How a belief system, with justice in mind, ends up silencing Indigenous voices

How a belief system, with justice in mind, ends up silencing Indigenous voices

Glendon Professor pens key article in which he argues that political theorists, basing their perspectives and world views on rationalism, turn a blind eye to Indigenous voices. This kind of thinking will be a permanent roadblock to reconciliation.

Yann Allard-Tremblay, of the Huron-Wendat First Nation, wrote a seminal article in the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy last year. This Glendon scholar contends that rationalism, embraced by politicians and political theorists, is, in fact, a source of violence because it ignores and distorts the voices of the Indigenous peoples. His article focuses on the population of Turtle Island, referring to the continent of North America. In many Indigenous stories about the universe and human origins, the turtle, an icon of life itself, is said to support the world.

Yann Allard-Tremblay
Yann Allard-Tremblay

This is a vital discussion related to reconciliation, at a key point in time when our nation is seeking to transform (and fix) existing oppressive social and political structures so as to ensure greater inclusion and facilitate the continued existence of Indigenous peoples.

Where are we going wrong? Allard-Tremblay, who came to York in 2017, has some answers. Associated with the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, he specializes in political and social theory, with an interest in democracy, political pluralism and Indigenous peoples.

Why is rationalism ineffective?

Allard-Tremblay underscores the short-sightedness of rationalism. “It is optimistic that human reason has the power to apprehend the whole of reality. Reason assumes that there should be a single uniform and coherent scheme to apprehend reality and this scheme is a scientific one.”

The real problem, according to Allard-Tremblay, is two-fold: (1) rationalism, due to its limitations, excludes and/or distorts Indigenous voices; and (2) since rationalism has become an accepted tool for politicians and political theorists, this belief system end up reinforcing cultural imperialism, despite the fact that politicians and political theorists are, at least in theory, aiming to administer justice and oversee reconciliation.

Indigenous worldviews acknowledge the existence of spirits and the interconnectedness of all things
Indigenous worldviews acknowledge the existence of spirits and the interconnectedness of all things

Indigenous discourses ignored; distortion is form of cultural imperialism

Allard-Tremblay unpacks the idea of distortion exceptionally well: “This happens either when Indigenous voices are wrongly interpreted, through a rationalist lens, or when Indigenous peoples modify and frame their claims so as to move [the rationalist people they engage in a dialogue with.]”

Indigenous discourses, he notes, speak a wholly different language metaphorically. “Indigenous worldviews are seen to be like religions and their associated claims are classified as animistic religious claims,” he writes. They acknowledge the existence of spirits and emphasize the interconnectedness of all things, for example – approaches that have little meaning through the lens of rationalism.

Artwork created by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt
“Indigenous worldviews are seen to be like religions and their associated claims are classified as animistic religious claims,” Allard-Tremblay writes. Artwork created by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt

As a result, Indigenous discourses are largely ignored. “They are not seen as alternative points of view on reality, but as forms of discourse to be apprehended and classified by reason. These forms of discourse are not in the same category as objective rational discourse,” Allard-Tremblay explains.

Scholar considers how to oppose rationalism, offers suggestions

In this article, Allard-Tremblay considers how to oppose rationalism and hear Indigenous peoples in their own voices. He warns, once more, against mainstream approaches by well-intentioned scholars that are about, not by, Indigenous people.

He also puts forward considerations about politics and political theory that should be kept in mind “so as to avoid masking domination under the guise of reason and ignoring people’s agency in determining the right structure of society.”

In the end, and at the heart of this thoughtful article, Allard-Tremblay suggests that two things need to happen before real change can be pursued – specifically, justice and reconciliation:

  1. We need to realize that politics is constructed; and
  2. We need to acknowledge that political theory is embedded in politics.

Only then can we break the dominance and exclusivity of rationalism and create the space to incorporate an Indigenous perspective into the discussion, “heard in its own right rather than as an object of our rational apprehension,” Allard-Tremblay adds. “And this is more of an ever-going process than something that can be accomplished one day and on which we could close the books.”

To learn more about Allard-Tremblay, visit his Faculty profile page at Glendon. To read the 2019 article in the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, visit the website.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca