Arts·Point of View

The cultural appropriation debate isn't about free speech — it's about context

Indigenous writer Alicia Elliott explains why invoking "free speech" arguments around cultural appropriation ignores Canada's history of oppression.

Indigenous writer Alicia Elliott explains why 'free speech' arguments ignore Canada's history of oppression

In this performance piece, artist Gregg Deal — a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe — dressed as a Plains Indian outside the Denver Art Museum. Deal spoke with CBC Radio's Unreserved about the piece in late 2015. (courtesy Gregg Deal)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay is written by Alicia Elliott, an Indigenous writer of the Tuscarora people. She was one of the first to criticize Hal Niedzviecki's column Write Magazine, which — among other things — called for an "Appropriation Prize" in literature. Reactions to the column were equally controversial, as journalists like former Rogers Media executive Ken Whyte, National Post editor in chief Anne Marie Owens and CBC The National's managing editor Steven Ladurantaye began offering up money to support the so-called "prize" mentioned in the column. (Update: Steve Ladurantaye has since been reassigned to a new role.)

It always amuses me how quickly complicated, difficult criticisms from marginalized communities get turned into an issue of "free speech." As if that term were ever as simplistic as they seem to think it is. As if those championing "free speech" are doing so for everyone and not very, very specific people.

I'm referring, of course, to Hal Niedzviecki's editorial in The Writers Union of Canada's magazine Write. Since I'm one of the writers who first brought up the problems in this editorial, let me do what few of those harping about "free speech" have done: offer you context.

I was informed that Write would be accepting pitches for essays specifically from Indigenous authors for an issue dedicated to us and our writing. I pitched an essay that eventually became "On Seeing and Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing With Empathy and Writing with Love." Mr. Niedzviecki accepted this pitch, gave some suggestions on what he'd like me to focus on — specifically the impacts on myself as a writer and my writing — and edited the essay. He made the editorial choice to change my title to "On Seeing and Being Seen: Writing With Empathy." I thought that this was a strange decision, as it changed the meaning of my original title, but I still approved it. He must have known something about titles I didn't. After all, he was an established writer and editor — I wasn't. That was all of the interaction I had with Mr. Niedzviecki.

Indigenous writer Alicia Elliott was one of the first to call out Write magazine on its editorial about cultural appropriation. (Alicia Elliott)

Then I got my copy of the magazine and saw the now infamous "Winning the Appropriation Prize" article. In his editorial introducing my work and the work of other Indigenous writers, Mr. Niedzviecki encouraged the "white and middle class" producers of CanLit to "write what they don't know" and even went so far as to call for an "Appropriation Prize." According to Niedzviecki, "There's [nothing] preventing us from incorporating a culture's myths, legends, oral histories and sacred practices into our own works...If we steal stories or phone in a bunch of stereotypes, readers will know."

This directly contested a personal anecdote I shared in my essay, which I was hesitant to share in the first place. It was about a short story written by a white man that appropriated and disrespected Potlatch ceremonies, and depicted Indigenous peoples as drunks and savages. Contrary to Niedzviecki's claim, this story wasn't called out as false or harmful — it was given an award. One might even call it an appropriation award. Clearly, the readers didn't recognize that what they were reading was problematic. Its stereotypes rang true to them. And why wouldn't it? Those same stereotypes have been peddled by Canadian literature and media for as long as Canada has had literature and media.

So why was Mr. Niedzviecki undermining my lived experiences with his own false assumptions? Why was he saying Indigenous writers' work is so good because "[they] so often must write what they don't know"? What did he mean by that? And why didn't he talk with me or any of the contributors about this before printing it? How could he see nothing wrong with it?

I'm an Indigenous woman living in Canada. I'm 'not allowed' to say no. This country has made its position on that clear countless times. Our land, language, culture, children and lives have been and continue to be taken without our consent.- Alicia Elliott, writer

That's when I utilized my free speech to call out Mr. Niedzviecki's inappropriate framing of my work. Of course, given the history of this country, that was always going to be a problem. I'm an Indigenous woman living in Canada. I'm "not allowed" to say no. This country has made its position on that clear countless times. Our land, language, culture, children and lives have been and continue to be taken without our consent. Our attempts to stop this are often criminalized. When we point out Canada's continued attempts at our genocide, we're dismissed as "identity politics fundamentalists run riot."

A scan of Hal Niedzviecki's editorial from the May 2017 issue of Write magazine from the Writers' Union of Canada.

This is the context in which a number of high-profile white editors decided it was appropriate to champion a fellow white man's "right" to gaslight me, a largely unknown Indigenous woman just starting her writing career. The whole situation was a joke to them. Perhaps it still is.

But that's not enough context. Let's go further. I'm currently writing this article in Brantford, Ontario. This is a city that, in the past ten years, has successfully asked the courts to grant an injunction against members of my family specifically and members of my community generally for trying to stop construction on our territory that is still under claim. I went to high school at Pauline Johnson Collegiate & Vocational School, where I was never taught the work of a single Indigenous author, despite the school itself being named after one. I'm currently a ten minute drive from the Mohawk Institute, or as those who survived refer to it, "The Mush Hole." This school made my grandmother uproot her entire life on Six Nations and move to New York just so she could be sure her children would never attend. "The Mush Hole" never came up in school curriculum. Right now I'm writing and thinking in English. I have no choice. The language in my family was lost with my grandfather, who was murdered by a white man over $10.

This is my specific context. This is the history I carry with me. Forgetting or ignoring that context is not an option. It never has been.

However, forgetting context is a privilege far too readily indulged in by many white politicians, writers, editors and people. They don't have to live with the knowledge that this country was built through the systemic genocide of their ancestors — because it wasn't. They can refuse to read the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's Report and still make sweeping, false statements about it because that's all the TRC report is to them: a report. They don't live with its intergenerational trauma the way we do. They never will.

Former Write Magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki gave an interview at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto apologizing for his article "being taken out of context." (CBC)

Canada has never worked in the best interests of all of its citizens. The Indian Act certainly wasn't created to benefit my people. The Chinese head tax wasn't enforced to help Chinese people. The proposed hijab ban wasn't graciously granting Muslim women freedom to choose. The continued carding policies of the police are not protecting the liberties and dignity of black people. Forcing transgender people to use bathrooms that make them feel unsafe is not upholding their human rights.

This is my specific context. This is the history I carry with me. Forgetting or ignoring that context is not an option. It never has been.- Alicia Elliott

But the people who are benefiting from these discriminatory policies? They're the ones fighting so hard to keep them in place. And Canadian institutions are giving them columns, editorial positions, judge appointments, prestigious positions in the police force, political power. These people — who never have to reflect on the historical context which has made their voices so powerful to begin with — seem to think we all live in a perpetual present, where societal issues are not the result of a country's history bearing down on individuals, but the result of individuals' decisions alone. And yet, when faced with the consequences for their own decisions, these same people cry out about "craven, unprincipled times."

This is why cultural appropriation is an issue to begin with: because certain people want to ignore context. They want to pretend that marginalized communities have always been on equal footing in Canada, that we've always had control over the laws that have historically prevented us from telling our own stories and living our own lives. They want to believe that marginalized communities have always had access to this mysterious concept called "free speech." They want to pretend that problems from the past have disappeared when all they've really done is change form. If any of that was actually the case, we wouldn't have to keep having the same conversation about cultural appropriation over and over.

It's well past time for Canadians to actually consider this country's historical context, recognize how it impacts the present — and start the hard work of making it right for the future.


Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019).