May 25th, 2018

Cultural appropriation debate misses the larger issue

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on May 17, 2017.

Instead of having a conversation about cultural appropriation, First Nations or otherwise, this past week, the national media should have been having a conversation about the ongoing under-representation of cultures other than Christian-white-European in the larger cultural narrative and fabric of Canadian society.

Canada is a country where its bestselling First Nations author of all time, Joseph Boyden, has no actual, or at least verifiable, aboriginal heritage to speak of. A country where one of it best known artists, Emily Carr, initially became famous for copying the totem pole art of British Columbia aboriginal peoples early in the 20th century. And a country where one of its most famous aboriginal spiritual and environmental thinkers, Grey Owl, was actually a white Englishman named Archie Belaney.

Can anyone out there even name Canada’s most famous black-Canadian author? Or East Indian-Canadian actor? Or Cuban-Canadian musician? Likely not. And when it comes to First Nations artists, as previously stated, we know our frauds far better.

Canadian society has a long history of appropriating the cultural heritage of its minorities. To this day, the reason it continues to occur is because the voices of those cultures are not strong enough to be heard above the cacophony and general navel-gazing which goes on in the “higher culture” of the nation.

Case in point, why did it take nearly two decades for anyone in the literary establishment to question the aboriginal provenance of Boyden, despite the rumblings of criticism among First Nations authors, media members and academic thinkers that went on for years? Simple. Boyden was a literary darling who sold books and received critical praise. He represented himself as a handsome, articulate and media-friendly celebrity who made “his” culture more accessible to masses. Therefore he could do no wrong, and none in the establishment would hear a word against him.

Canada has made headway in terms of its multicultural awareness and inclusiveness these past few decades, but we still have a long ways to go. It’s one thing to have our minorities show off their regalia or general cultural decorativeness for public events showcasing Canada’s diversity, it’s another thing entirely to let those minorities speak. Be seen and not heard seems to be the strongest message many in Canada are conveying to our non-Christian, non-white, non-European populations, and that really has to change going forward.

Until recently, the popular thought has been to speak up for cultural minorities who do not have a voice. This is an outdated form of thinking. What we have to learn to do instead, when talking about diversity in Canada, is to shut up, stand back and listen. Our diverse peoples are quite capable of speaking up for themselves, we just have to provide the space in our national conversation for them to do so.

(Tim Kalinowski is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to

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