After five years as a policy analyst for the government in the Northwest Territories, Frances Widdowson moved into academia, eager to share her research on Indigenous policy.
But she quickly realized her views were seen as controversial and the world of academia was not as open as she had assumed. In some circles, her work has been called racist and hate speech, but she in unconcerned, vowing to continue despite her opponents.
Widdowson completed her PhD at York University and in 2008 accepted a position at Mount Royal University, where she teaches introductory political science and comparative politics courses.
Aboriginal policy has been an interest of Widdowson’s for several years. While in Yellowknife, she delved into the issue she calls the “Aboriginal industry” — the entity that mediates between the government and Indigenous peoples — consisting of lawyers and consultants of non-Indigenous backgrounds.
“The industry tries to shape discussions in terms of compensation and funding,” says Widdowson. “Not in terms of the quality of the services to be provided.”
These lawyers and consultants, which Widdowson refers to as “brokers”, helped create the mediating force between Canada’s government and Indigenous people. She added that in doing this, these mediators fight for large sums of money in legal battles that can last from 20 to 30 years.
She says that during this time, government members change, the true victims are forgotten and the lawyers and consultants end up making a substantial amount of money off of settlements paid by the government.
“The industry is what is working to extract money,” she says. “Keeping Indigenous [peoples] in a state of dependency, so then that provides the justification for more demands for compensation.”
These findings have led Widdowson to argue that Canada’s reserves are not working in their current state. Because of the lack of services offered to help the Indigenous community, “Aboriginal peoples who are in the marginalized communities, not people who are integrated, have serious problems participating in modern society.”
Widdowson argues that it is not to say that these people should immediately be taken off the reserves.
But she explains that the system should be altered to offer the services needed — not just cash settlements — to improve the housing, education, health care and water supply conditions on the reserves as well as realizing that a task such as “working by the clock” is not “an easy thing for humans to do” and is a learned aspect of our culture.
She adds that the Aboriginal industry is not Canada’s Indigenous leaders and peoples, nor is it a conspiracy to find ways to keep these groups dependent However, Widdowson believes there’s mutual benefit for both groups.
In 2008, Widdowson co-authored a book titled Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The deception behind Indigenous cultural preservation published through McGill Queen’s University Press. The book’s main topic — the Indigenous reserve system and “Native self-government” — as well as the book’s publication through a scholarly outlet have brought Widdowson an “onslaught” of backlash.
Maclean’s published a story in 2009 about a “barroom-calibre brawl” breaking out over Widdowson’s presentation at a Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) meeting. According to the article, many political scientists spoke out against her, saying the presentation was “hate speech,” accused her of preserving “a fantasy of the master race” and demanded she “be investigated under the criminal code.”
One year later, Leanne Simpson, an Indigenous writer and scholar, published a review of Widdowson’s book through the University of Minnesota Press’ Wicazo Sa Review. In the review, Simpson states the book “reveals a shocking number of insane beliefs about Indigeneity,” saying the book was poorly researched with “a complete lack of methodology” before later saying “This is racism. This is hate.”
The backlash has continued on social media.. Some users have expressed Widdowson’s views as a “display of ignorance and racism at its ugliest,” associate her with outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News and assume she must be politically right-wing or conservative — even though she personally identifies as a Marxist.
However, not all of the reactions are negative. Many have come to support and praise Widdowson as well. In late 2017, Barbara Kay, a columnist for the National Post, applauded Widdowson for continuing to voice her opinions at an event for Ryerson University.
“It’ll be yet another instance in which this courageous scholar dares to poke a stick into the intelligentsia’s groupthink hive,” she wrote.
Despite the noise, Widdowson believes eventually the “smear tactics” will dwindle and real conversations will start happening. She knows, however, in the meantime, no matter what she does, the very ideas behind her research will be viewed as controversial.
“I’ve changed my tone a bit,” says Widdowson. “The style [of the book] is quite polemical and perhaps it was needlessly antagonistic…I’m coming to the realization that it’s the ideas themselves, not the way they’re said, which is opposed.”
Despite the change in her approach, Widdowson continues to face retaliation against her views and ideas about Indigenous affairs and some feel her methods impede ethical and moral codes. For example, according to Widdowson, some people have stated that because she is not a member of the Indigenous community, she is unable to fairly comment on the interests of those people.
In addition, she has been told that the consent of the community should be obtained before any of her research is published.
Widdowson says this is a common occurrence in terms of ethics.
“You have to get the consent of the community…to publish research,” she says. “I think there’s an idea now that your research should not be harmful to communities and if your research is harmful…it shouldn’t be allowed.”
Widdowson argues that because she is not actively interviewing people or conducting experiments, she should not have to seek permission to publish from the communities.
“I don’t see myself saying what I think is true about various things that are happening as being unethical,” says Widdowson.
Appearing on panels, publishing books and speaking at conferences for the CPSA and the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship are a few of the ways Widdowson shares her ideas and discusses her research.
But her appearances have often sparked controversy — most recently after she appeared on a panel on TVO’s The Agenda, discussing the relationship between the government and Indigenous people, in November of last year.
Among her recent appearances, she also spoke at a panel at MRU further explaining her work last Friday.
Still, Widdowson feels her research is important and she doesn’t need external validation of her work.
“I personally think I’m doing a good job,” she says. “My research is thoughtful and well-argued and marshals enough evidence. And if it’s good enough for me, why am I looking to everyone else to somehow confirm that what I’m doing is valuable?”
Editor: Omar Subhi Omar | firstname.lastname@example.org