On Feb. 1, hundreds of Canadians, mostly university students, turned up to dance, chant, and drum around the diminutive figure of Frances Widdowson. The political scientist, fired last year from Mount Royal University in Calgary, had been invited to give a talk at the University of Lethbridge. Yet after vociferous student and faculty protests in the lead-up to her visit, the university’s president, Mark Mahon, canceled her talk. Widdowson announced that she would turn up anyway to deliver her remarks in a university communal space; the hundreds of protesters turned up to drown her out.

Why all this fuss?

Widdowson has stated plainly—and sometimes rudely—things that everyone knows are true. In Canada, an unfortunate share of public-sector funding devoted to indigenous issues is misappropriated by charlatans. These charlatans have an interest in the promotion and implementation of programs that enable such misappropriation. They are quick to denounce any attempt at critical oversight as “racist.” This state of affairs is bad for the Canadian taxpayer and disastrous for indigenous communities with serious unmet needs.

Widdowson redoubled her arguments in 2021, after indigenous activists announced the discovery of the bodies of more than 200 indigenous children buried in a mass grave at the site of a former Catholic residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. The mass-grave claims soon came under factual scrutiny. Yet by June, anyone—like Frances Widdowson—questioning the narrative or proposing forensic investigation was denounced as a racist and a “residential-school denialist.” In July, an analysis published anonymously on WordPress helped explain activists’ ferocious resistance to calls for excavation. The piece systematically documented a long prior history of excavations at the Kamloops site and made it very evident that there are unlikely to be any skeletons to be disinterred there.

Back in 2021, however, most Canadians—me included—were heartsick at what we were given to understand was the discovery of the remains of indigenous children murdered by neglect and abuse and clandestinely dumped next to the residential school in Kamloops.

During June and July 2021, more than 50 Christian churches across Canada were damaged by vandalism or destroyed by arson, acts Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called “understandable” and which the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union celebrated in a now-infamous tweet (“Burn it all down”). While the Catholic and Anglican churches had run most residential schools, the attacks were ecumenical, and targeted, in one instance, a Coptic Orthodox church. In some cases, these attacks destroyed churches in indigenous communities that had long played important roles as community centers.

On July 6, 2021, Trudeau arranged a photoshoot in which he knelt holding a teddy bear on land near a former residential school in Cowessess First Nation. Here, ground-penetrating radar suggested the presence of 751 burials. Unlike the Kamloops site, bodies are certainly present at Cowessess. Chief Cadmus DeLorne was clear that these were “unmarked graves,” not mass graves. The land was long used as a Roman Catholic graveyard in the community, primarily for adults, many of whose grave markers have deteriorated and been lost over time. But the point of the teddy bear was to wash Trudeau in the blood of many spectral little lambs in preparation for an August election call. Trudeau’s minority government gambled—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—on returning to power with a majority.

Thus, the people who turned up in their hundreds on the Lethbridge campus in early February 2023 were marking an increasingly important national and historical boundary. Frances Widdowson, who is on the wrong side of it, deserves nothing. Not her job, which has already been taken from her; not the right to speak in public; not the right to interact with anyone who might wish to hear what she has to say.

Real, living indigenous peoples with complex community histories and needs are—in Thomas King’s acute phrasing—inconvenient Indians. By contrast, the invisible dead schoolchildren in Kamloops were for a certain subset of utterly shameless Canadian politicians and academics the most convenient Indians imaginable. The towering rhetoric of denunciation made possible by their hidden little bodies! The posturing stances of high moral dudgeon that could be rooted in their buried suffering!

These convenient Indians allowed a political-economic order incapable of providing for its populace to declare that many of them, most even, don’t deserve anything anyway. What is amazing is that the people most eager to declare themselves “de-colonizers” are doing the final dirty work of a crumbling imperial order. Some of them—academic and political thought leaders—are handsomely rewarded for their efforts, and many sharp-eyed sharp-elbowed young up-and-comers are jockeying for commissions in the same late-imperial project. It’s important to be seen decked out in obligatory orange—the color of the mass-grave activists—and shouting in Frances Widdowson’s face. The regime will want to know exactly the level of pitiless zeal you will be willing to direct at your fellows if you are going to land one of the few plum gigs still going. Just don’t call it “enforcing declining living standards and life possibilities.” Name it something like “checking the privilege of ungrateful louts.”

The general economic prospects of young people are perilous. In the social sciences and humanities, the prospects for doctoral-degree earners are bleak in ways that can hardly be exaggerated. Universities are frequently metaphorized as “engines”: of innovation, of discovery, of upward mobility. But engines aren’t stand-alone entities. They work inside machines that are producing something, or traveling somewhere. An engine whirring along inside a machine that is doing nothing but listing sideways while making a funny whumping noise is still an engine, to be sure. But it isn’t an engine “for” or “of” anything.

What happened to Frances Widdowson is part of a process that calls itself reform, but which is actually collapse. Considered in this light, the drive for diversity, equity, and inclusion is more bathetic than is usually supposed. It amounts to a sort of talismanic grasping at acronymic magic beans: Close your eyes and chant, “DEI, DEI, DEI!,” and when you open them, the hairy howling unraveling of the late-modern order will have disappeared back to wherever it came from.

The real lesson being delivered is that most Canadians have had it far too good for far too long, and deserve much less than they have got right now. Employment? Bah. The right to squeak about loss of employment? Humbug. A voice in public policy making? Pshaw. The right to protest or even to have a bank account? Um, honk-honk?

Between the Kamloops story in May 2021 and Widdowson’s February 2023 anathematizing there was an important intermediary event: the anti-vaccine-mandate trucker convoy that occupied downtown Ottawa and inspired similar protests in many Canadian cities during January and February 2022. The Freedom Convoy was cheerily diverse, featuring bouncy castles by day and bhangra dance parties by night. It was, however, portrayed in the state-funded Canadian press, by the Trudeau administration, and in left-leaning Canadian academia as irredeemably “white supremacist,” the better to facilitate its crushing through the invocation of martial law and the freezing, at the behest of the Trudeau administration, of the personal bank accounts of organizers and donors. This was all OK, because the truckers were a rabble that deserved nothing. Not civil liberties, not even access to their own savings accounts. There is nothing that can’t be done to, or taken from, racists.

“Imagine … the utility of a narrative that frames nearly every citizen as a racist.”

Imagine, in this context, the utility of a narrative that frames nearly every citizen as a racist, on “historical” grounds. Imagine that narrative comes along at a time when the nation’s productivity is in a state of decline, its income inequality worsening, its debt ballooning, its population aging, the ability of young people to become homeowners and start families in freefall… How closely would that state want that narrative examined? How eager would fortunate elites be to let go of that story? On which side of the line would elite-class aspirants rush to place themselves?

Canadians don’t have to guess. We already know.

Kathleen Lowrey is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta.

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