Aaron Mills was grateful to be invited to deliver a Walrus Talk in Surrey, B.C., on Monday night. But as a heated disagreement about cultural appropriation turned nasty, and the editor of The Walrus magazine became involved, Mr. Mills considered pulling out.
A member of the Bear Clan Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation, Mr. Mills consulted respected elders and ultimately decided to deliver his talk and use it to address the issue.
"No one can appropriate my stories," he said in his talk at Surrey City Hall. "Not because I'm an Indigenous man; because of Indigenous law. You have no relationship with my stories. They're of my relatives – humans, animals, plants, spirits; all alive. They're not part of an intellectual commons just waiting to be brought to life by your particular unique imagination. To be able to tell the story is a beautiful gift and if it is given to you, it's because it is already known that you will be grateful, that you will reciprocate."
This cultural appropriation dispute began with a recent issue of Write magazine, the publication of The Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC). Indigenous writers had been invited to contribute pieces. But they were upset to see the magazine's editor declare he didn't believe in cultural appropriation in an opinion column that ran at the front of the issue. Hal Niedzviecki's column was glibly titled "Winning the Appropriation Prize."
When contributors – and others – expressed their anger over the piece, Mr. Niedzviecki resigned and TWUC apologized. But he had his defenders. Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine – until Saturday – came out swinging, describing what happened to Mr. Niedzviecki as a mobbing and calling for freedom of speech and artistic expression.
Meanwhile, late Thursday night on Twitter, a number of other journalists jokingly tweeted about funding a cultural appropriation prize. Apologies followed in the light of day.
"The apologies and the resignations deserve acknowledgment but they're profoundly insufficient given what's happened," Mr. Mills told The Globe and Mail. "They're so quick and short, they're not the consequence of understanding having been achieved. That's going to be a bigger project."
Mr. Mills, who is a lawyer, a Vanier Canada Scholar and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar, came to the Walrus event, he told the audience, with a mandate from two elders he had consulted: Harry Bone, a member of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway Nation; and Anishinaabe elder Dave Courchene, who founded the Turtle Lodge in Manitoba.
"To invite Jonathan Kay, Steve Ladurantaye, Anne Marie Owens, Andrew Coyne, Elizabeth Renzetti – and anybody else who argues in favour of opening cultural appropriation to debate – to sit with the elders at Turtle Lodge at some point this summer at a date that will work with most of us. ... And if you come to our house, we will treat you with respect."
Mr. Ladurantaye, who is with CBC, Ms. Owens, who is with the National Post, and Mr. Coyne, also with the Post, had participated in the Twitter incident and Mr. Coyne also wrote a column about the issue. (The former two have apologized for the Twitter activity.) Ms. Renzetti, a columnist with the Globe and Mail, did not engage on Twitter, but wrote an opinion piece on the cultural appropriation issue last week, with which Mr. Mills disagreed.
In fact, Mr. Mills was not sure he would speak with a Globe reporter when he was approached after his Walrus Talk.
"One of the things I've been debating ... was whether I'll continue to spend any time engaging with any of the news institutions who have been part of this dialogue and who I feel have taken positions that are deeply offensive," he said in the interview, after agreeing to speak.
At the end of the event, Mr. Mills did not participate in the group singing of O Canada, leaving the stage beforehand.
"I think Canada as a political community today is founded on violence and in particular settler supremacy. And it absolutely does not have to be that way. But as long as it is that way, my efforts are focused on helping to create Canada as a non-violent community and currently it's not a community I can claim pride in," he said, pointing out that he did inform the Walrus Talks organizers of this in advance.
The Walrus Talks are a key part of the Walrus Foundation's activities. Shelley Ambrose, who is the publisher of the magazine and executive director of the foundation, told The Globe she was unaware of any other talkers who had considered pulling out because of the cultural appropriation dispute and Mr. Kay's involvement.
Earlier on Monday, Ms. Ambrose issued a statement confirming that Mr. Kay had resigned on Saturday.
"As Jon himself has indicated, he has for some time felt a tension between his responsibilities as [editor in chief] of The Walrus and his personal role as an outspoken and opinionated commentator and provocateur in other print, broadcast, and social-media outlets."
In a National Post commentary posted Tuesday, Mr. Kay – who has already said his departure didn't have much to do with the cultural appropriation issue – explained that his resignation was not an indictment of The Walrus, but a recognition that the stress of the job was hurting his relationships, and left him with fewer opportunities to write.
He also mentioned fighting with his boss – Ms. Ambrose – "like pretty much every other employed human being on the planet."
When asked about comments Mr. Kay had previously made about that, Ms. Ambrose said Monday night "publishers and editors have always butted heads."
Deputy editor Carmine Starnino will perform the duties of editor-in-chief during the transition period, Ms. Ambrose's statement said.