Since December of 2012, and the rise of Idle No More events, there have been numerous “teach-ins” throughout the country. Some of them focused on the theme of reconciliation, others provided necessary background to those unfamiliar with the causes of “indigenous discontent,” while others attempted to provide a possible vision for the future. Whether you agree with a focus on education versus a widespread series of actions, it is nonetheless clear that much work is needed to overcome some very pervasive and damaging stereotypes.
This year alone, we have seen some very telling opinions being given a public platform, all of which depict indigenous peoples in a…less than flattering light.
In January, the Morris Mirror ran an editorial by the community paper’s editor-in-chief Reed Turcotte, that likened us to terrorists and decried our “corruption and laziness.” Not to be outdone, 80-something Nanaimo resident Don Olsen submitted a letter to the editor in March, titled “Educate First Nations to become modern citizens,” detailing our supposed total lack of achievements and inability to survive in a modern world. The Calgary Herald rounded out this vituperative triumvirate with another letter to the editor by Martin Miller of Okotoks called “Equal partners,” which demands that we stop oppressing the brow-beaten taxpayer with our endless demands.
The Morris Mirror experienced significant backlash and despite its claims to “represent the views of the local community,” local residents were quick to voice their disgust with the views expressed. Some businesses withdrew their ads from the publication in response.
The Nanaimo Daily also experienced negative publicity and lost ad revenue for its choice to publish Olsen’s letter. Unlike the Morris Mirror, the Nanaimo Daily offered a full apology and withdrew the article. By then, a number of people had published rebuttals to the letter, including a very detailed one by Danica Denomme. In contrast, the Calgary Herald has not apologized or withdrawn Miller’s opinion piece.
In April, a B.C. NDP candidate resigned after some of her online comments about First Nations peoples came to light.
It didn’t stop there, of course. In July, a Calgary Herald journalist Karin Klassen wrote an article which in essence, defends the 60s Scoop and suggests that First Nations people are culturally unfit to parent. This opinion piece was not offered by a random citizen, but was delivered by a seasoned, paid journalist. In her article, she ignores all of the research on the subject in favour of a knee-jerk personal reaction supported by nothing more than her anecdotal experiences. At its very best, the article is an example of a gross lack of professionalism.
The fact that people are able to outright dismiss literally centuries of oppression as though this could have no possible impact on events today, never ceases to astound me. How is this even possible? Clearly the first step, as exemplified by Klassen, is to claim that good intentions negate oppression. Another tactic is to say, “those were different times.” This approach was taken by the son of a scientist behind nutritional experiments on First Nations children, who wrote to the media to justify the program.
When dealing with these kinds of opinions, one tends to have to weigh the pros and cons of ignoring them, or providing an often emotionally exhausting rebuttal. Native peoples and our allies are often faced with putting in extreme effort to refute and educate, but it can feel like we are making little progress.
The myth of progress
That feeling is unfortunately supported by extensive research. Anderson and Robertson’s “Seeing Red: A history of natives in Canadian newspapers” provides exhausting evidence of how little the narrative has changed in the media since 1869. In fact, Anderson and Robertson assert in their introduction that, “with respect to Aboriginal peoples, the colonial imaginary has thrived, even dominated, and continues to do so in mainstream English-language newspapers.” The imaginary to which they refer, is the way in which Canada has created an image of itself, based not so much on historical fact as on ideological interpretation. In doing so, Canada has necessarily had to rely upon an imaginary of indigenous peoples which, as expressed recently by Turcotte, Olsen and Miller, portrays us as pretty much useless.
How is it that so little progress has been made to overcome this narrative in 144 years? Certainly the colonial myths which continue to dominate media discourse have existed for much longer than this. Nonetheless one would hope that nearly a century and a half of technological and social development would see a corresponding shift in mainstream attitudes. Instead, we literally see the same arguments being made year after year after year.
Of course, the idea that Canadian society is evolving and progressing is an important part of the colonial imaginary. When Canadians consider the injustices faced by indigenous peoples, those injustices are nearly always located in the past. The irony of course is that every generation has located such injustice in the past, and only rarely in contemporary contexts. Were this actually true, no injustice could have possibly occurred ever, much less could be understood to continue today!
Canadians who do recognise historical injustice seem to understand it in this way:
1. Bad things happened.
2. Bad things stopped happening and equality was achieved.
3. The low social and political status held by indigenous peoples is now wholly based on the choice to be corrupt, lazy, inefficient, and unsuited to the modern world.
In other words, there is no history of colonialism and systemic racism that informs the modern view of indigenous peoples, because that problem was solved at some point in the past. The real racism is in conflating legitimate dislike for indigenous peoples (based not on race or ethnicity but rather on the bad choices we make) with historic colonialism/racism which is over. In continuing to discuss colonialism and racism as a present-day concern, we are engaging in reverse racism and oppressing blameless settlers.
Canada is hardly unique in this ahistorical approach. In the United States, slavery is also located in the distant past, and the belief that full equality was achieved at some nebulous but definite point is widely accepted (at least by Whites) as true. Thus anti-black sentiment is based not on race but on true generalizations of all the bad choices black people have made since they became equal. Even suggesting this view is untrue raises hackles.
Flip the narrative
The fact is, what we all learn about Canadian history is wrong. Every single one of us, native and non-native alike, have been fed a series of lies, half-truths and fantasies intended to create a cohesive national identity. What is most startling about this, is that a great many people are aware of the errors and omissions present in our system of education and in our public discourse, and yet somehow there has not yet been a national attempt to rectify this.
That is not to say no effort has been made. The inclusion of events into the mainstream consciousness that I only heard rumours about when I was in school, has been incredibly important. Acknowledging Japanese internment, the Chinese Head Tax, Residential Schools and a host of other less-than-inspiring events and policies has certainly taken us beyond the kind of starry-eyed propaganda served up for a long time in this country.
Nonetheless, integral to colonial narrative is belief in the superiority of European contributions and the absence of any truly important contribution from non-European peoples to Canadian society, except when narrowly defined within examples of successful integration and “up by their bootstraps” stories. After all, if non-European and indigenous contributions were of any real value, wouldn’t we see them everywhere? Instead, all that is good and modern originated in Europe!
Not everyone states this as baldly as Mr. Olsen et al. but the sentiment is nonetheless widely shared. Which is incredibly sad, because Canada will not crumble and fall apart if we become more honest and aware of the history of these lands and the incredible diversity of contributions by peoples from all over the world.
The violence of national myths
A more accurate and less self-serving history, a more honest reality, is ours. It is our birthright, whether we have been in these lands for thousands of years, or arrived yesterday. We are all being denied a real identity, based on more than colonial myths intended to create a national identity out of thin air.
It is not only indigenous peoples who want to reclaim that birthright. There are millions of people living in this country who are trying to come to grips with their own personal histories, which more often than not, fail to accord with the official narrative. Unwed mothers who were pressured into giving up their babies for adoption, finding out that many of these babies were killed and buried instead. Black orphans who were horrifically abused by those who were supposed to protect them. Italians in Canada put into internment camps during WWII, and so very many more who have had to struggle to have their stories heard and believed.
These are all horrific stories, and they are only the tip of the iceberg, because most of us have heard only a fraction of them. The violence that national myths commit, is to delegitimize the very real pain that is the legacy of abuse and oppression. When these stories begin to surface, they are often treated as conspiracy theories. Even when incontrovertible proof is discovered, and the information becomes freely available, the overarching Canadian narrative obscures and confuses, splitting these events up into disparate and unconnected “unfortunate incidents.” Most Canadians will learn only a few of these stories, and will be unable to connect them to a wider history of colonialism. This means that nothing can change, as is made so clear in the book Seeing Red, and exemplified in articles like Klassen’s. How can we possibly learn from the past when this country is so invested in whitewashing it?
We all need to work on reclaiming our histories, but this cannot be an individual exercise, it absolutely must be a national one. We must share our histories and learn the histories of others, and our curriculum and media must reflect our evolving understandings.
Right now, indigenous peoples are trying very hard to share our histories. Whether this will create a new chapter in Anderson and Robertson’s research is going to depend on whether or not Canadians are finally willing to listen.