Tweets are easy
October 19th, 2018
“If you genuinely believe Alan Twigg is somehow not an ‘ally’ of indigenous people, you have absolutely no idea of his life’s work over the past quarter of a century. He has done more to make room for indigenous voices than probably 3/4 of the TWUC membership combined.” — Terry Glavin
Recently TWUC went through a debate over adopting a new policy on equity and inclusiveness. I fully support this new policy and wish to see it succeed.
I did, however, take objection to a speech given at a (members only) TWUC function in Vancouver on October 17, 2018. At this private gathering TWUC’s newly hired Equity, Membership and Engagement Coordinator, Rebecca Benson, a Tuscarora writer, gave what I considered to be a cringeworthy speech. A more persuasive case for equity could have been made if the speaker did not address her listeners as if they knew precious little.
When Ms. Benson completed her address, there was no invitation for any feedback. This struck me as bizarre; not in keeping with the traditions of the Writers Union. I raised my hand and stepped away from the wall so that she might be able to see who it was who wished to comment. No microphone was supplied for responses. I had to raise my voice considerably just to be heard. It was a large room. Ms. Benson was at the other end of the room. Given that the speaker was hired to make addresses for my union across the country, and this seemingly was her first public address, I chose to treat Ms. Benson as an adult filling an important union office and address her as a colleague. I began by saying, “I get the feeling you are telling me how to think.”
An event organizer–someone who I did not recognize as a TWUC member–began waving her hands in my face and telling me to stop. I tried arguing that I had a right to speak as a long-standing union member. If there is one organization in Canada that ought to understand and respect the vital importance of free speech, surely it ought to be TWUC. But everyone else in the room seemed to be behave as if suppressing free speech was normal. I was appalled at being silenced at a TWUC event.
From that moment onward, my protests were not directed at, or to, Ms. Benson, but rather to the organizers who were trying to silence me. There were no profanities; I did not come in contact with any other person, but one male Writers Festival volunteeer–a bookstore employee who was not a member of our Writers Union–threatened me with physical removal if I persisted in trying to speak. Other TWUC members did and said absolutely nothing. At that point I gave up and fell silent, wanting to avoid a fracas.
It was certainly not the loudest and certainly not the longest disturbance ever to occur at a TWUC event, but a Toronto TWUC member named Dave Bidini issued a post on his Twitter feed saying there had been an “ugly” event at a Writers Festival party where a man named Alan Twigg made racist comments to an Indigenous writer. Bidini had to ask a fellow TWUC member who I was. Many of Mr. Bidini’s hundreds of Twitter followers took his accusation at face value. Consequently, I soon received hate mail. A few of the haters launched a campaign to urge advertisers to boycott the BC BookWorld newspaper that I have published for and about the B.C. literary community since 1988. They were unsuccessful in their efforts to have BC BookWorld removed from BC Ferries.
If anyone cares to read the thousands of pages I have written and/or published about Indigenous authors and First Nations’ issues over the past 40 years, they can make a fair assessment of whether or not I am a racist.
Meanwhile, a Globe & Mail reporter named Marsha Lederman, who was not present at the end, proceeded to act as a reporter. When Dave Bidini was unable to substantiate how or why my truncated effort to improve Ms. Benson’s didactic equity presentation necessarily constituted racism, he subsequently proceeded to fabricate an outrageous quote allegedly gleaned from a brief parking lot conversation, alleging that I feared Indigenous people wanted to “boot us off our land.” In a Trumpian age, apparently many people are more than willing to believe in an outrageous lie.
If Dave Bidini had done any research, he would have discovered I have published and written a great deal more to promote awareness of First Nations-related literature than almost any other member of the Writers Union. In 2005, I published the first and only book entirely devoted to Indigenous authors of one province, Aboriginality: The Literary Origins of British Columbia. I am not entirely sure why I was made a member of the Order of Canada, but that might be one of the reasons.
When made aware that his tweets were libelous and he was cautioned by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Douglas Gibson, Dave Bidini withdrew them. Holocaust survivor and author Irene Watts remarked, “To call Alan (Twigg) a racist with the kind of progressive work he has undertaken over the years is slanderous.”
By then, the damage was done.
The wonderful growth of appreciation and understanding of Indigenous peoples that we are now witnessing in this country is the result of constructive actions and some difficult conversations.
I will continue to provide preferential treatment to books from and about Indigenous societies and individuals, as I have been doing non-stop, in every issue of BC BookWorld, since 1987, but I will only do so at my own discretion, not because of any governmental dictum or fashionable moralistic stance.
There are at least 266 Indigenous authors in B.C., and more than 60 Metis authors that I can name, because that’s how many I’ve recorded on my ABCBookWorld public reference site. I have compiled a manuscript of more than 1,000 pages about Indigneous and First Nations books pertaining to British Columbia, a book that is far too big to publish.
Along the way I have written and produced a CBC documentary, Jeannette Armstrong: Knowledge Keeper, of the Okanagan, in 1995, and I had the honour of organizing the presentation of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award to Jeannette Armstrong, making her the first Indigenous writer in BC to be so recognized, in 2016.
If someone says or does something that we find problematic in some way, well, historically we have always been welcome to voice our views within TWUC. That level of candour and honesty and engagement is important for the integrity of any union. When criticism is disallowed, we move towards autocracy. I know I was not the only person who found portions of Ms. Benson’s speech bordered on embarrassing. I objected to the didactic delivery of the speech, not the principles for which the speaker had been hired. I objected because a hired speaker was flown across the country by my union and this colleague assumed her audience was largely ignorant of First Nations and First Nations issues.
This speaker, in my opinion, also inferred that her audience harboured prejudices against First Nations and such attitudes had to be acknowledged and cleansed. TWUC’s representative pre-judged her audience and presumed we all required re-programming. I did not join the Writers Union of Canada 35 years ago in order to be part of a social engineering experiment. Ours is not the Writers Union of Cuba. It is the Writers Union of Canada. Consequently I have very quietly and regretfully resigned from the Writers Union, sending them a donation in the process.
I will continuously work towards enhancing awareness of First Nations problems and Indigenous writers, as I’ve been doing for decades, not become my government or my Writers Union tells me to do so, but because I, as a person of free intelligence, choose to do so.
I am bothering to write this piece because I feel it is important to make that distinction in the preceding paragraph.
And now, some brief history.
B.C. publishers and writers have been producing meaningful work on First Nations since the early 1970s, earlier if you count the likes of Wilson Duff. First Nations of B.C. have been politicized since George Manuel (or James Teit, for that matter).
Compared to other Canadian provinces, I believe British Columbia might well be far more informed when it comes to understanding First Nations issues than other provinces.
I would go so far as to wager there has been more indigenous and First Nations content from BC’s publishing industry–since George Clutesi’s Son of Raven, Son of Deer: Fables of the Tse-shaht People was published in 1967 by Gray Campbell–than the rest of Canada combined.
In essence, Ontario is now playing catch-up to where B.C. has already been.
A problem in arose in October because a Toronto head office was sending someone to give an indoctrination lecture in British Columbia about awareness of First Nations when that person was herself was relatively clueless about who we are, what we know, and how much more work has already been done here in B.C. to support and enhance the process of Reconciliation.
[To mince words: I believe “Conciliation” should have been the goal, not Reconciliation, which is phoney. When, pray tell, were First Nations of Canada ever “conciled” in the first place?]
Moscow should not tell Vladivostok how it must think and feel, particularly when the Vladivostokians are more progressive about the subject matter in question. That’s my British Columbian perspective.
— Alan Twigg
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift in “The Examiner” (1710)