- Claude Denis (Author)
We Are Not You: First Nations and Canadian Modernity. Broadview Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laura J. Murray
Claude Denis has undertaken an unusual and rewarding project: he has rooted a discussion of the underlying assumptions of the Canadian state—assumptions ranging from the "state’s claim to a monopoly of legitimate violence" to the deeply ingrained positioning of mystical spirituality as "antisocial, transgressive, ’the outside’"—in an examination of one court case. In this case, which dates from 1992, a Salish man in British Columbia successfully sued members of his Nation’s Dance Society for assault, battery, and false imprisonment. At the behest of the man’s wife, and following common practice, members of the society had "grabbed" the man for an initiation rite that involved fasting and physical testing; when he complained that he was suffering from ulcer-related pain, they abandoned the process and took him to the hospital. Lawyers for the defendants argued that the initiation was protected as an aboriginal right by Section 35 of the Constitution, and, furthermore, that the act did not constitute assault within aboriginal practices. The judge was not convinced, but Denis was.
The questions raised by the case (which Denis discusses under a pseudonym) are myriad and difficult. Could the practise of the dance society be considered some kind of law? Even if so, should it be countenanced within a Canadian legal system that values individual autonomy over collective rights? What was the role of the plaintiff’s wife, and does this case suggest that self-government could provide better justice to Aboriginal women than is often feared? How is it decided who is a member of which community? And so on. Denis argues for the autonomy of Aboriginal legal processes and principles. Often, he is convincing, but several troubling issues remain. Denis believes that "the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] encourages Canadians to think in ways that result in intolerance toward the autonomy that [Québécois and First Nations] have been seeking within Canada." The yoking of Québécois and First Nations sovereignty struggles is one of the strongest parts of this book (and most startling to an Anglophone with little time for Québec separatism, such as myself), and Denis is probably right in this claim. But while we may be impressed with the relativistic position that First Nations People should determine their own cultural practices, do we simply fold our hands when those cultural practices conflict with the Charter’s conception of "human rights"? Denis is eager to banish this question as a vestige of unearned attitudes of superiority, but it won’t go away without a more careful answer. Elsewhere Denis claims that "’assault’ and ’initiation’ are not natural facts ... they are, rather, particular descriptions of the world, expressing particular cultures"—at first sight, a persuasive idea, but when we think of cases in which men defend wife abuse as "part of our culture," it becomes clear that we have to moderate the claim somehow.
Denis says that he writes "in a spirit of dialogue" with First Nations People. He is very sensitive to issues of power and knowledge, and presents a valid critique of the ethical short-comings of the so-called "ethical review process" for university research. Nonetheless, in deciding not to participate in this process, Denis has taken the easy way out, and backed away from actual dialogue with First Nations People, displaying in its place a rather laboured respect. Denis’s invocation of Zen Buddhism on several occasions seems irrelevant and, in fact, a sleight of hand to get around his overdrawn tact with regard to Aboriginal religions.
If the book is problematic, it thereby embodies the intractability—at both practical and theoretical levels—of the methodological, ethical, and political problems it addresses. Denis throws many well-aimed darts at the complacency with which the Canadian state and its privileged or normative citizens assume that only they know right from wrong—so that even when his arguments don’t quite work, it is not often easy to think of better ones. The book is therefore definitely worth reading for anyone interested in questions of nationalism, Quebec or First Nations sovereignty, law, community, or spirituality. The court case in question can even be seen in archetypal terms as a story of the tension between an individual and his community, told in so many different ways throughout Canadian literature, and could raise the stakes of the discussion of such narratives.
- Carrefours discursifs by Carlo Lavoie
Books reviewed: Le roman québécois et ses (inter)discours by Jósef Kwaterko and Les ruelles de Caresso by Jacques Savoie
- Narrating and Reading by Estelle Dansereau
Books reviewed: Narratology and Text: Subjectivity and Identity in New France and Québécois Literature by Paul Perron
- Heroics on the Fringe by Cedric May
Books reviewed: A Thing of Beauty by Sheila Fischman and Michel Tremblay, News from Éduourd by Sheila Fischman and Michel Tremblay, and The Blue Circus by Sheila Fischman and Jacques Savoie
- Massacres and Floods by Barbara Pell
Books reviewed: Children of the Day by Sandra Birdsell and The Wreckage by Michael Crummy
- Whose Canada? by Carole Gerson
Books reviewed: The Museum Called Canada by Sara Angel and Charlotte Gray
MLA: Murray, Laura J. Three Solitudes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 117 - 118)
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