Referring to Indigenous peoples as immigrants, and a paternalistic apology, suggest we need a new Governor General

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Governor General David Johnston. Image: Flickr/Nick Matthews

More than misspoke

Governor General David Johnston evoked winces -- the journalistic word of choice -- when he said on-air: "We're a country based on immigration, going right back to our, 'Indigenous people,' who were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago." Two days later he tweeted an apology for "a miscommunication. Our Indigenous peoples are not immigrants..." managing to offend again with a paternalistic possessive. He didn't actually use the weasel word, misspoke; press accounts did.

I think this goes well beyond a slip; it's a conceit with a useful history in disparaging Indigenous claims. Alberta political science professor and Stephen Harper adviser Tom Flanagan, in a deliberately provocative polemic against those claims, First Nations, Second Thoughts, (2000) wrote: "Canadian Indians now call themselves the 'First Nations' to embody their claim to an Aboriginal right of self-government. Yet they were also the first immigrants because their ancestors, like the ancestors of everyone else in North America, moved here from the Old World." This evoked a flood of outrage, as Flanagan surely intended.

It's the image itself that's powerful and aggressive, a calculated insult, comparing groups crossing the Bering Strait eons ago, "en route" to "Canada," as it were, then arriving like all other "waves" of "immigrants." It implies: You call yourselves First Nations; I see you as just another group landing at Pearson and being shuffled through customs and immigration. Governor General Johnston was an eminent academic and participant in public discussions. He must've known it.

I'm not a Johnston fan because in my opinion he clearly got the gig for currying favour with Stephen Harper by helping him during a tricky phase on the Airbus/Mulroney file in 2008, after which Harper reportedly said that whatever they paid him wasn't enough -- and two years later appointed him Governor General. Since the funding body for Canada 150 is apparently having trouble finding worthy projects to support, I'd suggest a festive public firing of the G.G. and his replacement by a worthier figure. But it might seem churlish, so I won't.

A reprieve for plagiarism

Plagiarism has been going through a rough patch after a long, vigorous run. Copyright began with the Statute of (Queen) Anne in 1710 and looked set to last forever. Before that, authors (bards, minstrels etc.) were expected to lift the best samples from others' works; it's how you acknowledged and perpetuated quality in a largely oral (or oral-written) age. Authorship wasn't a preoccupation, but that all changed with the rise of print, when the originality wars -- including scientists like Isaac Newton -- began.

Now, in an age of mash-ups and the Internet, the era of authorial ownership seems to be tailing off. Think, at random, of the failure of the plagiarism case against "Stairway to Heaven" last year. I view the U of T's intention to strip former Toronto education director Chris Spence of his PhD in this context. With a massive effort, Spence breathed life back into what seemed a dying sin.

The investigation found: "67 examples of passages -- including one that was nine pages long -- that were found to be the work of others...this is not a few random sentences in a 120-page thesis...paragraph after paragraph after paragraph, page after page...taken verbatim or nearly verbatim..."

I view plagiarism with ambivalence. Sure, it's theft and there's the matter of stealing your livelihood along with your words. But it's also a sign of great respect and who doesn't want their words to live forever, with or without credit. I fondly recall, in Grade 8, being accused by my English teacher over a piece of "descriptive" writing: "What travel brochure is this from? Don't you know you're supposed to do your own work?" I protested adamantly but underneath I knew it was a deep compliment. Decades later, he and I became drinking pals.

Glass half full?

In that repellent video of a woman in a Mississauga clinic demanding a white doctor who speaks English and doesn't have brown teeth, I choose to focus on others there who intervened, saying: "Your child really has more issues with you being his mother than with him needing to see a doctor. You're extremely rude and racist."

When the mother asks, "Why are you yelling at me?" someone else replies: "Because you're yelling at everyone." They are measured, firm and active. Picture one of them as our next Governor General.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Flickr/Nick Matthews


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