Erasing the Indigenous

October 10, 2017 § 7 Comments

In 2015, then-new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified appointing women to half of his cabinet posts with ‘It’s 2015.’  And we all applauded.  He was elected largely because he wasn’t the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.  But he also won based on election promises of gender equality, LGBTQ equality, as well as a ‘new deal’ for the indigenous population.

But here we are two years on, and the plight of the indigenous population of Canada remains the same as it ever was.  Trudeau has not exactly lived up to his campaign pledges to re-set the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state.  This is not all Trudeau’s fault in the sense that he reflects a deeply racist Canadian society.  I have written about this numerous times (here, here, here, and here, for example).

Last week in my Twitter feed, I was gobsmacked to come across this:

This couldn’t be real, could it?  It had to be another bit of Twitter and untruths.  But, no, it’s real:

Even Global News picked it the story today.  So, let’s think about the history presented in this Grade 3 workbook.  According to it, the indigenous population of Canada agreed to simply pick up stakes and move to allow nice European colonists to settle the land.  Nevermind the centuries of occupation, and all of those things.  Nope, the very nice Indians agreed to move.

I wish I could say I was shocked by this.  I’m not.  This is pretty much part and parcel of how Euro-Canadian culture thinks about the indigenous population, if it thinks about the indigenous population at all.  Or, when Euro-Canadians think about the indigenous population, it’s in entirely negative ways; I don’t think I need to get into the stereotypes here.

I tried to do some research on this workbook and the company that published it, Popular Book Company.  My web sleuthing turned up next to nothing.  If I Google the book itself, all I get are links to,, and (Indigo is Canada’s largest bookseller).  Finally, I discovered that this series is popular amongst homeschoolers in Canada, and, as of 2015, over 2 million copies were in circulation.  My attempts to find anything out about Popular Book Company came to nothing; all I could find out is that it’s a subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, PopularWorld.

I suppose the actual damage done by this outright stupidity is limited.  Nonetheless, it exists.  But how this stupidity occurred is another thing.  From what I learned on the interwebs, this edition of the Grade 3 curriculum was published in 2015, the previous edition in 2007.  I can’t tell if this stupidity was in the 2007 version, but it is certainly in the 2015 edition.

I have experience working in textbook publication. I have written copy for textbooks, I have edited textbook copy.  And I have reviewed textbooks before publication.  And this is for textbooks at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary education.  To get to publication, textbooks go through rounds of edits and expert review.  My guess is this didn’t happen here.  I have also worked with provincial boards in Canada to revise curriculum, including textbooks.  Deep thought and careful consideration goes into this process.  And I have friends who work with homeschoolers, at least in Québec, to ensure that the textbooks and curriculum homeschoolers use and follow is appropriate.  And they take their job seriously.

So how did this happen?  Who wrote this stupidity?  Who allowed it to go to publication?  And why did it take two years for anything to happen?  Initially, Popular said it would revise future editions of the workbook.  Eventually, however, it agreed to recall already extant versions and make sure that this is edited when the book is re-printed.

Great.  But how did this happen in the first place?

Land & The Indigenous Population

June 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada.  The point of this day is to recognize the contribution of the indigenous population to Canada, as well as to reflect on the cost of imperialism and Canada’s systemic attempts to remove the indigenous population from the national landscape.  In Canada, it wasn’t as straight-forward as in the United States, where the government of President U.S. Grant and his successors used the US Army to clear the indigenous population off the Great Plains (and, of course, there’s Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears in the Southeast in the 1830s).  In Canada, outright violence was relatively rare, though it did occur.  Germs and disease did a lot of the work, to be fair.  As did European expansion across the continent, which affected migration patterns, and populations, of the wild life the indigenous population depended upon.  And then there were assimilative techniques, designed to make the indigenous population into good (white) Canadians.  The basic legislation covering the government’s interaction with the indigenes, the Indian Act, is the base line here.  But then there were things like the residential schools, a horror in and of their own right.

In short, Canada has historically abused and committed violence upon the indigenous population.  And it’s not like it’s got any better in recent times.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came into office in 2015 on the promise of fixing all the ills of Canada’s toxic relationship with the First Nations.  This was in the wake of the Idle No More movement that began in 2012.  But Trudeau hasn’t really delivered (yet, I remain optimistic), other than an inquiry into the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. But even that seems in danger.  More recently, Tragically Hip frontman, Gordon Downie, has become an ally of this movement.  So, for better or worse, the issue of indigenous history and indigenous rights is, at the least, on the national radar.

But twice in the past week, I have been told on social media that the indigenous population didn’t hold land in the way we conceive of land-holding and therefore, their claims to any land in Canada is null and void.  In short, as one interlocutor on Twitter said, ‘The Indians got conquered, they’re done.’ Another says that Canada was not founded by the indigenous population.

This reflects a story I read in the New York Times over the weekend about an élitist fishing lodge in Northern Quebec that is on unceded Innu territory.  There, a group of Innu delivered a proclamation to the manager of the fishing lodge that, amongst other things, demanded the land be handed back.  The Innu are essentially calling for Quebec to re-acquire this land along the Moisie River and give it back to them.  They will then grant usage to the owners of this fishing lodge, wealthy Americans all of them.  The president of the lodge, though, Donald C. Christ, a former partner at a prestigious New York law firm, however, states that, “‘I don’t think it will bring about any changes,’ he said. ‘There are many places in Canada where people are trying to undo history.'”

And this, I think, gets to the crux of the problem.  Canada as the nation we know it now is based primarily on British common law and European notions of property ownership.  Essentially, de Champlain, Cartier, et al. planted the French flag on the territory that became Canada and said this land now belonged to the King of France.  Other territories were claimed via the British in a similar manner. And, of course, the French ceded their interest in the land after the Conquest in 1760.  But, essentially, this argument states that history begins with the claiming of this land for European kings in the 16th-17th centuries.  Prior to that, there was no history of the land, legally speaking.

In essence, then, the land that comprises Canada now was obtained via sleight-of-hand and imperialism, as a foreign system of land ownership was instantly enforced, one that was incomprehensible to the indigenous population.  Not because of language barriers, though those existed, but due to cultural frameworks.

But the problem with this argument is that it’s wrong.  In 1763, following the conquest of the French territories of New France, Great Britain suddenly controlled the Eastern seaboard and the interior of North America as far west as the Mississippi.  And there were ongoing tensions in the Thirteen Colonies concerning land in the western expanses of the colonies.  Thus, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  Amongst other things, the Proclamation declares that the Crown must negotiate and arrange the sale of indigenous lands, through treaties, before it could be settled by Europeans.

In other words, George III recognized the sovereignty of the indigenous population of his territories in North America vis-à-vis the land.  And, essentially, this extended to the point of contact between the indigenes and the British, at that moment, the land was recognized to be in the possession of the indigenous population.

Thus, in some parts of what is now Canada, treaties were struck between the Crown and the indigenous nations.  Most famous of these are the so-called Numbered Treaties, that cover most of the land between Ontario and northeastern British Columbia.  To call these fair trades, however, is a misnomer.  The terms of treaty were usually imposed by the Crown (in right of Britain or the UK prior to 1867, and Canada after 1867).  The First Nations had only so much room to negotiate better terms for themselves.  And even after the treaties, Canada continued to whittle down indigenous land via land surrenders, some of them obtained through nefarious means.

In other parts of Canada, most notably the bulk of British Columbia, there are no treaties.   The Royal Proclamation was, in essence, ignored.  Thus, the Crown in Right of Canada, and the Crown in Right of British Columbia have, since the early 1990s, been engaged in a glacial-paced set of treaty negotiations with the First Nations of that province to settle land claim issues there.

At any rate, the claim that the advent of Canada negated the indigenous claim to the lands that now comprise the nation is fallacious.  And unlike what Christ, the American lawyer seems to think, this is not the undoing of history.  It is facing up to history and Canada’s imperialist past.

Canada’s National Shame redux

February 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

Yesterday, a new report was released on the plight of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in the healthcare system.  The title, “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment,” perhaps says all you need to know.  The CBC also posted a story on-line about the experiences of several aboriginal people vis-à-vis healthcare in Victoria, British Columbia.  A couple of the “highlights”:

  • Michelle Labrecque went to the Royal Jubilee Hospital complaining of severe stomach pain in 2008.  A doctor gave her a prescription.  When she got home and opened the paper with the prescription on it, it was a drawing of a beer bottle with a circle slashed through it.
  • Carol McFadden went to the doctor with a lump in her breast, only to be told she could’ve gone to mammography herself.  She now has Stage 4 breast cancer, and it has spread to her liver.
  • McFadden reports that whilst some doctors have been compassionate, others have been rude and brusque, to the point where they kick her bed when they want her attention, and continually asking her if she drinks or does drugs.

I recently read Joanna Burke’s book, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.  In it, she talks about the body in pain, and the responses thereto, both from the victims of the pain, as well as the medical profession.  Nineteenth century doctors, insofar as they discussed the colonialized body, they dismissed the idea that indigenous bodies could feel pain in the same way that an upper-class British man could.   For that matter, they also argued that working-class men had a higher tolerance to pain.  Their recommendation was to try to take the body in pain seriously, but not to be sympathetic, to be brusque when talking to the victim.  We live in the twenty-first century.  Why are aboriginal peoples treated this way by doctors?

Of course I know why, Canada is a deeply, deeply racist society vis-à-vis the aboriginal population.  It is acceptable in Canada to be openly racist against First Nations people.  I wish I could say I was surprised by the findings of this report.  I am not.

Canada’s National Disgrace

February 2, 2015 § 151 Comments

Two weeks ago, MacLeans, Canada’s only national news magazine, published an article that caused quite the uproar. Written by a former diplomat, Scott Gilmore, and entitled, “Canada’s Racism Problem? It’s Even Worse Than America’s,” it’s not hard to see why this upset people. Even better was the sub-title, “For a country so self-satisfied with its image of progressive tolerance, how is this not a national crisis?”  I wish I had written this article, it says what I’ve been saying for a long, long time.

Aboriginal peoples in Canada get screwed.  Have been since the first Europeans arrived, and still do today.  And that’s not going to change any time soon unless Canadians do something about it. But, in my experience, they don’t care.  Last year, I wrote a post about a funny sweatshirt that an aboriginal man, Jeff Menard, in Winnipeg (which MacLeans also called out as Canada’s most racist city) created that said: “Got Land? Thank an Indian.”  I wrote this post in response to a response I got to a tweet stating that if you thought this hoodie racist, you’re an idiot.  This response tweet said “I’m offended because they used the word Indian. My grandfather was from India. He worked for a living.”

How to unpack that? This tweet was anti-historical and offensive on so many levels.  Starting with being upset at the use of the word “Indian,”  the term applied to aboriginal peoples by Euro-Canadians historically.  But the real kicker is “He worked for a living.”  Many of the comments on Gilmore’s article, and a lot of the vituperative, racist tweets I saw complained that aboriginal peoples in Canada survive on handouts from the government and don’t work for a living.  No mention of imperialism, the taking of land, the systematic attempts by the Canadian government to steal away aboriginal languages, cultures, religions, and names, of the residential schools designed to also take the children of aboriginals away from them (to say nothing of the horrific sexual abuse therein).

Gilmore pointed just how badly aboriginal peoples get screwed in Canada, by comparing them to African-Americans in the United States, in easy table format, which I produce here (and hope that MacLeans doesn’t mind).  Look at those statistics and just try not to be offended, saddened, and, if you are Canadian, embarrassed.  Hell, even if you’re American, you should be embarrassed by these stats.  But, Gilmore’s right.  Canadians are a smug lot.  My Twitter feed is usually full of all kinds of anti-American comments, the implicit meaning is “Well, the US is a mess, thank god I live in Canada.”  Information such as this should end such discussions and puncture our smugness forever.


At the same time the furor over Gilmore’s article was raging, another debate was happening over the death of Makayla Sault, an 11-year old from the New Credit First Nation in Ontario. Makayla died of leukaemia.  When she was first diagnosed last year, she underwent chemotherapy in Hamilton, ON. But the side-effects were too great. And so she refused further treatment, preferring instead traditional medicine.  Obviously, it didn’t work.

This raises interesting questions, starting with who has the right to control the lives of children who have cancer.  But. Ultimately, we have to respect her decision.  Why? Because it was her life.

But, then the enfant terrible of Quebec journalism, Denise Bombardier, had to get involved.  Bombardier is perhaps most famous outside of Quebec for having been fired by Radio-Canada for having participated in a debate on marriage equality, taking the position against it.  At any rate, this is Bombardier’s comments on Makayla Sault (thanks to Mikayla Cartwright for the image):


For those who cannot read French, a few of the highlights: After complaining about the cost of political correctness, she states that Makayla made the choice to be treated according to traditional medicine, encouraged, perhaps, by her parents and other members of her First Nation.  Then the kicker, “A white child wouldn’t have to make this choice.  This is where we see the delusional ancestral rights of the aboriginals open the door to quackery. This child died because she was the sacrifical victim of a deadly, anti-scientific culture that is killing aboriginal people.”

It took me all of about 0.33 seconds to find a Euro-American child who faced this dilemma. Daniel Hauser, a 13-year old boy who was refusing treatment in 2009, for religious reasons.  Daniel Hauser, I might add, is white.  My Google search turned up other kids faced with this same awful dilemma (the same search also turned up other children in the same position).  So, Bombardier is factually wrong.

But she is also morally, ethically wrong.  Bombardier’s screed reads like far too many documents I read in the records of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the government agency (which has had many names) in charge of carrying out the responsibility that the Government of Canada has to aboriginals, according to treaties that both pre- and ante- date Confederation in 1867, as well as Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. In many of the documents I read during my days working in the field of aboriginal law and litigation in Ottawa, various employees of Aboriginal Affairs, from lowly agents in the field to the directors of the department in Ottawa, referred to the need to civilise the aboriginals, and how white people knew what was right for them.  In academia, we call this imperialism.

Bombardier says the same thing. She dismisses aboriginal culture as “anti-scientific” and “deadly.”  She refers to traditional ways of life as “quackery.”   In short, Canada needs to civilise the aboriginals for their own good, just as Aboriginal Affairs agents and employees argued a century ago.

In short, Gilmore is bang-on correct.  Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal population is a national disgrace and tragedy, made worse by the fact that most Canadians don’t know or don’t care, and a good number of them are part of the problem, as Bombardier shows.  Gilmore writes:

We are distracted by the stories of corrupt band councils, or flooded reserves, or another missing Aboriginal woman. Some of us wring our hands, and a handful of activists protest. There are a couple of unread op-eds, and maybe a Twitter hashtag will skip around for a few days. But nothing changes. Yes, we admit there is a governance problem on the reserves. We might agree that “something” should be done about the missing and murdered women. In Ottawa a few policy wonks write fretful memos on land claims and pipelines. But collectively, we don’t say it out loud: “Canada has a race problem.”

And until we do, nothing is going to change.



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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