain groups, which led some cultures to make the technological advancements that they did. Following Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, we argue that it was the distribution of plants and animals around the world made the production of larger surpluses possible. This then enabled groups to invest more time in developing technologies such as iron farm implements and weapons, the wheel and writing systems. The larger social groupings that resulted then necessitated more complex political systems so that many people, unrelated by blood or marriage, could live together under one government. A greater control over nature and the development of literacy and numeracy also made possible advancements in human understanding in the areas of science, mathematics, philosophy and logic.

    Recognizing unevenness in cultural development is not limited to a particular ideology. Although the idea has been discussed most openly by newspapers like the National Post and associates of the Fraser Institute, assumptions about cultural development have been embraced historically by political economists like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. As is pointed out in our book, Marx and Engels accepted the idea of historical progress, and maintained that increasing cooperation and the productivity of labour directed our evolution as a species.

    Despite the evolutionary basis of Marx and Engels’ theories, the accusation that an acceptance of cultural evolution is a right-wing viewpoint is one of the main tactics that is used by the Aboriginal Industry to stifle debate about aboriginal circumstances. This charge is profoundly disturbing to many academics and intellectuals in Canada today, who identify, to some extent, with notions of social justice and egalitarianism. So, when Kathy Buddle, an anthropologist from the University of Manitoba, resorts to this tactic in her Winnipeg Free Press review that our book is a “stale mixture of right-wing sanctimoniousness and moral hysteria”, or when Taiaiake Alfred, the Director of the School of Indigenous Governance of the University of Victoria, labels our research as “low-class right-wing stooge scholarship” – both without elaboration, of course – then many people who might have otherwise contributed to debate on this subject remain mute in public. Academics like Buddle and Alfred engage in name-calling rather than analysis so as to prejudice the reception of the book’s ideas. Peter Kulchyski, a Native Studies professor from the University of Manitoba, is so intent on discouraging people from reading our book that he asserts in his review in Canadian Dimension that we are intellectually dishonest socialist impostures who have invented our ideological sympathies.

    In addition to the “right-wing” smear tactic, another, more disturbing, allegation is common – accusations of “racism”. Although we spent considerable effort showing that cultural evolutionary theories concern learned behaviour and not racial characteristics, and that the Aboriginal Industry was using such accusations to smother debate about differences in cultural development, this tactic persists. Rauna Kuokkanen, a Native Studies and Political Science professor at the University of Toronto, even maintains that the book is full of “racist, eurocentric rhetoric”, and implicates the theories that we use in the development of Nazi ideology. Of course, she fails to show how any of this is the case. Outrage, once again, trumps analysis.

    Although the accusations that our work is “right-wing” and “racist” have largely fallen within Schopenhauer’s first stage of the opposition to truth – ridicule – there are alarming signs that this is being transformed into “violent opposition” stage. The violence to which I refer is not the threat of assault, but attempts to use state coercion through the use of censorship to prevent these ideas from being discussed.

    This transition can be seen, to some extent, by the use of the word “hate” to refer to our work. The first time I heard this description was at a Canadian Political Science Association conference in Vancouver last year, where it was stated, without any evidence being provided, that my presentation indicated that I obviously “hated” aboriginal people.

    At the time, I thought that this was an odd accusation to make in a scholarly setting. A few months later, however, the reason for the use of this language became clear. I heard that my presentation was the subject of discussion at a Canadian Political Science Association Women’s Caucus meeting, where certain members raised questions as to whether my arguments constituted “hate speech” under the criminal code. Such accusations are common on forums on the internet, and also were made by two aboriginal leaders who called in during a radio program that I participated in on CJOB in Winnipeg.

    If the offense being taken to our work enters into this next stage, there will be terrible consequences for meaningful political debate in Canada. It will mean that professed outrage and hurt feelings will take precedence over the desire to seek the truth. There also will be added difficulties in addressing the challenges facing the aboriginal population. In order to solve a problem, it is necessary to first understand its cause. By clamping down on public debate, the causes of aboriginal dependency and social dysfunction will continue to remain elusive. This will further entrench the position of the Aboriginal Industry, which requires the misdiagnosis of aboriginal problems so as to justify policies that are actually unjustifiable.

  20. 20 Bill Kerr

    links to a fabulous recent talk by Noel Pearson (41 minutes) to the Brisbane Writers festival replete with biting sarcastic humour whilst the green left demonstrate against him outside

    conservatism, socialism, liberalism – we came to the view that these three great traditions are each necessary in defining a good society

    13 minutes elaboration, including … there is no miraculous social justice forklift – only individuals climb the stairs

    then discusses the relationship b/w self interest and altruism – lets drop the conceit that self interest is not involved in our motivations

    the middle class left is an oxymoron

    then he lets rip into wilderness society protesters who have a far greater carbon footprint than the average indigenous family from Cape York

    He refers to a recent essay he has written (Quarterly essay) which discusses the real relationship b/w left and right – at the end the title is identified: “Radical Hope”, soon to be published by Black Ink

    fabulous speech, take the time to listen

  21. 21 Bill Kerr

    I’ve partially transcribed Noel Pearson’s Brisbane Writers festival speech here

  22. 22 Arthur

    I wish he would stop referring to them as “the Left” and “progressive” while explaining that they aren’t and that a good rule of thumb is to take an approximately opposite position on any concrete issue.

    It makes sense for right wing ideologues to promote that confusion. But that’s not where he’s coming from, so he appears to be still confused while sorting through the confusion.

    Should stress the concept of “pseudoleft” when quoting Pearson. He ought to “get” it since that is where the logic of his conclusions points, and he’s a logical thinker.

    Frances hasn’t got it either. Seems straight forward enough. Why on earth call them “the Left” when demonstrating that their outlook is explicitly and classically reactionary!

  23. 23 Frances Widdowson

    Perhaps I have slipped occasionally in the past by referring to those who are espousing reactionary philosophies as the Left, because they see themselves as left-wing (but actually aren’t). However, I am now careful to refer to these people as “those who see themselves as left-wing” or put “the Left” in ironic quotation marks. The word pseudoleft seems to be a very good descriptive term, and it should be used.

    I do “get” the problem (my lapses have been due to intellectual sloppiness rather than actual confusion!). What was once the Left has been coopted by antimodernists (not postmodernists – another problematic term; what is called “postmodernism” is actually a rejection of modernism, not an extension of it) who substitute identity politics for class politics. It is easier to be an antimodernist today than a left-wing modernist, since antimodernism is more easily accomomodated by late capitalism. These antimodernists, to disguise their intellectual bankruptcy, then accuse left-wing modernists of being right-wing, which increases the confusion.

    My concern about Pearson (with respect to some of the materials posted by the Cape York Institute website) is his apparent support for “developing” unviable communities. As I have mentioned before, this is often a more sophisticated variant of arguments put forward by the Aboriginal Industry. We have aboriginal politicians in Canada, for example, who are supposedly opposed to the status quo, who are arguing that government transfers should be provided in the form of monies for economic development instead of welfare and telling their communities to “get of their asses” (Clarence Louie, for example, and to some extent Calvin Helin and Jean Allard). This is an attempt to appeal to right-wing modernists while at the same time getting control over the distribution of glorified welfare.

    Northern Canada is not very different from the situation in Australia. In Nunavut, for example, there are numerous remote communities, many of which can only be serviced by air (one possible difference is that many of these communities are “dry”, and so the people sniff gas instead of drinking grog). The people in these communities should not be forcibly transferred to other areas, as this, as I believe Arthur has pointed out, will just lead to urban ghettos and even more misery. What is needed is 1) to defund the Aboriginal Industry, so that corrupt aboriginal leaders are not being enabled by arguments about aboriginal “nationalism” that no one really believes; and 2) a comprehensive strategy to develop things like a culture of literacy and what Peter Sutton has called “emotional mobility”. This is not an easy task, as people like to be in control of their destiny and often resist outside interference (especially when they have been constantly screwed in the past). However, there have been some successful examples in countries like Cuba, where huge improvements have been made in backward populations (this concerned the peasantry, not tribal peoples). Successful examples should be studied and pilot projects tried, keeping in mind the specific needs of aboriginal peoples. However, currently there is a denial that there is a gap in development between aboriginal societies and modern civilization, and so no thought is being given to the question of how to address this gap. Opposing the pseudoleft will help this problem to be recognized.

  24. 24 Arthur

    Frances, ok if you start using the term “pseudoleft” it will have a real impact.

    I don’t know enough about Aboriginal issues to say much on your difference with Pearson. I suspect you are right that there is a significant difference there. But I also suspect that Pearson agrees with your items numbered 1) and 2) and would be right to assume that this would be undermined by a focus on the long term unviability of various communities.

    This seems to me related to the classic debate on assimilation and self-determination – ie marxists support self-determination because its inevitable effect is to accelerate assimilation, while denying self-determination is an obstacle to assimilation.

    “Nationalism” gets defeated by self-determination.

  25. 25 Bill Kerr

    arthur wrote, about Noel Pearson:

    I wish he would stop referring to them as “the Left” and “progressive” while explaining that they aren’t and that a good rule of thumb is to take an approximately opposite position on any concrete issue.

    It makes sense for right wing ideologues to promote that confusion. But that’s not where he’s coming from, so he appears to be still confused while sorting through the confusion.

    Should stress the concept of “pseudoleft” when quoting Pearson. He ought to “get” it since that is where the logic of his conclusions points, and he’s a logical thinker.

    Pearson’s longish essay, Radical Hope (105pp) was published last Monday in Quarterly Essay . He does refer to Marx (as well as Engels, Hegel and dialectics) a few times. For example, he is scathingly critical of the educational philosopy of Paulo Freire and amongst other things says:

    The educational equivalent of liberation theology – the bringing together of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx – Friere’s writings are quite unlike the original critique of liberal political economy produced my Marx and Engels …” (p.82).

    A few pages later he says:

    My abiding interest in dialectics has led me to observe the strange near convergence of conservative and Marxist analyses of this question: why progressives impede the prospects of the disadvantaged for whom they profess empathy and solidarity … (p.90)

    I had to shop around a bit to obtain my copy. Best to go through a big bookstore and phone them first. If ordering from overseas then specify the ISBN – 978-1-86395-444-0

    It’s a great essay as a thought provoker and discussion starter although I disagree with some aspects of his analysis of education – for instance, the Michelle Rhee / Joel Klein solution which Julia Gillard, our Deputy PM and Education Minister, is currently infatuated with (p. 18)

  26. 26 Arthur

    Thanks for access to Pearson’s essay. It was excessively long but a well worth persisting with as some of the most interesting stuff came later.

    Although there are some important differences I think his analysis is very close to an understanding that the problem is a pseudo-left rather than left. But its so tied up with his necessary strategic and tactical alliance with mainstream “centre-right” and “centre-left” that he can’t quite get there and leaves it confused.

  27. 27 Bill Kerr

    Frances Widdowson has a new blog here:

  28. 28 Bill Kerr

    For those wanting to keep track of Frances Widdowson’s ideas she has a new blog at

  29. 29 Bill Kerr

    Frances Widdowson’s critical comparison between Sutton’s book, The Politics of Suffering and Pearson’s long essay Radical Hope has just been published on her blog: Developments in Australian aboriginal policy

    I’ve read Pearson’s essay and am half way through Sutton’s book. I noticed these differences myself and discussed them with someone who has spent some years teaching in remote aboriginal schools. His response was that the Pearson agenda may oversimplify at times but that it is an agenda of hope and does mobilise significant direct action and government support. I found parts of the Sutton book to be discouraging, not wrong, but discouraging. The criticism of Pearson in Sutton’s book is implied, not direct. I’m still doing some follow up reading on Pearson’s educational ideas.

  1. 1 Frances Widdowson and Noel Pearson at STRANGE TIMES

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