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Shouting down Margaret Wente in Halifax

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

The name Margaret Wente scarcely needs an introduction to Dominion readers. Please refer to the main Dominion paper site at http://dominionpaper.ca for details of her most recent academically veiled example racism.

Wente was the keynote speaker at the Joseph Howe Symposium organized by the University of King's College School of Journalism and Calgary's Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. This year's event, which took place in Halifax on November 1st, was "The Media's Right to Offend: Exploring Legal and Ethical Limits on Free Speech".

Before Wente actually took the podium, there was an introduction by a moderator. He did mention the Facebook group calling on the Globe and Mail to have her fired; he alluded to the controversial portrayal of native peoples she made; he got into details of how her views have generally been considered offensive over the years; he quoted angry respondents to Wente's work. More importantly though, he also gave her accolades and did not detail why, specifically, Wente was under such pressure to be fired. The appearance he created was that some people were upset at her opinions because she is a provocative writer who is not afraid to say things that may offend some people, and walks the fine line between fair comment and hate/discriminatory/offensive speech.

My mind was made up that I could not let her go on without interjecting a preamble to add some more substance to the controversy over her now infamous article, "What Dick Pound said was really dumb -- and also true" (Oct. 24, 2008). I was not going to wait for the question period to give her racist views an air of legitimacy.

I was glad that I have done some theatre training in the last year that granted me the ability to project my voice to the whole auditorium.

I loudly informed everyone that I was concerned about Margaret Wente speaking without first providing some more context about the justification that people had for calling on the Globe and Mail to fire her.

The audience needed to be made aware that her article contained information that is completely false, upon which she based her justification for assimilation of native peoples' i.e. cultural genocide. Particularly, I was referring to her comments: "Claims about aboriginal contributions to civilization are also vastly overstated. Did the Iroquois Confederacy really influence the Declaration of Independence? Sorry, no. Do native medicinal herbs play an important role in modern drugs? No."

The room was actually surprisingly good for yelling, very little echo.

I explained to the audience that if they were to read Ronald Wright's "Stolen Continents" (1992), they would be informed that writers of the U.S. Constitution / Declaration of Independence were in fact heavily influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin made comments to this effect. Benjamin Franklin was so impressed by the Iroquois Confederacy that he championed it as a model to unite the new colonies and urged that each colony become a state with control over internal affairs and with a federal council responsible for external matters. This became the basis of the Articles of Confederation. "Stolen Continents" contains quotes from Benjamin Franklin detailing the very direct influence. For the record, Wright's book also has comments from a native elder explaining that although the U.S Constitution was influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy, originally, U.S. Administrators didn't exactly get the basic ideas right along the way, to say the least.

As for Wente's denial that native medicines had any effect on the development of modern medicines, she completely whitewashes an entire history of native peoples providing medical care to Europeans. Who was it that actually cured Europeans of scurvy again? I emphatically stated this point. The historical note is well known, but she is still attempting to (white) paint the picture that the "modern world" arose without any help from native peoples along the way.

Further, I made sure to loudly pronounce Wente as a RACIST, who for years has been using her column in the Globe and Mail to bash Muslims since September 11th. I wanted to ensure that people at least could hear one frustrated person detailing how her recent controversial column was not an isolated incident.

Actually, I barely got to say most of what I refer to above. I scarcely mentioned the word "Iroquois" before some people began booing. This kept going on for the few minutes that I was talking. When I started speaking about the Wente's Islam bashing, many people started clapping as one or more people told me to shut up. I commented that it was an interesting reaction from a room that was almost entirely white (Over 150 people in attendance and no more than five people of colour, including myself). I didn't have the chance to let people know that Wente is actually a champion for white supremicists because she writes what they want to hear. Do a search for "Margaret Wente" and "white pride" and see what you find.

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post reaction

So, I left shortly after I made my comments. The room seemed rather uninviting at the time. But an ally -- and future Halifax Media Coop writer -- was still in the room. She informed me that Wente was visibly shaken up afterwards and it took her 5 minutes to regain her composure before she was able to get back on track. My ally also gave Wente an earfull afterwards, which I'm sure also made a large impact

She also mentioned to me that the preamble I gave was brought up several times during the afternoon panel on the subject of freedom of speech and "who has the right to speak?" I really didn't expect that it would have had that much impact. I didn't think I was really all that articulate, but I was spitting out fire with my words. I guess this may be positive points for the emotional response.

Many thanks to my ally. If I was the only one in the room who I knew for sure would have been supportive calling Margaret Wente out, I don't know if I would have been brave enough.

colour of your jackboots

 Asif, just one question, are you wearing red or brown jackboots these days? I've seen anti-free speech activists like you before; dime a dozen. Not too brave, or even original. I'd like to see you do your act in Russia or Venezuela. Or, for that matter shout down an Iroquois warrior. Attacking Margaret Wente like that, you're a coward. 

Wente's appalling ignorance

A very interesting post, Asaf. You point out Wente's ignorance of the evolution of American political institutions. She obviously also does not know her Canadian history.

One of the most important essays on early Canadian history was written by the economic historian Harold Innis. Innis's conclusion to his landmark study "The Fur Trade in Canada" published in 1930 should be required reading for all students of Canadian history. Here are three excerpts:

  • The development of transportation was based primarily on Indian cultural growth The birch bark canoe was borrowed and modified to suit the demands of the trade. Again, without Indian agriculture, Indian corn, and dependence on Indian methods of capturing buffalo and making pemmican, no extended organization of transport to the interior would have been possible in the early period.
  • "The lords of the lakes and forests have passed away" but their work will endure in the boundaries of the Dominion of Canada and in Canadian institutional life. The place of the beaver in Canadian life has been fittingly noted in the coat of arms. We have given to the maple a prominence which was due to the birch. We have not yet realized how the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.
  • Canada emerged as a political entity with boundaries largely determined by the fur trade...The present Dominion emerged not in spite of geography but because of it.

In his chapter on the beginnings of the fur trade, Innis gave a more expansive account of the aboriginal technologies and knowledge that made the fur trade possible:

"...the use of snowshoes and toboggans in winter and of the birch-bark canoe and the pack line in summer, and the skin or bark shelter were characteristic cultural features...A thorough knowledge of the territory was a necessary part of their cultural equipment as was also a thorough knowledge of the habits of the animals upon which they were dependent for livelihood. The importance of the beaver because of its fur, its size, and its abundance, as a source of supply for food and clothing had occasioned the development of elaborate and effective hunting methods."

Innis's study of the fur trade is, in part, a study of the economic and cultural effects of European imperialism, both for the Europeans who settled here and more disastrously for Canada's aboriginal inhabitants. Having read the Wente column you quote, I'd say she is blissfully ignorant about this early history. Without even knowing it, she confuses technological development with "civilization" --- a mistake that someone who had read Innis would not make.

Innis writes, for example, that European guns made hunting easier, but also made aboriginals dependent on Europe for parts and ammunition. He writes that the "history of the fur trade is the history of contact between two civilizations, the European and the North American....The limited cultural background of the North American hunting peoples provided an insatiable demand for the products of the more elaborate cultural development of Europeans. The supply of European goods, the product of a more advanced and specialized technology, enabled the Indians to gain a livelihood more easily...Unfortunately the rapid destruction of the food supply...disturbed the balance which had grown up previous to the coming of the Europeans. The new technology with its radical innovations brought about such a rapid shift in the prevailing Indian culture as to lead to wholesale destruction of the peoples concerned by warfare and disease."

Innis's biographer, John Watson, points out that Innis's case study of the fur trade made it possible for him in his later work to analyze the complex, but unequal relationships among those at the imperial centre of empires and the indigenous peoples on the margins. Before his death in 1952, Innis warned that imperialism, militarism and advanced technologies such as the atomic bomb now imperilled Western civilization itself. He wrote his essay "A Plea for Time" to argue for a greater balance between the space-based, print culture represented in his fur trade study by the Europeans and the time-based, oral culture represented by aboriginal peoples.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about this for the Wikipedia entry on Innis which I am shamelessly promoting here

Glad you unnerved Ms. Wente.


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