An article in the local paper the Alberni Valley Times caught my eye Tuesday. The headline was “Canadians feel racism on the rise, survey finds.” The article goes on to talk about a survey that was conducted by the Association of Canadian Studies and Canadian Race Relations Foundation who interviewed about 1700 Canadians last September. 46% of Canadians feels racism is on the rise and 45% disagreed. Asked if they had witnessed a racist incident in the past years, 38% of them said yes.
Very Interesting. Are Canadians finally waking up to the fact that racism is alive and well in Canada? If they are this is a good thing because only when it is recognized can it be eradicated. That 646 of the 1700 people witnessed a racist incident is also very telling.
We as First Nations people have lived with racism all our lives. I remember way back when I was in Grade 4 being sent home with my other 3 siblings because they said we had lice. My mother took us immediately to the doctor who said we did not have lice. It was all the First Nations students that got sent home that day. Lice is a common occurrence in schools but when you did not have it and it was aimed at all First Nations people, you remember that and so do all the other students. So many other incidences I can recall throughout my life that I was treated negatively because I was First Nations. I remember when I went to law school being told by other law students that their friends were not in law school because ‘your kind’ took their place and only because of our special treatment as First Nations people. I remember my blood boiling at that because I had made it into law school on my own merits, not because I was First Nation, though I am sure it helped. But again, it was the attitude and the treatment that I remember with such clarity.
Racism can be as simple as being ignored or treated rudely in a store or a restaurant, being treated in a threatening manner by a police officer who has pulled you over for speeding or being labeled as “a drunk”, “lazy”, or of “no worth”. My children experienced it in school. They were told by their teachers that they were “dumb” or that they had little expectation for them to succeed because First Nations students do not excel. They were kicked out of a class because they dared to correct the teacher when they were providing wrong information on First Nations. When I was Chief and we were trying to build an interpretive centre at the marina, a certain group of citizens chose to oppose our project and had a protest rally. Many of their comments at that rally were racist in their content and it sickened me to be part of a community where people would say such things. If I had been there I would have confronted their attitudes. They maintained they were not opposing us because we were First Nations but their actions said otherwise.
On a larger scale, we see racism in many of the issues that are in the news frequently. Racism has played a role in the murdered and missing women and the non action by law enforcement. Racism played a role in the way Frank Paul was thrown out into an alley where he died several hours later. Racism was part of the Seattle police officer who shot a Nuu-chah-nulth carver, John Williams four times because he happened to have his carving knife with him, something he did for a living. And there are so many other cases that do not hit the headlines. I remember when I was practicing law I would tell my young First Nations clients, do not get thrown in jail because you may not be safe and if they hurt you, it will be your word against theirs and who do you think they will believe? It is a shame that I even had to be providing that kind of advice but I did. There are now video cameras in the cells and in the police cruisers, but that is still no guarantee that there will be mistreatment as we continue to see.
It is my belief that there are some people who will always be racist and that you will never change them. That does not make it right but as First Nations people we have to keep fighting against racism. We need to make racism public and educate people on how it exists and how it can change. We need to start early in day cares, pre-school and kindergartens and throughout the education process. Children may hear it in their homes, but they can be taught and influenced as to what is right and wrong. Systemic racism has to change as well. We need to change governments, institutions, and processes that have racism embedded in them. It does take huge issues like the missing and murdered women, Frank Paul, and John Williams to help change the justice systems. But wouldn’t it be more productive to not have to go through such long drawn out costly processes? If governments, institutions and corporate bodies recognize that changes must occur and then make those changes would we not be better off? Surely in this day and age such things are possible. We are always learning from mistakes, finding innovative ways to deal with issues and moving forward why not on racism?
What will it take to get 100% of the Canadian public to recognize racism exists? Not only recognize it exists but to take but positive action that results in the abolition of racism. I can think of no better way to end this article then by quoting from a preambular paragraph from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which states:
…Affirming further that all doctrines, policies and practices based on
or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national
origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically
false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust…