05.23.2017 09:44 AM

The column on cultural appropriation HuffPo refused to publish

“All novelists are liars.”

Thieves, too. So said Mordecai Richler.

We were in the dark at the back at the Bovine Sex Club on Queen West, my friend and I were, waiting to see the Chicago punk band, Off With Their Heads. My friend had just told me the story of how, years ago, he organized a debate at the University of Toronto between Richler and a brilliant feminist academic. The topic: “cultural appropriation.”

Richler had insisted that the brilliant feminist academic go first. He even suggested she get more time than him.

The assembled students were all on her side, my friend said. When she finally finished, Richler – perhaps the greatest novelist and writer this country has ever produced – all but shrugged.

Cultural appropriation, he said, wasn’t just defensible. It was, he said, absolutely necessary. To write great stories, Richler said, writers must adapt and adopt cultures – the language and the idiom and the symbols and the stories and the words – that are not theirs.

In this way, Richler said, all the best novelists are thieves. “They are liars,” he said.

The U of T students erupted in wild applause, said my friend, himself a former National Post columnist with a liberal and Liberal pedigree. Richler then walked out to a near-ovation, off to go drinking with one of the Rabinovitches in a suite at the Four Seasons.

My friend was relating the Richler tale on the very afternoon another friend, Steve Ladurantaye, had been in the news because of cultural appropriation. His employers, the CBC, had removed him as managing editor of The National.

His sin: to joke, in a tweet of a half-dozen words, that he would make a donation to a fictional “cultural appropriation prize” that other prominent Canadian journalists had conjured up. Steve’s tweet had been in jest, but the response was anything but laughable. Almost immediately, a tsunami of rage descended on the writers, prompting deletions, apologies, retractions, demotions and resignations across the Canadian media demi-monde.

Steve – who, inter alia, signed up plenty of minority and indigenous writers for the CBC’s new opinion space – was out.

Now, columnists aren’t supposed to write about things in which they are personally involved, but after kicking off this column with the Mordecai Richler story – one about culture, one that I plainly appropriated – what the Hell. Five points.

One, Ladurantaye is a close friend. We are even in a geriatric punk band together, and we are going into the studio this week. Not a few of our songs attack racists and bigots. One is even called Donald Trump Is An Asshole. Not exactly the cultural output of a racist, that song.

Two, as a lawyer and a consultant, I’ve worked under four different Prime Ministers on First Nations files in six different provinces. My firm has represented dozens of First Nations, from the Yukon to Ontario. The work I’ve done, however varied, is always about just one thing: theft. Theft of First Nations land. Theft of their way of life. Theft of their economic independence. Theft of their sovereignty. W. P. Kinsella’s banal little novels – no relation, I assure you – never once came up in all that time.

Three, I’ve got a novel of my own coming out in the Fall, with Dundurn. It’s called X: Recipe for Hate. It’s about teenagers and racism and punk rock. One of the main characters is a young Miqmaq woman, conjured up entirely by my imagination. In the book, which I hope will horrify some, I unreservedly appropriate things about her indigenous culture. Should I have sought someone’s permission to do that? Or should I have not even written about her? Those are rhetorical questions, believe me.

Four, I am father to a beautiful and sweet and perfect indigenous daughter, a proud citizen of the Carcross Tagish First Nation. She knows Steve and adores Steve, just like the rest of us do. Sitting at our kitchen table, under two (2) Kwakiutl totem poles, my daughter has never had any problem with Steve. He would not have been sitting at our table if she had. She, like me, thinks he is a good and decent and tolerant man.

Fifth and final – and this one deeply pisses me off. The “cultural appropriation prize” – which, make no mistake, was stupid and insensitive and condescending – resulted in literally thousands of news stories, from coast to coast. More than 40,000, according to the oracle of Google.

Meanwhile, outside the velvet confines of the Annex and CBC HQ, me and my wife and a few others have been labouring to persuade Canada Post to stop delivering an actual NEO-NAZI NEWSPAPER to Toronto-area mailboxes, and to shut it down. The hate rag, called Your Ward News, regularly features tributes to Adolf Hitler, promotes Holocaust denial, calls blacks “niggers,” and defames every minority on Earth.

But do you think that we can get just one (1) of the presently-offended multitude to help us oppose it? Do you think we can get one (1) of them to write an op-ed or a letter to the editor, opposing the delivery of neo-Naziism to peoples’ doors? Do you think we could get just one (1) of them to consider, just for a moment, that the promotion of actual National Socialism and anti-Semitism and race hate merits their attention?

Not on your life. In the Deepest Annex, or down in the conference rooms at the CBC, cultural appropriation is more important than, you know, any of that stuff. Holocaust denial? Naziism? Real racism? To them, those things aren’t as important.

Mordecai Richler, wherever he is, is laughing his ass off.


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    Christian says:

    HuffPo just proved your point, didn’t they?

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:


    Sounds like a piece for W. Kamau Bell.

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    Aongasha says:

    Thought this too was a sad commentary on what is supposed to be a world class city.
    Toronto you are looking pretty silly today.

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    Gyor says:

    The silencing of critics of the idea of cultural approitation will only lead to a back lash that could harm FNs people, the people pushing this situation have created a situation in which it falsely looks like FN are against free speech, when the people who said complain about cultural appriotation only speak for themselves.

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    Kevin says:

    Neat little trick, isn’t it? You don’t have to think, you don’t have to debate, all you have to do is scream “racist” at someone and you silence them. I wonder how many people don’t even venture an opinion out of fear they’ll be called a racist, or simply stay silent because they don’t want to deal with the bullshit.

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      Sean Cummings says:

      This is why I smoke cannabis.

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      Kevin says:

      Well, “the right” does lack credibility when it comes to discussing issues of racism.

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    P. Brenn says:

    I think focus should be water , housing education, MMIW committee and challenges facing FN people in urban centres ..is cultural appropriation part of it ..yes but we need to solve the basic issues …yes I know much effort has been made to do so but in general has not worked ..notwithstanding some fist nation communities are excelling..

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      Ronald O'Dowd says:

      P. Brenn,

      Right now, there are “only” 73 boil-water advisories in Ontario. Because this is 2017…

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    Gord says:

    The whole thing confuses me. Does this mean that I, as a white male, can only write about other white males or only use fictional white male characters? As a corollary, can indigenous writers only write about other indigenous people or only have indigenous characters in their novel? I am not trying to be obtuse, I just do not understand where the lines are. Obviously we do not want to encourage people to create stereotypical parodies of other cultures, but wouldn’t a genuine attempt to stand in another’s shoes and try to understand another’s experiences and perspectives lead to a more open and tolerant society? How does organizing us into our own little silos and telling people to “stay in your lane” accomplish that?

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    Expat says:

    Why do you feel the need to hedge your bets, advertise your PC bona fides and undermine your own argument with this line?

    “The “cultural appropriation prize” – which, make no mistake, was stupid and insensitive and condescending”

    Stupid for those guys to risk their careers, given the witch hunt going on right now, but Richler would have defended the appropriation prize as worthy satire.

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      Warren says:

      Buzz off. I said what I meant. And I don’t hide behind false names.

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        Gord says:

        FWIW, Warren, I didn’t see it as burnishing your “PC bona fides”. I too agree that the “cultural appropriation prize” was a ham-handed and insensitive way to deal with what I see as an important issue, one that people can discuss intelligently, and a discussion worth having. I highly doubt the “prize” was intended as satire, and we of course have no way of knowing if the late Mr. Richler would have agreed.

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    Matthew says:

    Honestly, I thought that was the dumbest issue ever, but that is because I hold a bias. I have a lifelong and abiding interest in ancient history, and the pre-history of the Levant. Such a huge part of the development of civilisaton was the almost systemic ‘cultural appropriation’, whereby ideas, religions, writing, state building, agriculture were ‘expropriated’ by all and sundry. It is a great story, like the continuous re-weaving of a tapestry, recurring themes being used in new and exciting ways. That said, there is such a thing as cultural mis-appropriation, those things intended to denigrate and offend, but that is pretty rare compared to the course of the spread of ideas.

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