Inroads’ leisurely twice-yearly publication schedule generally allows its editors a summer in which the journal is not a major concern. Not so this summer, however, as inflammatory tweets by columnist and editorial board member Garth Stevenson raised issues that the editors needed to deal with immediately. We decided to suspend him indefinitely from his position with the journal, but we also felt that the issues involved needed broader discussion, and on August 24 I posted the following invitation to the Inroads listserv:
In early August, Garth Stevenson, professor emeritus of political science at Brock University and Inroads columnist and editorial board member, posted an angry response on Twitter to the removal of the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Victoria, B.C. Then, provoked by those who took him on, he posted intemperate racist tweets regarding Indigenous people. The remarks touched off a social media firestorm, and Brock stripped Garth of his emeritus status.
While the media reports focused on the Brock connection, at least one noted Garth’s association with Inroads. And Twitter and Facebook posts called on Inroads to follow Brock’s lead. The core editorial team – Henry Milner, John Richards, Dominic Cardy, Gareth Morley and myself – immediately deemed Garth’s comments unacceptable. Garth apologized publicly, but after much deliberation, we decided that the appropriate action was to suspend him indefinitely from his position as columnist and editorial board member.
Some social media posts have been highly critical of Garth’s Inroads article on missing and murdered Indigenous women (Summer/Fall 2015). They insist that we expunge the article from the website. Inroads’ editorial team decided that his article provides credible evidence and reaches a reasonable, if debatable, conclusion. Some posts even go further, demanding that we expunge everything Garth has written. One teacher insisted she would make sure that no student ever cites any of Garth’s many books and articles.
While the Twitterstorm has abated, it poses many issues beyond Garth’s relationship with Inroads, issues at the centre of Inroads’ mission. How should we evaluate John A. Macdonald’s role with respect to Canada’s Indigenous inhabitants? What are the appropriate limits – if any – to public debate on Indigenous matters? What has been the impact of social media on public debate? We would like to invite a discussion of these issues on the listserv, and, perhaps, publish a selection from the discussion in the next issue of Inroads, due out in November.
— Bob Chodos
Managing editor, Inroads
My invitation attracted many responses. Some highlights follow.
From: Glen Koehn | August 24
I was among those disappointed by Garth Stevenson’s now infamous tweets, agreeing (with Garth himself, apparently) that they were intemperate and offensive. It’s understandable that Inroads has distanced itself from those comments by suspending him as an editorial board member.
Still, given that he’s apologized, the public shaming should come to an end at some point. There has to be a way back into the conversation for him. I for one hope that he will continue to post on this list with the rest of us private citizens.
From: Philip Resnick | August 24
The language in Garth’s tweets was intemperate and he was right to have apologized for it. I am not convinced, however, that Brock University was right in withdrawing his emeritus status as opposed to making it clear that they in no way associated themselves with his views. After all, if Garth were still an active faculty member, would Brock have been justified in firing him, or would there not be a fundamental principle of academic freedom at play – even if we did not agree with the particular views of the academic in question – that we would need to defend?
Aboriginal politics has become something of a third rail in Canadian politics. The historical record is certainly not a happy one, nor is the current status of Aboriginals as compared to other Canadians one of which we should be proud. But how far do we need to go to make amends? And to what degree do we need to take down icons who were an important part of our history because some of their actions are ones which have fallen into disrepute?
I am no Donald Creighton loyalist when it comes to John A. Yet without him, there might never have been Confederation and the country of which I am thankful to be a citizen. Aboriginals tell us they do not want non-Aboriginals appropriating their legends, but in return, I am not comfortable allowing some of those who claim to speak in their name to totally denigrate ours. Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry was entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies. I am appending a poem I wrote on the Macdonald controversy which asks the question “Dare We Compare Mythologies?”
Where Garth is concerned, I see no reason why he should not continue to be a subscriber and participant in the Inroads list, provided that the basic rules of civility we are all supposed to respect are observed by him as well.
Dare we compare mythologies?
For generations we were taught
Macdonald was the nation-builder
– corrupt, it is true, a tippler to boot –
yet the one whose perseverance
built a railway
and forged out of petty British colonies
a continent-wide framework
which has found its place,
a respectable one by and large,
in the larger comity of nation-states.
For First Nation advocates in our day
past humiliations live on
and the racist barbs and brainwashing in residential schools
must be rooted out
as those who led the charge
are held directly to account.
Non-Aboriginals must also cease appropriating their myths
or putting in doubt whatever tales may have been handed down
from mouth to mouth
to constitute their version of the past.
But how far can we go in rethinking ours?
For history in the Western mould,
for all its archival carapace,
has also got its share of tropes,
legends which we embrace
no less doggedly than First Nations theirs.
Is there some middle way,
the sempiternal Canadian search for a compromise
when arguments flare up
and protaganists threaten to resort to bloodshed or to fists?
Or must we simply face the cold hard facts
– we will have our myths, imperfect though they are,
and Aboriginals, for all of their
disdaining ours, their own?
From: Henry Milner | August 25
Of course, I was appalled by the content of the tweets, but what I found truly worrisome about the Stevenson case is the way an institution like Brock University immediately responded to a cyber campaign. No investigation, no chance for the accused to apologize, to try to make amends or explain.
We too at Inroads faced a minor version of a “tweetstorm” that amounted to cyberbullying (including calls to remove immediately all articles on any subject that Stevenson had ever written) — but we did not publicly respond immediately. Despite some disagreement, we worked hard to come up with a reasoned position we could all live with as set out in Bob’s posting. Nevertheless we were under pressure to meet a self-imposed deadline due to the barrage of cyberbullying on social media.
We then placed on Facebook a statement the five of us could live with after having exchanged many communications, contacted Garth, looked at the record of his relevant contributions and spoken to others in the Inroads community.
But Inroads has the luxury of being relatively immune to cyberbullying given that – except for special projects for which, on occasion, we have applied for and received government grants – we are self-sufficient. How many institutions are there that give in to such cyberbullying? What does this tell us about the possibility of real dialogue on controversial issues like Indigenous policy, immigration, controversial historical monuments?
From: Frances Abele | August 25
I’d like to suggest that we separate the two issues mingled in Phil’s post.
There is first the question of what Garth said and his apology. I don’t follow Twitter and I did not see his outbursts, only the newspaper extracts. He reportedly told someone he hoped that person would die a painful death, and according to the National Post, “In one now-deleted tweet cited in published news reports, Stevenson wrote that Victoria was removing the statue of Macdonald ‘to appease some snivelling aboriginals who probably never did a day’s work in their lives.’” I would not call these statements “intemperate.” Wishing someone who disagrees with you dead is nasty or perhaps borderline crazy. The appeasement statement is racist.
Concerning the statues, I am in agreement with Michael Rice, who according to news reports first objected in 1992 to the Bank of Montreal’s plaque commemorating the killing of an Iroquois chief by the founder of Montreal. His idea was not that the plaque be removed, but that the bank should put up another plaque explaining that the Iroquois were not “fighting for nothing” but were trying to defend their territory. He wanted to make the history commemorated by the plaque more accurate and balanced. For reasons not reported, the bank decided not to do this, but rather to expunge the plaque. There might be a case for removing some statues, but generally I think they represent real opportunities to educate Canadians about their history, and to symbolically own up to the tourists who might look at them. This would mean, in the case of the first Prime Minister, writing factually about Macdonald’s ideas about Indians. To omit this information – which is an important part of the origin of our country – is deplorable.
From: Simon Rosenblum | August 25
As a very casual reader of the Inroads listserv I find myself somewhat perplexed by the decision of the core editorial team to suspend Garth Stevenson indefinitely from his positions in the Inroads community. It is not the decision as such that I disagree with as I can well understand why people would not want to be closely associated with Mr. Stevenson. An editorial collective surely has the right to decide when an individual has crossed a line that makes further association impossible. But the postings from Bob Chodos and Henry Milner do not explain the suspension in that manner. Rather one reads that “we were under pressure to meet a self-imposed deadline due to the barrage of cyberbullying on social media.” And because of cyberbullying Inroads makes its decision, or at least the timing of it? That does not strike me as particularly brave, principled or appropriate.
From: Philip Resnick | August 26
A short reply to Frances’s post.
Where Garth is concerned, his language was indeed intemperate. Intolerant, if you wish, racist if you wish. But once we open up that can of worms, we will quickly discover that intolerance and racism are not the exclusive domain of any one group. The left can be as intolerant, in its way, of views with which it disagrees as the right. Ethnocentrism and racism are not exclusive to any one group. Dare I suggest that Aboriginals are no more innocent in this regard than Caucasians or any other group? To the degree that Garth has apparently apologized for his vituperative language, I think we should accept it with good grace.
As for the Macdonald statue, there is a case for including some of the negatives along with the positives in our commemmoration of figures of the past. But I really don’t think we should be using historical figures situated in their time and place to fight the battles of today. Moses Finley, an eminent scholar of ancient Greece driven into academic exile in the U.K. in the 1950s by McCarthyism in the U.S., once remarked that it was too easy to dismiss ancient civilizations holus bolus because of such institutions as slavery. I think the same applies, within reasonable limits, to Canadian politicians of two centuries ago.
From: John Richards | August 26
In his post, Bob Chodos refers to social media calls for Inroads to disown Garth’s Inroads articles, in particular his article on the inquiry into murdered and missing Native women. An instructor at Carleton University posted to Facebook a comment explaining why she felt obliged to ban her students from citing Garth’s article in writing their essays: “ kept coming up in their search results, and they were excited to cite a professor from their own university, but there was just too much stereotyping, callousness about a very serious issue, and misguided use of statistics to be able to unpack in tutorials or office hours.”
I played a role in editing the article, but I had not read it for several years. I reread it, and I recommend others do the same. The core of the article is a summary of the statistical results of the 2014 RCMP study of 1,200 missing and murdered Native women over the last quarter century. In the case of Indigenous women, husbands comprised 29 per cent of murderers, other family members 23 per cent, other family intimates 10 per cent, acquaintances 30 per cent and strangers 8 per cent. The comparable distribution for murderers of non-Indigenous women were husbands 41 per cent, other family members 24 per cent, other family intimates 9 per cent, acquaintances 19 per cent, and strangers 7 per cent. The basic conclusion of the RCMP study is that the difference between the two distributions is minor. For both groups of victims, strangers comprised fewer than 10 per cent of the murderers. Garth refers to Robert Pickton, the white serial killer in British Columbia, many of whose victims were Native women. He insists, rightly, that non-Indigenous murderers of Native women are not typical. The Facebook post refers to Garth’s “misguided use of statistics.” However, nowhere in the post is there a specific mention of any misuse by either the RCMP or Garth.
Garth poses a crucial, if controversial, question: why are Indigenous men so violent (which is not to excuse domestic violence perpetrated by non-Indigenous men)? In 2011, the homicide rate among Native women was five times that for non-Native women.
Garth’s conclusion is not racist; he essentially takes up the argument made by Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s. In 1969, Jean Chrétien, at the time minister of Indigenous affairs, published a White Paper which advocated the phasing out of all reserves. Garth underestimates the psychological difficulty of a transition from a rural tribal culture to an urban culture. Jean Allard, the iconoclastic Métis ex-MLA said much the same in “Big Bear’s Treaty” (Inroads, 2002, pp. 108–169).
From: Dominic Cardy | August 26
I supported Garth Stevenson’s indefinite suspension because I don’t want to work with or be associated with racist views. We were being asked to express our collective opinion on a news story. From my perspective there wasn’t anything to debate: Garth’s comments and his wishing someone who complained about that racism to suffer a “painful death” didn’t reflect well on Inroads, and he had to leave. Garth is welcome to hold and express his views, and I believe he has every right to them, but Inroads has the same right to disassociate itself from them. Not because those views are unpopular, or not politically correct, but because they’re flat-out racist.
There’s nothing brave or principled about caving in to pressure but there’s equally nothing brave or principled about defending the indefensible because of that pressure. I like Inroads because it challenges conventional wisdom. That project is undermined when, as in this case, an author takes on the orthodox opinion around the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women with hard data, but then says he believes Aboriginal Canadians are lazy, uncivilized whiners.
If we don’t want government controlling our speech then civil society and individuals have to police themselves. I supported Inroads suspending Garth for the same reason I oppose laws restricting hate speech: determinations of right and wrong should be made, whenever possible, by citizens and not the state. On this occasion the responsibility to take a decision fell on the editors of Inroads. I think we made the right one.
The editors agreed: we had no intention of censoring past content from Garth or anyone else, as long as it stood the test of impartial review in terms of factual accuracy. The idea of a university professor banning citations on anything other than those grounds is horrifying.
From: Frances Abele | August 26
I really appreciate the readiness of the editorial collective to explain themselves, and also to share their differing and thoughtful views on a difficult matter. I know the decision-making can’t have been easy.
And for the record, I don’t agree with my Carleton colleague. I don’t think students should be protected from obnoxious points of view. They should learn how to understand and, when they disagree, to contest.
From: Patrick Balena | August 26
Like Frances, I don’t follow Twitter, and I have seen only the published extracts of the inflammatory tweets.
Unlike Frances, I don’t have much of a problem with inflammatory language. As far as I can see, Garth lost his temper, insulted a lot of people, and told them to go to hell.
I think that Garth used a racist trope, when he implied that Aboriginals don’t work. That does bother me, all the more since I have just returned from the B.C. interior, where people such as the Cheslatta and the Tahltan have been undergoing no little exertion and danger to save their homes.
In a professional or official capacity, Garth’s pronouncements would be unacceptable, and I would expect them to lead to some sort of discipline. Even then, to summarily strip someone of his honours was a gross overreaction that had much more to do with the panic of university administrators than with the offensiveness of the tweets.
Garth does not hold public office, nor did he make those statements in the lecture hall. Admittedly, a tweet is not exactly private communication – it is a broadcast.
I think we all know that a big hazard of social media is that offhand remarks and heated retorts can be made instantly global. The person who tweets does so in private, but the tweet is not private. Living in such a world, we can either condition ourselves to be permanently decorous, as if we were in public and on the job all of the time, or we can accept that, occasionally, some of us will blurt out something nasty, impolitic and embarrassing.
For my part, I would rather tolerate the nastiness, and accept that in today’s public virtuality I am likely to encounter speech and behaviour which I would never like to witness in traditional “meatspace.” Being a cultural relativist, a liberal and a leftist, I would rather loosen my standards and lower my expectations than have imposed upon us all a perpetual regime of self-monitoring. Therefore I think that the sort of apology that one would make in personal dealings is satisfactory and appropriate for one’s Twitter misdealings. If Garth apologized, that’s enough.
Finally, I think Inroads is wrong to suspend Garth. I think Inroads has bowed to pressure. Has Inroads published anything racist? Why should Inroads beg pardon?
I do not defend Garth’s tweets, but I defend the man himself. Just this spring, I enjoyed a brief exchange with him on this listserv. I will not shun him now.
From: Dominic Cardy | August 26
We do agree that Brock acted with surprising haste. I have no problem with Inroads taking quick action because we’re a small private publication and we can decide whom we want to be associated with. I don’t want to be associated with someone comfortable making public declarations like the following:
“The city of Victoria is removing the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald to appease some snivelling aboriginals who probably never did a day’s work in their lives, and then they will hold some kind of pagan ‘cleansing and healing’ ceremony whatever that means. I hate that city!”
“Fuck you Justin and fuck your ‘Indigenous’ friends, who never even developed written languages or invented the wheel but are now acting as if they own this country. And it is people like you who give them these ideas.”
“You son of a bitch I hope you die painfully. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“To hell with your cleansing, blessing and healing. The so-called first nations seem to be taking over this country and it will soon be unfit for civilized people to live in.”
When I get angry, my “offhand remarks” don’t extend to comments like the above. I hope yours don’t either. Again, I think Garth should be allowed to say whatever he wants, I just don’t want to be associated with his comments. I’m a small-l liberal and Inroads has always been a small-l liberal publication. Garth didn’t just step over that line – he vaulted across it.
From: Reg Whitaker | August 29
I have hesitated to join in this discussion for the same reason that I did not actively participate in the editorial board decision to suspend Garth, even though I was made fully aware of the debate at the time. First of all, as a fellow columnist at Inroads, I did not think it appropriate to participate in a decision to suspend him. Second, as an old colleague and friend of Garth, going back four and a half decades now, who has increasingly found myself at odds with his contemporary views (readers of this listserv will be witnesses to the increasing acrimony of my exchanges with him over the past year or two), voting on his status would be something of conflict of interest.
I do agree with the decision, however. His social media posts cannot be interpreted as anything other than racist. While this was not true of the missing and murdered Indigenous women article in Inroads, which was evidence-based even if one disagreed and there is no reason to give in to social media bullies by withdrawing it from the website, his comments on Twitter and Facebook have compromised his future role at Inroads. If we continued to publish him we would inevitably be seen as condoning crossing a line of civility and decency.
That out of the way, I think the act that precipitated his intemperate outbursts, the removal of the Macdonald statue from Victoria city hall, was questionable, although not for Garth’s reasons which I take to be completely hostile and unsympathetic to First Nations concerns. Instead I would argue that one can fully understand and accept that First Nations have a valid case that Macdonald’s role in what was then called Indian policy should be recognized as deeply destructive, yet at the same time insist that there was far more to Macdonald’s historical significance to Canada than this role alone. Might it not have been better to have placed a plaque indicating the darker side of his leadership while leaving the statue in place as recognition of his contributions to building the nation (and keeping it out of the USA, no small achievement)?
Just carting his statue away – or the related efforts to erase his name from schools, etc. – signifies that nothing else counts except his admittedly negative role in the treatment of the Native peoples. That in turn plays into the hands of the anti–political correctness culture warriors who denounce the way “They” are taking away “Our” history.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency for rightly aggrieved groups to seek out villains, individual historical actors on whom anger can focus rather than on the more diffuse and complicated social and economic forces at work. But knocking down or defacing a statue does not really achieve anything positive. If anything it diverts attention from the real issues. Nor do I think that turning cartoon heroes into cartoon villains does much to clarify and redefine history for a contemporary generation. It just sets off more skirmishes in the ghastly culture wars that are causing so much damage to liberal democracies these days.
From: John Richards | August 29
I make an economist’s observation on the nature of social media. The arrival of social media has dramatically lowered the cost of making a fool of yourself or turning yourself into a pariah in polite society. Tsar Nicholas II was a determined anti-Semite. However, it required his access to a secret police bureaucracy before he could “broadcast” to the world the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It required less than a minute for Garth to “broadcast” to the world his spur-of-the-moment racist comments on Twitter. I am prepared to make allowance for intemperate, even racist, comments made in intimate discussion in the heat of the moment, provided the speaker can acknowledge the error of his ways and provides “evidence-based” rationales for his public statements.
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