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Oration honouring Dr. Michael Asch

Look upon this modest, quiet academic currently buried in the quaint sleepiness of Victoria and conjure up an image of his past. It will not fit the facts. This man, born in New York, went to school in Greenwich Village with such noted persons as Robert de Niro, the film actor, such notorious persons as Angela Davis, the radical feminist communist philosopher. The story has it that one night he went to supper with another school friend. Her father, the great playwright, Arthur Miller was at the table; Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe was at the stove – a position in which many of would not have expected to find her.

It is then necessary that we understand the background to understand the man. His grandfather, Sholem Asch, was a highly regarded novelist and playwright who came to New York from Warsaw in the early twentieth century. In his work Sholem Asch often dealt with controversial matters but few caused more problems than his play, God of Vengeance, which was condemned by Jewish groups and prosecuted for pornography.

Wandering back to Europe and on to Palestine in the 1920s, he settled in the United States in 1938, returned to Israel for his last years, but finally died in London in 1957.

This restless energy and willingness to confront the conventional is also to be found in Moses Asch, father of Michael, son of Sholem. Trained as a sound engineer but harbouring a desire to become a physicist, he asked Albert Einstein for advice, took it and opened a recording company. That decision and that company – Folkways Records – made Moses Asch a major figure in American music. On his label can be found not only all the great names of the era but also half a dozen recordings of Newfoundland folk songs.

As well, the Folkways collection includes political speeches and songs and, fascinatingly, a most eccentric series involving “soundscapes”: sounds of frogs, of the junkyard and of the office. Unconventional, but Moses Asch wanted to record his world and all that live in it, to document his time. When the collection was transferred to the Smithsonian there was only one stipulation: that no record should be allowed to go out of circulation; that the voices of these people and the frogs and the office typewriters were not to fall silent.

A man whose grandfather defined God as “the ultimate expression of our relationship to each other,” Michael Asch had little choice but to be an anthropologist. He, however, took his anthropology beyond academic theory and, by altering attitudes to our relationships with those with whom we share this land, put that theory into practice.

It was while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago that Michael Asch was drawn to the discipline and to his life’s work with Aboriginal Peoples. With a doctorate from Columbia he joined the faculty of the University of Alberta in 1971.

In 1976 he was a witness at the Berger Commission on the Mackenzie Pipeline – a major event in the development of Aboriginal rights in Canada – and, in 1993-94, senior research associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

In his scholarship he has given voice to those people in addressing the concept of terra nullius – an assumption too common to all colonizers and the judicial systems they establish – that they arrive in an empty, unsettled, barbarous land and that they have title to that land.

This assumption has been a central problem for Aboriginal peoples in Canada in that it involves a complete refusal to recognize their rights to land they occupied for millennia before the arrival of the colonizers. Asch has not only confronted the fallacy of terra nullius, he has also developed an approach to land title that may help solve this profound dispute. It was for this work that he was given the Weaver/Tremblay Award by the Canadian Anthropology Society and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Ma`amaq qarâ' Yhovah. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. While the Lord may not have answered this prayer, Michael Asch has always ensured that the supplicant had an advocate. Like his grandfather and his father before him, he has been a voice for others. As the grandfather pursued an understanding between cultures, as the father gave voice to many cultures, so has the son, our honorary graduand, brought both understanding and voice in his work with Aboriginal people. Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, the distinguished anthropologist, Michael Asch.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator