In Their Own Voices

[Jim Silver (with Joan Hay, Darlene Klyne, Parvin Ghorayshi, Peter Gorzen, Cyril Keeper, Michael MacKenzie and Freeman Simard). In Their Own Voices: Building Urban Aboriginal Communities. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2006.]

In Their Own Voices skillfully accomplishes its purpose. It uses community-based participatory research to examine both problems and strategies in the urban Aboriginal community in Winnipeg. But it still leaves me with many questions.

The book brings together four distinct research projects. The primary author appears to have been involved with all of them, while the other people listed above participated in only one. The book begins with a sociological and political overview of urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada by Jim Silver. The other four chapters each discuss a specific participatory research project, all located in Winnipeg, which has one of the highest urban concentrations of indigenous people in Canada.

The first project looks at a mainstream neighbourhood association and the relationship of the fairly dense concentration of Aboriginal people in that neighbourhood to the association’s activities. The chapter documents extensive barriers to participation. However, it goes on to illustrate how a neighbourhood association that is specifically for Aboriginal residents can provide a much more effective way to build an organized voice for Native people in a given area. The next chapter looks at four adult learning centres in Manitoba, and the ways in which they respond more effectively than the regular school system to the needs of Aboriginal people. Again, it finished by looking at the importance of an organization run by and for Aboriginal people for effective individual and community empowerment. The third project is an examination of Aboriginal participation in mainstream elections, through both the published literature and interviews done in Winnipeg. And the final project brings together the wisdom of almost 30 long-time Aboriginal community activists from Winnipeg to present a vision for what Aboriginal community development can and should mean in urban contexts. It includes mention of struggles for Aboriginal control of child welfare and of a particular high school, and it recommends strategies that involve mobilization and steps towards urban self-determination for Aboriginal people.

In all cases, the research emphasizes the importance of activities that are culturally based and that emphasize cultural revitalization; of organizations that are run by and for Aboriginal people in urban contexts; and of the importance of focusing on the very urgent needs and harms that colonization has imposed on the everyday lives of most urban Aboriginal people.

It’s always possible to cover up methodological problems in studies like this, but as far as I can tell it is an excellent example of this kind of research. It seems genuinely participatory. It takes the politics, experience, and needs of the group of interest into account, and focuses on the voices of the oppressed in how it presents its data. Aboriginal people in Winnipeg were integral to this research in multiple ways, both shaping it and executing it.

In addition, a lot of the stuff that it talks about is pretty interesting. It provides some quite cool examples of indigenous people building power in urban areas, even if the language is a bit different than that. The indigenous-controlled high school, child welfare agency, and adult learning centre were particularly inspiring, as were the initial moves towards a larger scale of self-determination within the city. It provides a strong and consistent emphasis on the role of colonization in shaping the experiences of urban Aboriginal people. It is also very useful for its insight into the everyday lives of urban Aboriginal people – something to which radicals like Patricia Monture, Taiaiake Alfred, Andrea Smith, and Howard Adams are responsive, but the details of which aren’t necessarily always legible in their work to those of us who do not share such experiences. This book’s use of people voicing the details of their own experiences paints a stark picture of just how vicious colonization is to its victims. In Their Own Voices also puts an emphasis on addressing the all-important political questions in the context of ordinary people living their lives, and of what is actually happening in a particular city. It is about people building organizations, and finding ways to help people shift their everyday experiences in important ways.

However, there’s an awful lot this book doesn’t talk about, too. It does not talk about the possible limits and dangers of state funding. It alludes to some of the dangers of market relations to urban Aboriginal communities as the process of addressing individual colonization and community poverty begin to have some effect, but only in very limited ways. It does not talk about current experiments in urban settings in North America to address related social questions in ways that are fundamentally anti-state, such as many of the groups affiliated with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. In the chapter on elections, it is thorough in presenting the various reasons why indigenous people might choose not to participate in mainstream electoral politics, including if they have indigenous nationalist politics (though it is interesting that very few of the urban Aboriginal people in Winnipeg that they interviewed claimed this reason for not voting). And I think it’s also important that this chapter presented the pragmatic, immediate gains that can result from voting. But it did not explore the limits of what can be achieved through electoral politics. Nor did it explore what it means to participate electorally when the state is a significant source of violence to you and yours. This connects to the almost complete absence of discussion of police violence and harassment, which plays a huge role in shaping the experiences of indigenous people in urban areas, particularly in Western Canada.

All of these areas of silence add up to a fairly significant whole, and risk skewing the political vision that is presented in the book in particular directions. And in saying that, I’m not recommending that attention to these things be taken in puritanical directions – noting the limitations of electoral politics, for instance, does not mean leaping to self-righteous abstentionism. At the same time, not explicitly dealing with such limitations can lead to serious misunderstandings about what voting for your Member of Parliament can actually achieve.

A final area of concern is where this kind of research implicitly locates the problems that it tries to address. The focus on voices and experiences of oppressed peoples and on the organizations that they are building to meet daily needs is absolutely essential, practically and politically. Yet unless that is paired with efforts to explore, starting from those voices and experiences, the way in which those experiences of oppression are socially produced, then it risks leaving oppression oddly disembodied and without any apparent agent to enforce it. This book certainly names colonial oppression, but in most instances it does not explore how contemporary colonial relations are put together. Yes, emphasizing the agency of the oppressed is vital, but pointing to the agents of oppression – individuals, institutions, and particular forms of social relations – is also vital. It is only through at least some attention to how oppression is created that a complete and balanced picture of politically necessary work can emerge.

I don’t want to overemphasize the negative. This book has a lot of important stuff in it, and its commitment to what people are actually saying and doing is great. It is cool research that describes some cool organizing. But I think it is best understood with a clear awareness of what it leaves out.

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