What rhymes with alma mater?

Sheldon Goldfarb’s history of UBC covers its start in 1915, with 400 registered students, many of whom were actually fighting overseas in Europe. Today, the campus boasts over 50,000 students. REVIEW

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October 19th, 2018

The publisher of B.C. BookWorld wrote the first and only book entirely devoted to the Indigenous authors of one province.

“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

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Here is why I have resigned from the Writers Union of Canada.

I belonged to The Writers Union of Canada for over 35 years as a writer of seventeen books.

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. But I took objection to a speech given at a private TWUC function (members only) in Vancouver on October 17, 2018 by TWUC’s newly hired Equity, Membership and Engagement Coordinator, Rebecca Benson, a Tuscarora writer. In a nutshell, I did not join the Writers Union of Canada so I could be told how I must think.

There was no advance notice to members that this social event was going to used as a vehicle for a formal speech of any kind. Because I found the speech doctrinaire and cringeworthy, I believed some constructive response would be in our collective best interest. Knowing our diverse and independent-minded membership as I do, I felt a more persuasive case for equity could be made if the speaker did not address her listeners as if they knew precious little. But when Ms. Benson completed her address, there was no invitation given for any feedback. This was 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. It was a large room. Ms. Benson was at the other end of the room. No microphone was supplied for responses. I had to raise my voice considerably just to be heard. I addressed Ms. Benson not as a spokesperson for Canada’s First Nations, but as a staff member of my union. Given that the speaker was hired to make addresses for my union across the country, 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.”

Before I could get to my main point, 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. I was baffled and taken aback. 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. I had never before witnessed or faced censorship within TWUC. Again, this was not in keeping with the traditions of the Writers Union within my thirty-five years of belonging.

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. I was simply appalled at being silenced at a TWUC event. One male organizer, a bookstore employee who was also not a member of our Writers Union, threatened me with physical removal if I persisted in trying to speak. The other TWUC members did and said absolutely nothing.

At that point I gave up and fell silent, wanting to avoid a fracas.

It was not the loudest and certainly not the longest disturbance ever to occur at a TWUC event and probably would have ended with the meeting but for a Toronto TWUC member named Dave Bidini. He 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 does not know me; he had to ask a fellow TWUC member who I was. He has hundreds of Twitter followers and many of them took his accusation at face value. Consequently, I soon received hate mail and worried calls from supporters. 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. [Only one advertiser out of 40 did so; and malcontents 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 much fairer assessment of whether or not I am a racist. If you examine the contents of my work, it’s an idiotic claim. But instead I was branded a racist by a tweet.

When Dave Bidini was unable to substantiate why my truncated attempt to improve Ms. Benson’s equity presentation 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.” Anyone who knows me or reads my writing knows how foreign to my value system such a statement would be. But in a Trumpian age, apparently many people are more than willing to believe in an outrageous lie.

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.” When he was made aware that his tweets were libelous, Dave Bidini withdrew them. By then, much damage had been done. 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.

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 ­ at my own discretion, not because of any governmental dictum, ­ to books from and about Indigenous societies and individuals, as I have been doing non-stop, in every issue of BC BookWorld, since 1987.

Today, there are at least 266 Indigenous authors in B.C., and more than 60 Metis authors, and I know that because that’s how many I’ve recorded on ABCBookWorld. I have a manuscript of more than 1,000 pages on this subject, a book that is far too big to publish.

Jeannette Armstrong during the making of Jeannette Armstrong: Knowledge Keeper, of the Okanagan.

Along the way I wrote and produced a CBC documentary, Jeannette Armstrong: Knowledge Keeper, of the Okanagan, in 1995. In 2016, 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.

While I might not agree with absolutely every TWUC policy and action that has been taken during more than thirty years of membership, I understand that overall the work accomplished by TWUC has been vital and progressive. 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. The fact that union members were not told in advance that such a speech would occur, and that union members were instead invited to attend a gathering for social reasons only, was disconcerting, and I know I was not the only person who found portions of the speech bordered on embarrassing. But I was objecting to didactic content of the speech, not the principles for which the speaker had been hired. Essentially, 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. The speaker also inferred that her audience harboured prejudices against First Nations and such attitudes had to be acknowledged and cleansed.

In a nutshell: TWUC’s representative pre-judged her audience and presumed we all required re-programming. Ours is not the Writers Union of Cuba. It is the Writers Union of Canada. I did not join the Writers Union of Canada 35 years ago in order to be part of a social engineering experiment.

I fully appreciate the need for Reconciliation and 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.

In B.C., our publishers and writers have been assiduously producing meaningful work on First Nations since the early 1970s, earlier if you count the likes of Wilson Duff, and First Nations here have been politicized since George Manuel, etc. (James Teit, for that matter). Compared to other Canadian provinces, I believe we could be far more informed when it comes to understanding First Nations issues; and we have far more Indigenous authors, than Ontario. In fact, I would wager there has been more indigenous and First Nations content from BC’s publishing industry, since George Clutesi’s first book 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. (You can find all those titles are if you visit the ABCBookWorld public reference site.)

In essence, Ontario is now playing catch-up to where B.C. has already been. I objected to the fact that a Toronto head office was sending someone to give an indoctrination lecture in British Columbia about awareness of First Nations when that person 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–or better said, Conciliation–before the federal government finally woke up and realized it was necessary. In a nutshell, the well-intentioned TWUC spokesperson was assuming a level of collective ignorance that was well off the mark. Moscow should not tell Vladivostok how it must think and feel, particularly when the Vladivostokians are far more progressive about the subject matter in question.

For several years I have spent summer holidays in Tanzania, assisting the villagers in a remote community. Five days after Mr. Bidini’s Tweet, I got the news that my two-year fundraising campaign to aid the distressed African village of Luhombero in Western Tanzania had raised enough money to buy a much-needed new pick-up truck in collaboration with the Swiss aid organization MIVA.

Tweets are easy.

— Alan Twigg

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“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift in “The Examiner” (1710)

 

 

 


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