Prairie Racism and Free Expression

Posted September 23, 2016
By Len Findlay

In the Globe and Mail  for Wednesday, August 31 of this year I encountered a piece by the African American sociologist of sport, Harry Edwards, on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the American national anthem. The piece was encouragingly framed as a contribution on “Human Rights,” and entitled “Silence is the enemy.” Dr. Edwards offered a compelling analysis of the right to public protest, evoking the iconic moment at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968 when medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved hands in the Black Power salute from the podium during the playing of that same national anthem for which a number of athletes in various professional sports are now kneeling. Edwards concludes his analysis thus: “Today, and all my life, I have abhorred silence relative to racial injustice. Silence is evil’s greatest and most dependable ally” (A11).

A couple of pages later in the same issue of the Globe an article on the impeachment of the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, includes a quotation from her lawyer and former Brazilian Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo. Speaking to the hypocritical pretext of impeaching Rousseff on behalf of her grandchildren, Cardozo wept and said, “This is wrong. It’s unjust.  … Someone who loses the ability to be disturbed by injustice, loses their humanity. That’s why I’m emotional” (A14).

I typed the above on September 5, Labour Day. The next day the Globe ran a spread on “Race in Canada” and announced a new podcast entitled Colour Code. In the same issue, philosopher Mark Kingwell had a piece entitled “Who has the right to say what’s correct?” Kingwell’s challenges and reflections were  stimulated by a recent  Angus Reid Institute poll on political correctness, by a warning from the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago that this year’s new cohort cannot expect to be shielded from difficult questions and discussions, and by ongoing statements from the incorrigibly incorrect (in every sense) Donald Trump (A11).

As I worked on this blog again, on Saturday September 10 in the Globe, under the heading “PROTEST,” Elizabeth Renzetti picked up the latest phases of the Koepernick and Black Lives Matter stories in a piece entitled “At times the sound of silence can incite the loudest of roars” (A2).  

Something is clearly up, and that something is in part a recalibration of discursive tolerance in Canada after (“to be perfectly clear”) the muzzling, menace, and Calandran obfuscation of the Harper years. Meanwhile, a reminder that such work is far from simple and far from over was provided by Kelly Leitch as part of her campaign to be the new leader of the Conservative Party. Rather than feeling politically doomed by her public stand on the niquab and the proposed RCMP snitch line for reporting “barbaric cultural practices,” Ms. Leitch is now promoting a “unified identity” for Canada and screening of would-be immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.”  The Globe weighed in on this too in an editorial entitled “That’s Anti-Canadian.” And CBC’s Neil Macdonald commented oversanguinely: “The coverage [of Leitch] was largely unimaginative, with repeated alerts about ‘dog whistles,’ the notion that the proposal held a scarcely hidden right-wing, nativist, anti-immigrant, let’s-keep-Canada-as-white-and-Christian-and-straight-as-possible agenda, which, let’s face it, is unlikely.” Hardly.    

Another source of fuel giving voice to the erstwhile voiceless and their usually self-censoring enemies has been the Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the eager and full acceptance of those calls by a new federal government, and the clashing with those calls of old habits and prejudices that helped make Canada the smug settler confection it was and remains, home to what Professor Daniel Coleman astutely calls “white civility.” 

These examples may reassure some of us of the residual power of the traditional media and the academy, not least in exposing the stark, indelible  differences between responsible journalism and venters-without-borders/venteurs sans frontières—those who respect neither ethical nor geopolitical boundaries. “The Nation’s Newspaper” in particular, if read carefully across its major stories, and read daily for weeks at a time, informs us of the imperative to bear witness,  the remarkable range of witnessing our mediascape now affords us, and the fact that neither speech nor silence, nor gesture nor its absence, is an a priori guaranteed good. It all depends on context, and all contexts are to a degree political: the football field, the finish line for an Ethiopian track athlete, the Toronto Pride Parade, the steps of the national legislature in  Brasilia, or ….


Or a farmyard near Biggar, Saskatchewan. The recent tragic shooting of Colten Boushie blew the cap on prairie racism, or, rather, breached the pipelines of hate never far beneath the surface of life in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta where “the depth of a ploughshare“ remains a contested concept in relation to the treaties.  Racism is not confined to these provinces of course, but, as commentary on the Angus Reid poll by Ry Moran of the TRC and Katherine Starzyk of the University of Manitoba makes clear, racism has distinctively regional tones and targets which need to be attended to on the multiple paths to “Reconciliation.”

Prairie racism is primarily aimed at Aboriginal people. Moreover, the reasons for this are clear. Their land was stolen from them, but they did not disappear and have refused to remain silent about the betrayal of the treaties. In light of Indigenous resistance, the paternalism and predation key to colonial expansion westwards across Canada has always needed justification and cover. The agricultural economy required a seismic shift in ownership and cultivation practices. The extractive economy—potash, uranium, oil and gas—needs relatively unfettered access to sites it uses, abandons, and moves on from with all the facility and insouciance of fast capital and the insatiable shareholder. Individual and corporate property rights had and have to be packaged as meritocratic, progressive, and legal, lest they be seen more widely for what they really are.

For both settled and migratory capital, the prairie land is key, and its Aboriginal stewards keep getting in the way.  So when a car full of mostly young people from the Red Pheasant reserve pulls into a farmyard near Biggar at 5.30 pm, August 9, the land on which their vehicle’s problem tire rests ever more pathetically is a site of competing narratives and conflicting interests. The owners of the farm and their friends have a strong sense of private ownership grounded in the heroic white settler story of transforming ‘bald’ prairie into the breadbasket of the world. Their Aboriginal neighbours looking for assistance are the region’s traditional stewards now confined by the colonial state apparatus to a tiny portion of their traditional territory. An incursion and request for help triggered a gun and much else, in a massive travesty of “prairie hospitality.”  And invaluable to the ongoing consideration of what happened and what it meant and means were the formal statements from the RCMP, government, and the academy about the incident, and the freer expression on social media and mainstream media of what ordinary folks felt about the shooting of a young Cree man.       

I want to comment briefly on three responses to this needless death as a means of arguing for the educative value of racist invective, but also for similarly valuable racist presumption and stereotyping that morph into more coded, ostensibly normative and civil forms. Whether expressed in considered or in visceral ways, the fact that these views are expressed at all allows them to be more effectually named, challenged, and eradicated.

Let’s start with the state’s response, in the form of the RCMP statement about the incident it is now investigating.

The RCMP press release is cast in considered and predictably coded prose, showing how the criminalizing of Aboriginal behavior is an instinctive descriptive principle tied to the populating of the TransCanada Gulag in which, especially on the prairies, Aboriginal young adults are obscenely over-represented. From Regina, home of the Mounties, Superintendent Cameron purveyed an unprofessional, racist presumption designed to reassure the police’s real constituency that they had things under control. In this way, an ultra-colonial arm of the federal and provincial governments gave citizens permission to be less guardedly racist themselves.  Not surprisingly, things got rapidly worse as the media storm grew.

The Chiefs of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations expressed their outrage at the inflammatory profiling of Boushie and his companions, and this allowed the Mounties to affirm the accuracy and appropriateness of their message, to warn against further criminality, and to “ask everyone to remain respectful in their online communication.”  In an effort to defuse what he had in part triggered, Superintendent Cameron tried to deflect attention from the RCMP’s erroneous and inflammatory framing of the circumstances surrounding Colten Boushie’s death to the issue of law and order and the need for boots on the ground in Biggar and environs. Those boots were there overnight, and in numbers that confirm the experience of Aboriginal activists and their allies from coast to coast to coast when “crimes against property” are allegedly imminent or actual. (See Standing Rock recently.)

Meanwhile, Premier Brad Wall felt the need to weigh in, no doubt in part because some of his political base in rural Saskatchewan were showing their true colours and the white supremacist Soldiers of Odin were already acting on a recruiting opportunity. It seemed that Biggar might soon be like Moose Jaw in 1927, when the largest ever rally of the KKK in Canada was held. Faced with serious embarrassment in rubeland, Wall offered this: “Racism has no place in Saskatchewan. In the wake of a shooting near Biggar, there have been racist and hate-filled comments on social media and other forums. This must stop. The comments are not only unacceptable, intolerant, and a betrayal of the very values and character of Saskatchewan, they are dangerous.” This is hypocrisy of a very high order indeed.

Speaking of “values and character,” Mr. Wall is the biggest fan of the extractive economy and the most vocal opponent of revenue sharing in the spirit of the treaties. The Titan of Twitter is also the most popular among the provincial premiers, and the person who opined that there was no need for more social programs for Aboriginal people North of Prince Albert. What they need instead, according to Wall, is “a job with Cameco,” that is, with a multinational uranium company which sees land as ore deposits and a mess for somebody else to clear up, and which shares the premier’s enthusiasm for low taxes and nominal royalties, even while it is engaged in a major battle over tax evasion with the CRA. The premier  who has made a travesty of the Duty to Consult, and has mistaken a temporary resource boom for the attainment of sophistication, tolerance, and good governance in the province, reacts to his embarrassment in a deeply culpable combination of amnesia, moralistic hectoring, and a security dog whistle. Wall’s call for an end to racist venting is itself obliquely—even adroitly-- racist: in its denial of Saskatchewan’s history, in his settler confidence in the RCMP and legal process that has, of course, served First Nations and Métis so well, and in his Cheshire Cat disappearance into the consoling trope of prairie hospitality and neighbourliness.

The abundant (but far from unanimous) bigotry on social media after the Boushie shooting exposed the connections between public policy, corporate power, settler myth, and the inelastic bandaid of “humanity.” Racism, including prairie racism, in contexts and on platforms of free expression, tells progressive people what they need to know and would sometimes, understandably, prefer to forget.

The President of the University of Saskatchewan weighed in after Wall. Dr. Peter Stoicheff is taking a prominent role in “Indigenizing” the Canadian academy in response to the TRC Calls to Action, and he is trying to build on the best traditions of the U of S in this regard. However, he finds himself between the rock of conditional funding and the hard place of racism within the institution he leads. His public statement on the social media Anschluss and consequent Aboriginal rage is well intended and carefully crafted.  It begins thus: “It is disappointing to read of the racist comments in the wake of a recent tragic event in the province. They have no place in a nation committed to reconciliation, and as Premier Wall recently stated, they must stop. Respectful dialogue, acceptance of diversity, consistent and equal justice practices—these offer the way forward in a province entirely capable of achieving them all.”

This is well said in the main, but the shifts and silences are revealing too.  We go from the nation to the province in a brief paragraph where we hear from one provincial but no federal political voices. The implied federal voice is Prime Minister Trudeau’s, one constantly in conflict with Wall’s. The federal representatives in ridings around Biggar--Harperites Gerry Ritz  and Kelly Block-- cannot be quoted by Stoicheff to reinforce his point about leadership setting an example, because these MPs with lots to live down from their time as cabinet  ministers have maintained a public silence on the shooting and reactions to it. What does that “say”?

And President Stoicheff adopts the premier’s line that racist talk “must stop.” In my view it must not stop until the attitudes that impel it have been rooted out.   As befits an academic, Stoicheff suggests that rage and acrimony be replaced by the university’s alleged specialty, “respectful dialogue.”  But that fails to address the huge problem of the extractive economy demanding an extractive academy at the U of S while agribusiness pursues a social licence through research and policy avenues in well financed sectors of the institution and its Board of Governors. “Respectful dialogue” in a key prairie institution too often conceals neo-colonial resistance to and mockery of an indigenizing agenda in ways that I regularly witness in collegial committees and assemblies. It remains too often “white civility.”

The “denouncing” of racism that Dr. Stoicheff rightly and bravely calls for needs to be extended to the practices of faculty and the corporations and government departments that directively fund them.         

 When it comes to prairie racism, the answer is not prudent silence and respectful dialogue. The answer is more speech, including hate-filled speech.

#makeitawkward for sure, but make it political too. Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip, with courage and candour and creativity in extremis, has declared in The Secret Path that “We are not the country we thought we were.”    

In order to be that country, we need to encourage folks to say what they think: to like, to share, to tweet, and not to yield—at least in the first instance. Only then can we begin to comprehend the state-sponsored mistaking of what Canada has been. Only then can we bear effective witness to the full culpability and complicity of others and ourselves. Only then can the media become more than an amnesia machine in the service of market norms, our universities become more than compliant extensions of an extractive economy, the neoliberal arts, and the black arts of colonial theft and white national self-regard.