A. Grace Martin

Author, Student Teacher, Optimist and Promoter of Self-Empowerment


Recognizing Hidden FNMI Racism in Canada

Posted by agracemartin on January 30, 2015 at 6:40 PM

Sir Ken Robinson said, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." As an educator, I am going to go out on a limb here and admit that I have been wrong.

My past thinking has been wrong. I am guilty of stereotyping and I am going to admit it in hopes that others recognize their own harmful stereotypes too.

In my Social Context class we have been studying critical pedagogy. This is different than critical thinking, which involves making objective and rational decisions based upon a collection of evidence. Critical pedagogy is defined as a philosophy of education and a social movement that combines education with critical theory, but it is more than that. The desire for social justice comes from a deep caring and compassion towards students, and from this compassion comes the awareness of unequal opportunities that students face and a desire to level the playing field. Critical pedagogy requires the disclosure of one’s subjective beliefs to understand where the writer/speaker is coming from.


My subjective beliefs sound airy-fairy, partially because of my spiritually leaning toward the core ideals of all major religions: to love everyone, to not pass judgements on others, and to be as giving and compassionate as possible. But I don’t think that we need to “label” these values as religiously-oriented. So let us take away the dogmas and say that I value being a good human being.


Of course it is very difficult for us to not judge others. We contextualize our interactions based upon our pre-judgements and that is not a bad thing.

We learn new content by relating it to something that we are familiar with in our past experiences. Where we come into a problem is when we judge others based upon their “labels.”


Ask me if I am discriminatory and I will immediately say no. I love and honour all people as individuals. I am a supporter of equal rights. I believe that both men and women are equally capable in the workforce. I believe that people who live with disabilities should be identified by their strengths. I believe that you deserve to marry the partner that you love no matter what your sexual orientation is. I believe that your age is not a number so much as a personal feeling. I believe that all religions are to be respected as long as no one is harmed by it. Finally, I believe that skin colour is an honoured part of an individual’s heritage but that is the only way that it should matter.


I grew up in a middle-class family. My mother reprimanded us for using the phrase, “that’s so gay” until we understood that it was inappropriate and derogatory. We respected that not everyone would be raised with the same religious beliefs as us. My parents were open and honest about treating people equally. We would get outraged at the prospect of racism against people who were black (probably because we have black family members).


Yet even with such a tolerant and well-educated family, I somehow managed to adopt stereotypes against Aboriginal Canadian peoples. If you had asked me this morning if I was racist against FNMI (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit) people, I would have said absolutely not.

Isn’t ignorance bliss? I thought that because I am against racism, that because I enjoy learning about different cultures, that because I believe in equality, that I was not racist and could never allow racism to go unchecked around me. Somehow, I was not aware that my stereotypes are racist.

I love nature. I am deeply spiritual and identify with any spirituality that honours our connection with the earth. I admire FNMI artwork. I love watching Pow Wows and hoop dancers. I have not yet but am looking forward to attending my first drum circle. How could I possibly be racist?


I have had friends from multiple different heritages which have never influenced my relationships with them. I have had friends who identify as FNMI and that has not influenced my friendships with them, either. I have, however, stereotyped that most people on reserves have intensive problems including poverty and alcoholism. I have thought that part of Canada’s economic problem is giving welfare checks to one native person after another. I have nodded in agreement at the saying, “If I need a drug-tested to do my job, welfare checks should require them too.” I have felt disgust at reservations for asking for more money, because apparently the handouts that we give them are not enough. I have felt anger over the fact that I have thousands of dollars of student debt because I did not get a free ride like FNMI students do. I was especially offended when a colleague said that [he or she] would be highlighting [his or her] status to get a job—and would likely get the job above a more qualified individual because of [his or her] visible minority FNMI status. I have seen homeless people in my city and cast my eyes away thinking, "Oh please, not another drunk native asking for booze money." I have wondered why can't we just let the past go and move on? Even though I have always been aware of these sentiments within me, I did not realize until today that I was racist toward Canadian Aboriginals. That is because I have also seen wonderfully successful people of Aboriginal descent. I have been friends with them. I have seen many FNMI individuals studying hard alongside of me at my university. I even checked "yes" to the education practicum form question: would you want to teach on a reserve? In my mind I was not racist because I did not apply these stereotypes to all FNMI individuals--just some.


This, I think, is the real heart of the problem. Privileged middle and upper class individuals in Canada seem to be blind to the inherent racism in our country.


Wonder what changed my mind? I started reading a MacLean's article for my Social Context class. At first I was taken aback by the title: “Canada’s race problem? It’s even worse than America’s.” Then I started reading. Here is a quote from the article: “If we don’t have a race problem then what do we blame? Our justice system, unable to even convene Aboriginal juries? Band administrators, like those in Attawapiskat, who defraud their own people? Our health care system that fails to provide Aboriginal communities with health outcomes on par with El Salvador? Politicians too craven to admit the reserve system has failed? Elders like Chief Ava Hill, cynically willing to let a child die this week from treatable cancer in order to promote Aboriginal rights? Aboriginal people themselves for not throwing out the leaders who serve them so poorly? Police forces too timid to grasp the nettle and confront unbridled criminality like the organized drug-smuggling gangs in Akwesasne? Federal bureaucrats for constructing a $7-billion welfare system that doesn’t work? The school system for only graduating 42 per cent of reserve students? Aboriginal men, who have pushed their community’s murder rate past Somalia’s? The media for not sufficiently or persistently reporting on these facts? Or: us? For not paying attention.”


Another part of critical pedagogy is asking some hard questions about the status-quo. Consider the idea that those in poverty are kept in positions of disempowerment in our society due to hegemony—a system of dominance without overt oppression that is upheld by societal structures and generally accepted by the populace. If we want to bring about change, then let’s live by the proverb, “a fear named is a fear tamed,” and admit that Canada is not as racially tolerant as we would like to believe.


If you are like me, then while reading these articles you will start to feel an overwhelming mix of emotions, one of which being “I just realized that I am a part of the problem.” Another emotion might be a feeling of hopelessness. What can we possible do to fix such a messed up situation? Since this generation is the product of reservation schools taking away parental role models, can we give mass counselling sessions to teach parenting skills? Is there a way that we can overcome genetic predispositions to alcohol and substance abuse?


Then go ahead and read this article to the bottom: “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst. How the death of Tina Fontaine has finally forced the city to face its festering race problem.”


This past August of 2014 a young girl by the name of Tina Fontaine died in Winnipeg, which has apparently brought the issue of racism against Canadian FNMI peoples to a head.

Thankfully, there is hope. I believe that awareness cultivates understanding, and understanding can instigate change. Hope lives in every advocate for change.

I was especially inspired by Michael Champagne’s Tedx talk from 2012. Michael Champagne says "those labels--that oppresion--do not define you" and advocates for a focus on opportunities, as evidenced by his group AYO: Aboriginal Youth Opportunities.


This Ted talk led me to several others. As an Albertan citizen, Judge John Reilly’s talk hit a little closer to home for me.


When referring to a case of domestic violence, this judge realized that there “was a need to empower victims. She was accepting beatings like that because she didn’t know any better. She needed somebody to teach her that.” I also appreciated when he defined justice as every child having a safe bed at night.


I then found the video Reshaping racism by Matika Wilbur. I was struck by the usage of “American-Indian,” because I will admit, I am confused at what exactly is the most respectful terminology to refer to people of this North-American aboriginal heritage. As far as I am concerned, an Indian person is someone from the country of India. From my understanding, FNMI is the best terminology in Canada.


I have come to the conclusion that awareness is the most important factor in this discussion. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as raising awareness to think again. Growing up, I played Cowboys and Indians. I dressed as an Indian girl for Halloween one year and was very excited because my I had found a gunny sack and thick brown face paint to look as authentic as possible. Yet if someone had said, “here’s some great black-skin-tone face paint, why don’t you go as a black person?” or “this wig stretches your eyes so that you can look Asian,” my family and I would have called them racist. So how was me dressing up as an Indian not racist? Nancy Marie Mithlo gives a great TedTalk on this subject.


So what’s my big take-away?


Well my next Social Context class will certainly be one with an interesting discussion after reading the two above articles.


More importantly though, I am willing to admit that I have been wrong. I have passed judgements. I have not recognized my stereotypes as racism and for that I apologize not only to others but to myself. I am willing to forgive myself for not being aware of my double-standard. My colleague reminded me that it is very important not to dwell in guilt, but let new realizations like this spark a desire to promote change. Now that i have admitted my wrongdoings, I am ready to search for solutions. I am open to suggestions if you want to contact me!


What’s the solution?


Naming the issue as one of racism does not solve anything. The problems of poverty are still present. To quote the MacLean’s article, “federally funded reserve schools receive 40 per cent of the funding that non-reserve schools do, amounting to a per child gap of $2,000 to $3,000. Many reserve schools don’t have libraries. One in three doesn’t even have running water.”


Come on, Canada, we can change our system. We need to stop giving repeat “hand-outs” in the place of much-needed “hand-ups.” Seriously, let's give all Canadian citizens what they NEED, and stop throwing money into a broken welfare system that promotes learned helplessness. Help these individuals take back their dignity. Stop portraying FNMI people as “Indians” in the media. Put funding back into our educational and social work systems. Most importantly, we need to stop thinking of poverty, violence, and substance abuse as an "us" versus "them" problem. It's the 21st century and we are all Canadian citizens. Let's put our heads together and see what good we can do. Social justice advocates for change. If we encourage our youth the possibilities and opportunities are limitless.

Promote self-empowerment! 

Categories: Teaching Blog , Acceptance and Tolerance

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