When is it ok to be Racist?

By Jana-Rae Yerxa and Damien Lee

As we woke up yesterday morning, we read a piece on CBC News Thunder Bay about a complaint against Thunder Bay Police arising in the context of cross-cultural sensitivity training. The training was a part of the Walk a Mile Film Project, a partnership between the City of Thunder Bay and Thunderstone Pictures. In this training program which has become mandatory for City of Thunder Bay employees, race and Indigeneity are to be talked about as a means to promote understanding about Indigenous peoples for Canadians. However, as was clear in the news article, such a goal was allegedly undermined by the actions of a few cops.

Since Walk a Mile was “designed to encourage frank conversations in our community about the reality of life for [Indigenous] Peoples both here and across Canada,” we would like to add another layer of context that has been missing from the narrative up to this point.

While reading the article, it was clear to us that the complaint made against police was more than just about a “few bad apples.” Rather, it speaks to a system of power that upholds whiteness over Indigenous peoples, a symptom of colonial relations. No doubt it is a challenge to put together training that aims to address deep rooted issues like racism towards Indigenous Peoples. Miigwech to Thunderstone Pictures and the City of Thunder Bay for taking on such a challenging endeavor.

However, one of the main issues that does not get talked about enough in Thunder Bay is in identifying the approach taken when educating and creating space for such discussions. Approach matters because it determines what people walk away with and how conversations unfold. It is troubling when the approach taken, specifically in regards to race relations, is to educate white people about the “other” where the focus is on educating settler folks about an ‘Aboriginal experience,’ about ‘Aboriginal people’ and ‘Aboriginal history,’ instead of pointing the lens at settler colonialism and whiteness, both of which are root causes of the racial violence that Indigenous peoples experience. The approach of educating people who occupy dominant positions in this society about the “other” is harmful because it presents a guise of meaningful work, when the work needed — dismantling settler colonialism and ending settler colonial violence — is not actually being done.

With Walk a Mile in particular, the challenges are multiple from the beginning due to the partnership with the City of Thunder Bay. The issue of power must be highlighted here because of the structural power the City of Thunder Bay holds at the expense of Indigenous presence and how this power can be used and/or abused. By this, we mean that Walk a Mile is designed to speak to power – white power – in spaces where potentially those with the most power can make fun of Indigenous struggles without examining their own complicity with colonial violence. When this happens, it is not anti-colonialism or anti-racism, but a redeployment of violence through knowing the “other.”

Another important factor for us to consider when partnering cross culturally to address “race relations,” when structural power imbalances exist, are accountability measures. So in this instance, what accountability measures are in place, if any, to the Indigenous community? Accountability measures are crucial to ensuring that training, developed in partnership with Indigenous peoples, cannot be used as a ‘check mark’ by mainstream institutions. It would prevent the City from saying, “Look at what we are doing here to address racism,” when in reality the training may be not as successful as it is presented to be. It is also extremely problematic if Indigenous peoples are not the determiners of whether the training is achieving what it was intended to achieve.

In response to the Walk a Mile facilitator’s complaint, Thunder Bay city clerk John Hannam dismissed the alleged racism by stating police laughter during the training was “misinterpreted,” that it was part of a “side bar conversation,” and that the training “happened during a week when the attack on police in the United States and six or seven officers were murdered so there may have been some heightened sensitivity over that.” However, Hannam’s apologist response to these allegations is a part of the very problem we wish to shed light on. His response is a perfect example of what Sara Ahmed talks about in regards to evidence where racism is “denied because it is seen as a fault of perception…you perceive wrongly when you perceive wrong.” While the filmmaker behind Walk a Mile is calling for a public review of the city’s use of her work, it is also important to ask the question whether such a partnership with the City can be one that is accountable, anti-colonial or ethical considering the power relations we have spoken of here.

The complaint raised by the Walk a Mile facilitator has created an opportunity for us all to critically reflect how we contextualize significant matters, such as racism, that impact Indigenous humanity. In a city where the families of six dead Indigenous children called for police racism to be included in the scope of an inquest, and in a country where people are demanding police racism be analyzed as part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2 Spirit Inquiry, such allegations ask us to connect the dots: Indigenous peoples want the police investigated for anti-Indigenous racism. If anything, yesterday’s CBC story only demonstrates that such analysis is needed and leaves us with pondering the question, when is it okay to be racist?

Results of the “Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey”

In April 2016, it was announced that Fort William First Nation (FWFN) received a settlement offer from Canada regarding its Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement land claim. Worth approximately $99M, the land claim offer was made to settle a 1905 land expropriation that led to the removal of our community from the banks of the Kaministiquia River. This land taking is regarded as the largest expropriation for a railway in Canada.

Below, you will find the results of the member-led Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey. This survey was developed by FWFN community members to complement the FWFN band’s own survey, which many believe to be biased to produce a specific outcome. The member-led Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey is an alternative source of information that can help our community get a clearer picture of what we want to do with this land claim money.

Survey Results
The vast majority of survey respondents felt that a 100% per capita pay-out to FWFN members is in order.

In response to the question, What percentage of the total land claim amount available after legal fees would you prefer be paid to band members on a per-capita basis?, respondents noted the following:

Answer Choice Responses Per cent of Respondents
100% 56 80%
91-99% 10 14%
81-90% 4 6%
71-80% 0 0%
61-70% 0 0%
51-60% 0 0%
41-50% 0 0%
31-40% 0 0%
21-30% 0 0%
11-20% 0 0%
0-10% 0 0%
70 100%

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 9.28.37 AM

The member-led Grand Trunk Pacific Settlement Survey received 71 responses between July 1 – 25, 2016. All respondents except one provided their name for verification – the unnamed person’s survey responses are not included in the Survey Results. This survey was made available online through Survey Monkey, and was advertised within Fort William First Nation via various closed FWFN-specific Facebook groups. The survey was closed at 11:59 pm on July 25, 2016. Respondents were limited to one response per person. Respondents’ names are not shared in order to protect their privacy.

Getting over the Status Hangover: #LetJosiahPlay

I have been watching with excitement over the past few days the story of Josiah Wilson – a Heiltsuk man who has been refused entry into northern British Columbia’s All Native Basketball Tournament because he does not meet a minimum blood quantum requirement.  Josiah is black, born in Haiti, and adopted into the Heiltsuk nation by his father, Don Wilson.

The media attention given to Josiah’s story is a good thing.  It is raising important questions about how Indigeneity in Canada is defined, by whom, and about whether adoption is valid grounds for Indigenous peoples to claim individuals as citizens of their nations.

However, while Josiah’s story seems to be challenging many of us to wrap our heads around inherent Heiltsuk law, it also presents us with another ‘teachable moment’: in each story I’ve read so far, the role of Indian status seems to emerge as the “real” proof that Josiah belongs as Heiltsuk.  This is ironic and potentially damaging.

Adoption stories provide us with an opportunity to think about inherent Indigenous citizenship orders on their own terms in two important ways.  First, they show us that such orders are not heterosexist in nature.  Blood quantum, after all, is a heterosexist concept: it demands that Indianness be reproduced exclusively through heterosexual parenting.  Adoption stories, therefore, show us that Indigenous citizenship orders include queer families in renewing Indigenous nations.

Second, adoption stories show us that families are the decision makers within inherent Indigenous citizenship orders.  Unlike under the Indian Act, where belonging is determined by the Indian band in a centralized manner, adoption stories show us that families decide who belongs in a decentralized sense.  This is important because it helps us to see that the authority to discern citizenship flows from Indigenous peoples’ own constitutional orders, not the Indian Act.  All of this is reflected in how Josiah’s family and community claim him in the media: he is a Heiltsuk citizen regardless of bloodline because he was adopted by a Heiltsuk family.  His father made this perfectly clear: “[Our children are] ours. We as the Heiltsuk Nation accept my son as one of us.”

Yet, in each story I’ve read over the past few days, Josiah’s “status card” slips into the discussion seemingly as a sort of authenticator.  While his status as an Indian under the Indian Act is an important fact, I worry that it is being used as the ultimate proof of Josiah’s belonging.  Its as if Heiltsuk citizenship law is not enough.

On one hand, including Josiah’s Indian status in this story is understandable.  Collectively, we are suffering from “status hangover” given that, for generations, Canada made membership in an Indian band based solely on Indian status.  Put simply, many now see Indian status as a pre-requisite to being Indigenous.

However, the over-emphasis of Josiah’s Indian status in the discussions about him being and belonging with Heiltsuk runs the risk of hiding the most important element of this story, namely, that Indigenous citizenship laws are alive and well.  Such laws do not need the recognition of Canada to be valid.

Ultimately, it is up to Indigneous nations themselves to determine who belongs with them.  As Josiah’s story clearly attests, Heiltsuk citizenship law has survived the assertion of Canadian sovereignty.  This needs to be emphasized not only because its clearly the source of law that claimed Josiah as Heiltsuk, but ultimately because it demonstrates that Indigenous peoples throughout Canada do not need to rely on Canadian laws to determine who belongs.

With this in mind, the pathway forward can be one of demanding Canada base resource allocations in accordance with Indigenous citizenship orders rather than the terminal concept of Indian status.

Reconciliatory Education: Mandatory Unsettlement

Today, the discussion about reconciliation reached a crescendo in Ottawa. There, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report detailing its findings from over six years of working with thousands of survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools system.  But now the challenge for Canada and Canadians will be to avoid interpreting reconciliation in ways that don’t re-colonize Indigenous peoples. It may therefore be worth paying attention to how reconciliation is being defined, and how some are already planning to use it in the education system.

For its part, the TRC defines reconciliation in terms of action. It is the active rejection of “paternalistic and racist foundations” as the basis for an ongoing relationship between Indigenous nations and Canada. It has called for reconciliation to be a “new vision” based on a commitment to mutual respect. This new vision could be reached, notes the TRC, by mandating “education for reconciliation” in Canadian schools where students learn more about Indigenous peoples.

For others, reconciliation is the continuation of struggle. In a brilliant piece in The Globe and Mail, Hayden King and Erica Violet Lee note that reconciliation might best be understood as an on-going “conflict” where Indigenous peoples will demand the return of men, women, children, knowledge and land, and Canada will keep refusing. This approach inherently challenges a mode of reconciliation predicated on ‘turning the page of history’ – reclaiming is not about forgetting.

Elsewhere, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that reconciliation is a “contradictory object.” Apropos: “[reconciliation] only wants to collect the good public emotions it needs to keep going, to push itself outside of History, to narrate a present bereft of legislated pain.”

To me, this framing is reminiscent of how s.35 of the Canadian Constitution has been “interpreted” to the benefit of the state. Likewise, there is a real risk that reconciliation could be used to solidify Canada’s control over Indigenous peoples; all that is needed is for the term to be interpreted in ways that do not challenge Canada’s settler colonial foundation. As Belcourt rightly observes, therefore, “a world reconciled is not necessarily a world decolonized.”

Tracing the definition of reconciliation over the coming months will be an on-going project, and one that will require Indigenous peoples’ voices pushing back against those who would like to define it in ways that reaffirm Canadian paternalism. Tracing this debate might become increasingly confusing. But one place where the tension over the definition of what reconciliation could mean is already evident is in how some universities are approaching mandatory Indigenous education.

Much has been said about making Indigenous studies courses mandatory at Canadian universities in recent months. In February of this year, Lakehead University announced that starting September 2016, all undergraduate students at that university will be required to take a course with Indigenous content. In November, the University of Winnipeg announced that it would be following suit.

But content and politics matter.

In an article published in The Globe and Mail on December 20th, 2015, Annette Trimbee and Wab Kinew write that the University of Winnipeg will provide undergraduates with a list of approved courses from which they can choose their mandatory Indigenous course. Students will select a course that “aligns with their degree program or one that piques their intellectual curiosity.” This is in keeping with the approach that Lakehead University is taking as well; for Trimbee and Kinew, this means that, for example, “business students will learn how to engage with indigenous communities,” thereby giving University of Winnipeg students a “competitive advantage.”

Thus, based on what I’ve read so far, both Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg’s definition of reconciliation could be summed up  as “learning more about Indians.” Despite my open criticisms to this approach, I’ve not seen a statement by either university noting that said mandatory courses will actually challenge students’ complicity with settler colonialism and white supremacy.

As you might guess, I see this orientation as problematic. It is worth noting that the “learning about the other” approach has historically been used as a tool of colonialism around the world, in which Indigenous nations’ claims to their own lands have been “interpreted” in ways that justify the occupation of a dominating, foreign power. Given this, one could ask: Whose interests are centered when mandatory Indigenous education is defined as learning about “the other” rather than learning about how Canada remains a colonizer in the present?

I therefore wonder how useful it will be to Indigenous nations when students come knocking on their doors having taken a half-credit course about Indigenous culture(s) without also equipping these same students with an understanding about how their approaches might perpetuate a relationship where Canada justifies its regulation of Indigenous peoples, and their political and legal systems. Is this reconciliation? If it is, we have a problem. To paraphrase Billy-Ray Belcourt: a university reconciled will not necessarily be a university decolonized.

For mandatory Indigenous education to be actually reconciliatory in this historical moment, therefore, it must flip the lens and unsettle students’ complicities with settler colonialism, and it must do this in addition to teaching about Indigenous issues.

Only then can Canadians start finding concrete ways to give land back to Indigenous nations, which, to me, is the minimum starting point for what reconciliation should really be about.

Speaking Notes: Disrupting Safe Spaces 4 Racism in Thunder Bay

Waverley Library
Thunder Bay, ON
October 8, 2015
Twitter: @damienlee

Download the accompanying PowerPoint slides, here.

As many of you will recall, the James Street Swing Bridge burned the night of October 29, 2013.  This fire sparked off a very public dialogue about racism: news reports were generated,[1] public speaking events were held,[2] and high school classrooms took the opportunity to define what racism looks like in real and immediate terms.[3]  While racism no doubt existed in Thunder Bay before that night, the burning of the bridge was a watershed moment in our collective anti-racism discussions, not least of which because it forced the issue of racism out from under the bed and into the limelight.  Anti-Indigenous racism in Thunder Bay could not be ignored, no matter how people wanted to write it off.  While the politicians looked for the culprit or culprits responsible for the arson, social media was on fire with racist slurs meant to do one thing: to remind Anishinaabeg that they are not safe in Anishinaabe Aki, or the Ojibwe Homeland.

It is the element of safety in anti-racism discourse that I want to focus on today.  What made October 29th “watershed,” is not just the fact that the racism expressed was so extreme, nor just the fact that Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation still have not fully recovered from it.  Rather, it was also that the burning of the bridge forced white people to see the type of violence Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay face each day.  Even if invisible to others, it showed that Thunder Bay is not safe for Indigenous peoples precisely because they are told, in varying ways, that their presence here is at best, tolerated, and at worst targeted for removal.  In short, “safety” was revealed to be a tenuous concept, as it was so swiftly taken away by those who wanted to punish Fort William First Nation for just being an Indigenous community.

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Dolezal vs. Smith: Apples to Oranges?

As I sit down to write this, my social media feeds are rumbling with commentary on the links between Rachel Dolezal’s claims to being black, and Andrea Smith’s past claims to being Cherokee.  I’ve read over the past days several postings on this issue, including blogs written by Lynn Gehl, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Erica Violet Lee, and one on the tequilasovereign blog.  I suppose the comparison between Smith and Dolezal was inevitable in the Indigenous studies community, where identity construction is a huge issue, and where fraudulent claims to being Indigenous is an even a bigger issue.  And rightfully so; as Erica pointed out this morning, there are too many white settler folks taking space and air-time away from Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women in particular.

It is because of this latter point that I have not added my two cents into the discussion about how Dolezal’s claims reverberate through Indigenous communities.  I have zero per cent Indian blood.  I’m phenotypically white.  Cis male.  And straight.  I mean, its nearly impossible for anyone to have less authority in this matter, at least in an ethical and decolonizing sense.

That said, I share this post now as someone who, despite my whiteness, my maleness, my heteroness, is also a citizen of the Anishinaabe nation through customary adoption.  I was adopted into Fort William First Nation as a toddler, two years before my white biological mother “married in” to the community.  Despite all of the above, I identify as Anishinaabe, and I am claimed as such by my community.  But as Tuck and Yang point out, my adoption should not be seen as a move to innocence: I am not so clueless as to think my adoption in and of itself destroys white supremacy, my whiteness (including how my thinking has been produced), or colonialism, nor does it absolve me from undermining whiteness and patriarchy in every single way that I can.  I share so much of my positionality because its important for you to know where I’m coming from – so that you can decide for yourself if what I’m about to say holds any water…

What I’ve found most interesting in the discussions about what implications Dolezal’s claims might have for Indigenous communities, is that Andrea Smith’s past claims to being Cherokee have come up at all.  In some ways it makes common sense to juxtapose Dolezal to Smith: both had made identity claims that were challenged and, to different degrees, retracted.  In this common sense approach, Smith’s story has become the lightning rod upon which we in the Indigenous studies community attempt to understand Dolezal’s story.

But by finding resonance for Dolezal’s story in this way, I wonder if we’re missing a nuanced point.  And that is: are we not conflating racialized identity with Indigenous citizenships?

My worry is that defaulting to comparing Smith to Dolezal demonstrates how much Indigenous identities have been racialized, and, more importantly, how we might be upholding such racialization.  The fact that Smith’s claims to Indigeneity have to somehow automatically be compared to Dolezal’s claims to blackness seems to betray something that many people are thinking but not saying, namely: that Indigeneity is always-only a race thing.  While there is no doubt that the Indigenous peoples are racialized as “Indians,” I don’t think Smith claimed to be a different race; she claimed to be Cherokee, which under many (though not all) Indigneous citizenship systems would be totally ok so long as the community/nation one is claiming to belong with claims her/him back.

I don’t know Andrea Smith personally.  So I cannot answer any of the questions currently swirling through the blogosphere about her original claims to being Cherokee (see blog links above), nor would I want to police her identity in any way.   But many brilliant scholars have pointed out that to belong with an Indigenous nation is not only a matter of biological descent.  Family-making practices renew a nation’s citizens in several ways, including through birth, but also through marriage and adoption (Don Auger-ba provides a good example of adoption and belonging, here).

In trying to understand Andrea Smith’s story, I can only draw on my own experience of being Anishinaabe through customary adoption.  And one of the key things I’ve learned is that the public at large often refuses to consider the possibility that one can belong with an Indigenous nation without some high quantum of Indian blood.  In other words, Indigeneity is racialized in the common sense.  Lost in this way of thinking are the Indigenous citizenship laws that operate on their own frequencies, often doing so with different ideas about what constitutes essentialized identity, which in turn often operate in ways beyond a narrow focus on blood line.  What often matters more, is whether a person is claimed by an Indigneous community/nation, whether they identify with that nation, and how they carry out their responsibilities to family, nation and land.

I believe that, as scholars, it is incumbent upon us to extricate our own blind spots in discussions meant to be decolonizing.  In the current discussions about Dolezal, it is important to be aware of how that story is one of whiteness appropriating racialized identity for its own goals, and how this differs from the issue and function of Indigenous citizenships.

On this note, I would argue that Erica has posed the most important question yet in the current Andrea Smith discussion.  She asks, “Will Andrea Smith be claimed by an Indigenous community (in whatever form that takes) in the days or years to come? Would it even make a difference now?” [Emphasis mine]  Indeed, would the Indigenous studies community be willing to see belonging beyond race if the Cherokee nation reached out to Andrea and claimed her as Cherokee?  Or would such claiming of a person, and the Indigenous citizenship order it would rest on, be obfuscated by the same racializing principles that cause us to automatically compare Smith to Dolezal?

Cindy Gladue: Aren’t We All Women?

Guest post by Jana-Rae Yerxa

How come we never have to think of ways to humanize whiteness?

I arrived at this question after not being able to sleep last night. Cindy Gladue is on my mind. She is in my thoughts. She is in my prayers. She is now in my heart.

I am filled with so many emotions. I am enraged by the fact that there is no justice for her. Enraged that Bradley Barton claims he did not murder Cindy and that she consented to rough sex with her alcohol level four times past the legal limit. Enraged because his peers believed him and declared he was not responsible for Cindy’s death. He is free while Cindy is dead. I am enraged, disgusted and saddened not only because the Canadian legal system failed tremendously in obtaining justice for Cindy, which I am not surprised by, but also in the way the system violated Cindy again by treating her body in such an undignified manner- preserving her pelvis as evidence to debate whether the 11cm wound to her vagina was consensual.

The lack of regard by the Canadian legal system’s handling of Cindy’s body signifies that even in death the grips of settler colonialism and the stigma and discrimination against women who work in the sex trade would not let go demanding further dehumanization of Cindy during the trial. Dehumanization of this Indigenous woman, of Cindy, placing her intimate body parts on display for debate as if she and her body were on on trial. I am saddened for her and her family. I am also saddened and scared for the rest of us as a society if we do not stand up against this injustice and dehumanization.

I am reminded of Patricia Monture’s truth telling words and how relevant they are for all of us at this time: “If rape occurs, if battering occurs, if any form of violence is present, all women are harmed and live with the knowledge that each of us is a potential victim.”

It is at this point where I again become angry and realize yet again that society at large did not see Cindy as human. Her indigeneity and her involvement in the sex trade do  not erase Cindy’s humanity despite attempts to do so by the structures of settler colonialism and its good friends- whiteness and heteropatriarchy.

It is also at this point where I feel compelled to list off all the reasons why Cindy is human. Her life mattered. She deserves justice. She was a woman. She was a mother. She was a daughter. She was a sister. She had a family that loved her and that she loved back. She had hopes. She had dreams. She was Indigenous. She was a sex worker.

Why do we always have to think about how to humanize non white humans? And how come we never have to think of ways to humanize whiteness when it behaves so inhumanely?

Rest in peace Cindy Gladue.

Jana-Rae Yerxa is Anishinaaabe Kwe from Couchiching First Nation located in Treaty 3 Territory. She is a graduate of the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria. She can be found on Twitter: @janaraey