Canadians are not racist? Indigenous Invisibility versus the Convenience of Racist Indifference – UPDATED
This week, former Prime Minister Paul Martin, told the media that the failure to address the many overlapping crises faced by Indigenous peoples is not a problem with Canadians – Canadians are not racist. The problem is with Indigenous peoples – we are invisible. Martin further alleges that Canadians are “a generous people” that will “rise to the occasion” to support others in need – if they are aware of the issue.
In my opinion, not only do we have a very deep and long-standing race problem in some segments of Canadian society, but this racism has also infected every level, branch and institution of the municipal, provincial, territorial and federal governments. This race problem is not new. It is in fact, one of the primary root causes of the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples today. Canadians are well aware of both the racism issue and the many over-lapping crises in First Nations.
Racism in Canada is Real
The racism experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada is not just a matter of insult or offence. While there are no shortage of racist, hateful comments made about us as individuals, communities and Nations – the racism we face is lethal. It doesn’t just hurt our feelings – it leads to our pre-mature deaths in a large variety of ways. Scalping bounties led to the deaths on thousands of Mi’kmaw people. There was a higher death rate for Indigenous kids in residential schools than for soldiers in WWII. Thousands of Indigenous peoples are murdered or are disappeared. We have higher rates of disease and injury. And deaths while in the custody of hospitals, foster parents and police show how prevalent racism against Indigenous peoples is in Canada.
This isn’t just my opinion. The Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Prosecution in 1989 found that he was wrongfully prosecuted and failed by everyone in the justice system because he was native. 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples spoke about racism against Indigenous women. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba in 1999 admitted the justice system fails Indigenous peoples on a “massive scale”. The 2007 Ipperwash report confirmed that racism in the Ontario Provincial Police was widespread. And there have been many other reports which all speak to the deep-seated racism within Canada and its institutions.
We’ve known for a very long time that stories in the media about Indigenous peoples draws a high number of racist and hateful comments from all segments of society including teachers, professors, authors, professionals and politicians. In November of 2015, the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News Canada issued a statement explaining why CBC will no longer allow comments on stories about Indigenous peoples. The reason for this is that Indigenous-related stories brought out “higher-than-average” comments which were not only hateful but also racist.
MacLean’s magazine even went so far as to say that Canada’s race problem is far worse than America’s and part of what makes it so bad is that Canadians keep denying they are racist.
In case you require something a little more official, the Ontario Human Rights Commission confirms that Canada has “a legacy of racism – particularly towards Aboriginal persons”.
The fact that Canada is so systemically and overtly racist is one of the reasons why Canada has so many laws against racism and hate speech, including federal and provincial human rights acts, the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and is a signatory to numerous international human rights instruments. There would be no need for these protections if there were no issues around racism in Canada.
Invisibility versus Racist Indifference
Let’s just address this fiction before it becomes the new Liberal mantra. Neither Indigenous peoples, nor the many over-lapping crises we face are invisible. While 50% of Indigenous people live in remote reserves, about 50% live in or near urban centres. One can’t walk down the street in Winnipeg or Saskatoon without seeing Indigenous people. In terms of the challenges we face, First Nations like Attawapiskat have put our higher rates of suicide, poverty, homelessness in the forefront and is a prime example of Canada’s racist and differential responses to First Nation crises versus Canadian crises (Walkerton, Halifax, Fort McMurray).
Indigenous activists like Cindy Blackstock have ensured that Canadians are well aware of the over-representation of First Nations kids in foster care. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal concluded that the reason for the chronic underfunding and disproportionate number of kids in foster care was because they were native. The problem of racism in Canada means that a tribunal actually had to direct Canada to stop its discriminatory treatment of Indigenous kids – and we are all still waiting for Canada to abide by this decision.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada led the way with public education and advocacy to focus the country’s attention on the thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Even Canada’s own Attorney General and Office of the Correctional Investigator rang the alarm on Canada’s discriminatory treatment of Indigenous peoples which led to under-funded education systems and prisons over-represented with Indigenous peoples. We are far from invisible, but don’t take their words for it – the numbers speak for themselves.
In 2010, a study by Environics showed that 60% of Canadians are either somewhat or very familiar with Indigenous issues. This is nothing new. In fact, over the last two decades, at least half of Canadians were familiar with Indigenous issues. The majority of Canadians also believe that the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples are the result of the attitudes of non-Indigenous people and government policies. Since 1993, Canadians have ranked addressing the living conditions on reserve as one of the top priorities. There is absolutely no doubt that Canadians and their politicians know about the issues.
Idle No More, the largest social movement in Canada’s history, brought the issues of social conditions and unresolved treaties and land claims to the front of the media, government and world’s attention and held it there for nearly a year. But Indigenous peoples didn’t just capture the media headlines in 2012. There have been regular flash points over the last few decades that garnered a great deal of media attention including Listuguj, Oka, Gustafsen Lake, Ipperwash, Burnt Church, Elsipogtog, Caledonia and others. There are few in Canada who could claim that Indigenous peoples are invisible. They may not want to acknowledge the lethal results of this kind of racism, but they are aware it exists. After the Truth and Reconciliation Report, few can deny the racist underpinnings of Canada’s genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples.
So, no, racism is not a figment of our imaginations. The many tombstones from Indigenous peoples killed at the hands of priests, doctors, foster parents, police and bureaucrats prove otherwise. And, no, Indigenous peoples are not invisible. There isn’t a newspaper, news channel or magazine that hasn’t had pictures of dirty water, run down homes, or deceased Indigenous women as their lead story at some point. And finally, no, most Canadians are not unaware of our dire circumstances. It’s the racist segments of society that make a conscious choice to turn a blind eye to our suffering while running to the aid of their non-Indigenous neighbor.
There are many authors, media commentators and people in society who deny the racist views held by the countless individuals and institutions who have stolen, sterilized, experimented on, scalped, beaten, raped, murdered, and dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their identities, cultures, children, lands, resources and independence. In my opinion, denying the racism which instigates the high level of violence and suffering in First Nations, is itself an act of racism. It is far too convenient to be willfully blind or indifferent to the lethal impacts of racism on Indigenous peoples. Apologies are easy, as are empty diversity policies, and promises for a new relationship. The hard work is in making amends for the damage done and which continues to be done to Indigenous peoples by people and governments which still have racist ideologies and intentions.
Canada was built on the dispossession, oppression and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Addressing racism now means far more than apologies, photo-ops and fancy words – it means the return of our lands and resources, the recognition of our jurisdiction, and the full implementation of our rights. This means land, wealth, and power changes hands – it means an uncomfortable recognition that Canada benefits from our continued oppression. Justice will require some discomfort. If it isn’t uncomfortable, it isn’t justice.
This isn’t a multi-cultural issue or one of diversity – we are not asking for “equality”, we are demanding justice. If we are going to move forward, we can’t hide behind the convenience of the status quo. We have to be brave enough to shine a light on the problem and work together to address is. Indigenous peoples have many allies in Canadian society – not everyone is racist. Unfortunately, many still hold racist views which threaten our lives.
I think we can all do better than pretend the problem of racism against Indigenous peoples doesn’t exist. While the new theme may be reconciliation, reconciliation is not a process in an of itself – it starts first with the truth. If Canada cannot admit it has a racism problem, then we can never take steps to address it. Let’s continue the conversation in an open and honest way. Racism does exist in Canada.
These comments that Mr. Martin said upset me. I’ve had to think about why they upset me so much, because it’s not like I haven’t heard them made many times from many different people. I don’t react to the vast majority of these comments. I know these comments originate from people who are in different places and in different contexts. I believe most people are good people at heart. Most of us love our families and communities and we want to see a brighter future for everyone. So, in fairness to Mr. Martin, perhaps in making those comments, he meant to show faith in Canadian citizens that once they know about Indigenous struggles they will act. His recent interviews seem to suggest that since leaving office, he wants to advocate on their behalf. He recently denounced former Prime Minister Chretien’s comments who suggested that First Nations should leave reserves; he has advocated for improved First Nation education and set up a foundation for that purpose; and he consistently called the chronic underfunding of First Nations social programs discriminatory. My blog was less about him – as a person – and more about the comments in general.
I also know that we are in the business of social justice to gain support for our cause. I have been advised by lots of people who have heard me speak that I should tone down my words, be careful not to come on too strong, and to focus on encouraging allies and not make enemies. As a Mi’kmaw person, I am honour-bound to live up to the treaty commitments of my ancestors who promised to live in peace with the settlers. My Dad fought in WWII alongside Canadians to ensure our treaty commitments were kept. He did his despite everything that has been done to us. So, I understand the importance of maintaining allies. I have strong opinions and I share them not to hurt anyone, but to advocate as strenuously as possible for our people, because our lives depend on it. I feel a grave sense of urgency to not lose another generation of babies. I don’t want to see our languages die. I don’t want our lands to become so contaminated we can’t use them for our ceremonies. I have to be honest and say the truth as I see it. I’ve been in ceremonies where elders told me I have no choice but to speak the truth – regardless of the backlash. I have to be honest. Sugar-coating the situation only makes it worse. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable and sometimes its painful – but its from the truth that we can come up with solutions. Reconciliation requires we go through this painful part to finally heal and make amends.
It’s 2016 – there is no good reason to hold onto racist ideologies that allow the discrimination, violence, dispossession and oppression of our people to continue. It’s very frustrating to see our kids be forced into foster care, imprisoned, beaten by police, commit suicide or go murdered and missing every day. Every single day while governments ponder their budgets, edit speaking points and delay justice, another Indigenous man, woman or child suffers. what that politicians meet in wood-paneled offices with expensive meals while they talk about measured justice, first steps and plans for the future, our people still die. People I love still die. This is why I speak and write the way I do. To us, the issues are urgent. We can’t ever get our people back once we have lost them. We have to act now.
While the easy answer might be to blame a rogue cop, a psycho serial killer or the KKK, the reality is that there are large segments of Canadian society in positions of power that hold extremely racist views about Indigenous peoples. Harper’s last decade of power is a prime example of how rampant racism is and the impacts it has on First Nations. Racism is not an anomaly. Its not an exception. It’s not about one bad apple – its widespread and it’s killing my people. Most of my friends and colleagues that work, study or volunteer in social justice causes hate answering the phone late at night. We know that it means another Indigenous person has committed suicide, died, been arrested or had their children taken from them. We all dread these calls. Because even though the government may have shifted a priority or the media has left, we are always left with the lived realities of not just inter-generational trauma, but modern-day racist laws, policies and decisions which affect our lives.
I think this is why I reacted so strongly to Mr. Martin’s comments. Not because I think he is a racist or that all Canadians are racist. Mr. Martin has helped many individual First Nation people access education funds, he has supported them find employment, he has advocated strenuously in recent years for government to step up and act. On a personal level, he was supportive of my work at Ryerson University and even the work of many of us in the Idle No More movement. I think more people in positions of power should stand up and demand justice alongside our grassroots Canadians and Indigenous Nations.
I truly believe we cannot have reconciliation until we can be brave enough to hear the dark truth, challenge one another on our opinions and be critical of what isn’t working. This shouldn’t be taken personally, but social conflict is a necessary part of growth, change and improvement.
I apologize to anyone who thought I was saying that ALL Canadians are racist. I know that we have many good allies. In fact, Idle No More helped bring us all together. There has never been so much good will and cooperation between non-government organizations and community groups with Indigenous peoples. We have united to work jointly on child-welfare, anti-poverty, housing and homelessness, climate change and the environment, and human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Committee said last year that they never saw such a united force. I would like to believe that our collective efforts at social justice will make the changes we want to see in Canada.
I am sorry that this process won’t be easy, it won’t be speedy, and we won’t always feel like we are on the same side. I hope in the end, you understand why it’s necessary.