It seems to be happening everywhere. Whether in anonymous attacks on Twitter and in website comments, in semi-public forums like Facebook, or in signed letters and columns in mainstream newspapers, public expressions of anti-Aboriginal racism are appearing on a more regular basis. It’s gotten so bad that most people think carefully before subjecting themselves to the comments section of any news about First Nations issues.
In a widely circulated post on her blog âpihtawikosisân, Montreal Métis educator Chelsea Vowel discussed and critiqued a list of ill-informed letters and columns published in various Canadian newspapers. They repeated old stereotypes about Indigenous people as lazy and corrupt, or claimed that Indigenous nations are unable to survive in “the modern world.”
Notable among these outlets is the Calgary Herald, which greeted the class-action lawsuit filed against the federal government in British Columbia over the ’60s Scoop with an outrageous piece by columnist Karen Klassen. She argued Native children were taken away from their families out of “love” and implied it was necessary because Aboriginal families were too uncivilized to care for their children properly.
Disturbing as these stories are, their apparent frequency now doesn’t necessarily mean racism against First Nations is growing, said Moose Cree lawyer and Fulbright Scholar Charlene Desrochers. It might simply mean that people are becoming more comfortable expressing racist ideas they’ve always held.
“I think with the onset of the internet, the racism is coming more to the forefront, and we’re seeing it more,” Desrochers said. “Whereas before it was more individual-focused – you know, you’re walking down the street in a small town and somebody calls you a savage. But with the internet, you see it everywhere. The internet has made it more accessible.”
Desrochers, who hails from Constance Lake First Nation and now practices law in Ottawa, is an active voice for Native rights on Twitter. She said she sees the growing wave of racism as systemic. Vowel, in her post, argued that this racism is largely the result of a version of Canadian history that erases First Nations and the atrocities committed against them. But Desrochers says it’s also the product of the federal government’s desire for land and resources.
“In order to get at the resources and the land,” she said, “you have to oppress the people who own it, Indigenous people. If you’re going to oppress the people, how do you do it? Through racism and assimilation. The main racist piece is the Indian Act, which is designed to kill the Indian. How do you kill the Indian? You legislate their lives, and then you allow the media and people to be racist.”
The aggressive anti-Aboriginal attitude appearing on social media commentary and in newspapers is simply an expression of the country’s underlying colonial design, Desrochers argued.
“If your government is founded on racist principles, the racism is going to be allowed to flow. And if the government’s not going to take responsibility for that racism, it’s going to continue.”
Governmental contempt for Indigenous culture is reflected in the media, she said, and absorbed by the populace. “Colonizers are just developing new tools of oppression as time goes by. So the federal government right now is not saying outright that we’re useless and dysfunctional, but they’re allowing the media to do it.”
At the heart of Desrochers’ criticisms is her belief that leadership has failed on all levels, from the band council to the provincial and federal levels.
“The Indian Act chiefs need to take their role in responsibility – yes, society is inflicting racism upon us, but our leaders are not defending us,” she said. “I’m not saying all chiefs are corrupt – far from it. But the only way to combat racism is for the federal government, the provincial government, and the Indian Act leaders to take responsibility for their actions. All three of them have a share of responsibility to combat racism. So treating Indigenous people better – if [leaders] start treating us better, mainstream society will treat us better as well.”
But Desrochers also supports substantial changes in education from Junior Kindergarten on up, as well as public anti-racism campaigns and commercials from all political parties. She underlines that forums like Twitter don’t encourage people to spend time reading, so she hopes that we will soon see short-form videos of the history of Indigenous cultures, colonization and racism that internet users can link to when they encounter racist discussions online.
“Everybody’s on the internet now and people don’t like to read four or five pages of blogs,” she said. “Many Indigenous people are educated, but even for the average Joe and Mary who aren’t, a 40-second, two-minute, five-minute clip on the history of Indigenous peoples can help them too.”
Cree Nation Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iserhoff recognized the heightened visibility of anti-Aboriginal racism.
“[It’s been happening more] ever since Idle No More,” he said. “When you make some kind of a statement, or are against something and ruffle some feathers – nobody likes change. Of course you’ll get a lot of backlash, criticism and accusations. That’s what First Nations, especially the youth, are facing.”
Iserhoff related the challenge of racism to the recent movie The Butler, about a character that is a first-hand witness to many events of the black civil rights struggle in the United States. The movie, he pointed out, could just as easily have been about Aboriginal struggles.
Like African-Americans in the US, Aboriginal people “were spat on and killed. There was a similarity in that movie that I was totally drawn to. I got the sense that a story has to be told from our perspective, the Native First Nations. We’ve gone through the same thing, through the course of the genocide that happened in the past. And there’s a Black History Month, but I wish there was an Aboriginal Month.”
But with characteristic optimism, Iserhoff said he thinks things are better now than they were in the past, even when it comes to fighting racism. Young people most frequently encounter racism, he said, when they’re studying or working in the south, surrounded by white people.
“They’ll get some racial slurs, but it’s nothing they can’t handle,” he said. “The Cree are very different in how they handle things. It goes to show the power of our leadership as well.”
Iserhoff said Cree youth, like young people in other nations, are growing in education at the same time as they’re growing in number, and are technologically engaged – a claim that the success of the Twitter-born Idle No More movement supports.
“They know how to use media,” he said, “and they know how to change the situation when it’s getting worse. They keep looking ahead, never losing their vision. More and more Aboriginal people, because of their education, they know what’s right and wrong and they’re adamant in standing up on that issue. Nowadays, the generation is changing. Ours says, ‘Don’t mess with us. If you do, we know the judicial system.’”
Iserhoff cautioned young people who encounter racism to maintain their dignity. “For my part,” he said, “I tell young people, don’t ever go as low as anybody that treats you like garbage. Don’t stoop to their level.”
There’s an important distinction between criticism and injustice, Iserhoff said, and when it comes to criticism – particularly of the abusive sort – his advice was to leave it alone.
“Don’t ever answer your critics. Keep your eyes on the prize as a human being with much potential. I used to be called ‘kawish’ (‘dirty Indian’), back in the ’80s, but I knew who I was. So I didn’t bother to even answer them or call them names. I learned to be silent, and I tell young people that. Learn to be silent with your critics. But if you do see injustice, speak out.”
Desrochers takes racist slurs more seriously, though, and said it takes strength whether she encounters a racist person on the internet or a racist judge in a courtroom where she’s trying a case. Her response is prayer.
“I’m a spiritual person,” she said. “I go to church. I do a lot of praying, and I find that really helps.”
Spirituality is both a tool for healing and a gesture of resistance to colonization, she said, noting that the residential school system deliberately destroyed Aboriginal spiritual traditions.
“In terms of other people who don’t go to church, that’s where they need to look at their spiritual life,” Desrochers said. “It’s up to the individual what type of faith they want to practice, but it’s your spiritual life that’s going to get you through the physical and emotional abuses, like racism, that are afflicted upon us on a daily basis. They attack your spirituality and tell you you’re worthless. So I pray. You have to have faith in something, to get you through all these abuses.”