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?