As a child I went to Keheewin Elementary School. The school’s name “came from Chief Keheewin of the Cree Indian Band…named after the ‘Eagle’ (‘Kehew’ in Cree).”1 But while attending there I don’t recall ever meeting any Cree people, or First Nations people of any kind, for that matter. Even though I grew up living on Treaty Six territory I had no knowledge that such a treaty existed. Nor did I have any meaningful connection with the Plains and Woods Cree, Assiniboine, or other nations who signed that treaty, a treaty that made it possible for immigrant families, like mine, to live a quiet suburban life in Edmonton, AB.
Sad to say, but my earliest knowledge of First Nations people tended to come from the caricatures rendered in literature like Little House on the Prairie and The Indian in the Cupboard, or from movies like Disney’s Davy Crockett and even watching Atlanta Braves fans do the “tomahawk chop” on TV. Any real historical knowledge of Indigenous people that I did gain in school was largely relegated to the pre-confederation history of the fur trade, with perhaps a brief stop to talk about the rebellions led by Metis leader, Louis Riel. Only recently through resources like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Summary Document and books like Thomas King’s book, An Inconvenient Indian, have I begun to discover a more complex history, and to realize the immense ongoing injustice suffered by Indigenous people in Canada.
As a proud Canadian I have generally believed my country to be a place of polite tolerance, and cultural pluralism. But, learning about the dark realities of Residential Schools, and the absurdly paternalistic First Nations Reserve system – which actually helped inspired the South African Apartheid structure2 – has made it impossible for me to naively accept the comfortable Canadian narrative I grew up with. I can no longer smugly assume Canada to be less racist than our American neighbours to the south, and not just because of our treatment of Indigenous people.
It’s hard to believe, but in the province of Saskatchewan, where I now live, the Klu Klux Klan was once so influential that in the 1930s they had a membership of 25,000 people, a membership that even included a Member of Parliament, Walter Davy Cowan.3 I was also genuinely shocked to learn about Viola Desmond, a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman, who spent a night in jail in 1946 because she refused to conform to the policy of racial segregation enforced at a movie theatre. That’s Jim-Crow-style segregation. In Canada. What’s more, there are people of African descent living in Nova Scotia who still don’t hold title to land passed down by their forbears – loyalists and freed slaves who settled there 200 years ago. The sole reason they don’t hold title to their land is because they’re Black. And despite legislation passed in 1963 meant to help people obtain titles to their land, the government has mostly failed to change this state of affairs.4
These are just a few examples of racism, but there are many more that litter Canadian history, past and present, including the Komagata Maru incident, the Internment of Japanese Canadians during World War 2, and the demolition of Hogans Alley neighbourhood in Vancouver.
I am the descendant of European immigrants and settlers. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were Russo-German immigrants who first moved to southern Saskatchewan in 1910. I have nothing to be ashamed of in celebrating them, their culture, and the trail they blazed so that I can now live a comfortably here on the Canadian prairies. No one can say that they had it easy. They did backbreaking work just to survive, and by the time my mother was born in the 1950s, my grandparents, Edwin and Bertha, were farming a modest ¾ section of land. But, at least my grandfather held the title to his land, unlike many of the Black people who have been living in Nova Scotia twice as long as my family has been here in Saskatchewan. My family fled persecution in Russia and struggled to make a living here in Canada, learning to speak English, and moving around to find work so they could feed themselves. But, no one ever said they couldn’t speak their native tongue or forced them to attend a residential school, and no one told them they would need a pass to travel off the land they were made to live on or placed them under the stringent controls of the Indian Act.5
What all this means is that the relative wealth and status I enjoy today are not merely an achievement of honest hard work, or of good decisions that I and my forebears made. I now recognize that I benefit from the fact that my great-grandparents were welcomed into Canada and given privileges that people of other ethnic lineage were not. Indeed, some of these privileges were only made possible because of what was taken away from Indigenous people in this area. As my friend Randy has articulated so well elsewhere on the New Leaf blog, I now must acknowledge and lament the “the inextricable link between my story and my neighbours’ stories, to which I’ve been blind…” (On Track? or Derailed? by Randy Klassen). It can be hard to acknowledge this, but I believe I am stronger for accepting the complexity of these histories, for recognizing my privilege, and repenting of my ignorance.
For those of us who benefit from being part of the majority culture in Canada (that’s primarily White people of European descent) the first thing we need to do is recognize that we and our forebears have enjoyed disproportionate privilege in our society largely by virtue of our skin colour. Recognizing this privilege is not so much about feeling guilty, or demeaning our European ancestors, but it is about listening to the stories of people who don’t share in this same privilege. Stories of how they and their ancestors experienced violence and exclusion at the hands of the majority culture in Canada. As activist Janaya Khan has helpfully articulated “Privilege isn’t about what you’ve been through, that’s yours, privilege is about what you haven’t had to go through.”6 Listening to these histories, acknowledging what others have had to go through, will help to dispel our ignorance, and more often than not, I have found that it is ignorance, rather than malice, that perpetuates racism.
The sad truth is, we can participate in racism even if we are not consciously prejudiced toward others. And we can be prejudiced without realizing it, but that’s no excuse. The accusation of racism can at times be an unfair label that shuts down conversation, but when we feel the knee jerk reaction of “I’m not racist” welling up within us, it’s worth stopping for a minute and asking, “What am I missing? What don’t I understand about this person? Why might my words or actions be perceived as hurtful?” When I hear the stories that my friend, Keitha, has shared about her experience as a Canadian born to Jamaican immigrants, I’m forced to recognize my privilege and I’m challenged to think differently (Who Is Canadian? by Keitha Ogbogu). Hopefully this means I will also act differently, in ways that keep myself and others from perpetuating the same marginalization and prejudice that men and women like Keitha have experienced.
Listening to the stories of others who have experienced marginalization also should help us to recognize that we can no longer assume the objectivity of our experience and perspective. One way of knowing that we have privilege in a society is that we can “remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.”7 Recognizing the limited nature of my perspective is humbling, but I think it is important for everyone to acknowledge that we all have a finite and unique perspective on the world around us; something especially important for people of privilege to recognize.
Confession & Repentance
As I’ve said, recognizing privilege is not really about feeling guilty. But recognizing privilege does mean we probably have some confessing and repenting to do. For those of us who are Christians we should recognize that confession and repentance are central practices of our faith. Confession is about admitting when we are wrong and acknowledging the ways in which we may have hurt others. Repentance is about change, it’s about realizing we are going in the wrong direction and changing course, realizing the negative consequences of our thoughts, actions, and inactions. It’s about being transformed so that we can move forward, bearing good fruit in our lives.
What repentance looks like will be different for each of us, but I have two concrete recommendations that I’m personally working on myself:
- Get to know someone who is very different from you. They could be a young student from Ghana who arrived in Canada a year ago, or a Cree Elder who carries the knowledge of ancestors who have lived on this land from time immemorial. These people may already be around you (at work, in your neighbourhood) but do you really know them, do you know their story? Get outside what is comfortable for you, don’t expect people to instantly be receptive or to understand you. Put in the time and effort to meet people on their terms and earn their trust. Above all, listen.
- Actively work to change the imbalances that you see in society. For example, most of us have a reasonable expectation that our children will receive adequate healthcare. This is a privilege that many First Nations people and their children do not have. As has been proven before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, children living on reserves in Canada receive less funding for healthcare than do other children in Canada. It should sicken us that some children receive inferior care simply because they are Indigenous. It should also sicken us to know that at present about a fifth of all reserves in Canada don’t have access to clean drinking water because of government neglect. These are two concrete examples of injustice that we can seek to rectify. Learn more about how you can advocate for Indigenous children with the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. Find out what you can do about drinking water on reserve by connecting with organizations like Water First.
We are told by the Apostle Paul that Jesus did not use his status or power to his own advantage, “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant”8; Jesus followed a humble path that we might be lifted up.
In getting perspective on my power and privilege, that’s the example I want to follow.
More to read on the blog
- http://www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum/CanadianLegalHistory/LawArticle-1421/1924-Klu-Klux-Klan-Targets-French-Canadians.aspx, http://pushedleft.blogspot.ca/2012/01/since-you-brought-it-up-stephen-harper.html
- Learn more about residential schools – http://education.historicacanada.ca/files/32/ResidentialSchools_English.pdf. Learn more about the Indian Act – https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/21-things-you-may-not-have-known-about-the-indian-act-
- Philippians 2:7