Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization

Chapter 6 | Frits Pannekoek


The Aboriginal cyber net tends to reinforce a “class” perspective. The majority of the Aboriginal peoples who access cyber space will tend to be those who are middle class, work for government, the college or university systems or aboriginal governments. The cyber gaze of Aboriginal content tends to be those with the greatest stake in the status quo. That is, the environment in which Canadian Aboriginal peoples seem to want to work is within the context of Canadian law and its current system of justice which promise if not always delivering results. Because the internet allows the Aboriginal middle class to dominate the discourse and the challenge to Euro Canadian authority, it can be argued that they have assumed the role of the “colonial” master. They control the new instrument of defiance — the web sites. But there seems little inclination to use it. Only those Canadian Aboriginal communities on the absolute margin, the Innu or the Lubicon have used their cyber connections to bring their issues to the world stage or to use the WWW as an instrument of resistance.

So the reasons for a more detailed lament become obvious. First is the reality of language. The English language, is both the language of cyber-technology and the language of perceived freedoms — “free markets,” “free expression,” “free elections” and “free information.” It is the language of the West that continues to promise, but has yet to deliver today’s utopia to a “colonized third world.” Joe Lockard, a Ph.D. student at UCLA, in “Resisting Cyber English” puts it bluntly

The colonial pursuit of geopolitical rationalization has historically relied on over-languages to endorse a politics of subordination. Cyber-English, the first world English without a territorial base, has reformulated classic notions of universal imperial benefit. Viewed as a stage in this historiographic continuum, cyber-English is the latest extension of a centuries-long drive towards extinction of small tribal languages and consolidated expansion for a few languages of power. One blunt conclusion arrives quickly: cyber-English has declared global language/class war. Learn it or else. Speak so “we” understand you, or take a hike and be damned (1996).

Those who refute this argument point to “small” dynamic cyber languages like Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, Spanish, French and Finnish as evidence of a non-English dynamic. Yet, these are cultures with a very strong print tradition, and even on the majority of their e-sites the English language remains the alternative choice. The unwritten assumption is that when someone totally resists English they are giving clear evidence of their “technological” backwardness. Yet, it is also argued that by Fred Zellen in “Surf’s up?: NWT’s Indigenous Communities Await a Tidal Wave of electronic Information” that Aboriginal Cultures will “find it easy to identify themselves in the global culture linked by the net,” and that the net will make it easier to “preserve artefacts of their culture” which will only make them stronger (Zellen, 2001). Further reflection on this sentence should cause considerable sadness. Globalization is to be embraced. This will ensure the “preservation” of culture as an “artefact”!

The degree to which Canada’s “imperial” languages dominate Aboriginal perspectives is clear on the Canadian Aboriginal internet sites hosted by Industry Canada. As of March 24, 2001, Canada’s Aboriginal Digital Collections contained thirty five sites. Yet, while most of the listed native sites cite language as a primary concern, all sites are in English or French with at best the native language in a parallel column. Where there are language sites, they “teach” the language or treat the language as an object of “curiosity.” The reasons are transparent: there are too few fluent speakers.

The Six Nations of the Grand River for example estimate their language retention rate at one percent of the population — there are only two hundred twenty-five fluent speakers, with most being over the age of sixty (Anon, 2001). 1996 Statistics Canada indicates that although twenty six percent of Aboriginal Canadians could hold a conversation in their language, only fifteen percent of Aboriginal Canadians or one hundred twenty thousand individuals spoke their native language at home (Government of Canada, 1998). It should also be emphasized that there are few native newspapers that are solely in an indigenous language — and where this is attempted most offer English as a parallel alternative. In Canada it could be argued the imperial language of the internet, English, is reinforcing and accelerating current marginalization rather than introducing it.

Chapter 6, continued >


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