Is the word assimilate offensive? At issue is a legal battle that has just been launched that pits the right of a Star Trek fan to have it on his licence plate against Indigenous groups opposed to the word.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nick Troller, a Winnipeg man whose licence plate — ASIMIL8 — was rescinded by the provincial government for being offensive to Indigenous people.
“It’s another case that pits the Charter freedom of expression against the new, phoney right not to be offended,” said JCCF President John Carpay, a former Alberta Wildrose party candidate. Carpay said he can understand why the plate might offend someone, but the word still shouldn’t be censored. “There’s a difference between words that are inherently offensive regardless of how you use them, such as vulgarities, obscenities, four-letter words, versus words like ‘war’ or ‘assimilate,’ which can have positive or negative connotations,” he said.
Troller said the licence plate is clearly a reference to the Borg, a fictional race from Star Trek that forcibly assimilates other cultures. The plate holder says, “WE ARE THE BORG” and “RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”
“The word ‘assimilate’ is just a word — it is neither good nor bad. We assimilate nutrients into our bodies in order to live,” Troller said in his affidavit.
But Indigenous activists say Canadians should do more to understand why the word could be considered offensive.
Anishinaabe Nation member and University of Manitoba assistant professor Niigaan Sinclair called free speech a “bogus argument” and said that Indigenous people are having “a very understandable reaction.”
“If Indigenous peoples feel triggered by a licence plate or a sports logo, or the name of a historical figure on a building, Canadians would be best served to listen to why Indigenous peoples are triggered, and show some care and sensitivity when they express themselves,” he said.
“You can’t just say whatever you want to say without any worries of consequence or responsibility.”
Troller used the licence plate for two years before the provincial Crown corporation rescinded it in April, following two complaints from Indigenous people.
“The Borg uses these phrases and the word ‘assimilate’ as a core part of their dialogue,” he said in his affidavit. “The meaning of the word … has not changed between the time that I obtained the plate and the time MPI ordered me to surrender it.”
Sinclair said that’s the problem. Many Canadians aren’t aware of the struggles Indigenous people have faced in the past, which protects them from considering others’ feelings, he said.
“Canadians don’t know their own past — or they only know parts of it — and they particularly have not been trained well to understand the complexities that Indigenous peoples have experienced,” he said.
The word “assimilate” is a grim reminder of past pain inflicted on Indigenous communities, said Ry Moran, director of the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
“For basically the entirety of this country’s history, Indigenous peoples have been forcibly assimilated through really extremely destructive means and ways,” Moran said. “Words like that, meant or not, have an actual impact on many people.”
Sinclair encouraged Canadians to reflect on whether their speech was “responsible.” “We live in a time period where we’re waking up to the violence and genocide of the past, particularly in this country, where Canadians have never had the opportunity to understand that, and Indigenous people are living in the intergenerational effects of that violence,” he said.
“It’s a very privileged position to ignore history …. Those of us in the Indigenous community, we live and breathe history every day.”