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First Nations Won't 'Get Over' Your Ignorance

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Since December of 2012 and the rise of Idle No More events, there have been numerous teach-ins throughout the country. Some focused on reconciliation, some provided background to those unfamiliar with the causes of indigenous discontent and others attempted to provide a possible vision for the future.

Unfortunately much work still needs to be done to overcome pervasive and damaging stereotypes. We have witnessed very negative views bubbling up in the media this year, and one might be tempted to shrug this off as a reaction to Idle No More. However, research into media portrayals of indigenous peoples since 1869 confirm that Canadian ignorance of indigenous peoples has not changed much in all that time. Pundits, politicians, journalists and citizens tell us to "get over it", without having even a basic understanding of what "it" is.

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, Alta., called "Equal partners" which demands that we stop oppressing the brow-beaten taxpayer with our endless demands.

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, 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.

All of these published opinions have something important in common. Every single one of them completely dismisses the role of historical and contemporary colonialism and assumes that indigenous peoples have attained complete equality with other Canadians. They all suggest a similar solution to current problems: more control over lazy, corrupt, primitive First Nations.

Anderson and Robertson's "Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers" provides exhausting evidence of how little this 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 image of indigenous peoples which, as expressed recently by Turcotte, Olsen, Miller, and Klassen portrays us as pretty much useless.

How is it that so little progress has been made to overcome this narrative in 144 years? 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 Canadian 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. (Though I've yet to see someone identify exactly when this happened.)
  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 this view, 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.

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.

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 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.

A longer version of this article was published on the author's blog, âpihtawikosisân.

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