From September 18-21, 2013, the 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' (TRC) is holding an event in British Columbia as part of its Canada-wide effort "to promote awareness and public education about the Residential School system and its impacts". Simultaneously a fairly new organization named 'Reconciliation Canada' is organizing some events of its own to coincide with TRC's event in BC. These events include a "Reconciliation Walk" and an "All Nations Canoe Gathering".
Being an ally is hard, but never as hard as being a person who needs allies.
I've been on both sides, so to speak. As a gay man, I've been grateful to allies. As a non-Indigenous person, I've tried to be a good ally to Indigenous people.
I've dealt with straight friends who fall silent when homophobia is spouted, offering: "It's not my battle." This is sort of true. I don't want people necessarily fighting my battles for me, but I want them to stand beside me. However, speaking up for me is not fighting my battle; it's showing me that I'm supported. Supportive allies can help empower LGBTQ people, but trying to lead the battle is not empowering. It implies that we can't stand up for ourselves. It's a fine line.
Like I said, being an ally is hard.
Earlier this week, Ian Campeau of the band A Tribe Called Red made headlines when he argued that the Nepean Redskins, a youth football league in Ottawa, should change their name because "redskin" is a slur used against First Nations people. Predictably, non-Native people flocked to the internet comment threads to voice their objections to his opinion. Below, a summary of these knee-jerk responses that are always trotted out by the masses when indigenous Canadians describe their experiences of racism, and why you should not use them.
1. Don't bring up your own experiences of discrimination.
As our convoy of trucks stopped on the gravel road a little boy, not more than four years old, leapt from the box of one of the pick-up trucks. His bare feet hit the ground and he scrambled up into the forest. His hair hung half way down his back in a single braid. The moment he reached the tree line he began to pick wild berries and shove them into his mouth. As a father of a young boy, a brief moment of panic fluttered over me -- what is he eating? Nobody stopped to check; even at this age he knew exactly what was safe to eat and what was not. Blueberries were in season. They were sweet and plentiful.
While riding the elevator together, our Canada Post mail carrier peered over my shoulder at the front page of my newspaper. Pointing to the article on Aboriginal children being starved in government research experiments, in a strong Eastern European accent he exclaimed, "Shameful! Just like what the Nazis and then the Soviets did to us. And here in Canada we let them get away with it?"
Anishinaabe culture, like many other Indigenous cultures, holds children in the highest regard. We recognize that children see and experience the world differently than adults and we honour these experiences. We cherish children because they are gifts from the spirit world, and many of us believe that children carry important teachings for adults, if adults are paying attention.
"When I came into the North West in July, the first of July 1884, I found the Indians suffering. I found the half-breeds [Métis] eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day. Although a half breed, and having no pretension to help the whites, I also paid attention to them. I saw they were deprived of responsible government, I saw that they were deprived of their public liberties..." - From Louis Riel's final statement to his staged trial in Regina, July 31, 1885.
Aside from an interesting story about silver mining on Indigenous territory and some fun train-chase scenes, there is very little redeeming about Disney's new summer blockbuster The Lone Ranger. Although many critics have focused on Johnny Depp's racist portrayal of Tonto as the Lone Ranger's Indigenous side-kick, Depp's strange, Jack Sparrow-esque depiction of Tonto is just one troubling aspect of a film that, on the whole, perpetuates the ongoing legacy of colonialism and rationalizes capitalism as commonsensical.
Last week, accompanied by some dozen other Quebecois activists, I visited Fort McMurray, Alberta. This city, the global nerve centre of tar sands production, is a city like no other. What I saw and heard there moved me deeply, and the tragedy of Lac Megantic has only served to reinforce those feelings. I will be back.