by Kirsten Barkved
Sometime in my early twenties, in between my first year of post-secondary education and a part-time job that got me little to no savings, a grim appreciation for the general public and a strong, uncontrollable addition to coffee, I discovered that the world is not as happy and shiny as I had previously chose to believe it.
My manager, a young woman with blonde hair, a pretty diamond engagement ring and a fiancé with a shiny black SUV, upon discovering I lived in Fort Nelson for a stint, and that, in my words, it was a “whole entire universe up there” said:
“Well, what do you expect, it’s all Indians up there, right?”
Well, actually, what the twenty-year-old version of me had been referring to was the snow, the cold and the partying. Shiny bubble popped, I sat in my chair, mouth agape, eyebrows hiding somewhere in my hairline. And while I’d like to say I marched right out of my job, angry at the blatant racism, frustrated at the ignorance and lack of understanding that flooded her words, I sat there. In silence.
And the silence is just as bad as her eleven-word sentence
It’s not that I had been walking around with wide-eyed innocence akin to Cindy Loo Hoo. I just chose to believe that in every person, act or event, there are linings made of silver sweetness that could outweigh the negative. And sometimes this translated into a naïveté that walked dangerously close to white privilege.
As a white woman, residing somewhere in the grey area of lower/middle class, I experience a privilege that others do not. It means that while I can’t really leave my house without receiving some form of sexual objectification based on my gender, I am, however, able to walk out my house without feeling oppressed, discriminated or violently and systematically excluded by my skin colour.
And if you think that racism in Canada is something that is rare, a phenomenon that you excuse once in a blue moon when your Bible thumping grandma comes to visit, you are sadly mistaken.
Racism is abundant. It’s in everything. We live in a patriarchal society that culturally values certain qualities (i.e. white, male, upper class, able-bodied) and trivializes, indeed, marginalizes those who do not possess said social constructions. Having all of these qualities makes you king of the preverbal castle. Having little to none leaves you under a glass ceiling: always seeing what you could possibly have, never actually being able to reach it. We saw this in the housing crisis that First Nations people in Attawapiskat experienced in 2011.
Maybe it’s true that, as a nation, we’ve come a long way from our founding upon assimilationist policies. And peaceful, grassroots movements like Idle no More, with it’s national and international attention, have raised awareness in the last year for Indigenous Sovereignty and Indigenous ways of knowing. Awareness is growing about the ways in which bills, treaties, laws and other Eurocentric ways of knowing have historically and systematically failed a group of people whose way of living has been altered, lost and forgotten along the path of cultural genocide.
Enter the internet: a great, vast “untamed wilderness” for stories like the state of emergency for the Attawapiskat people to be read, shared and commented on. The beauty of the 21st century is that we live in an information age in which stories can be spread faster than melting butter. And that’s a marvelous thing. That we can access people, their lives and their plights across miles, lines on maps and be informed about the happenings of a nation that supposedly prides itself on being a mosaic, a beacon for diversity.
It seems nothing is more readily shared than the suffering of others. Whether as a form of maintaining empathy or recognizing the pain in others as pain we may feel ourselves one day, or have felt once; tragedies are stories in the news that we latch onto because they are reminders to be kind, to be compassionate, helpful, considerate, and above all else, be humane.
I think back to the recent flooding in Alberta, and the status updates that overwhelmed my Facebook news feed for days. A whole city came together to help their neighbors, people they didn’t even know. People from neighboring provinces, even just those caught up in the media, left comments on news articles: messages for hope, support and sympathy for those affected by the natural disaster that left an entire city in a state of emergency.
And then I think to the housing crisis in Attawapiskat. October 11, 2011. The Attawapiskat First Nations leader, Chief Theresa Spence, whose hunger strike drew public attention to the crisis faced by many First Nations, declared a state of emergency, her third in three years. Cold temperatures, inadequate housing conditions, overcrowded shacks and tents, no running water or running electricity, families with little food or supplies, some living just feet away from a poorly cleaned up sewage spill (resulting from a massive flood that in 2009 had the entire reservation evacuated); these were some of the issues that made their way into public media releases.
Responses to the mass flooding and states of emergency in the Attawapiskat region? Charlie Angus, author of the brilliantly poignant article “Taking on the Trolls: Why the Online Race-Hatred Against First Nations?” found these gems:
“Just give them some firewater and they will go away until they need their next hit. Has worked for hundreds of years.” Read more