To many Canadians, the relationship between the country they call home and the indigenous peoples goes something like this: “White Europeans came, fought with the ‘natives’, and conquered them. But that happened hundreds of years ago and now we are all equal, but it’s just a lot of the natives are drunk, lazy and poor, so they continue to blame us for something that happened a long time ago!” This, like many master narratives is erroneous and superficial. Although most Canadians would like to believe that oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada is no longer an issue, the truth is that the imperialistic attitude and persecution lives on, albeit in a more covert manner. The ‘master narrative’ term was developed by Jean-Francois Lyotard to describe a theory that tries to give a complete, exhaustive account to various historical events, experiences, and social and cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to an all inclusive truth or values. In this context, narrative is a story that operates to legitimize power, authority and social customs. According to Fulford (page 30), a master narrative is “a work of history that scoops up thousands of facts, fits them into a meaningful pattern and then draws lessons about human conduct.” This particular master narrative fits Fulford’s description quite well. It is a ‘story known by a social group; has a lifespan; is inherently ideological; and it is comprised of smaller narratives’.
The average Canadian considers the injustices faced by indigenous people to be located in the distant past, as ironically has every generation. This ignores the fact that half of First Nations children in Canada grew up in poverty in 2014, that indigenous people were not able to vote until 1970, the continued imperialist land grab in the name of fossil fuel projects and profits, that residential schools were happening right up until the 1960s and the last one closed in 1995, the federal government refusing to call an enquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women, and that the Indian Act continues to this day, amongst others. This master narrative is a legacy of early Canadian government’s attempts to create a cohesive national identity, one which omits first nations’ cultures and values, and is perpetuated by certain sections of the media and politicians whose interest lies with keeping with this narrative.
The negative portrayal of one group in society is a classic example of the right wing strategy of ‘divide and rule’, observed most horrifically during the years leading up the Holocaust, when the dehumanization of the Jewish people was not just restricted to the German press- the print version of what is currently the world’s most popular ‘news’ website, the British Daily Mail supported the Nazis, and contributed towards the vicious propaganda towards the Jewish people. The tradition lives on today as the Mail and other conservative tabloids combine Muslims, asylum seekers, immigrants, (legal and illegal) and refugees as one homogenous mass of undesirables. The absurdity of this has gotten so out of hand that each British mainstream party, even the apparently left wing Labour Party, is locked in a battle of ‘who is tougher on immigrants’ benefits’. As it gets closer to the election, expect this to get to higher levels. Don’t be surprised to see, on election day, a photo shoot of leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron seen getting a refugee in a headlock whilst giving a speech on immigration reform followed by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband giving the finger to anyone ‘who looks a bit brown’ coming out of Arrivals at Heathrow Airport.
Of course these sensationalist tabloids have an agenda to not only distract the masses from more important issues like climate change and inequality, but also to increase the circulation of their newspapers. Newspapers, like the Sun, owned by a deeply unpleasant man whose appearance resembles a baked potato left out for a year- the facially shriveled, Rupert Murdoch. He is an Australian Tycoon who also owns Fox, which is so far to the right that the political spectrum has had to have another 30m added to the end of it. Murdoch’s influence is so large that he can impose whatever ideological script he wants and his publications’ consumers will go with it. Fox News could claim there is a 20ft gay Mexican atheist trampling all over New York and they would believe it. So our faithful attachment to a master narrative dictates how we frame stories and the questions we ask, which strengthens our belief in the master narrative. To understand how and why this is so, it is imperative to know that master narratives are created and reinforced by political and media power structures, and are therefore promoting the values of callous privileged capitalists.
Of course any master narrative has a lifespan and you might suggest that if this particular one I’m focusing on was to evolve to become much more progressive and in favor of first nation’s rights and values, then I would welcome it. Yes, but I think there’s more chance of Stephen Harper performing the ‘Flash dance’ routine in the House of Commons than that happening. Evolve it might but not quickly enough.
I, for one, believe that there can be no universal truth. The diversity of human experience is a good thing, where no master narrative perpetuated by an elite and privileged group of people can be elevated so far as to appear to be ‘the truth’. Of course it is impossible to completely obliterate this particular narrative anytime soon, but I believe there must be room made available for more progressive versions. As Martin notes, (Freedman, page 647). You might also suggest that two of the grand narratives of the enlightenment: Democracy and Marxism, were grounded in progressive values that seeked to work for everybody and not just a privileged few. Indeed but where are the progressive grand narratives now? “What about the Master Narrative of the Holocaust?” I hear you ask. “Feeling that this atrocity must never happen again, that we must stand up against injustice when we see it, and subjugation of minorities!” I would reply “Where is that compassion for an oppressed group of people and victims of genocide now, Canada?”
Society grows so accepting of a master narrative that they are unable to see any other possibilities for stories. Only recently have indigenous voices been allowed to be heard by the rest of society, and so the non-aboriginal population is at least beginning to be more open minded on this issue. New, more progressive counter narratives are emerging and activist groups such as Idle No More are helping to raise awareness. First Nations people are reclaiming their culture and stories. For instance in Victoria, BC- Mount Douglas, a sacred mountain to the Coast Salish people, has been symbolically restored to its original name, Pklos.
It’s time for Canada to realize that First Nations people if treating equally as the rest of the country, and given the chance, will succeed, are creative, amazing, caring, passionate, intelligent humans, stewards of the Earth and allies in the fight against the oil companies and conservative ministers that put profits before people and the planet. But don’t stop reading here dear reader. I am a privileged white male who cannot speak on behalf of First Nations people. Listen to them as this was merely an introduction, and I am merely an ally of this cause. Check out Idle No More and its newsletters, attend a teach in, and become an ally yourself. I stand in solidarity with the struggles of the indigenous people of Canada and so should you.