I wrote this piece for The Guardian a couple of years ago, just after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. As I post this, families of slain police officers in Dallas are trying to understand what life is like without the one they love. Others are waiting still in hospital rooms. I don’t have anything I can speak into this American war, invested as it is with rhetoric, violence, exclusion, and a desperate thrust for freedom and safety.
We Canadians have our issues too. This piece addresses that problem. Since I wrote it, the Murdered and Missing Women conversation has gotten some energy, and there is a new government. But my concern moves past the great, powerful people to the normal people who walk streets and shop at local stores and make posts on facebook. I can’t say anything about cops murdered for being white or young men murdered for being black, but I hope this is relevant to how we are supposed to live.
My own experience with police officers has been entirely positive. Sure, when I was young with long hair and an old VW Golf held together with duct tape, I was a road target. But to a man, every police officer I have ever gotten to know is a centred, stable, supportive community presence.
So when I had heard a story about Saskatoon officers picking up downtown aboriginal men and women and dumping them outside the city to freeze to death, despite years of TV stereotypes about corrupt cops I did not believe it.
I believe it now, since Ferguson.
Sheltered from overt racism here in Prince Edward Island, it wasn’t until I moved to southern Alberta that I saw the depth of the problem. As part of my youth work I had an office in student services at Lethbridge Community College. About one-quarter of our students were aboriginal — nearly 800 natives, as they were called then. I watched committed staff and hard-working students do their best. But it was not enough.
Racism was rampant through the city. It did not manifest itself in individual attacks or even hatred. It was worse than that. It was the constant, systematic use of stereotypes to confirm the alienation of aboriginal people. When I would point out the use of stereotypes, my conversation partner mentioned by name one or two or three Indians who conform to all our low expectations. When I suggested that decades of state persecution and cultural genocide might set a person back a few steps, the answer was simple: “Yeah, well, he should sober up and get a job.”
There are enough stories of prairie prejudice to freeze our blood, but it was actually worse in Vancouver, one of the great multicultural cities on the planet. Living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as Robert Pickton was being arrested, it was chilling to realize that many of the people who lived off Hastings between Main and Commercial knew a great deal about the missing women case that the police did not seem to know. The people who lived alongside the women — most of whom were aboriginal -— knew that the police were not interested in seeing justice done. No one thought the police were incompetent; everyone believed it was neglect, the most invasive form of corruption.
And I believe them.
Aboriginal women are four times as likely to be murder victims as are other Canadian women.
Upwards of 1,200 aboriginal women have been murdered or made to disappear in Canada since I learned to skate.
As the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. reminded us on Dec. 2, 40% of aboriginal children live in poverty — 2.5 times the national average.
And then there are the stories, the spirit-crushing stories of real men and women, boys and girls. That is, if we take the time to hear those stories.
It is true that the United States breeds a gun culture that has birthed violence after violence. It is also true that entrenched racism, street gangs, lack of resources, and police brutality tempt us to negate the good that America has done as we shake our heads at their systems. It is true that Ferguson has wrapped itself in hatred and desperation. Michael Brown is dead. #ICantBreathe is trending on Twitter.
I have been angry listening to story after story of black victims in the U.S.
But then I thought about Canada, and I realized the truth.
We have our own Ferguson in Canada, but it is a long, quiet death. We can blame the actions of brutalizing police officers. We can point fingers at MP Leona Aglukkaq who would rather look for jam recipes in the newspaper than address questions about food access in the north. We can shout with anger into the empty halls of history, or rail against a federal government that is either out-classed or indifferent on what to do with aboriginal exclusion.
We can point all these fingers at the system, but the prejudice in Canada is systemic. It moves through all of our communities, as does the racism in America. It is true that a nationwide answer is needed to the questions of aboriginal prosperity, education, and safety. In order to shape the system to be able to respond to those questions, however, we have to live lives of consistent, inclusive, hopeful resolution. Policy alone cannot fix this. We have to speak in support of those who are set aside or victimized.
Because the victims of this long quiet death cannot speak for themselves.
By Brenton Dickieson (guest opinion)
Brenton Dickieson of Charlottetown teaches religious studies at UPEI and has written a masters degree thesis on the development of prejudice.