Tag Archives: First Nations

Canada’s Apartheid

17 Dec

Thomas Mulcair wrote a very touching tribute to Nelson Mandela in today’s Toronto Star, using Mandela’s story of struggle and eventual triumph over a deeply racist regime as a call to arms to Canadians to affect change in our own country. Like so many of the things that I’ve seen presented by the NDP lately (and by lately, I guess I mean since Jack Layton’s death), it has a nice, socialist gloss to it but, upon closer inspection, doesn’t actually live up to what I expect from my party. To give credit where credit is due, there are several things that Mulcair gets right in his piece. There are also a few things that he gets very, very wrong.

I’ve read quite a few tributes to Mandela written by prominent white folks over the past week, and Mulcair’s is, on the surface, different from many of them. What sets his piece it apart from most of the others is the fact that Mulcair makes a fairly direct comparison between South Africa’s apartheid regime and Canada’s treatment of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. He’s not wrong, either – in fact, the apartheid system was based on Canada’s Indian Act. Our residential schools, Indian Reserve and many other deeply racist systems inspired South Africa’s oppressive regime. I’m glad that at least one of our federal leaders has (somewhat) acknowledged this in their remarks on Mandela’s death.

What Mulcair gets so very, very wrong is in how he talks about the fall of the apartheid and Mandela’s role in it. South Africa, he says, is a “miracle.” Mandela, he said, “inspire[d] people to be more forgiving, to be more united, to be better than they ever thought possible.” There is no mention of the involvement of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, which Mandela co-founded, in violent political resistance, resistance that was key in bringing apartheid to an end. There is no mention of the fact that Mandela himself was implicated in that violence; no discussion of the fact that part of the reason Mandela was sent to prison was because he was responsible for bombing a power plant. Though we seem to like to imagine that Mandela brought change to South Africa with nothing but wise words and a kind, grandfatherly smile, the truth is very different. Mandela fought for his freedom, tooth and nail.

And yet the western world has somehow managed to whitewash all of Mandela’s actions, to the point where we no longer remember that at one point in time America considered him to be a terrorist. And the same people who are lauding Mandela are those that I see complaining about First Nations blockades and protests on a regular basis. It’s a funny sort of cognitive dissonance – if we declare ourselves in support of the fight to end the apartheid in South Africa, then shouldn’t it necessarily follow that we also support the fight to end the oppression of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples? If we can have this kind of unwavering love and support for a man who bombed a power plant in order to bring down a racist regime, then shouldn’t we offer some kind of aid and encouragement to the citizens of our own country who are trying to protect their lands from environmental devastation? How is it that we, as Canadians, manage to view these two situations as being entirely different?

It also seems pretty funny that what Mulcair wrote could almost be taken as an endorsement of radical and perhaps even violent tactics in order to further decolonization, considering that his response to almost any type of First Nations protest is to ask them to work with the Canadian government.

Take, for example, his official statement on the current events in Elsipogtog:

New Democrats are very concerned about the escalating situation involving the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. We are monitoring the situation closely. We join the Assembly of First Nations in calling for calm on all sides. The safety and security of all parties is our number one concern at this time. This situation underlines the importance of peaceful and respectful dialogue between governments and Indigenous peoples.

Or else his response to Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike:

I would sincerely call upon Chief Spence to realize that there has been a step in the right direction, to try and see now if we can keep putting pressure on the government to follow through. The government seems to be moving so I think that the best thing to do would be to step back from that now.

It’s just the same old racist bullshit of asking the oppressed to work with their oppressors. He’s not adding anything new or helpful; he’s just reiterating what the First Nations peoples have been hearing for generation after generation. His approach is not going to solve anything. Peaceful talks with a racist and oppressive government, a government that has a vested interest in continuing to marginalize the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, are not going to bring about any kind of real change.

As NDP candidate Shannon Phillips said,

“Nelson Mandela didn’t do 27 years in prison for sitting in the wrong seat on the bus. He was there, in part, for his role in bombing a power station in order to make the machinery of a racist regime grind to a halt. A regime most of the world, including Canada under those Great Liberals Pearson and Trudeau, thought was completely a-ok. So can we just remember that next time we see indigenous people blockading a highway? Thanks.”

So the next time you hear about a First Nations blockade or protest or hunger strike, I want you to look at it from a different angle. I want you to consider how our government’s treatment of the Aboriginal peoples of this country compares to the South African apartheid. And most of all I want you to ask yourself: if he were here, in Canada today, what would Nelson Mandela do?

Photo credit: Ossie Michelin

Photo credit: Ossie Michelin

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A Few Small Things

16 Oct

Hey y’all, here are a few things I wanted to share with you today:

1. Here is a post about women in geek culture that I wrote for Shameless Magazine’s blog. I am really proud of it! I am also super stoked that I had the chance to write it, and want to give Shameless Magazine a thousand smooches for publishing my stuff. If you want to read about misogyny, racism, and the lack of representation of queer and trans folks in geek culture, you should check it out. If you want to read about my love for Wil Wheaton, you should DOUBLE check it out.

OMGGGGGG IMAGINE IF WIL WHEATON EVER READ IT, I WOULD DIIIIIEEEEEE.

Hi, Wil Wheaton, call me, okay?

2. It looks like The Gap has pulled the Manifest Destiny shirt, and offered this lukewarm non-apology:

They tweeted something very similar yesterday, but it looks like the tweet has been removed.

I would really love for them to handle this the way Paul Frank handled the recent outcry over their racist and offensive fashion show, and I’m still hopeful that they might, but it’s looking less and less likely.

One of my favourite parts of Paul Frank’s response is that they said they like to collaborate with an Aboriginal artist on future designs and that the profits from that collaboration would be donated to an Aboriginal cause. How amazing would it be if The Gap could follow their lead?

3. My Manifest Destiny post was featured on BlogHer! It’s on the front page of the site, and it feels bananas to load the page and see something I wrote front and centre. I feel super flattered that they featured it!

4. You should really check out my friend L’s response to Gap’s Manifest Destiny debacle over at her blog, Life In Pint-Sized Form. Her grandfather is a full-blood Chippewa, and she brings a fantastic perspective to this issue. Reading what she wrote literally gave me chills.

5. Artist Gregg Deal, who is Aboriginal and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, created this image in response to Manifest Destiny shirt:

I love these designs because they show so clearly the subtext behind the term Manifest Destiny, a subtext that many people seem hesitant to acknowledge. Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? I also love that he used humour to address the racism of Gap’s design, because I think that humour can be a super important weapon against all forms of intolerance.

5. October 15th was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. Two of my friends wrote very movingly about their experiences with miscarriage and stillbirth, and I wanted to share their posts with you. The first is from my friend Jodi, who blogs over at Mama To Bean and whose son Joel was stillborn last year – you can read her reflections on what this day means to her here.

The second post comes from The Yellow Blanket, which is written anonymously by a woman who has suffered multiple unexplained pregnancy losses. She writes incredibly movingly about her losses, and what her pregnancies have meant to her.

If you plan on reading these posts, I would suggest that you break out the kleenex.

6. A lot of the stuff in this post has been pretty heavy. If you need something to lift your spirits after all this profound grief/righteous indignation/sadness that you are not, in fact, married to Wil Wheaton, then I highly recommend The Hairpin’s Texts From Little Women. I was reading this in the yoga studio while there was a class going on, and I was trying SO HARD to stifle my laughter because, well, Jo March. God I love Jo March.

Here’s a sample – the italicized text is Jo March, and the plain text is Meg March:

I hope you realize you’re breaking up the family 

I really wish you wouldn’t see things that way

a broken home 
that’s what I come from now 
a broken home

that’s not what they call it when your sister gets married

then why does it feel broken, Meg
why does it feel broken
this is the worst thing 
that has ever happened 
to anyone 
since Father died 

Father didn’t die, Jo!
he’s only been wounded!

oh 
didn’t he? 
for some reason I thought he’d died 

no
he’ll be home in a few weeks
Ah

do you suppose he’s going to want his old greatcoat 
and riding boots 
and shaving things 
and top hat
when he gets back? 

I expect that he will

HANG EVERYTHING” 

Hang everything indeed.

Mark McNairy, I Can’t Even

15 Oct

Mark McNairy, the man who designed the Manifest Destiny shirt for The Gap, tweeted the following on Saturday evening:

(He has since deleted the tweet, but fortunately a few people were able to get screen grabs)

When I saw this, I turned to Matt and said, He must not know what Manifest Destiny means.

I mean, he can’t know, right? There is no way that I can live in a world where a white American dude just posted publicly on the internet that the systematic oppression, destruction and abuse of North American Aboriginal peoples happened because white people are the FITTEST. I can’t possibly live in that world.

See, this is where my own wilful ignorance kicks in. When writing about issues like this, I try really, really hard to be fair and objective. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and do my best to offer an unbiased, balanced perspective on issues that trigger big emotions in me. I tend to assume that everyone has good intentions, but they just get bogged down by misuse of language, or lack of information. When someone says something as glaringly racist and offensive as the above, my brain just can’t process the fact that they might be serious.

What does he even mean by fittest, anyway? Is he referring to the Aboriginal peoples’ lack of immunity to diseases such as smallpox that were endemic in most European populations? Does he mean the fact that said members of the European population had guns when they arrived in North America while the indigenous peoples didn’t? Does he think that by swaggering onto this continent and declaring everything they saw as theirs, our colonial ancestors are somehow more fit? Does he think that the North American Aboriginal peoples are where they are today because they just haven’t worked hard enough?

If that last one is the case, I would like to paraphrase the first sentence of this article: If wealth and being  was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, the members of the First Nations populations would be millionaires.

What I want to do right now is call this McNairy fellow up and ask him if he’s aware of what he’s saying, and if he’s thought about what the fallout from his careless remarks might be. I want to point out that he owns his own (eponymous) business, and, as an ambassador for this brand, he needs to be aware that everything he says will have an impact on his business’ success. I want to reach through the phone, grab him by the shoulders and yell, What the hell were you thinking?

Of course, the questions that I really want to ask are the ones whose answers I’m not sure I can handle

What I need to know the most is whether Mark McNairy cares about how hurtful his remarks were. I need to know if he’s thought about what it would be like to grow up in the grinding poverty and inhumane living conditions of many of the First Nations’ reserves, only to be told by a white man that you are there, on that reserve, because of survival of the fittest. I need to know if he’s thought about what it would be like to see the name of the philosophy that led to the attempted genocide of your people splashed across a t-shirt, and then see the man responsible for that  shirt taking to Twitter to defend it. I need to know if he’s ever thought about anything outside of his existence as a privileged white man.

I am afraid to know what McNairy’s responses would be to these questions. Afraid, yes, but still brave enough to hear them. Because I will never be able to overcome my own wilful ignorance, my smiling, apologetic naïveté until I am forced to look at the naked truth.

I can’t possibly live in a world where people say things like this, except that I do.

Manifest Destiny (or, whoa, Gap Inc, what the hell?)

14 Oct

Full disclosure: I like The Gap. Honestly, I do. Since Theo’s birth, I’ve spent a significant portion of my time (and income) in Gap Kids, cooing over pint-sized button-down shirts, cunning little sweater vests and pastel onesies with adorably clever graphics. I’ve even written here before about how impressed I was that they were selling pink and purple clothing in the boys’ department.

So imagine my surprise and dismay when I learned that they were selling men’s t-shirts with MANIFEST DESTINY written in bold letters across the chest.

Gap x GQ Mark McNairy Manifest T

This t-shirt is part of a collection called Gap x GQ, which The Gap says is “an exclusive menswear collection [created by] GQ’s best new designers”. The specific person responsible for the MANIFEST DESTINY shirt is Mark McNairy, an American fashion designer who is known for his past work for J.Press and Southwick, and who now has his own label, Mark McNairy New Amsterdam. While this might mean that Gap Inc themselves aren’t the ones who dreamed up this graphic, certainly a team of their own designers and quality control people would have had to approve it. You would think that somewhere in the design, review and manufacturing process, someone would have realized how glaringly racist this shirt is. You would think.

For those of you who don’t know what Manifest Destiny is, and why this shirt is so offensive, let’s have a brief history lesson.

The term Manifest Destiny was coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845 as part of his campaign to encourage the annexation of Texas and Oregon County. His first use of the phrase, in the 1845 July-August issue of the Democratic Review, didn’t draw much attention, but the second time he used it, in a column published in the New York Morning News on December 27th, 1845, became extremely influential:

“And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Manifest Destiny became the smart, fancy-sounding name for a belief that had already been around for quite some time: namely, that white folks of European descent were destined to rule the entirety of North America. These people truly believed that it was God’s will that they colonize the new world and systematically destroy any civilizations that might already be occupying the lands they wanted.

Manifest Destiny and the philosophy behind it are responsible for a whole bunch of really terrible things. It was used to justify the Mexican-American War, the War of 1812, and, most appallingly,  the Indian Removal Act. Manifest Destiny was used to vindicate the myriad abuses suffered by people of colour at the hands of white North Americans. It’s the philosophy that lead to our continent-wide reservation system , not to mention the residential schools created for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

The effects of Manifest Destiny can still be felt, in the poverty and degradation suffered by American and Canadian people of colour, and in the deplorable conditions found on many reserves, both here and south of the border. The ideas behind manifest destiny still exist in our white western consciousness, as much as we might be loathe to admit it; they come up every time our (largely white) government asserts that it knows best when it comes to First Nations issues, or every time someone complains about how much freaking money has already been spent on Attawapiskat only to have their community still be in a state of crisis. Manifest Destiny is apparent every time someone chooses to be bigoted and wilfully ignorant about non-white immigrants, or tries to deny the far-reaching effects of racism; it’s apparent in the mindset of all the people who never take a moment to wonder why or how so many white people ended up owning so much fucking land.

Look, I don’t think that The Gap, or Mark McNairy, or GQ, or anyone involved here was trying to be offensive. My guess is that they thought that Manifest Destiny was a hip-sounding phrase, one that conveyed the idea of taking control over one’s own life or something like that. I’m certain (or at least hopeful) that Gap Inc. will end up pulling this shirt from their stores, issue a formal apology, and go through a brief, though sincere, period of mea culpa. As unbelievable as it is to me, I’m sure that those responsible for designing, approving and manufacturing this shirt did not understand the full scope of what its graphic meant.

And that, in a nutshell, is the main problem here.

The problem is that we want to forget; as white North Americans, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by forgetting. We even ask that people of colour, especially, in this case, Aboriginal peoples, participate in our collective cultural amnesia. We tell them that we’ll never have the post-racial society that everyone wants until we stop bringing up the past, stop licking old wounds. We don’t want to feel guilty, especially as we often believe that we, the generation living now, are not responsible. After all, it wasn’t us drafting racist and genocidal laws calling for the relocation and often murder of an entire race of people; it wasn’t us sending thousands of First Nations kids to residential schools, where they would be subject to a dizzying array of abuses.

We don’t have blood on our hands; we’re good people. It’s not our fault that our ancestors were assholes, right?

What we often forget is that our privileged lives are built on the foundation of these grievous human rights abuses; we might not be our asshole ancestors, might even willingly speak out against the crimes they committed, but we’re still pretty fucking happy to reap the benefits of those crimes. We do have blood on our hands, whether we like it or not.

So maybe it’s not a bad thing that The Gap made this t-shirt; and maybe, rather than flinging vitriol at Gap Inc. and swearing to boycott their brand, we can all of us use this as an opportunity to start a dialogue about what Manifest Destiny really means, and the ways that we, as modern-day North Americans, can fight against its lasting effects. I would love if Gap Inc. would be the ones to start this dialogue; I would love for them to take this chance to talk about our racist heritage, and how our wilful blindness to the past lead them to allow for the design and creation of this shirt. That would be pretty cool, right?

I mean, almost as cool as the idea that God wants you to take over a whole fucking continent, destroying and degrading the civilizations that are already there, just because your skin is white.

Spirit of the Frontier by John Gast – possibly the graphic for The Gap’s next line of colonial shirts?

P.S. There is an online petition that you can sign asking that Gap Inc discontinue this t-shirt and issue a formal apology