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.

Comments (20) Add New Comment
As one Indigenous person, I would prefer the hunting and fishing over resource extraction and development...just sayin'
Rating: +34
Ken Lawson
Just because you disagree with them does that make you a "RACIST" is the question?
Rating: -5
I agree that there is far to much racism, but as unfortunate as it is it goes both ways. I went to a protest to give my support and was told "whitey go home", it upset me terribly as beside me was my native daughter. How do I tell her that her white mother is not welcome there?
Rating: +36
Chris Miller
I agree with this article. The Natives are not merely one more "multiculture" that decided to flee to here from some other part of the world they didn't want to stay in. The history of Canada is 99.9% Native, as they have been here for 40,000 years, and the newcomers only for at the most about 400 years. The fundamental culture of Canada is still, I argue, Native, if we look at the foods we eat (corn and potatoes, chocolate and tomatoes,) our sports, our distinctive Canadian cultural practices, and even attitudes and life events, like sending off our kids to camp, paddle, and fish as teens to "find themselves" and go on a "dream quest" or whatever. "Confederation" is a term coined from the 18th Century translation of the Iroquois Great Law. Most of us non-Natives are really the descendants of refugees. Even the Loyalists were refugees. They came and settled, and the influence of the Natives on them was pretty strong, particularly in the formative, early years. The rhythms of life here have very ancient, Native roots. I'm not disputing the impact of the British and French cultures here too, but we're talking of a meeting, globalizing, and blending of things, not of a wipe-out of the Indigenous ways. Not at all. If this was Europe, we would all be learning the "Ancient Languages" of the land, like they do in Ireland, where they learn Gaelic on school, or in Greece where they all learn Ancient Greek. Here we would be learning and taking pride in the ancient languages and cultures of our land. Instead, we still keep some kind of aloof mindset, where we don't respect the culture of our new found country. We don't value the 40,000 years of heritage and pride right here. This is just not healthy. We had better recognize that we are Canadians, and that Canada is thousands of years old, not 100 years old!
Rating: +18
people arent always supposed to have to beg to get what is status quo harper et al. send your ambassadors lying around the world saying how great canadas infrastructure is, and then this, its like, you lie canada, you are caught in a lie, and you will hopefully always be wisely judged as precarioius to do business with with this legacy of avoiding pertinent humanity issues and making people beg for what they are already to have received. canada the shameful, is why you are losing your grip on this nation, after the exposure of the human traficking, the corruption of your municipalities, the counterfeit stamps that bankrupted the postal service in 2013, it is so you would pay more attention to what you were doing wrong at home, becoming lawless, shameful and continuing in not providing what you have guaranteed every community of this nation, its putting you dangerously close to being lawless in the full, and that, is when your nation is voided, like greece, italy, egypt, syria, india, england, france et. al. it is always that way, now see it that way. you are falling apart because of this maltreatment and you inability to lawfully provide what your laws have said you would, that, is lawlessness, lawlessness=void of your nation, then it can be given to any one else.
Rating: -3
James B. Bandow
Some of these posters still don't get it! The issues are about Political jurisdiction (section 35, Canadian Constitution), political boundaries, resource control and royalties, and treaty rights. It's not about "race" at all.
Rating: +18
K Ender
I agree with Don Olsens report. I think most people do. But I was taught that if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.
So let me tell you about 'native americans'...
Rating: -20
W Card
Wow, I read the letter by Dan Olsen, wow.

I would say that most people would agree that native people did not discover.

Global warming,
Mercury in fish,
Clear cutting,
UV rays and increased skin cancer,
Melting Artic Icepacks,
Nuclear weapons or meltdowns,

The letter he wrote is pretty silly if you think about it.

Mr. Bemmel's article here is pretty good and I agree with his main point that people should be educated in how things work in Canada and it's First Nations.
Rating: +18
Sarah Junkin
I got an idea. Why don't we go to italy and tell the Italian people the Romans were here once and they should leave. Is this what we are doing?
Rating: -17
i am an immigrant to canada and i think it is a two way street. I did a course in university about the history of the first nations people and i remember quite distinctly that there were times i supported the natives and at other times i supported the government of Canada...

There needs to be equality and the treaties need to be upheld...but accountability is also important....canadians feel like so much money has been invested in the reserves with very little to show for it and a lot of people are frustrated....there is no reason why people should not have the basic neccesities of life in a country like Canada
Rating: +2
Michael Kannon
No it is not racist to disagree. It is a slippery slope when you start using broad racial arguments as to why First Nations should not be granted their Constitutional rights. Canada signed Treaty to get their hands on much needed land not because they wanted to spread "equality". The idea of giving up your rights in order to become "equal" is moral blackmail.

Rating: +18
Idle No More is about more than just First Nations rights….it does very much involve concerns over the environment….especially the number of waterways left unprotected.

But what is troubling me is the backlash online against First Nations because of Idle No More has been pretty vile at times.

CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning host Matt Galloway spoke out about the problem on his radio show. “Legitimate and informed criticism is important,” he said. “Racism is something completely different. For people trying to understand what Idle No More is from a non-aboriginal perspective, those comments muddy the discussion. For First Nations people, it can be much more damaging than that.” (NOTE: This is a direct quote from Canadian Anti-Idle No More Racism Grows Online by Heather Mallick.)

Racist comments such as “lazy Indians who just drink and take drugs….can’t hold a job….don’t work….get free hand-outs….free education….free housing….everything free….why don’t just learn to fit in” are not positive for anyone. Some of these comments are noted in this Toronto Star article, Canadian Anti-Idle No More Racism Grows Online by Heather Mallick:

Until websites force readers to use their real name, with address, as newspaper letters pages do, we’re always going to get racist muck on our boots.

But here’s an email that’s much more troubling: A white nurse I’ll call Margaret (she provided her name, email and phone number) wrote to me about Indians she knew in Calgary.

“Out west one sees First Nations daily. They are not hidden away like in Ontario. I have been in some of the homes (on the reserve) and in my experience there was no excuse for the squalor. Not when they had a TV that probably at the time cost a few thousand dollars. But the windows were broken, the sinks were out of order, etc.”

This woman doesn’t know she sounds like a 1950s white lady complaining about shiftless negroes. She doesn’t know how sententious and smug she sounds about the pain of others. Her drains run free and clear.

“I took care of quite a few First Nations for various things,” she wrote. “They were funny, smart, maddening, exasperating. The majority of them could not seem to harness that positive energy to do something constructive.”

This is a competent assessment of a Grade 2 class. As a race descriptor, it’s scarcely better than “pickaninnies.”

And here comes a real beauty: “You have to learn and move on. I have a great deal of admiration for other minority groups that have done just that. The Jews, the Roma faced some of the worst kinds of treatment just for the fact of being born to a certain ethnic group. After WWII they picked themselves up and moved forward. History is full of role models of people that made lemonade out of the lemons in their life.”
Rating: +23
cont'd....There are also racist comments being made by some who identify as First Nations….equally troubling….and none that should be tolerated. Lashing out (or even back) gets nobody anywhere. To feed into the negative words of a few uneducated or just nasty people gets nowhere….negativity breeds negativity….whatever the side of the fence you are on. Maybe by creating something positive we can… take fences down. So we find a better way of understanding each other.

Racism against anyone should never be tolerated…..and First Nations are very aware of that fact….Native people sometimes wear what is called a Unity button….a button with the four colours of red, white, black and yellow on it….these colours represent the four sacred colours of the Medicine Wheel….the four races of man….and these colours all meet in the middle….so we need to learn to meet in the middle too.

Rather than carrying on a ‘war of words’….a ‘war’ where nobody really wins….since many who post what they do just to a reaction….to stir up the pot….even to hurt others with vicious comments often based on ridiculous stereotypes…. it would be better to have a dialogue….a real discussion….in an open intelligent means….since some of the comments made are done by uninformed or unaware… persons….who may not even know what they are saying is racist….or hateful….often just something they read online without really knowing the facts behind what they’re saying….not to suggest that this is any more acceptable because of such ignorance….but if we had some way to actually raise the level of some of comments made online….or even by some in radio call-in shows….or by a few even on supposed TV news stations….maybe we could actually find some common ground….understand the real issues being brought forward….actually meet in the middle as do the four sacred colours on the Medicine Wheel….or on the Unity button. Maybe instead of angry words….negative thought….we can find a way to build a better Canada for all Canadians….a better world for all.

Grandfather, Look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the sacred way. We know that we are the ones who are divided and we are the one who must come back together to walk in the sacred way. Grandfather, Sacred One, Teach us love, compassion and honor that we may heal the Earth and each other. – Art Solomon, Anishinaabe Elder
Rating: +17
J. Flett
The hateful motivation on both sides must stop. I am full blooded First Nations and I sometimes cringe at the over-zealousness I sometimes see at rallies and on TV by my people, and at the same time my blood just boils whenever I come across anti-First Nations actions. Why take things to those extremes? It's one thing to have a strong, reasonable opinion, it's completely another to taint your opinion with hate and crudely assert it where your only goal is to offend.
In many ways, I am reminded of how black people in the States suffered under slavery, and their oppression continued until the strain of it was so much that they rallied as a people for their rights and their current place in their country. It's a modern historical example of how people must rise up and recognize their own worth, and assert it, and a whole nation must reeducate themselves in the process. Don't take me so literally in this comparison, but the similarities exist, and if what that country went through is any example, we have many generations to go until we reach some sort of state of balance.
My own goal in this comment is honesty, with a gentle push to the First Nations' side, because the dismantling of the treaties is a double attack at undermining inherent rights, and it also leaves our government free to abuse the land for money. Also, if pressed, I must agree with the over-zealous approach, because at first our voices /must/ be loud. We are trying to wake up after a century of being bullied and told we are no good. Of course, the bullies aren't going to just be quiet and let us stand up for ourselves, as any comment section will attest to. I sincerely thank you for this article, and well written points on Canada's attitude in general toward its own indigenous people.
Rating: +15
Pam Bevan
Only when there's no water and food will people realize that you cannot eat money or drink oil. Racism and discrimination against any race is ugly and has no place in Canada. Unfortunately, there'll always be "haters". I just refuse to be one of them. Both my daughters and their Dad, Beau Dick, journeyed from North to South Vancouver Island because they believe in Mother Earth and her safety. They are concerned for our environment, our water, our salmon, our people. The Idle No More movement is about so much more... Show your support for Mother Earth. Peace. :)
Rating: +11
Rena Kinney (First Nations - Annishinabe)
Yes I agree, that there is too much racist hatred. My observations have led me to believe that the Federal gov't has been the instigator of this racist attitude toward us Natives. Each successive party in power has been negligent in informing the people of Canada that the money we as Natives receive is our own money...Look up First Nations Trust Fund....this money comes from the sale of portions of our lands, leases, resource extractions from our lands etc etc. This is where the gov't takes the money from to give to the Natives, it has never been from Taxpayers money. My observation has been that people have been led to believe its their tax money that is being spent on the Natives, nothing could be further from the truth. I may be wrong in my estimation but here goes my opinion, the "newcomers" put a lot of stock in "MONEY" and if it is given away they tend to react in a very negative and aggressive manner. So please people understand this Your hard earned tax money is NOT being given to us Natives. Now lets all stand together and fight together to keep Canada what it was meant to be: FREE and CLEAN. Lets not allow the gov't to keep us apart with their lying ways in order to attain a "divide and conquer" situation. Megwetch.
Rating: +6
I could really identify with what this writer has to say. I totally bought into the multicultural myth and was proud of it. At the same time the truth about racism in Canada was a truth that was thinly suppressed beneath this lie we kept repeating to ourselves, each other, and telling others about ourselves.
Rating: 0
Theresa, the money that Indian bands receive comes from their own trust fund. There are billions of dollars in the trust fund that has been held in trust for them by the Canadian government and the funding they receive comes from the interest in their own trust fund. FN money does not come from taxes. The fact that the money is held is trust is insulting and patriarchal. It amounts to treating them like children that can't take care of their own interests. Please educate yourself, because these things are not taught in Canadian schools, but the facts are out there. Search for Idle No More on the internet and you will find some resources to start learning the truth.
Rating: +8
This is a great article. It is totally accurate that much of the general (non-aboriginal) public don't know how to properly respond to INM because they have been consistently misinformed about the history of the country. Before I entered university I had never been taught about colonialism, residential schools, Trudeau's white paper, and on. We were taught about the treaties in school as if they were great and fair. The education system is run by the dominant, colonial side of Canadian society. Colonialism is not a thing of the past, but is still present. To radically decolonize Canada, I don't think the answer is sending all the non-aboriginal people home though I'm obviously biased because I don't want to leave. But aboriginal and non-aboriginal people need to be able to have an open dialogue. Non-aboriginal people need to acknowledge that even if we are not individually responsible for the crimes against the rightful owners of this land, we are part of larger structural issues and to do nothing is to agree with the perpetuation of the problem.
Rating: +4
Jane Smith
I am mixed white and my ancestors go back about 400 years with the start of the fur trade with the natives.My best friend is half native and her and I feel so lost in this NEW canada. We are not accepted in either race that we come from, english canada doesnt care about us, we are not an immigrant nor do we have kids or husbands so we feel like aliens walking around. WE are so distressed. We cant find work and we are discriminated against alot in our own country. Some days we want to leave but dont konw where we would go.....
Rating: -2
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