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RICK MACLEAN: The battle over culture hits home

Author Hal Niedzviecki poses for a portrait in his Toronto home. The Write editor quit and apologized after writing an article where he encouraged white writers to explore “the lives of people who aren't like you.”
Author Hal Niedzviecki poses for a portrait in his Toronto home. The Write editor quit and apologized after writing an article where he encouraged white writers to explore “the lives of people who aren't like you.”

It was Friday around noon. The beautiful little girl with jet black hair, eyes to match and four missing front teeth that gave her an enchanting hockey-player smile reached up and took my hand.

The farmer’s market was crowded and although she’s by her nature supremely self-confident and outgoing, she held on tight. The world can look very big – and tall – when you’re five.
I smiled. It had been 20 years since one of my kids held my hand like that and I’d forgotten how much I missed it.
We wandered from table to table. We sniffed the cheese and the fresh meat. She pointed at the mittens. Only in Canada can you find hand-made wool mittens on sale in July.
She glanced at the books and pottery, the jewelry and dreamcatchers. Finally, something familiar.
Then I noticed people I knew, people I’d known for much of my life, sneaking glances, eyes darting away the moment they saw me looking back.
The little girl holding my hand is Cree, from northern Saskatchewan. She, her seven-year-old brother and their father had come to visit with our daughter, the principal of the local school there.
“What’s he doing with her,” you could almost hear them thinking as they looked at the little girl. I could almost hear them thinking it.
We finished our tour of the market and headed to a local take-out to buy lunch. French fries and chocolate milk were on the request list.
“Chinese?” said the guy sitting on the stool next to ours as we waited for our order. It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me.
“Pardon?”
“Chinese? Is she Chinese?”
The long straight hair, the complexion, the dark eyes. I hadn’t thought of it, but it’s easy to see how someone might make the mistake.
“Cree, northern Cree,” I said. There must have been something in my voice.
“Oh, sorry,” he apologized hurriedly, scooping up his order and heading out the door.
There was something in my voice. I’d never felt quite this way before, protective for the little girl blissfully munching on fries and quickly emptying a container of chocolate milk beside me.
It took awhile, but I remembered that feeling when I started reading about the controversy erupting over cultural appropriation in the past couple of weeks.
If you missed it, Write editor Hal Niedzviecki quit and apologized after writing an article in the Writers' Union of Canada magazine. He’d encouraged white writers to explore “the lives of people who aren't like you.”
He hit a nerve. Indigenous rights activists accused him of telling people they should steal their culture. After a long history of reserves and residential schools, their land and culture strip-mined for whatever it’s worth, indigenous leaders weren’t having it anymore.
The back-and-forth became a battle over free speech, culture and accusations of political correctness run rampant.
Having spent my professional career in journalism, free speech is mother’s milk to me. And I’ve never been good at political correctness. Free speech carries with it the reality of offending people, on purpose or by accident. Deal with it.
Then I remembered that little girl holding my hand in that crowded market. staring at the dreamcatcher hanging beside the mittens and jewelry. I’m glad I didn’t buy one.

- Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

 

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