As I sit looking at the newspapers from the past few weeks it is apparent to me that a lot of learning is needed. Please be patient with me as I explain and share some of my own knowledge and opinions.
First, let’s talk about racism. (I expect some of you are cringing at that word.) What is racism? “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of colour based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.” We also should acknowledge systemic racism “a combination of systems, institutions and factors that advantage white people and for people of colour, cause widespread harm and disadvantages in access and opportunity.” Both of these concepts are part of the discussion on renaming Colonization Road. I’m not suggesting that all of the people who don’t want the name changed are intentionally racist, but I will say that they are wearing blinders and do not see the depth of this issue; in taking their stance they are supporting systemic racism that oppresses Indigenous people and other marginalized groups. As the law says, ignorance is no excuse; as a citizen on this country who benefits from systems and services you have a responsibility to learn.
You might be wondering why I care so much about this; the fact of the matter is that this is personal to me as an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe woman). Over the past decade I have developed a deeper understanding of racism and how it affects me, my family, and the Indigenous people I know and love. I see the effects of colonization on children, adults, families, and communities across Turtle Island and around the world. Knowledge of this is hard to ignore and I’m not a person to ignore what I think is wrong so I’ve been doing work to educate fellow teachers across Ontario about these issues. I hope that people of Fort Frances can make a commitment to this kind of work and in that spirit I am making some comments about colonization in general, and some of the recent discussion about the name change.
Colonization has created a system of oppression that is ongoing. I realize that you may not be educated on what this means so I invite you to take the time to research, read, and learn. Please keep in mind that it’s not the job of the people impacted to educate you. Honestly, we’ve been doing that for decades and settler-Canadians (non-Indigenous folks) still assert that it’s their right to benefit from the oppression of Indigenous people in Canada. There are many books, blogs, and other resources out there that you can learn from. Do the work.
Next I’d like to respond to some points brought up in the local discussion the first being the that this is inconvenient. Consider, if you will, this question: what if a street was named Aushwitz Lane? Apartheid Crescent? Would you think that your personal convenience should come ahead of changing those street names? What message would this give to the people whose lives were destroyed by these processes? The Holocaust, Apartheid, and European colonization have all caused great harm to specific groups of people; celebrating or even tolerating any aspect of these is morally questionable at best. I challenge you to learn and to look at this issue from the perspective of those whose lives have been affected. Your brief inconvenience can be the impetus for building a relationship of trust. Will you do this?
Second, I heard some people express their opinion that colonization was “in the past” and “it’s over”. It is not over. There are thousands of people still living in trauma. Indigenous people make up a disproportionate percentage of prison population. Scores of Indigenous people are just discovering how they were taken from their family and given to strangers for adoption, at times being essentially sold “for a small fee”. Many people have no idea how their children died at residential schools; these were sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. Many of these children have no known burial spot. And still, today, children of Indigenous people are seized at birth for no reason, left to languish in unsafe foster homes, murdered, stolen. Indigenous women are sterilized without consent, or under coercion. It’s not over – colonization is still alive and thriving in Canada. Will you open your eyes and acknowledge this? Will you see how our communities are affected?
I also have concerns about public statement of opinions. I was appalled to see the editor of the newspaper allowing for anonymous letters as the Times’ policy strictly states that all letters must be signed and that names will be published. The editor defends her decision to allow this as being “the start of a conversation”. I wonder if she intends to create opportunities for the conversation to continue?
If we are to make any movement toward reconciliation we need to start with small steps. It will be awkward, sometimes downright painful. You may cry when you acknowledge that you’ve benefited from colonization and ongoing systemic racism in Canada. But you will come out the other side with more integrity and with a new understanding of what this is all about. You won’t have to become defensive when these topics are brought up, because you’ll understand that it isn’t personal. Don’t you think it’s worth it?
JoAnne Formanek Gustafson
Member of Couchiching First Nation and Resident of Fort Frances
Editor’s Note: Our Letters policy is to publish names. However, the submissions in teh November 25th edition were not Letters. They were solicited through a door-to-door flyer drop. In addition, the conversation has certainly been allowed to continue, in the form of nearly two dozen Letters, all of which have been published.