Harder Politics When No Skin in the Game: Time to Address Racism
Perhaps it is just the heat because last year around this time, I wrote a blog about the discriminatory advertising being used by Eska Water. Their commercial for "pure" water included three men who were a mish-mash of stereotypes depicting Indigenous peoples. When confronted with the racist commercial, a spokesperson defended the company by saying "the depiction was a generic one of native people and not meant to represent any specific group". What???
The depiction was indeed a racist depiction of Indigenous peoples and they did in fact, mean to represent a specific group of people - Indigenous peoples. The fact that none of their non-Indigenous test group identified any problems and in fact offered positive comments about the ad, shows a much deeper problem. Racism against Indigenous peoples in Canada is so ingrained that some in society can't even identify it when they see it. It is so ingrained in fact, that no one in the company thought to include any Indigenous peoples in the consumer test group.
(1) Companies should include a broad cross-section of society in consumer focus groups (this includes Indigenous peoples).
(2) Companies should use the multitude of resources available related to human rights, diversity and inclusion to prevent harmful situations of racism and discrimination.
Royal Canadian Legion:
Less than two weeks ago, it was reported that the Royal Canada Legion in Cranbrook, BC had published a newsletter which included a racist joke about Indigenous peoples. This "joke" was not your usual combo of insulting stereotypes, this one had a hateful undertone which mocked the killing of Indigenous peoples with impunity.
The response was that the joke "only offended one person" and that it was meant to "get a laugh". I can't imagine a time when a racist joke would be funny, but in no stretch of the imagination is the murder of an Indigenous person funny. Many of our Indigenous peoples lost their lives fighting alongside Canadian soldiers in war. On average, 40% of Indigenous children who entered residential schools never came out alive. Starlight Tours have resulted in countless deaths of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples die pre-mature deaths everyday from conditions of extreme poverty caused by chronic underfunding of essential social services like food, water and housing. This is no joke.
Simply removing the joke from the newsletter without a sincere apology and commitment to do better does little to educate their legion members about racism, discrimination and how it impacts all their members. I doubt it did much to make amends for the shock, insult and hurt most likely felt by the Indigenous members of the Legion, as well as other non-Indigenous Legion members who care deeply about the human rights of all members of society.
(1) When an organization makes a mistake which hurts 1 person, 3 people or a 1000 people, own up to it, apologize, make amends, and take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again.
(2) Any organization can use this kind of situation as a learning opportunity to educate its members about discrimination, what it is, how it can occur, the harm it does and most importantly, how to prevent it altogether.
Last week, I was again contacted by my social media contacts, this time about a restaurant in Toronto that allegedly used racist language in their burger menu. When I was sent a copy of the menu and read that one item was called the "Dirty Drunken Half Breed", I honestly thought it was a bad joke (as in it wasn't a real menu item). I went online and checked it out and it was indeed an actual menu item.
I personally found it hard to believe that anyone in Canada would NOT know that this type of language is both racist and discriminatory. In my opinion, the response from the restaurant was equally offensive. Here are some excerpts from their Twitter response which went from apologetic to angry and defensive:
"We at Holy Chuck r truly sorry to anyone who was offended by our burger TDDHB. It has been removed..."
"I can see why people are offended. We'll chng name"
"Our menu at HC is meant to be entertaining & funny!"
"Once again I am sorry but I've never heard of the Metis people!"
"Totally blown out of proportion"
"Enough's enough! ... there's nothing more we can do"
"I'm done tweeting & there's nothing else to b said! I'm on Vacation & I plan on enjoying the rest of it! Beach and Pina colada's await!"
After reading this series of emails, would anyone consider Holy Chuck's apology to be sincere? It sounds more to me like the apology was an attempt to shake off the issue so the owner could get back to his/her drinks. No sincere apology ever starts with the words "I'm sorry but..." - that is merely a means of deflecting responsibility. Discrimination is not about the alleged intent of the perpetrator, it is about actual impact on the person offended.
It would have taken literally 2 seconds on the Internet to find numerous definitions for the word "half breed" had the business cared as much about its customers as it did its profits. Definitions of the word "half breed" include: a disparaging and offensive word for the offspring of parents of different racial origin, especially the offspring of an American Indian and a white person of European heritage; or an offensive word for a person of mixed racial descent, especially a person of Native American and white parentage. Adding the words "dirty" and "drunken" to the mix makes it even more offensive.
Trying to deny responsibility by claiming ignorance to the existence of Metis people in Canada can hardly be said to be an apology, but rather acts as further insult.
(1) Anyone operating a business that provides a service of any kind to the public must know who their serving - the population of Toronto is made up of many different groups, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit - take the time to learn about them.
(2) Business owners can avoid acts of discrimination by making themselves aware of human rights laws in their particular province, as well as any potentially applicable federal human rights laws.
The most recent issue of discrimination that has been brought to my attention is one that still has not been resolved. Ian Campeau, otherwise known as Dee Jay NDN from the music group, A Tribe Called Red, has, for some time now, been trying to work amicably with the youth football team called Nepean Redskins to help them change their name.
Instead, the responses from the local city councillor and the team has been anything but apologetic or helpful. The football club's President has been silent on the issue, although he was quoted last year as saying that they "don't use the name in a racist way". The city councillor, Jan Harder, said that "there is nothing wrong with the name" and that the issue has "nothing to do with her". What a bizarre series of statements to make.
First of all, when I used 3 seconds to look up the meaning of the word "redskin", this is what I found:
- an offensive and disparaging word used to describe North American Indians;
- offensive slang and disparaging term for Native American;
- dated and offensive term for American Indian;
- offensive term for Native Americans like "red man" and "injun".
I don't think there is any doubt that the term is offensive. But the word has far more meaning that just being a racist insult. Colonizers used to scalp Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States. In some areas of Canada, there were bounties on the scalps of Mi'kmaw men, women and children which decimated our Nation by up to 80%. The fact that American soldiers would sometimes skin an entire Indigenous person is horrific and a stark reminder of the genocide committed against Indigenous peoples in all its forms.
How the Nepean Redskins team President, Stephen Dean, could say that the team does not use the name in a racist way makes absolutely no sense when the name itself is racist. There is no neutral use of the term "redskin", unless you are talking about potatoes, and we all know that is not the case here. This shows an extremely deep level of ignorance. If we were to exchange any other racist name of another cultural group - there would be no question about the racist nature of it. The difference here is that its "just" Indigenous peoples we are offending, which appears to be very acceptable to some non-Indigenous people.
The further offensive appropriation of Indigenous symbology and likeness for a non-Indigenous football team is also offensive. But the most telling comments came from city councillor Jan Harder who said there is nothing wrong with the name and the issue has nothing to do with her. We've already established that there is a lot wrong with the name. But Harder has hit on an important point: she has no skin in the game, so to speak, so what's it to her? She is not Indigenous and she obviously knows or cares very little about the historical and ongoing discrimination against Indigenous peoples.
As city councillor, she has worked on finances, land development, environment and hydro. Why on earth would she want to know anything about Indigenous peoples? Never mind that all of those issues impact the lives of Indigenous peoples in significant and often destructive ways. Over 13,000 Aboriginal people live in Ottawa - I am quite sure that some even live in Councillor Harder's ward. Whether there is one Indigenous person who is offended or 1000, according to Canada's laws, she is obligated to act on behalf of all people in her district, not just her and "anyone else I know" that looks, acts, and thinks like her.
Personally, I would like to see Harder do her job and Dean stop hiding from the issue and deal with it. What else can Ian Campeau do? He has tried to deal with this amicably, he has offered to fundraise so that the team can transition to a new name and has contacted various people. By ignoring the issue, the team risks bad publicity, a human rights complaint, a boycott on their funders, and continued hurt amongst the Indigenous peoples in Ottawa and beyond.
(1) The team could use this issue as an opportunity to get everyone in the community engaged and come up with a community-based strategy to transition from their current racist name to one that everyone can enjoy.
(2) The team should read the following letter from Leanne Simpson, who expresses with great insight and gentle compassion, why the team ought to change its name. Seriously take the time to consider her words:
Just in case you are not convinced, I invite the public to write, call or visit the councillor and team president to show them how much this impacts everyone who wants to live in a discrimination-free society.
City Councillor Jan Harder
Councilor, Ward 3 Barrhaven
T - 613-580-2473
F - 613-580-2513
President Stephen Dean
Ontario Human Rights Commission
180 Dundas Street West, Suite 900
Toronto, ON M7A 2R9
Also, here is a new petition started by Ian Campeau to have the name changed:
*Full disclosure - I used to work at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission as an investigator of human rights complaints.