Got Land? Thank an Indian and Canadian racism

January 17, 2014 § 12 Comments

Tenelle Star is a 13-year old girl who is a member of the Star Blanket First Nation in Saskatchewan.  She goes to school in Balcarres, SK.  Last week when she wore a hilarious pink hoodie that asked “Got Land?” on the front, and said “Thank an Indian” on the back, she created a controversy.  The CBC reported on the matter on 14 January, and from there things have gone sort of viral.  Jeff Menard, the Winnipeg man behind the shirts, says he’s getting flooded with orders.  But the fallout around Star’s hoodie is getting ridiculous.

A few days ago, I tweeted my disbelief, in a rather inelegant fashion after reading the comments on the original CBC story:

The response to this and a few other similar, though more eloquent, tweets was generally positive, but I got some pushback.  Most of it was garden-variety racism, but this one was particularly interesting:

Further discussion revealed nothing, and I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out the logic, which appeared to be connected to the term “Indian.”  Of course, the term comes from Christopher Columbus who, upon landing Hispaniola in 1492 thought he was in India.  The name stuck.  Today it is an incredibly loaded term politically, but, despite all that many aboriginals in Canada continue to prefer the term to the various attempts at replacing it.  And if we really want to get semantic, I could point out that the term “India” for the country India actually comes from the Persians who termed the land around the Indus River India in the 5th century BCE.

The second part of that tweet was much more obvious.  Blue Squadron’s grandfather worked for a living, the implication being that aboriginals in Canada do not.  That’s beneath contempt.

This morning on the CBC’s website the fallout from Star’s hoodie continued.  Her Facebook page has been inundated with comments, most of which are positive, but more than a few are disgustingly racist.  The sad fact of the matter is that Canada is a racist nation when it comes to the First Nations, as I noted in this tweet

One only need read the comments on the CBC article, or even the comments on Star’s Facebook page to see that.  I also have the added benefit of having worked for eight years in the field of aboriginal law and litigation in Canada.  I was a research analyst for an Ottawa-based company, we did research surrounding the myriad claims and counterclaims between the First Nations of Canada and the federal and provincial governments.  The duplicity of government agents astounded me then, it still does today.  And that’s not even touching the racism.  I could cite many examples of horrible racist comments I came across the in the archives, but one has always stuck out for its complete lack of self-reflection.  It came from an RCMP officer named Gallagher (an Irish name) who, when supervising a work camp where a few aboriginal men were sentenced for trivial criminal acts, complained that they didn’t want to do the backbreaking work.  Said Gallagher, “They are sun-burnt Irishmen.”  Oy vey.

But today, a new low was reached with the CBC reporting on the response of a Vancouver woman, Michele Tittler, to Star’s sweatshirt.  Tittler is the head of this group called End Race-Based Laws, Inc., which was apparently formed in response to last year’s #IdleNoMore movement.  This is from the CBC article:

Michele Tittler was posting on social media sites connected to the story. Tittler, from Vancouver, is a co-founder of a non-profit political organization called End Race-Based Laws, or ERBL Inc.

“I was immensely offended,” Tittler told CBC News Thursday, regarding the message of the shirt. “And I was going to do everything within my power to have that shirt banned from that school.”

Tittler said she had written to the Balcarres school and also sent notes to Facebook, complaining about the content on Starr’s page.

She is also planning to lodge a formal complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission , although it’s not clear on what grounds. Tittler is, however, convinced that the message of the shirt is racist.

“This is racism,” she said. “Canadians are really getting sick of the double-standard. No white kid could walk into a school with a shirt that says that in reverse.”

First off, no white kid SHOULD walk into school wearing the reverse of Star’s hoodie.  Secondly, it is NOT reverse racism, it’s not racism.  Tittler is is just flat-out, plain wrong.  She is the latest iteration of an old phenomenon in Canadian history.  Many aboriginals in Canada would be just as happy getting rid of the Indian Act, but the fact of the matter is that cannot happen.  The playing field in Canada is not even.  First Nations start at such a massive disadvantage to the average Canadian it’s almost unbelievable.  The on-going legacy of Canadian colonialism and the systematic attempt at ethnocide in the 19th and early 20th centuries remain.  During that period Canada made every attempt it could to eradicate aboriginals from Canada, not by killing them, but by taking their culture, making their kids speak English or French, through residential schools, through enfranchising aboriginals for leaving reserves and so on.  None of that worked, for obvious reasons.

It is disgraceful that Canada remains such a fundamentally racist society when it comes to First Nations.  It is a shame.  It embarrasses me.  In the year 2000, I was working in Ottawa, on a claim that centred around a group of Inuit in what is now Nunavut.  This is where that gem from Officer Gallagher comes from.  It was just one of many, and the more I read in the archives, the more appalled I was.  And the more embarrassed that my country could have acted in this way.  It was also Canada Day.  In Ottawa.  It was not a happy time for me.

And fourteen years on, it hasn’t got any better.  The National Post, that noted bastion of retrenchment, published a collection of letters it received on residential schools, all of which appear to have been written by white people.  I was astounded.  Just astounded at these comments.

This is not going to get better at any time soon.  It’s acceptable for far too many Canadians to be racist in this respect.  And that is to the great shame of Canada.


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§ 12 Responses to Got Land? Thank an Indian and Canadian racism

  • aakdewin says:

    This is beautifully written. Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts.

  • cocolicot says:

    I was brought here by aakdewin’s reblog of this (thanks aakdeewin!) and I agree with your thoughts 100%. This was insightful and well-written. The only thing that I could possibly deem racist about “Got land? Thank an Indian” is the use of the word “Indian,” which, when associated with First Nations peoples, can have negative overtones (why the Canadian government continues to use the term is beyond me, but that’s a rant for another time). Besides that, what is the issue with reminding people in a humorous way of First Nations’ rights to land? The treaties agreed to SHARE, yet I don’t see much sharing happening.

    • Thanks for reading. Re: the word “Indian,” it’s not my place to comment on the use of the word by aboriginals, being a Euro-Canadian. The historic baggage of the term is there for all to see, I don’t use it myself. All I can do is point out that the hoodie was designed by an aboriginal man in Winnipeg and worn by an aboriginal girl in Saskatchewan.

  • suchled says:

    A great article. Substitute the word “Australia” in place of “Canada” and it would say the same thing. We have a bit of a difference however. We did a much more effective job of eliminating the native Australians from the South East states that few Australians have ever come across a real Aborigine.

    • Yes, from what I know of Australian history, the treatment of the aborigines there was horrible. I read a primary source account once of a young Irish immigrant in the 1880s or thereabouts talking about his neighbours ‘hunting’ aborigines.

      In Canada, we operated in a much more Canadian manner, small pox-infected blankets, and ethnocide, rather than outright eradication. So. Bloody. Depressing.

      • suchled says:

        Oh don’t worry – we used the smallpox blankets trick and in Tasmania we used the hunting them down after church on Sunday method. If you scratch hard enough you will probably find that quite a few good easy going Aussies are racist.

      • Charming. Yeah, it’s insane the number of Canadians who are racist vis-à-vis the aboriginals. Depressing, really. As a side note, I teach in Amherst, Massachusetts, named after one of the first to develop the smallpox blanket method of extermination.

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