Guest View: On racism in Canada

Skeetchestn Indian Band Chief Ronald Ignace writes about the need for systemic strategic approach to rid Canada of racism.

When I was about five or six years old, we used to only go to Chinese restaurants in Kamloops with my great-grandparents, who raised me, because they knew they would not be allowed in white-run restaurants in the city.

In the late 1950s, when I was older and was allowed to be on my own while in Kamloops, I once entered a restaurant run by white people. I was refused service. Humiliated, embarrassed and ashamed, I had to go back to the Chinese-run Silver Grill in order to get served.

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My elders, relatives, Secwépemc and other Indigenous people in Canada and elsewhere share these memories, often involving being subject to verbal and physical acts of aggression or, at best, refusals of service and jobs, being stereotyped and addressed as “you Indians.”

In the last few years, finally, Canada is moving in the right direction in addressing a deep history and endemic structure of racism as it has affected Indigenous people in this country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission clearly recognized and addressed this issue in many of its calls to action. B.C. has recognized the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which lays out principles that address the racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Canada is planning to incorporate it into its laws.

As we, as Indigenous Peoples, are well aware, racism also deeply affects black people and other people of colour in Canada. Recently, in the wake of the demonstrations in the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that racism is not only an American issue, but is also a systemic issue in Canada.

Let us remind ourselves of the 1912 Komagata Maru issue involving a ship loaded with people from India who wished to immigrate to Canada. Canadian authorities refused to disembark them on clearly racist grounds and sent them back to India. Let’s not forget the Chinese head tax between 1885 and 1923 and the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War.

In relation to us as Indigenous Peoples, beginning with pre-emption (the right to purchase public land at a federally set minimum price) of the 1860s, our ancestors were prevented from preempting the lands we had stewarded and lived on for thousands of years. Instead, white settlers received the privilege of becoming fee simple owners of these our lands for mere pennies to “encourage” settlement at our cost.

In the Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, our chiefs concluded: “Governments have taken every advantage of our friendliness, weakness … to impose on us in every way. They treat us as subjects without any agreement to that effect and force their laws on us without our consent, and irrespective of whether they are good for us or not. … They claim “authority” over us. They have broken down our old laws and customs … by which we regulated ourselves. They brushed our laws and leaders aside. As well as imposing the Indian act with which they impost their will on Indigenous peoples against our will.”

Some two decades later, Canadian Poet Laureate Stephan Leacock succinctly reflected Canada’s view of Indigenous Peoples when he wrote: “We think of prehistoric North America as inhabited by the Indians, and have based on this a sort of recognition of ownership on their part. But this attitude is hardly warranted. The Indians were too few to count. Their use of the resources of the continent was scarcely more that that of crows and wolves, their development of it nothing.”

Racist attitudes denied our rightful existence, our valid way of life, even our very presence on the land where we had lived for 10,000 years.  

Blatant forms of racism continued throughout the many decades of the Indian Residential School system in Canada, where Indigenous children were sexually abused, beaten and killed and were humiliated and physically harmed for speaking their languages. I am a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School and experienced the culture of racism, the impacts of which all but destroyed our lives and the fabric of our communities. The history of the 1960s Scoop, not to mention the unfinished business of the murdered and missing women and girls, have alerted us to the genocide against our peoples.

Such expressions of racism did not die in the 20th century. The Wets’uwet’en blockade earlier this year, done while enacting their Indigenous laws against a pipeline and defending their unceded territory, led to military-style occupation of their homeland.

There has to be systemic strategic approach to rid Canada of racism, if that is possible. There is room for cautious optimism since Canada conceded that Indigenous Peoples have suffered genocide and Trudeau has recognized and stated that racism is a systemic problem. The first step is the admission that there is a pervasive problem, but the government must implement not only the spirit, but the intent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

To the Commission, reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour.

We are not there yet. The relationship between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal peoples is not a mutually respectful one. But we believe we can get there and we believe we can maintain it. Our ambition is to show how we can do that.

In 1996, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples urged Canadians to begin a national process of reconciliation that would have set the country on a bold new path, fundamentally changing the very foundations of Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. Much of what the Royal Commission had to say has been ignored by government; a majority of its recommendations were never implemented.

But to a degree, at least,  the report and its findings opened people’s eyes and changed the conversation about the reality for Aboriginal Peoples in this country.

This time around, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and the implementation of UNDRIP cannot simply change the conversation — Canada has to implement real change if we, as our chiefs in 1910 stated, wish to build a country that is great and good.

As our wise Judge Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted, it is a Canadian problem, not an Indigenous problem.

Ronald E. Ignace is Kukpi7 (chief) of the Skeetchestn Indian Band





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