Dr. Michael Asch Address to convocation
I am especially pleased to be able to participate in the ceremony that installs Gary Kachanoski as the president of this renowned university. Dr. Kachanoski is a remarkable man, whom I came to know through our association with folkwaysAlive! when he was vice-president research at the University of Alberta. He is a man of vision and compassion, someone who knows well the challenges faced by institutions of higher learning in these times, and has the commitment to find how to best ensure that Memorial University maintains and enhances the qualities that have made yours a leading institution of higher learning in Canada and in the larger world. And, from what I have come to know of what he values, I am equally confident that he will work just as diligently to find ways to ensure that Memorial maintains and enhances the vital role it plays in sustaining the unique cultural life of this place that is so valued by so many of us - here, throughout Canada and around the world.
Receiving an honorary degree from this great university, for which I am deeply honoured, gives me the opportunity to say a few words that might be of benefit to at least some of you, from what I have experienced – particularly since I sat in the position of a newly minted graduate of the College at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1965 – almost a half century ago.
Let me begin with a few words of what came before that day. I was born in New York City in 1943. My father, Moses Asch, started a company called Folkways Records when I was five that specialized in music, words, and sounds from around the world, and which, by his death in 1986, amassed a collection that numbered over 2100 records, all in print and available to the public. Included in that collection were such seminal artists in the American folk music tradition as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger as well as the poetry of Leonard Cohen. And he also released hundreds of records of people at work and play from around the world. And included among the numerous recordings of music in Canada are six of the music of Newfoundland – the first one being released in 1953 or just around the time that the Newfoundland Dictionary of English, so precious to sustaining the heritage of this place, was undertaken – as well as albums featuring the music of Indigenous peoples who call Labrador and Newfoundland home.
My father’s impetus for doing this work was his abiding belief in the value of the voices of all cultures and that when these voices, and not just those that are more commercially successful, are available to the larger world we are all enriched. His work continues today, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, which acquired the company shortly after my father’s death. Our family agreed to transfer the collection to its care with the stipulation that they keep every record in print in perpetuity. And Smithsonian Folkways has been true to its word, while adding to that legacy by introducing new materials into the collection. This means that you can still get all of the recordings of Labrador and Newfoundland, including a song, recorded by Alan Mills in 1953 that is entitled “The anti-confederation song.” In fact, you can hear it on-line, and you can read the lyrics through Smithsonian Folkways’ remarkable website.
My parents gave a collection of Folkways recordings to the University of Alberta – the only one that they ever donated and it was through that gift that I first met Gary Kachanoski and learned of his extraordinary commitment to the values that gave rise to Folkways, for it was he who was instrumental in setting up in that institution a place where work would be undertaken in the Folkways tradition in Canada and that brings together wise and knowledgeable people from on and off campus. And it is that project we call: folkwaysAlive!
The values I learned from my parents and my schooling resonated within me deeply. So, when I was sitting in my seat in 1965 I was certain that, wherever life took me, those values would come along – and in fact largely they have. Only even then for me the focus was more specific: it was and still is on finding a pathway to a political relationship with First Nations that is just and fair.
But truly, when I was sitting there in 1965, I never would have guessed that my journey would take me to graduate school, much less land me up in Canada as a university professor. I was headed to Oklahoma to work with the Cherokee, and, following that, I intended to find work in New York City.
But, my time in Oklahoma was short-lived. The Vietnam War was escalating, and I decided to pursue my studies in anthropology rather than enter the military, and returned to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University. My doctoral research led my wife, Margaret, and me, in 1969, to a small Dene community in the Northwest Territories where we spent a full year; and then another year in Toronto and finally to Edmonton and a position as assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta where I remained for 26 years before moving to Victoria where we now live.
Now this is neither the time nor the place to expound on my views of what a just and fair political relationship with First Nations ought to be. I know from long experience it is best to talk about such matters slowly and interactively. And this is simply not such an occasion. But I would regret not spending some of the time remaining discussing them.
When I first went North in 1969, I fully believed that we could imagine resolving the relationship in the terms I had been taught; that is, by convincing skeptics that First Nations had and have ways of living that are just as valid as our own. And at first this seemed sufficient. At that time conventional wisdom held that the ways of life of Indigenous peoples were largely dead or quickly dying out. But that was not my experience in that Dene community. There, and elsewhere in the North (including Labrador) notwithstanding the influence of commerce, people persisted (and still do) in taking much of their sustenance from the land and through relationships that come from their own histories: And, indeed once this fact became known to Canadians in the 1970s, we did start to take this into account. But alone, I have found this is not enough.
I still believe that the Folkways ethic that guided my father and inspires the people at Smithsonian Folkways and FolkwaysAlive is key. Knowledge of and respect for others and an understanding that we do not live apart is fundamental. But I have come to believe that a truly just resolution of the relationship requires that we take a second step. Notwithstanding our differences, we need to work together; to learn how to live on this land together and particularly to share with First Nations a deep and abiding commitment to take responsibility for its care.
This position both springs from and returns to my understanding of the path we were invited to take when we were given permission to settle here as it was negotiated and agreed to by our forebears explicitly in the historic treaties, and implied elsewhere on this land. We all have roles to play in caring for this land because, as our partners in the historic treaties often say, we are all treaty people.
I do not expect everyone to share my belief that resolving this relationship justly and fairly in whatever terms this might take is required before we can live at peace with ourselves in what we call “The New World.” Nor do I wish that, like me, you find yourself as deeply passionate about any one cause that makes it the centre of your intellectual life. I fully believe that such commitments find you, and come at some cost. I hope instead that my words have conveyed that, what has proven to be compelling for me, is something that touches all of our lives, and thus, having raised it on this occasion, it may be something that will linger as we leave this ceremony and take the next step in our journeys.
Congratulations and best wishes for success to President Kachanoski and to each of you at this auspicious moment for us all.