Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on August 17, 2017
Canada has always liked to see itself as slightly better than the United States when it comes to racism. Certainly after this weekend’s violence in Virginia, in which Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists clashed with protesters over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, many comparisons have been made.
On Wednesday, the issue of identity politics was front and centre here, as CUSO International, along with Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and the Winnipeg Foundation, unveiled a new partnership called Mino Stat An. This project aims to help non-Indigenous organizations increase awareness and improve intercultural relations with Indigenous communities. It hopes to find ways for government, public institutions and businesses to understand Indigenous communities better.
Diane Redsky, the executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, said at the opening: “We’re at a critical time in our history; reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is in the best and strongest place today that it ever has been.”
She went on to say, “Reconciliation is about building a bridge between two distinct communities, that honours each other’s similarities, but most importantly honours our unique differences.”
It was a solemn moment, standing in stark contrast to the rhetoric from U.S. President Donald Trump, who fanned the flames of controversy in his already embattled presidency by insisting that both sides were responsible for the violence last weekend in Charlottesville.
But before we become too comfortable in Canada, too certain that we are immune to the ugliness of racism, recall that on Canada Day, a ceremony in Halifax commemorating missing and murdered Indigenous women was interrupted by members of the “Proud Boys,” a group that describes itself on its Facebook page as “western chauvinists” who “refuse to apologize for the modern world.”
Some were later identified as members of the Royal Canadian Navy. An investigation into the incident concluded on Tuesday, with officials saying the “results are being reviewed by the chain of command.”
Meanwhile, the statue of Edward Cornwallis, where the ceremony took place, remains a point of contention for local Mi’kmaq who have been pressuring Halifax city council to take the statue down. Cornwallis, the city’s founder, offered a bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps in response to attacks on colonists in the 1700s. The statue was temporarily covered with a shroud, but it remains onsite as the city tries to determine its next steps.
In Ottawa, the decision in June to change the name of the Langevin Block to the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council was greeted with criticism by many, concerned that political correctness is running amok. Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the Fathers of Confederation and is considered by many to be the architect of the residential school system. It is for that reason Indigenous leaders lobbied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to change the name.
The concerns voiced then are similar to the those voiced Wednesday by Trump, who said of the incident in Virginia on Saturday, “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week, it’s Robert E. Lee; I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
He continued, “George Washington was a slave owner. Are we going to take down statues of George Washington?… You’re changing history, you’re changing culture…”
It sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? I know I’ve heard it. I think I may have even said it myself, and for that I am deeply ashamed.
Which brings me back to Wednesday morning at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi, when Damon Johnston of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg ended the ceremony by asking us to be kind and to reach out to our neighbours with our heart and our hands, with reconciliation as the goal.
Maybe we aren’t like the U.S. yet. But we’re going to have to work incredibly hard to resist the temptation to go down that road. As Redsky says, “If it’s too easy, you’re doing it wrong.”
Shannon Sampert is the editor-in-chief and director of EvidenceNetwork.ca at the University of Winnipeg and one of thousands of Canadians who has epilepsy.
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