04/11/2016 01:48 EDT | Updated 04/12/2017 05:12 EDT

'Dsquaw' Indicative Of Industry That Turns Prejudice Into Profit

Thus, the problem runs much deeper than the name they chose. Corporate profiteering routinely commandeers representations of Indigenous cultures for its commercial objectives. This includes well-known brands such as Ralph Lauren and Victoria's Secret, to name two recent examples.

Models wear creations for DSquared2 women's Fall-Winter 2015-2016 collection, part of the Milan Fashion Week, unveiled in Milan, Italy, Monday, March 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

On February 24, two weeks after Dean and Dan Caten, co-founders of Dsquared2, signed on with the Hudson's Bay Company to design Team Canada's outfits for the Olympics in Rio, the brothers issued an "open apology" to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.

What exactly were Dean and Dan Caten apologizing for?

A close reading of their letter shows that they were expressing regret for their "mistaken" use of a derogatory name for their fall/winter 2015 fashion line called Dsquaw. They said their intentions were in good faith and that they now knew that "squaw" was an inappropriate way to pay homage to the beauty and strength of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.

But in apologizing for their use of the word "squaw," Dsquared2 limited the definition of their wrongdoing and thus limited their responsibility for acknowledging what is really at stake: profiting from systemic inequality rooted in racism.

Thus, the problem runs much deeper than the name they chose.

Corporate profiteering routinely commandeers representations of Indigenous cultures for its commercial objectives. This includes well-known brands such as Ralph Lauren and Victoria's Secret, to name two recent examples.

Was Dsquaw really an honest mistake?

In light of fashionistas' growing tendency to exploit Indigenous peoples through the use of stereotyped cultural imagery, and the mounting counterblast from observers demanding apologies and sometimes taking legal action, it's hard to believe Dsquared2's flimsy claim that they didn't know better.

The word "squaw" and the ideas and understandings it evokes -- of loose and licentious women who live in squalor and are best suited for blue-collar work -- helped to justify policies that were aimed at destroying Indigenous cultures worldwide.

The term has been used to attack their child-rearing practices (and thus vindicate the residential school system and the sixties scoop), their sexuality (thus helping to explain the lack of concern for missing and murdered Indigenous women) and their labour (which serves to devalue their place in the workforce). These are more than words because they are attached to ideas, institutions, and practices that reinforce violence against Indigenous peoples.

Dsquared2 isn't alone in this particular mess. The Bay has a long history of exploiting Indigenous cultures for commercial benefit. The Bay struck a deal with members of the Cowichan Tribes in advance of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games after stealing and mass-producing their famous "Cowichan sweater" design. Members of the tribe had planned to protest the torch relay, forcing the Bay to come to an agreement with them about how to reconcile the problem.

As for Rio 2016, the Bay and Dsquared2 had been negotiating their partnership even before Dsquared2 released its Dsquaw line in early 2015. Dsquared2 only apologized for its "mistake" a full year after releasing Dsquaw, and nearly two weeks after the Bay announced their partnership.

Why did the Bay move ahead with the offenders, Dsquared2? Clearly the Bay is more concerned with Canadian Olympians feeling "strong and confident" in Rio and thus put more stock in Dsquared2's brand than they are in fostering respectful relations with Indigenous peoples.

And our Olympians, including Indigenous Olympians, are now being exposed to this exploitation by virtue of having to wear this clothing. Canadian athletes, no matter what their cultural identity, shouldn't have to compete and be quiet in an inequitable set of conditions they can't avoid.

Then again, there might not be any Indigenous athletes representing Canada in Rio.

Only four Indigenous athletes have competed for Canada at the summer Olympics since the Second World War: Mary Spencer (2012), Waneek Horn-Miller (2000), Angela Chalmers (1988, 1992) and Alwyn Morris (1984). It's easy to silence an entire community when none of its members are in attendance.

The Bay is a Premier National Partner of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committee. It reportedly paid more than $100 million dollars for its 2006-2012 sponsorship contract. It likely paid more to secure its 2014-2020 deal.

The COC derives a lot of money from its control of that exclusive partnership club. In 2014, the Bay's Foundation donated $4.5 million to Canadian athletes. How much of that money was used to support Indigenous sport? It's hard to say because the Bay doesn't share this degree of information with the public. But it's probably not much, if anything at all.

In 2005, the federal government released Sport Canada's Policy on Aboriginal Peoples' Participation in Sport, suggesting Indigenous sport in Canada would get a much-needed boost of financial support. Except the policy was never legislated, so there was no action plan (or new money) attached to it.

Thus, organizers for the North American Indigenous Games, the cornerstone to Indigenous sport development in Canada, still have to scrounge for dollars each time they want to host an event. Even the Tom Longboat Awards, one of the most prestigious awards for Indigenous athletes in Canada, limp along without corporate backing.

Meanwhile, the COC is spending more than $10 million dollars on its new headquarters in Montreal so that it can receive high-end sponsors like the Bay and Dsquared2 in an environment that befits their status.

It's all take and no give.

How should Canadians respond? Well, Dsquared2's apology was worded in such a way that made it clear there is no need for a response. The letter presumes unquestioning acceptance of their apology, without the need for dialogue.

For instance, it's addressed to "the Indigenous Peoples of Canada." Who is authorized to respond to that vague and homogenizing reference? The Caten brothers also suggest their blunder was a positive thing in that it "brought attention to this issue" (which issue is that, exactly?) and that they are now in a position to "learn together" about Canada's history and will continue on their learning "journey" about Canada's cultural diversity, the "DNA" of their brand.

This was not an apology, but rather a brush off, and not a particularly well-crafted one, at that.

Ultimately, in a colonial context like Canada, non-Indigenous organizations such as the Bay and even the Canadian Olympic Committee can choose when and how they engage in relationships with Indigenous peoples. Given their continued relationship with Dsquared2, they have made their choice.

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Photo gallery Dsquared2's "DSquaw" Collection See Gallery