Appropriation prize a 'kick while you're already down' says Indigenous author

An editorial introducing the concept of an "appropriation prize" for the author who can best embody the cultural experience of a minority group in Canada comes off as an attempt to steal one of the few things Indigenous people in Canada have left — their voices, according to one Indigenous author.

Outrage over opinion piece could be an opportunity for learning

Author and publisher D.A. Lockhart said a recent editorial in Write magazine suggesting a cultural appropriation prize shows how endangered the few places Indigenous writers have to share their stories are. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

An editorial introducing the concept of an "appropriation prize" for the author who can best embody the cultural experience of a minority group in Canada comes off as an attempt to steal one of the few things Indigenous people in Canada have left — their story, according to one Indigenous author. 

"We've lost our land, we've lost our languages and almost the last thing we have left are our stories and our voices," said D.A. Lockhart, a member of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation in Chatham-Kent.

"To have somebody come in and say we'll tell those better than you … is sort of a painful kick while you're already down." 

The author of the controversial editorial in Write magazine, Hal Niedzviecki, has since stepped down, along with Walrus editor Jonathan Kay who published an opinion piece of his own advocating for debate around the issue of cultural appropriation.

The scandal surrounding Niedzviecki's piece grew this weekend as several Canadian media executives, including one from CBC, tweeted they would financially support an actual appropriation prize.

Jesse Wente reacts to the appropriation prize controversy

6 years ago
Duration 7:58
An op-ed piece in "Write", a quarterly published by the Writers' Union of Canada, has ignited a firestorm of controversy over cultural appropriation. Metro Morning columnist Jesse Wente shares his thoughts

Lockhart, a poet and publisher, said he was "pretty outraged" when he read the editorial, adding it was advocating for authors to mimic the Indigenous experience and in doing so take away the "few places we have left in the mainstream literary culture."

The twitter thread by members of the media just added to the voices telling minority Canadian voices to "shut up," he added.

Like 'ripping off a scab' again and again

Cultural appropriation is the act of "diminishing" or "white-washing" the history, experiences and artifacts of a culture, according to Dion Carter, a member of black and Métis communities who teaches sociology at St. Clair College.

The practice is common in art and writing, but according to Carter it's like "ripping a scab off a wound" time and again.

"You're dishonouring their heritage, dishonouring their history, dishonouring those people," said Carter.

Dion Carter, who teaches sociology at St. Clair College, said reoccurring instances of cultural appropriation are like "ripping a scab off" again and again. (Dion Carter)

Jane Ku, a sociology professor at the University of Windsor, said high-profile members of the media joking about such a prize points to the myth that society is now equal.

"When you have a society that assumes everyone is equal it's really easy for someone to say 'This is not cultural appropriation, I'm just trying to say something about another culture that I find fascinating and interesting,' without thinking about the fact there are still lots of power inequities," she said.

Instead of writing shallow versions of diverse characters, authors should do their research before trying to write from the perspective of someone other than themselves. Members of minority groups must also be given an opportunity to tell their own stories, explained Carter.

"Assign value to us and our history and our art and artifacts … assign a value that comes from us." he said. "We want to be appropriately respected. We want people to value us, include us and hear our stories."

An opportunity to learn and listen

Lockhart said the literary business is tough and it can be tempting for writers to leverage any sort of angle that might give them a leg up, but it's important that people make the main focus of their writing something they personally know and understand.

"It's very easy to start crossing lines," he said, adding most of the people caught up in the cultural appropriation controversy were "well-off" white people living in a "bubble" in Toronto.

Still, he said the cultural appropriation prize controversy might offer a chance for different members of Canada's arts community to talk with and learn from each other. According to Lockhart, learning and listening is the only way things will get better.

"I would like to see the writing industry in Canada be more reflective of multicultural aspects," added Lockhart. "Once we start getting people in positions of power that can identify true stories and true voices it's going to really propel us forward culturally and as a society."