Indigenous affairs were front and centre on the government’s agenda this week. Justin Trudeau devoted two-thirds of his UN speech yesterday to Canada’s failings on Indigenous relations, failings which he summarized as “humiliation, neglect, and abuse.” And on Monday, with Parliament’s resumption, he welcomed the heads of two new ministries to the front bench: the Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and the Ministry of Indigenous Services.
An open letter to Michael Enright and those who tell us how not to respond to racism.
℅ CBC Media Centre
PO Box 500 Station A
Toronto, ON M5W 1E6
28 September, 2017
Dear Mr. Enright,
In your recent appearance on the CANADALAND podcast, you referred to an article I wrote on Conrad Black as a “journalistic mugging,” saying that the proper response to Black’s false statements about First Nations people should have been to fact-check them. There are a lot of unspoken premises to that advice that I find deeply insulting.
It’s not just me who gets this advice. From the NFL to Jagmeet Singh, there is no shortage of people who have lately been lectured on how we should respond to racism, almost always from people who have no personal experience of it.
You went on one of Canada’s most popular podcasts to tell me why I’m wrong. Allow me a few minutes to explain why you, and those like you, were wrong to do that.
Some quick background for others who may be reading this letter. Conrad Black has published many articles, and at least one book, in which he describes First Nations people as violent, “Stone Age” primitives who were saved by Western Civilization, and he has concluded that rather than expressing grievances over our treatment, we ought to express gratitude. Black has presented as fact a host of easily disprovable claims about First Nations people, and has usually done so in articles that had nothing to do with history. My reply to his most recent iteration — an article berating First Nations people because a non-Native teachers’ union condemned the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald — was to show Conrad Black what his own legacy would be. Having recently (and for the second time) seen an obituary with my own name at the top, I can testify to the clarifying power of it.
Conrad Black has been found dead in his rented Toronto home. Due to a decade-long slide into relative penury, and the impending demise of his vanity project, the National Post, his death is of little importance to Canadians. However, it will be solemnly marked by two groups of people. The first group is Canada’s media, which, broken and cowed by Black in his prime, continued to give free rein to the embodiment of pomposity to make a fool of himself. The second group is Indigenous people — Inuit, First Nations, and Métis — who had been at the receiving end of his addled rantings for the last decade.
It is impossible for Canada’s media to ignore Black’s failures and his fall from a position at the edge of power. Even a fawning press cannot divorce the picture of Black in his Bay Street days, clad in a double-breasted suit, from the picture of Black as Florida inmate number 18330-424, shedding that suit to present his posterior for the search which is a mandatory component of prison induction.
In anticipation of a fall book tour for his new novel, Seven Matches, Joseph Boyden is back in the pages of Maclean’s magazine with an article restating his claim of First Nations ancestry, and anchoring that in the results of a DNA test.
Boyden’s ancestry first came into question late last year when I, along with APTN and a number of other Indigenous activists, questioned Boyden’s right to speak on our behalf. We looked at his shifting claims of ancestry — covered here on CANADALAND — and his misuse of basic First Nations concepts like being “two-spirit,” and we presented the questions to the public for them to decide.
Broadly speaking — though with many notable exceptions — Indigenous people on social media took the position that he was not Indigenous. And broadly speaking, non-Natives, especially those in the media, claimed that he was, and that we had no right as Indigenous people to determine who belonged to our communities.
No federal candidate raised First Nations expectations and hopes more than Justin Trudeau did in 2015. While other politicians had addressed our issues at leadership debates, or in parliament, Trudeau seemed to go out of his way to connect with Indigenous people and to make our issues central to his campaign. When Attawapiskat leader Teresa Spence was asking to meet Stephen Harper during her 2013 hunger strike over the housing crisis on her reserve, it was Trudeau who visited her. When he took the leadership of the Liberal Party later that year, he cited the Idle No More movement as inspiration.
His connection to Indigenous peoples appeared to go beyond symbolism. In an APTN town hall, he promised us a veto over resource development. To the Assembly of First Nations he promised a new nation-to-nation relationship. He promised to end the boil water advisories in five years. He promised to launch an inquiry into the 1,200-plus Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. He promised us equal funding for education. He also promised to implement all ninety-four recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Vancouver Stanley Park—a place known for its dense forests and primeval atmosphere—was, as recently as 150 years ago, home to Squamish villages. People lived there for thousands of years. On the eastern edge of the park, facing downtown, there is a little island known to the Squamish as “skwtsa7s.” Salish oral histories record that the island was the site of a siege, one that ended with a sacrifice described here by Pauline Johnson in her Legends of Vancouver:
Out before a long file of southern warriors they stood. Their chins uplifted, their eyes defiant, their breasts bared. Each leaned forward and laid his weapons at his feet, then stood erect, with empty hands, and laughed forth his challenge to death. A thousand arrows ripped the air, two hundred gallant northern throats flung forth a death cry exultant, triumphant as conquering kings—then two hundred fearless northern hearts ceased to beat.
At their recent conference, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion calling for a debate to be opened over the renaming of schools named after Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The motion states that this should be done “in recognition of his central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.”
Few Indigenous people would oppose this motion in principle – the consensus is that Sir John A. Macdonald’s name shouldn’t be on anything other than his tombstone. However, in our communities, few people are discussing this issue, nor do we see it as a priority when looking at decolonizing the public school system.
Ontario’s public schools makes frequent appearances in the Indigenous press. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen stories on the slow implementation of recommendations made by the inquiry investigating the death of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay; and we’ve seen the grieving family of Barbara Kentner, the First Nations victim in what I believe to be a racially motivated killing, forced to flee their homes because of threats made against their children at school.