Q is for Questions: The violence of disbelief

Image via: City of Moose Jaw

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Saskatchewan’s annual Festival of Words. From July 13-16, Moose Jaw was the gathering place for some of Canada’s most prominent literary talent as well as audience members from across Canada. Yann Martel, Rosanna Deerchild, Harold Johnson, Marina Endicott, Waub Rice, Dawn Dumont and many more spent the past week in our “Friendly City”. The Festival made a point of inviting a wide diversity of literary talent to the stage. There were many Indigenous voices, sexually diverse authors and artists of all ages. Over and over again, both the audience and the authors praised the inclusive and diverse line-up of this year’s festival. Waub Rice called the Festival of Words “one of the best” (2017) literary festivals he has ever attended.

Image via: Waubgeshig Rice

One of the themes that became woven throughout the festival was racism. In every session I attended,  author after author described experiences with institutional and personal racism. But instead of feeling hopeless, these readings and discussions felt hopeful. The problem of racism was being named and described. Now it was time for us to deal with it. And just such an opportunity arose on Saturday afternoon. Cree author, Dawn Dumont, posted the following on Twitter at noon on Saturday:

“As I’m on stage talking about my books and racism, my mum and son were refused service in a local restaurant. /1 @FestivalofWords”,

“A man spoke up for them but my mum left. How do you eat after that? /2“,

“My mom says ‘don’t tell anyone.’ I know how she feels. Racism can make you feel guilty when all you wanted was toast & tea./3

Many Indigenous writers wrote messages of support for Dawn on Twitter including Richard Van Camp, Tracey Lindberg and Chelsea Vowel. However, a large portion of the Twitter comments regarding this incident at the restaurant were negative, with many people refusing to believe what Dawn had reported. This conversation about the restaurant was then transferred to a closed Facebook group, “Got Beef Moose Jaw Sk” where the comments turned nasty. Within half an hour, dozens of comments, mostly vitriolic, were posted before the group manager deleted the entire conversation. The next day a similar conversation popped up on another closed Facebook group, this time “MJ Talks!”.

Most commentators refused to believe that racism occurred at a restaurant in Moose Jaw. They insisted on being provided with more details. Dawn’s report of racism was met with angry question after angry question. The demand for more information was made, over and over again. When the name of the restaurant was not provided, the consensus was that Dawn was lying. One commentator even went so far as to propose that this was all a publicity stunt to increase Dawn’s book sales. However, Andray Domise suggests that this is precisely how racism works in Canada. “White folks lose it when we shatter the politeness myth by [] speaking up about our lived experiences” (July 17, 2017).

Another commentator on Twitter, Jimmy McSavage wrote to Dawn: “You need to provide an accounting of what happen [sic] before accusing…who, everyone? …. of racism. Specifics.” (July 16, 2017). Cree author Tracey Lindberg replied that in fact Dawn did not need to do any such thing. “Her experience of racism does not have to be reconstructed for others to get or believe” (July 17, 2017). Dawn Dumont is a widely respected author and columnist for both the StarPhoenix and the Leader-Post. Demanding that she provide proof of her lived experience, an endless accounting, is demeaning and unwarranted. She has given us no reason not to believe her… except for the fact that she is an Indigenous woman. Not believing Indigenous women is part of how we got to be a country with over one thousand Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. As this incident indicates, when Indigenous women report racism, they are met with skepticism and hostile denial, over and over again.

Dawn Dumont in conversation with Rosanna Deerchild

What Dawn’s tweets highlighted was the irony of being celebrated for speaking about racism at the Festival while her family was experiencing racism just a few blocks away. The painful truth is that once an Indigenous woman has overcome all the odds and achieved a successful career, a platform, a voice, she is still faced with constant criticism and the incessant need to prove herself. Still, Dawn did not trash Moose Jaw or the restaurant. A conversation with the restaurant in question has been started through the appropriate channels and the Festival of Words is working with Dawn to support her while she deals with this issue. Social media is not the place for sensitive anti-racism training. Nonetheless, the interrogation continued on-line with more and more angry questions being tweeted, even days later.

This insistence on the answering of questions is not only demeaning but also unlikely to be useful. For starters, additional details such as the name of the restaurant do not prove anything. There is no “smoking gun” to be found here.

Furthermore, if the restaurant were to be named on social media, two outcomes would be likely. First, those people who are fond of the restaurant would still refuse to believe an act of racism could have happened there. This would prompt even more angry questions: what time? what day? who were you with? what were you wearing? The questions and angry interrogation would never end.

Panel on the Future of the Arts with Jael Richardson, Rosanna Deerchild and Bruce Walsh. Moderated by Angie Abdou. Image via: @FestivalOfWords

Second, if Dawn had publicized the name of the restaurant, the business would have been trashed on social media. Many sympathetic commentators have already suggested a boycott of the restaurant. This is simply nonsensical. Punishing an entire business for the actions of one employee is not helpful. The mob mentality of vigilantism is not going to lead us to a better place.

Instead Jael Richardson, a Black author, suggested that the restaurant be given tickets to next year’s festival. “This is the very reason diverse books, festivals & discussions are so important” (July 16, 2017). Working to end racism isn’t about attacking either the victim or the aggressor, it’s about building understanding and education. It’s about building relationships.

When this restaurant incident was brought up at the Festival in a panel on Sunday, the predominantly White audience gasped. Meanwhile, the few non-White people in the room nodded their heads. The experience of racism is common for People of Colour and rarely if ever seen by White people. As long as we’re traveling in separate circles it will be difficult for us to understand the true nature of racism in Canada. Relationships matter.

It is painful to think that intolerance could happen here in Moose Jaw. Confronting the reality of racism is something many of us would rather not face. Sadly, the vociferous refusal to admit that an act of racism occurred in our “Friendly City” actually proves that the culture of racism is alive and well here. The fact that very few Moose Javians expressed support for Dawn or regret at what occurred, preferring instead to trash her credibility and question her experience, paints Moose Jaw in a very poor light indeed.

What is done cannot be undone. However, this incident has given Moose Jaw an opportunity. Both Dawn’s tweets as well as the vitriolic commentary afterwards prove that racism persists in Moose Jaw. Now it is up to Moose Jaw to figure out what to do next. We can start by hitting pause on all the angry questions and admitting that we have a problem, and that problem is racism.

Parts of this chapter were published as a joint letter to the editor in the Moose Jaw Times Herald on July 20, 2017.

References:

Domise, Andray (@AndrayDomise). “This is how racism works in Canada. White folks lose it when we shatter the politeness myth by to speaking up about our lived experiences.” 17 July 2017, 6:13 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/AndrayDomise/status/887088011892195328

Dumont, Dawn (@dawndumont). “As I’m on stage talking about my books and racism, my mum and son were refused service in a local restaurant. /1 @FestivalofWords” 15 July 2017, 12:12 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/dawndumont/status/886272285253836800

Dumont, Dawn (@dawndumont). “A man spoke up for them but my mum left. How do you eat after that? /2” 15 July 2017, 12:16 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/dawndumont/status/886273279110950912

Dumont, Dawn (@dawndumont). “My mom says “don’t tell anyone.” I know how she feels. Racism can make you feel guilty when all you wanted was toast & tea. /3″ 15 July 2017, 12:19 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/dawndumont/status/886273911947640832

Lindberg, Tracey. (@TraceyLindberg). “And. No. She doesn’t. Her experience of racism does not have to be reconstructed for others to get or believe. She chooses venue, voice, if.” 17 July 2017, 11:18 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/TraceyLindberg/status/886983574783709184

McSavage, Jimmy. (@JimmyMcSavage). “You need to provide an accounting of what happen before accusing … who, everyone? …. of racism. Specifics.” 16 July 2017, 11:38 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/JimmyMcSavage/status/886626212927418368

Rice, Waubgeshig (@waub). “I’ve been to quite a few literary festivals over the years and @FestivalofWords was one of the best. Chi-miigwech for having me!” 16 July 2017, 10:51 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/waub/status/886614355155877888

Richardson, Jael. (@JaelRichardson). “We need to make sure they get tix to next year’s festival. This is the very reason diverse books, festivals & discussions are so important.” 16 July 2017, 10:16 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/JaelRichardson/status/886605452741443584

S is for Shut Up and Do the Dishes: Advice for Allies

I was at an Anti-Racism conference in the Fall of 2016 when a White professor asked the Métis presenter, Chelsea Vowel, what role she thought “allies” should play in terms of reconciliation. Vowel made a bit of a joke about the term “allies” and then said something to the effect of “shut up and do the dishes”.

She might not have said “shut up”. But that was pretty much her point. Indigenous people do not need nor want White people to speak for them. White People need to be quiet; we need to listen.

And if we do actually want to help, don’t go for the glory, do the dishes.

Vowel has made similar points via Twitter recommending White allies stay “in their lane” (2016, April 18), “stay in their own canoe” (2014, August 12) and generally not centre themselves in the work. “But really you should do some dishes too” (2014, November 4).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And it’s harder than you might think to just shut up and do the dishes.

Justice Allan McEachern, 1984, Vancouver Sun

In 1984, the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en First Nations took the province of British Columbia to court to address their claims to land rights. Many chiefs and Knowledge Keepers spent years giving testimony, often in their own language which was then translated. They described their ada’ox or oral history in detail. In many places the case hinged on the ability of the trial judge to sit quietly and listen to these stories. At one point elder Mary Johnson, was telling her ada’ox and part of it included a song.

The judge, Chief Justice Allan McEachern, did not want the song to be sung in court. “To have witnesses singing songs in court is not the proper way to approach this problem… I just say, with respect, I’ve never heard it happen before, I never thought it necessary, and I don’t think it necessary now. It doesn’t seem to me she has to sing it.” (as cited in Pinder, 1991, p. 6).

So much talking… So little listening…

However, the lawyer argued that the song was part of the history, that the song itself invokes the history, that singing the song was crucial to the case. The judge replied: “I have a tin ear, Mr. Grant. It’s not going to do any good to sing to me” (as cited in Pinder, 1991, p. 6). In the end, the judge was right. It did not do any good to sing to him. The Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en lost the case (which they later won in federal court).

Chamberlin (2003) argued that this comment about having a tin ear was stupid of the judge to say, but that it was also correct. The judge did have a tin ear. He could not have heard the song even if he had been interested in it. Chamberlin argued that most of us assume that we know how to listen, that we could understand a song such as Mary’s if we wanted to. But this is not the case. “It is an assumption that understanding sophisticated oral traditions comes naturally to the sympathetic ear. It doesn’t. Just as we learn how to read, so we learn how to listen; and this learning does not come naturally” (p. 21). I’m not sure we do a very good job of learning how to listen. I know that my listening skills are poor. But ask me to speak…

And this is where we White people really get ourselves into trouble. We are so quick to speak and so slow to listen.

Gord Downie received the Order of Canada from Gov. Gen. David Johnson – Nevil Hunt/Metroland

On June 19, 2017, Gord Downie, a White musician, was appointed to the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall honouring leadership on Indigenous issues. The irony of one White man, the Governor General, honouring another White man, Gord Downie, at a ceremony for Indigenous leadership was not lost on many.

Thomas-Müller (2017) argued that Downie, in his new self-declared role as spokesman on Indigenous issues, is “drowning out” (par.5) the very communities he is trying to support. “Indigenous people do not need white interpreters for the world to understand our stories, our traditional knowledge or its value…allies must not take up space meant for our own front-line voices” (par.9-10).

Thomas-Müller argued that Indigenous peoples should be allowed to speak for themselves.

But Canadians seem to prefer White “experts” over Indigenous voices.

When the Governor General referred to Indigenous peoples as “immigrants” on June 17, 2017, the incident was analyzed on CBC by a panel of four White men. When members of the Canadian Navy disrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax on July 1, 2017, the incident was debated on CBC by a White supremacist and a White academic. We do the same in movies with plot lines about Indigenous issues centered around White men who “save” and then come to speak for Indigenous communities. Think Avatar (2009) and Dances with Wolves (1990). Indigenous peoples are consistently portrayed as lacking agency and needing others to speak and act for them. However, Thomas-Müller argues that any ally working on the issue of reconciliation “must always be pushing Indigenous voices toward the microphone instead of themselves” (par. 20).

For the past year, I have been volunteering with a local Indigenous organization, helping put on Blanket Exercises and organizing fundraisers. I have had “Shut up and do the dishes” in the back of my mind. But as simple as these instructions appear, they are actually difficult to adhere to. I am haunted by White Saviour paradigms.

Photo: Peace Corps/Facebook via takepart

The White Saviour is a common character in films, books and popular interpretations of history who rescues People of Colour from their oppression. This narrative consistently racializes morality, making goodness equal Whiteness. It also reinforces the idea that People of Colour lack agency, that they are unable to solve their own problems, requiring a White Saviour to swoop in and solve the problems for them.

As a teacher, the predominance of the White teacher Saviour trope is particularly problematic. Think Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007). These narratives portray racialized students as broken and their communities and families as dysfunctional, who only need one “nice white lady” to turn it all around. Mad TV has a spoof on these types of films, “Nice White Lady” (2008). As a nice, White lady myself, it’s hard not to semi-consciously live out these narratives. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?

Having been told all my life that I know what’s best for People of Colour, it is easy for me to talk over my non-White peers and centre myself in the work.

Image via curlykidz

Furthermore, I have an abundance of resources at my disposal. I have over a decade of formal education, access to computers, printers, furniture, vehicles and disposable income, not to mention the extensive network of contacts I have built within the community from years as a teacher. If something needs doing, it is often easy for me to do it. This can be useful for an organization. However, it places me in a position of power and leadership, precisely what I am trying to avoid. I am trying to just do the dishes. But does it really make sense to deny the organization my resources, as I sit in the back and quietly do manual labour? I know this is not an ‘either/or’ scenario but it does make for a tricky dance between helping and hindering, between advocacy and appropriation, between grunt-work and glory.

Last night I attended the final Unsettling Ideas book club in Regina. As I have been thinking about the limits of ally-ship, the words of Sheelah McLean, the only non-Indigenous panelist, were especially interesting to me. She detailed her childhood and ancestry, which happens to be very similar to mine. She spoke about the myths she was told as a child, the myths of meritocracy and Canada as an empty land, how she was told that her grandparents started from nothing. That they built everything from scratch with hard work and perseverance. How, the fact that they had been given free land was never mentioned.

This is my story too. But I wonder about ending the story there. Chelsea Vowel said something else to ‘allies’ at the Anti-Racism conference besides “shut up and do the dishes” she said to give back the land. She said jokingly/not-jokingly to give her the keys to the cottage. On Twitter, she made a similar point. “Cynical me. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery but holding on to your cottage, farm, or condo? Pretty meaningless, imo” (2016, December 5).

Without land redistribution, how much of our White settler “solidarity work” becomes a move to innocence, a façade behind which we maintain our own fiscal advantage?

As long as I continue to benefit from the unearned privileges of colonialism, I can never be on an equal footing with Indigenous activists. My activism will always be somewhat of a distraction from the real issues at play. And the real issues are land-based. Reserve lands make up only 0.2% of the Canadian land base. Arthur Manuel (2017) has argued that “you cannot improve child and family welfare and health services on Indian Reserves because you cannot generate any revenue from these depleted and minuscule 0.2% territories” (par. 2). With Indigenous peoples controlling only 0.2% of the land and settlers controlling the other 99.8%, “you don’t have to have a doctorate in economics to understand who will be poor and who will be rich” (Manuel, 2015, p.8). At what point do we as Canadians, and more specifically we White descendants of settler farmers, have to begin thinking about ways to give back the land?

Chief Francis Johnson Jr. thanks Kenneth Linde for land Photo: Monica Lamb-Yorski

In May 2017, an 86 year-old retired rancher, Kenneth Linde, gave back 130 hectares of farmland to the Esk’etemc First Nation. “When I bought the land… I paid for it. Every year since I bought the land, I’ve paid my taxes so I could continue to use it. But I’ve always, always known it’s your land. I would like to give it back to you” Linde told the B.C. First Nation. Esk’etemc Chief, Charlene Belleau, called Linde’s actions “reconciliation in its best form…He’s not just talking about reconciliation; he’s actually doing something about it” (as cited in ‘Reconciliation in its best form’: B.C. rancher gives land back to his First Nation neighbours).

So perhaps mulling over how best to “shut up and do the dishes” is beside the point. What I should really be thinking about is land.

References:

Chamberlin, J. E. (2004). If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto, Canada:Vintage Canada.

MAD tv. [Klaustrophobic]. (2007, July 12). Nice White Lady. [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVF-nirSq5s

Manuel, A. & Derrickson, R. M. (2015). Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-up Call. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.

Manuel, A. (2017, January 20). Art Manuel: What Are You Going to do About it? Red Rising Magazine. Retrieved from: http://redrisingmagazine.ca/what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it/

Pinder, L. H. (1991). The Carriers of No: After the Land Claims Trial. Vancouver, Canada: Lazara Press. Retrieved from: http://lazarapress.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/The-Carriers-of-No-After-the-Lands-Claims-Trial.pdf.pdf

‘Reconciliation in its best form’: B.C. rancher gives land back to his First Nation neighbours (2017, May 12), CBCradio: As It Happens. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.4112585/reconciliation-in-its-best-form-b-c-rancher-gives-land-back-to-his-first-nation-neighbours-1.4112589

Thomas-Müller, C. (2017, June 28). Gord Downie, when it comes to collective Indigenous resilience, let us speak for ourselves. CBCNews: Indigenous. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/gord-downie-let-us-speak-for-ourselves-1.4179478

Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “Hope when things start going down that non-Indigenous allies remember to stay in their own canoe on discussions of community accountability.” 12 August 2014, 3:47 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/499296036272480257

Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “But really you should do some dishes too.” 4 November 2014, 8:41 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/529825809109102592

Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “White allies staying in their lane do more for Indigenous ppl than ethnic frauds ever will.” 18 April 2016, 5:09 PM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/722185316652728320

Vowel, Chelsea (@apihtawikosisan). “Cynical me. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery but holding on to your cottage, farm, or condo? Pretty meaningless, imo” 5 December 2016, 8:20 AM. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/805778989918736385

P is for Plan

On Canada Day, I spent the afternoon in the park with our local Aboriginal association conducting a Blanket Exercise.

In a Blanket Exercise, participants take on the roles of Indigenous peoples in North America. Standing on blankets that represent the land, they walk through five hundred years of history. It can be a devastating hour as participants are hit with small pox, scalping laws, starvation, relocation, residential schools and more. At the end, what was once a full land covered in people has become a fragmented space that is sparsely populated. In the talking circle afterwards, tears are not uncommon. What is also not uncommon is requests for a plan. “Just tell me what to do.”

Ryan McMahon has also identified this as a missing component of the Blanket Exercise. “The Blanket Exercise is a good teaching tool however it leaves participants in a state of shock & the ending seems incomplete to me” (2017, May 31). “When will Kairos add a 2nd step to the exercise, replacing blankets while focusing on rebuilding & righting the wrongs identified in step 1?” (2017, May 31).

I’m not sure what replacing the blankets would look like and I’m probably not the right person to imagine that anyway. However, I think giving participants a plan to begin to right the wrongs identified in the Blanket Exercise is a great idea.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has provided Canadians with 94 Calls to Action to work towards reconciliation. The problem, I find, with these Calls to Action is that they are aimed and worded at government institutions. Not one of the Calls to Action explicitly says “Individual Canadians are called to…”. As it stands, most of the 94 Calls to Action begin with: “We call on federal, provincial and territorial governments…” As I, myself, am none of those governments, it is easy for me as an individual Canadian to feel like I personally am not being called to act. However, without much tweaking, these Calls to Action can address us as individuals as well. I propose that we hand out 10 Calls to Action for Individual Canadians at the end of a Blanket Exercise or as otherwise needed. I have also created a similar plan for addressing the TRC’s Calls to Action explicitly for teachers in the classroom.

References:

McMahon, Ryan (@RMComedy). “When will Kairos add a 2nd step to the exercise, replacing blankets while focusing on rebuilding & righting the wrongs identified in step 1?” 31 May 2017, 7:33 am. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/RMComedy/status/869894649070194689

McMahon, Ryan (@RMComedy). “The Blanket Exercise is a good teaching tool however it leaves participants in a state of shock & the ending seems incomplete to me.” 31 May 2017, 7:36 am. Tweet. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/RMComedy/status/869895356594753536

Truth and Reconciliation Canada. (2015). Calls to Action. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

LINK to PDF:so you did the blanket exercise

LINK to PDF: Teacher-So youve done a blanket exercise