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Books: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation

[ 0 ] August 1, 2010 |

The title of this book is a mouthful, but this is an ideal book for generating dialogue—and raising your temperature.

When so much money is put toward Aboriginal programs, why is there so much poverty in Aboriginal communities? When Aboriginal rights and title have been won in Canadian courts, and are embedded in the Canadian Constitution, why do Aboriginal people have little access to resources? Why, in most communities, is the band government the only business in town? Why is there minimal, if any, accountability and transparency in Aboriginal bureaucracies?

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry reveals some of the answers to these questions. Chapter 1 opens with an illustration of a dentist who is able to afford a ski vacation because he performed a single root canal. The joke leads to this eye-opening statement:

There is, however, a socially accepted industry that provides a product, the consumption of which actively increases the need for more. It is funded by Canadians through labour exploitation and taxation, and it is highly profitable. The Aboriginal Industry is an amalgamation of lawyers, consultants, anthropologists, linguists, accountants, and other occupations that thrive on aboriginal dependency.

The Aboriginal Industry is huge. Besides outside advisors, negotiators, lawyers, researchers, accountants, engineers, lobbyists, economic-development experts, biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and consultants, there are educators, many kinds of institutions, Aboriginal departments within government departments, and specialty agencies. Many of these people work within Aboriginal bureaucracies.

Widdowson and Howard are, admittedly, part of the Aboriginal Industry, and they make some bold and blunt statements in this book. Some are admirable, some statements need questioning. Perhaps it is best that non-Aboriginal writers took on this project, as the book is honest to the point where it makes one’s blood boil. And although it is an informative read, the academic tone can frustrate readers. A friend who managed to read the entire book said that she needed to have a dictionary handy to understand it all.

Is there value in reading this book? Yes! The analysis of the Aboriginal Industry hits the nail on the head of this massive, endemic problem, and Canadian taxpayers and Aboriginal people must come to terms with the Aboriginal Industry before any positive change can occur. Now we need a book that outlines a reasonable means to rectify the horrible mess of the Aboriginal Industry.

Is there hope? The sheer number of people involved in the Aboriginal Industry makes hope seem impossible. Although nothing is impossible, the greatest barrier to improvement is that many First Nations leaders have bought in to the Aboriginal Industry. Therefore, the first step for rectification is a no-brainer: dismantle Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. The second step is to dismantle all Aboriginal bureaucracies except the band governments. Until these steps are taken, any mutterings about self-government are meaningless.

Meetings form the nucleus of activity in the Aboriginal Industry. There are zillions of meetings all across Canada for all kinds of purposes. There are one-on-one meetings, staff meetings, management meetings, strategic meetings, community meetings, backroom meetings, band meetings, treaty meetings, resource meetings, and many kinds of negotiations with many groups and many agencies. Honoraria recipients are referred to as head nodders in the endless cycle of meetings. Often meetings are attended without anyone reporting back to membership about what the meetings were about.

The oligarchy form of government forced on Aboriginal people does not work. Small governing groups do not allow for power to balance through opposition parties. Democracy ends on reservations when the election ballots are cast.

How can tribes spend more money than they received from non-Aboriginal governments? Deficits are commonplace. Some wage levels in band and tribal council offices are enviable. Why do tribes and tribal councils need such large staffs with such large salaries? It’s a by-product of maintaining the Aboriginal Industry.

The Aboriginal Industry is powerful. Many participants do not realize they are part of the industry. Well-meaning individuals are elected with the intention of doing good for their people. Many are altruistic, with honest hearts, but the lure of the Aboriginal Industry can alter their ideals and negate positive change. These people need an income and they have families to support. It is sad to watch a person’s character degrade under this influence. I have heard of many “sunset clauses,” where non-Aboriginal people are supposed to work themselves out of a job, but this rarely happens. I have heard of non-Aboriginal bureaucrats puffing out their chests because they feel their Aboriginal clientele cannot survive without them. I even heard of one manager who went as far as to claim that his Aboriginal constituents are “lucky” to have him. Of course there are effective non-Aboriginal people working for bands and tribal councils, but they make up a minority of the Aboriginal Industry.

Everyone can point out one or two positive improvements throughout the country as a result of the Aboriginal Industry, but there is no excuse for poverty in any Aboriginal community. The Aboriginal Industry avoids reasonable means of measuring success— otherwise there would be a large turnover of staff and advisors in Aboriginal bureaucracies. In most cases, budgets come from taxpayers. Thus, leaders are not accountable to their members; they are accountable to the agencies that write their cheques and that have their own political goals for shaping band organization. This structure appears in the largest national organization and continues down to the smallest tribe. Individual local programs have little leeway for development. Funds must be spent according to funding criteria, and funding programs and rules continuously change. Do these complications exist to create the need for non- Aboriginal advisors and experts?

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry makes it evident that the Aboriginal Industry is complex. And although Widdowson and Howard themselves are part of a dominate colonizing group (they speak about a “civilized” culture, do not understand the complexities of any First Nation culture and convey their cultural ideals as superior), don’t let this stop you from reading, even if it makes you angry. For positive change to occur in Aboriginal communities, the Aboriginal Industry must be understood.

Read this book. Get your blood boiling—it’s a great cardiac exercise. Then let FACE know your thoughts.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation launched a website that outlines how Band Members can learn Council salaries and obtain audit documents.

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