Alexis Van Bemmel: Racist responses to Idle No More tied to misinformation about Canada's past
Canada has shown quite a racist attitude in its response to the Idle No More movement. Blatantly racist comments that I would certainly not expect in 2013 abound, such as “Indian giver”, “Playing victim…waiting for a handout”, and “This is Canada…the point is for everyone to have equal rights aka no special native rights…move on and get over it. You ain’t special. You are no different than any other Canadian even if you don’t want to call yourself one.” These feel like a slap in the face, and I’m a white Euro-Canadian. And then Don Olsen’s letter was published in the Nanaimo Daily News. I can sit idly by listening to this racist hatred no more.
Canada prides itself on having created a tolerant and inclusive society, one where we accommodate diversity. We are internationally recognized for reconciling subnational identities; we have legislated and even constitutionalized our practices of accommodation. We like to believe that this is an important part of our history and a defining feature of our country, but is it really? Responses to the Idle No More movement suggest otherwise.
These comments are based on negative stereotypes and misinformation that deprecate First Nations. The acceptance of them by the public only fosters conditions that allow the uninformed to discriminate further against First Nations. No other group in Canada is subject to these sorts of comments.
With constructed superficial multiculturalism, we allow our selective memory to ignore our colonial legacy and current racial issues, imagining ourselves to be an accepting, tolerant nation, binding together all different peoples. We then question the position of First Nations, and spout that they should “join the rest of Canada” to be afforded the same rights and privileges as every other Canadian.
Within our “multiculturalism”, many ethnicities have retained their culture under Canadian governance. We wonder why this isn’t working for First Nations, and that the answer must lay with equality. The problem is, this notion of equality blankets the real issues, letting us forget the history and injustices committed. It is important to remember that Canada was not an empty land discovered by Europeans; it had already been settled for millennia. The early colonialists knew this, and that is precisely why the Royal Proclamation of 1763 identified respect for the lands of the “Indian nations” that inhabited them.
The aboriginal peoples living here before British colonialism had settled these lands, and had developed their own cultures and languages. This is why we cannot classify First Nations alongside those who have immigrated here. First Nations are the ones who suffered the involuntary incorporation of their homeland. Unlike immigrants, they did not make the decision to move here for a new life. This is exactly the reason why Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act upholds aboriginal rights. When Europeans arrived, First Nations had been living here for centuries.
Special legal and constitutional status has been mandated for First Nations because we are supposed to recognize their rights, and identify them as the original inhabitants and keepers of this land. In all its idealism, the Canadian government acknowledges that First Nations have their right to a distinct society. They must have land claims, treaty rights, cultural rights, and self-government in order to sustain themselves as distinct societies. This is why the White Paper on Indian (assimilation) Policy of 1969 was repudiated, and aboriginal rights were included into the Constitution Act of 1982.
Public focus rests heavily on monetary handouts and accountability, reducing a complex and sordid history of colonialism, paternalistic governance, and residential schools down to entitlements and rights. Many Canadians feel First Nations are taking an unfair advantage with tax exemption benefits and other programs. The only tax exemption is limited to those who are situated on a reserve, as stated under Section 87 of the Indian Act. The courts maintain that this exemption reflects the “unique constitutional and historic place of Aboriginal people in Canada”. What happened to the relationship between Aboriginals and settlers that began with treaties of shared land and resources, exemption from the Queen’s taxes, and peaceful coexistence?
These treaties were broken as more and more land was sought for profitable exploitation of natural resources, of which the Canadian economy is based on. Indeed, removal of First Nations and their rights and lands has been essential in Canada whenever they proved to stand in the way of exploitation for profit. Colonialism introduced European conceptions of what society is, and became the dominant way to think of progressive development. Time and again, First Nations have been denied in the sharing.
We need to be educated on the history of this country and to stop spreading misinformation and fostering hatred. We need to recognize that the land we currently inhabit has been inherited from First Nations at a great cost. The Government needs to be restructured to return to the relationship of respect and equality, as nation to nation sharing this land, before treaties were broken and European ideals were presented as the only concept of society and progress. Lastly, and most importantly, First Nations need to have the choice to be able to govern their own affairs, whether it be traditional hunting and fishing or resource extraction and development.