At last Friday’s 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala, the NMAF invited Tuscarora First Nations writer Alicia Elliott to deliver a keynote address, reflecting on the recent controversy in the Canadian magazine industry surrounding cultural appropriation and the roles that magazine media and creators play in contextualizing the debate and educating Canadians.
The NMAF is very grateful to Ms. Elliott for accepting this invitation and addressing the 300 guests gathered at the NMA gala on Friday. Here are Alicia Elliott’s complete remarks, published with her permission:
Don’t worry, everybody. I promise I’m not here to take away your free speech. I’ve got maybe a handful and a half of publications, so I’m pretty sure I don’t have that kind of power. But you’re all writers, editors and publishers with some of the most prestigious publications in Canada. You have considerable power: to say what you want and know people will listen, to amplify any voice or perspective you want, to edit out or repress any voice or perspective you want. I hope after the past few weeks, you’ve all been reflecting on that responsibility.
This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Once a citizen reaches adulthood, Canada officially washes its hands of educating them. Your magazines are what fill that void. Each and every page of your publications are like classrooms: sometimes teaching readers new ideas, sometimes reinforcing old ones. Take a moment and think about that. What are you teaching Canadians? What are you refusing to teach Canadians? And who are you letting do that teaching?
The fact is many marginalized communities do not feel you’re doing a good enough job telling their stories. I know there have been efforts at diversifying the workplace to counteract this. People from many more identities and cultures are part of newsrooms and magazines than twenty years ago. There’s some progress. But are they in leadership positions? Are they listened to by their leaders? Are they supported by those leaders when fighting for their right to speak, to exist?
I’m sure many of you would like to think the establishments you work at are safe havens for marginalized writers. Otherwise, why would they work there, right? But I’d like to share with you a quote from journalist, activist, novelist and all-around bad ass James Baldwin. In his introduction to his essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, he wrote, “Havens are high-priced. The price exacted of the haven-dweller is that he contrive to delude himself into believing that he has found a haven.”
As many have pointed out, and as the continued ignorance displayed in national political cartoons and columns have shown, the media and literary communities in Canada are not havens. We are collectively deluding ourselves to believe otherwise. It only took the smallest pushback from indigenous people for those who have always had access to free speech to derail conversation, shake off all accountability and put us back in our place. When you exalt their voices by publishing their articles and columns, what are you teaching Canada? What are you saying to marginalized communities about their issues and your coverage of them? What are you saying about yourself?
Because it’s not just the marginalized who are searching for havens. Those in power are searching, too. Sometimes they want a haven from criticism and accountability, from hard questions and harder answers. And for some, when that haven is snatched away and the full extent of their responsibilities is made crushingly apparent, it’s too much. They don’t reflect and make real change. They search out the closest haven and run.
I’m here tonight to ask you NOT to run. I’m asking you to do hard work, to examine your own complicity in perpetuating these problems, to be vulnerable with us, to have difficult conversations with us, to offer us a hand up instead of another push down. I’m here tonight to ask you to admit you don’t know it all, to ask questions, to learn and to do better.
We’re currently creating the world our children and grandchildren will grow up in, which means all of our actions and our inaction carry immense weight. Are you going to make future generations proud? Or are you going to make their work harder? Ultimately, that decision is your responsibility. There is no haven from that.
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations currently living in Brantford, Ontario. Her writing has most recently been published by CBC Arts, Room, Grain, The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review. She’s on Twitter @WordsandGuitar.
Read Alicia Elliott’s short essay on CBC.ca about why “The cultural appropriation debate isn’t about free speech — it’s about context.”
Read Alicia Elliott’s National Magazine Award-winning essay “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” (The Malahat Review).
The 40th anniversary National Magazine Award winners were announced on Friday, 26 May at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. Catch up on all the news and winners here.