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Hal Niedzviecki has left his position at the Writers' Union of Canada's magazine. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Hal Niedzviecki has left his position at the Writers' Union of Canada's magazine. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Writers’ Union of Canada editorial sparks outrage, resignations Add to ...

The Writers’ Union of Canada has issued an apology and the editor of its magazine has resigned after publishing an opinion piece titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” began the editorial by Hal Niedzviecki in the spring issue of Write magazine. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He wrote that CanLit was “exhaustingly white and middle-class” because its producers are generally so and people tend to write what they know. “I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you … Win the Appropriation Prize.”

Some people were enraged, and the fallout was swift: TWUC issued an apology, a board member resigned, TWUC’s Equity Task Force issued a list of demands – and Mr. Niedzviecki left his position.

“I had no intention of offending anyone with the article,” Mr. Niedzviecki told The Globe and Mail Wednesday, after resigning that morning – his choice, he says.

“I absolutely understand why people are upset. I think that I was a little tone deaf, and I was failing to recognize how charged the term cultural appropriation is and how deeply painful acts of cultural appropriation have been to Indigenous people.”

But a quick fix is not the answer, says the contributor whose tweetstorm Tuesday brought attention to the issue – pointing to deeper problems at the organization and in CanLit.

“I would like for [TWUC] to look at the practices by which they run their organization and look at the way it enforces systemic oppression and try and figure out ways to counteract that,” Alicia Elliott told The Globe from Brantford, Ont.

The TWUC Equity Task Force issued a statement, saying it was “angry and appalled” by the column, and shocked that it was published – saying it was an indication of structural racism, “brazen malice, or extreme negligence.” It issued a list of demands, including that the next three issues be turned over to Indigenous and other racialized editors and writers, affirmative action hiring for the next editor and future office staff and a future issue dedicated to bringing historical context to the issue.

It said an apology wasn’t enough. “This issue is not about “hurt feelings”, but about justice.”

Ms. Elliott, who is Tuscarora from Six Nations, had been asked to submit a piece for the issue by author and journalist Waubgeshig Rice, who was guest editorial advisor. (Reached Wednesday, Mr. Rice said he did not have time for an interview. He has tweeted that he is disappointed in what happened.)

Ms. Elliott contributed an essay on cultural appropriation that was critical of the Canadian literary establishment.

The piece was edited by Mr. Niedzviecki. He said nothing at the time about his own thoughts on cultural appropriation, according to Ms. Elliott. “That’s why I felt so blindsided,” she says.

And betrayed. “I put a lot of trust into him with my piece. I talked about something that I was scared to talk about so I felt very vulnerable – only for him to write this piece about how my opinion on cultural appropriation of my own culture wasn’t valid.”

She found the process dishonest and says had she known about the editorial, she would not have contributed her piece.

She took her concerns to social media, tweeting at TWUC. “I’d like to send my payment for my essay back. … I don’t want your token Indian money,” read one tweet, in part. She was joined by a chorus of supporters, including other Indigenous writers who had contributed to the issue.

“It feels … almost like the issue was used to create a platform in order to push for cultural appropriation – which was completely disrespectful to all the writers within that issue,” says Helen Knott, a writer of Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw and European descent from Prophet River First Nation, who contributed a work of creative fiction. “It seems like a continual blotting out of our right to our own voices.”

Tuesday evening, TWUC executive director John Degen saw the online backlash, which he called “a very valid response to the column” in an interview with The Globe.

“Personally, I never would have written that column myself. And I don’t agree with [its] opinions. As the [executive director], we had a process in place that I followed, and I am really, really well aware today that the process does not work.”

When asked whether he had read the issue prior to it going to print, Mr. Degen said he does scan the material, but “as much as possible, we let the writers write.” He says he did see “a version” of the offending editorial before it went to press. When asked if there were changes to the final copy, he said he was “surprised by what I read in the magazine.”

When Mr. Degen reached Mr. Niedzviecki on the phone the next morning, the editor offered to resign.

TWUC editorial board member Nikki Reimer also resigned Wednesday, posting a statement: “At the most generous interpretation [the column] is clueless and thoughtless; at worst, it is offensive and insulting to the many writers featured within the page; it undermines any attempts at space-making or celebration of the writers featured within the pages, and it marks Write magazine as a space that is not safe for indigenous and racialized writers.”

She wrote that she agrees with the criticisms circulating on social media. “I vehemently disagree with the notion that cultural appropriation is not real – it exists and it causes real harm. Further, Canada is ‘exhaustingly white and middle class’ not because white writers are afraid to write stories they don’t ‘know,’ but because white writers don’t get out of the way and make space for the multitude of stories to be told by those who aren’t white and middle class.”

Ms. Reimer says had she seen the piece prior to publication, she would have strongly objected. But because she was too busy to read the PDF, she missed it. “I believe that I cannot in good conscience continue with the board,” she wrote.

TWUC issued a statement Wednesday, noting that Mr. Niedzviecki had resigned, and that TWUC was contacting all contributors individually.

In his interview, Mr. Degen said the statement is not simply damage control. “I think the Union failed in its process. ... We did the wrong thing, and we apologize for it.”

“For me, I’m like how did it get this far?,” says Ms. Knott. “Why are there apologies after the fact?”

“I’m hesitant to accept very quick responses that don’t look in-depth at how these things occurred and look at how we can stop things like this from reoccurring,” Ms. Elliott says. “Accepting his resignation is an easy thing … but it isn’t examining the systemic issues [where] Indigenous writers, black writers, queer writers, writers of different abilities don’t see themselves reflected in this union and don’t want to become members. There is something more that needs to be addressed; I hope they do that.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article quoted a statement by The Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC) Equity Task Force which said it was shocked that the column on cultural appropriation was approved by a TWUC editorial committee. TWUC later clarified its statement, saying the TWUC editorial board is not asked to approve opinion pieces. They are traditionally there for content suggestion and curation, not editorial oversight. The Equity Task Force statement was revised accordingly.

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