Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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When words fail us

'Aboriginal' is too homogeneous a term

By: Mary Agnes Welch

Winnipeg Free Press

On the walls of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, behind the headlines of this newspaper, on the Facebook pages of young indigenous writers, the same debate keeps popping up.

What should we call Canada's first peoples? Or, better put, what do Canada's first peoples want to be called, especially by white reporters like me?

"Indian," that centuries-old relic based on a geographic delusion, is widely seen as racist, even though the federal legislation that regulates nearly every aspect of on-reserve life is still called the Indian Act and the government recognizes only status Indians.

Same with "native," which started to fall out of favour in the 1980s. It lumps indigenous people in with plants and wildlife and does nothing to distinguish between the vast array of different cultures that still thrive. But, many First Nations people still use "native" themselves.

Now, "aboriginal" is on the wane. In fact, it's now viewed as offensive, especially the way newspapers typically use it -- alone, without the "peoples" and with a lowercase "a". Recently, I did a story about tuberculosis headlined "TB rates for aboriginals soar" and got a polite but pointed email from a local artist and teacher who said the headline was derogatory and the word widely disliked by friends and colleagues. The story I wrote also used "aboriginals" liberally.

I've heard that complaint before, and with increasing frequency, from University of Toronto professors, from Manitoba chiefs, from friends.

"Aboriginal" is too homogeneous, lumping very different cultures into one amorphous group in an effort, leaders say, to assimilate them. First Nations people, who are themselves remarkably diverse, get grouped with Métis and Inuit. All have very different languages, histories, legal standing, modern political organizations and outstanding issues.

We often revert to "aboriginal" when we're really talking about First Nations -- the original people covered by treaties signed with the Crown since 1763. We use "aboriginal" because it's a catch-all, instead of finding out if someone is from a Cree community or is a Dené person from Tadoule Lake or prefers to be called Anishinabek.

That's the word the 39 chiefs that form Ontario's Anishinabek Nation (also known as the Union of Ontario Indians) prefer. A few years ago, they launched a campaign to get government, the media and others to quit referring to them as "aboriginal" and start using Anishinabek, a word their people have been using to describe themselves for millennia. The chiefs noted there are no aboriginal bands, aboriginal reserves or aboriginal chiefs. It's a word the government settled on, embedded in the constitution, and its popularity grew from there.

Closer to home, the Winnipeg Art Gallery tackles the naming issue head-on when you walk into the new exhibit of some of the country's best indigenous artists. That's smart, because the show is called 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. Though the seven artists chose the name of their group themselves in the 1970s, the word "native" sounds dated at best and rude at worst.

"Most indigenous peoples prefer to be referred to by their First Nation band, or even clan names, in their language," reads the big text panel on the wall. "It is important to remember most terms are the product of colonial discourses and a history of subjugation, and are designations that have been assigned and legislated. These 'official' terms are often contentious."

Many Canadians tune out or roll their eyes when they hear words like "colonial discourse" or "assimilation," and there exists a certain fatigue with what many consider ever-shifting, politically-correct demands.

But language matters, and it changes to reflect the evolution of public discourse and political relationships. Really, what we call First Nations people has already evolved dramatically, and this latest debate on "aboriginal" is just part of that.

The move among First Nations people to call themselves their own words in their own language -- Bunibonibee Cree Nation instead of Oxford House, Misipawistik Cree Nation instead of Grand Rapids, Anishinabek instead of aboriginal -- is part of a growing level of pride, political power and public education underway among First Nations.

If nothing else, moving away from amorphous words like "aboriginal" and toward more specific and culturally-appropriate names will help remind Manitobans just how diverse First Nations peoples are in this province. There are five different language groups in Manitoba, varying religious traditions and governing styles. Peguis is very different from Norway House. I've even been surprised at how different the three reserves that hug Island Lake in northeastern Manitoba feel when I've visited.

So, if not "aboriginal," then what?

That's the debate now starting at the Winnipeg Free Press, where the newsroom's style committee has begun to consider the issue and canvass expert opinion (because, unfortunately, virtually none of us are First Nations or Métis). At the very least, it seems clear to me we ought to stop using "aboriginals" and say "Aboriginal peoples" when we mean to refer to a broad and diverse group of constitutionally recognized aboriginal peoples. Capitalizing "Aboriginal" means bucking the Canadian Press style guide, an editor's bible, which considers the word an adjective. No other mainstream newspaper I know of has done this, and no consensus exists in my own newsroom. It doesn't help that the phrase "Aboriginal peoples" takes up a lot of headline room in a paper that typically publishes several stories a day about those peoples.

Beyond that, things get murky. Using specific words in a person's own language is tricky in a province with many different cultures, and for reporters who already struggle with being accurate and consistent in the "indigenous" people we write about. And, how do we reconcile our style to that of others? As one editor asked, what do we do if police issue a news release asking for the public's help locating a missing woman who is described as aboriginal? We often wouldn't know whether she was First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or whether she identified as Cree, Dené or another heritage. That's part of the staying power of blanket terms.

Anishinabek works in much of Ontario, but not so much in Manitoba. It's an Ojibwa word, and we have Cree, Dene and Dakota peoples here. "Indigenous," a word used globally, has gained currency here, especially as Canadian First Nations align themselves more frequently to the international indigenous movement for help with homegrown issues. "Indigenous" is what smart First Nations friends of mine favour. It's getting much more common in academic writing, and I'm trying to use it more. But it also has a homogenizing effect.

My newsroom doesn't yet have the answers. But asking these questions in good faith is the first step, as is acknowledging people have a right to decide what they'd like to be called, and to have that choice respected, especially when Canada has a history of consistently failing to be respectful to its original inhabitants.

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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