Finding Dahshaa: Self-Government, Social Suffering, and Aboriginal Policy in Canada External link

Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox


University of British Columbia Press

Like other indigenous people of North America, the Aboriginal tribes of Canada have suffered at the hands of European colonizers. Since the late 18th century, European Canadians encouraged the local indigenous people to assimilate into their own, or “Canadian,” culture. During the subsequent centuries, the Canadian government forced Aborigines to assimilate External link into a Eurocentric External link society, at times violating the United Nations Genocide Convention External link. The residential school system that forcibly removed Aborigine children from their homes for placement in Christian-run schools became institutes of stolen culture, abuse, and sexual assault. Moreover, throughout the nation’s history, the Aboriginal people have been displaced from their lands. Despite these historical injustices, current institutional policies, such as providing money in the place of land claims and strong-arm tactics during negotiations, have created a persistent system of social suffering that continuously plagues this minority. In Finding Dahshaa: Self-Government, Social Suffering, and Aboriginal Policy in Canada, External linkresearcher and negotiator, Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, External link presents a thorough, comprehensive examination of Aboriginal practices and negotiations to reveal the issues that hinder satisfactory agreements for indigenous people and a true cure to contemporary social suffering.
As history has often demonstrated with various civil rights movements, chief obstacles of ending institutionalized injustices are lack of knowledge and respect for the wronged party’s culture and refusal to acknowledge the group’s past and present suffering. In her examination of the copious negotiation proceedings between the government and the tribes of the Northwest Territories, Irlbacher-Fox offers a blaring glimpse into many government negotiators’ refusal to recognize current degenerative policies. That refusal, she argues, stems from the negotiators’ inability to truly acknowledge the cultural significance of Aboriginal customs. As a result, indigenous negotiators, who have the additional burden of educating the opposing teams from “erroneous assumptions, or plain ignorance,” utilize the meetings as an opportunity to bridge the canyons of misunderstanding by opening with a prayer, music, and personal recantations of suffering. Irlbacher-Fox points that while some negotiators appreciate the lesson, they often feel stifled as their interest lay in ensuring that the government’s goals are met. Often, however, others fall into the latter category, repudiating that as an oppressed minority, retaining culture is insignificant in the struggle of achieving self-government. For example, during a particular session in which culture and language were discussed, a government negotiator asserted:

“Why, exactly, do Inuvialuit and Gwich’in need control of culture and language? These are policy based programs. I don’t see the point in why we are discussing them. There is no jurisdiction here. So I just want to understand why discussing this seems to be so important when there is really none here” (139).

Irlbacher-Fox exposes that negotiators are representatives of lawmakers, who harbor similar sentiments. These attitudes, she disputes, prohibit the true success of government interventions in Aboriginal life.

Because government policies have been and continue to be ineffective and often discriminatory, Aboriginal people seek self-government. The tribes, who floundered under mandatory relocation and residential schools desire land, which is necessary to their cultural success, and control over the policies that affect their people. Regrettably, officials support the “dysfunctional theodicy,” arguing that poor lifestyle choices and antiquated customs are at the root of indigenous suffering. With this logic, the government ignores its role in initiating and further exacerbating past and present affliction. In “Inuvialuit and Gwich’in Culture and Language,” for example, Irlbacher-Fox reveals how policies purported to assist in Native advancement ultimately contribute to the continuance of suffering. Residential schools, for example, have become a necessity to Indigenous remonstrations. Although the institutions lost mandatory status in 1996, some children still leave home to learn “Canadian” speech and conventions in order to become negotiators which are pertinent in the pursuit of indigenous rights. Additionally, this requisite contributes to the loss of indigenous culture. In speaking of her colleague, Irlbacher-Fox writes:

“The years spent at the English-only residential school came at a price: Vince lost his language, connections with his culture, family, and community; and groups of children and the ones sent away to school each had to develop defence mechanisms justifying their relative positions, creating a division in the community” (146).

Essentially, existing injustices make obligatory the exact subjugation against which the people are fighting.

While Finding Dahshaa External linkpresents intricate research and comprehensive observations of the painstaking and dawdling trajectory of Aboriginal struggles, Irlbacher-Fox’s superlative accomplishment lies in her appreciation and understanding of the various tribes. She recognizes that she is an outsider but unlike many scholars, who muddle in their overly academic examinations and occasionally predisposed assertions, the author immerses in indigenous cultures to expose and rid her of her own preconceived notions that likely affect other individuals who contend to “help” cure injustices.

Exceptionally revealing is the author’s presentation of the Dene tradition of tanning moosehide. Not only is the skill an economic means, it still proves to be a cultural expression that is about “collective cooperation, responsibility, tenacity, self-reliance, commitment and accomplishment requiring multiple and specific Dene knowledge” (38). Irlbacher-Fox shows that the government’s regard of the process as a solely historical, “dying tradition” diminishes the cultural relevance of the people and their customs, which further highlights the issues that undoubtedly bleed into the negotiations and policies affecting Aboriginal people.

Like other explorations of Canadian malfeasance, Finding Dahshaa External linkprovides an exhaustive study of institutional polices that unremittingly obstruct indigenous progression. Unconventionally, however, Irlbacher-Fox elevates the book from a pedantic survey to a cultural accession that glances into Aboriginal mores and ethnology. Moreover, she does not present the tribes monolithically; she often delineates the various customs by their peoples, referring to the Dene, Sahtu, and other tribes by their designations.

Although Irlbacher-Fox remains professional in her presentation, she nevertheless is able to disassociate her own proclivity to produce a conscientious dissertation of the tribes and their struggles. Fellow academics may find fault in the author’s passion for justice, which is inadvertently disclosed in the writing, but it is the human connection that makes Finding Dahshaa: Self-Government, Social Suffering, and Aboriginal Policy in Canada External linka credible source for further study of Aboriginal’s need for self-governing practices.
Reviewed by Ashanti White, University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-Greensboro).

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