John Baglow

David Anderson's gaffe: a silaluk in a tiiliurut?

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Saskatchewan Conservative MP David Anderson’s silly slap at the Canadian Wheat Board was an insult to the intelligence, right enough. Was it also an insult to Inuit?

Mary Simon says so, and she should know.

I won’t post the cartoon he had up at his website until recently: folks can track it down on the Internet if they’re so inclined. It featured a Wheat Board official, every inch a Kommissar, and a hapless would-be farmer who wanted to sell grain directly to his baker brother.

“Slow down, you are talking Eskimo” was the offensive phrase uttered by the Kommissar, repeated a couple of times in the vid: an apparently Canadian version of “it’s all Greek to me,” meaning incomprehensible.

So far as I know, the Canadian Hellenic Congress has never tried to expunge the phrase from Julius Caesar. But as always, context is everything. In popular etymology the word “Eskimo” is indeed a slur—in Cree, that is, where it is held to mean an eater of raw meat.

Academic etymologists derive the term differently: from the Montagnais word for a snowshoe-netter or, ironically, for “one who speaks a different language.”

Let the academic controversies rage: it doesn’t matter. Inuit don’t like the term, and coming from a Member of Parliament it carries a greater sting. It may not have been intended to be pejorative by Anderson, but it is taken as such by the very people it signifies: common courtesy dictates, therefore, that it not be used. (Imagine some hapless bumpkin earnestly trying to explain to a group of African Americans that the n-word derives from the Spanish word for “black” so they really shouldn’t be insulted by it.)

As an aside, one wonders how the Edmonton Eskimos have not seen fit to alter their name despite periodic complaints, an anachronism much like Texas governor Rick Perry’s infamously-named family hunting camp. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

In any case, I’d go further. Inuit are committed to this country, and see themselves as an integral part of it. John Amagoalik, the charismatic organizer known as the Father of Nunavut, once famously stated, “We are not trying to break up Canada. We’re trying to join Canada.” Nunavut, before it came officially into being in 1999, had already chosen an official territorial flag and a coat of arms.

Fliply referring to the Inuktitut language as a synonym for “unintelligible” has the linguistic effect of distancing Inuit from Canada once more—returning them to the Other status they previously had. Given their arduous history and their struggle to be recognized an an active partner in our confederation, it is no surprise that this sort of thing resonates badly with them.

I don’t think David Anderson meant to be insulting. The cartoon phrase was simply a gaffe, not an act of malice. But the proper thing to do, when one has unwittingly offended someone, is to apologize and move on. Will he do so?

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This page contains a single entry by John Baglow published on October 25, 2011 9:50 AM.

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