Director's Corner: The truth is, to understand the realities of racism, the voices we need to listen to are those of the people most affected by it.
Indigenous lives: Finally time to listen
On the last Saturday of February, I walked through the slush to attend a rally for Tina Fontaine, just a few days after a Manitoba jury found Richard Cormier not guilty of her 2015 death.
This verdict was the second time in just two weeks that a jury found a white person not guilty of the murder of an Indigenous young person. Earlier in February, Gerald Stanley, a white farmer in Saskatchewan, was found not guilty in the shooting death of Colten Boushie. These two trials have brought into sharp relief the deeply ingrained racism— both institutional and individual—in Canada. In the wake of these trials, I’ve witnessed hate that’s usually hidden to me bubble up, emboldened by the court's appearance of legitimizing racist views.
In the past month, I’ve seen callous social media posts that argue a young Cree man deserved to die for driving onto a farmer’s property. I’ve read comment threads that place the blame for a teenage Anishinaabe girl’s murder on her or her family’s actions. I’ve overheard dehumanizing comments in the lineup for the post office that make my stomach turn. And I know the things I’m seeing and hearing are not new. For many Indigenous people in Canada, they’re a feature of daily life. For non-Indigenous people like me, who can walk around in ignorance of these ugly realities, their current visibility ought to be a call to action.
The truth is, to understand the realities of racism, the voices we need to listen to are those of the people most affected by it. Kwakwaka'wakw elder Kelvin Bee, the elder-in-residence at the Aboriginal Front Door Society, has been a friend to Megaphone for many years. Several years ago, he shared a piece of advice with the crowd gathered for the annual Hope in Shadows award ceremony. He said, “OK everyone. Take the cotton from your ears, and put it in your mouth. It’s time to listen.”
It’s good advice, and if you are a Settler like me, it’s advice to take to heart in this moment. The word “Settler” can feel like a personal attack to some, but Settler is not an insult. It is a reality. Let’s not make it about us, Settlers. A Settler is a non-Indigenous person. If your family has not been on these lands —the lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Watuth, Songhees and Esquimalt nations—since time immemorial, then you or your family have settled here. So let’s listen.
We must listen to and amplify the voices of Indigenous folks, read and listen to people speaking to their experiences. There is no shortage of brilliant, thoughtful, Indigenous speakers, thinkers and writers who have shared their perspectives. A few public personalities from whom I’ve learned: Jerilynn Webster, Pam Palmater, Chelesea Vowel, Daniel Heath Justice, Khelsilem, Lillian Howard, Kelvin Bee, Justice Murray Sinclair, Melina Laboucan-Massimo. And from Megaphone vendors, too, in sharing their experiences: Peter Thompson, Priscillia Tait, Gwen Lagimodiere, Sue Blue and more. This is not an exhaustive list, but it could be a starting point. Who have you learned from? Who have you listened to?
Let’s listen. And while we listen, let’s remember: Indigenous people are allowed to be angry. If the words we hear or read upset us, we ought to ask ourselves why. To insist that Indigenous people share their pain, anger and grief in ways that are comfortable or palatable to us is unreasonable. Let’s listen, and put aside any defensiveness, so we can hear the truth in lived experiences.
Tina Fontaine was 15 years old. Colten Boushie was 22. They were both so young. They deserved so much better, and Canada failed them.
James Baldwin, African American writer and social critic said, “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.” Canada has worked to systemically dehumanize Indigenous people since settlers first arrived on this continent. For just as long, Indigenous people have pushed back. It is a huge undertaking to unmake this world that has racism woven so tightly through it. It will take all of us.
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