Ethnocentrism is a pillar of Colonization
Or why, in this case, Scott Gilmore’s opinion is wrong
This last week, Maclean’s Magazine columnist and Conservative Party member Scott Gilmore took advantage of the ongoing suicide crisis in Attawapiskat to push his view that the Government of Canada should move towards “ending the hellish and anachronistic reserve system.” While never explicitly said, he strongly implies that the way reserves should be ended is for First Nations to move to Canadian cities. It would be “better” for them there.
Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine there is a neighbourhood in Toronto that isn't doing very well. In fact, it is…www.macleans.ca
Mr. Gilmore has written multiple columns in Maclean’s advocating for this solution, describing reserves as “medieval living condition”, saying that “the north itself is violent and has been forever”, and stating that “remote communities will never be as healthy and prosperous as cities”. His key thesis is that this is a result of rural and remote communities being “disconnected from the economy, from the government and from society.”
But from whose economy? Whose government? Whose society?
Remote and rural reserves are disconnected from the Canadian economy, government, and society, and deliberately so. The Indian Act, embodying the colonialist objectives of Canadian settlers, did everything it could to try to push First Nations out of their traditional ways of life, first into reserves where the “Indian problem” could be tackled, then with an objective to assimilate them into broader Canadian society, as an attempt to “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”.
Given this, is it any surprise that many First Nations view a position advocating elimination of reserves and “moving to the city” as a solution with suspicion and derision?
Ethnocentrism and “Why the City is Better”
Mr. Gilmore says that cities don’t have the same “economic limitations”, are “healthier communities”, are “safer”, and are “more rewarding”. He goes even further and states that “No isolated town, disconnected from economic opportunity, thrives. Anywhere.” And this bares the true belief: Deeply embedded in Mr. Gilmore’s position is an ethnocentric judgement that the (Western) city is better.
There are many legitimate criticisms of this viewpoint, but first we must deal with the straw-man comparison of today’s rural and remote reserves with today’s Canadian cities.
This is a false comparison. The real comparison would be with healthy First Nations communities that have escaped from the yoke of colonialism.
Are “Western-style urban capitalist economies” better than traditional indigenous economies and ways of life? First Nations answer a resounding “NO”. And how they choose to live is their choice, not ours.
Is “Western-style urban living” healthier for First Nations than traditional indigenous living? Again, a resounding “NO”. How could be living so disconnected from the land be anything even approaching healthy?
“Safer”? “NO”. “Rewarding”? again, “NO”.
The problem is past and ongoing colonization, not rural vs. urban.
In fact, rural and remote reserves are also disconnected from traditional indigenous economy, government and society. Again, this is deliberate: The colonial agenda criminalizes traditional indigenous economic activity, and through historic and ongoing land theft, funnels the wealth of the land to fund Western society and Western cities. With an foreign governance structure imposed on First Nations, with little true autonomy, this serves to suppress and inhibits traditional indigenous forms of governance. And monocultural media messaging, combined with pervasive and systemic racism, undermines traditional indigenous society, values and culture.
This 1–2–3 blow of imposed poverty, cultural criminalization, and societal stigmatization do create “medieval living conditions”, violence, and lack of health and prosperity. But Mr. Gilmore’s proposed solution addresses none of the root causes.
Sometimes you dig yourself in deeper
This is best illustrated by looking at some recent tweets from Mr. Gilmore on this topic:
A few points on the responses to Chretiens recent remarks & my column on economic handicap faced by Attawapiskat & other remote reserves. If an indigenous family chooses to leave a remote reserve for healthier communities it isn’t “assimilation” nor is it “forced relocation”
It is both assimilation and forced relocation if the causes of the economic hardships are a direct result of colonialism, criminalization and land theft.
And moving has “worked” when you consider almost every major indicator of wellbeing is 2x better for off-reserve indigenous Canadians.
The colonial state deliberately keeps reserves worse-off as a way to pressure First Nations to relocate to cities. Of course wellbeing will be better there—that’s the point.
Also, pointing out the inherent economic limitations of isolated communities is not “neo-colonialist”, “assimilationist” or “racist”.
It is if the economic limitations are a result of colonialization, assimilation and racism. And saying that these limitations are “inherent” is ethnocentric.
I’ve spent most of my career working on issues of extreme poverty & de-colonization around the world from the Timor to Haiti. There’s an iron-bound socio-economic law that applies to all countries, all races, all cultures, and all economic & governance. A community’s health is directly propotional to its degree of isolation and its connection to areas of economic activity. There are no exceptions to this rule. It applies to Nauru, Indonesia, Scotland, Sudan, Brazil, and Ontario.
All of these places are suffering from colonization and destruction of non-Western ways of life. Perhaps this could be argued that it is a “law” within Western-capitalist systems, but this assertion simply can’t be made without also implying that First Nations’ only path is that of assimilation.
To argue Attawapiskat must be made viable, you must find a community in similar circumstances anywhere on earth where this was achieved. This community simply does not exist. No isolated town, disconnected from economic opportunity, thrives. Anywhere. Which is why every week aroud the world 3 million people choose to move into cities, where life is healthier, safer, and more rewarding.
If wealth from the diamonds being mined just outside of Attawapiskat went to the community, it would be more than viable. It would be thriving. And if it wasn’t mined as fast as possible to maximize profits, the wealth would have lasted for many generations. These are blood diamonds. And across the country, wealth that would make First Nations communities strong and sustainable is being extracted and stolen to fund the very cities you advocate moving to. Cities aren’t just on stolen land, they’re built with stolen wealth.
People lived sustainable, healthy and happy lives since long before cities existed. To argue that cities are the pinnacle of human life is deeply ethnocentric. And many of those three million mentioned are not moving by choice—they are moving because the capitalist Western system forces them to move, against their will and desires.
Moving towards a fair comparison
If Mr. Gilmore’s genuine concern is the well-being of the First Nations, let’s advocate for addressing the root problems, which hasn’t happened yet. Only then, once First Nations again demonstrate their alternatives to Western-capitalist society, can the rural/urban comparison be made. Only once the colonialist harm has healed can there be a choice between ways of life, without coercion.