Why We Need to Remember Native People This Canada Day

This year is Canada’s 150th anniversary. Sort of. It depends on what you define to be ‘Canada’. I mean, Canada was initially declared a country of its own 150 years ago, but even before that, it was a settlement for European people, and even further back than that, it was the native land of many indigenous tribes. Canada as a recognized country is only 150 years old, and already it has a long and bloody history of colonialism, cultural genocide, and systemic racism.

And that’s not to say that I’m not proud to be a Canadian. I am – especially lately. In a world where Donald Trump can be president of the United States and people continue to lose basic human rights every day, I’m so relieved to be living in a country that actually seems to be taking steps in the right direction. Our current prime minister has the most diverse cabinet that I have ever seen, including disabled people, native people, the first ever Muslim minister in Canadian history, and fifteen women, meaning that women represent exactly half of the cabinet. That’s something that really shouldn’t be a big deal, but it really is, considering in the United States, it’s a group of majority white men who are signing away women’s rights to reproductive health. In Canada, our prime minister has marched in the Toronto pride parade, and he has opened our doors to refugees in need of our country’s help. I’m very proud to be in a country where all of this is true, but at the same time, I am not going to deny that my country has its faults as well.

In Canada, 49% of Aboriginal peoples live on remote reservations (according to a 2015 report from Maclean’s), leaving them out of sight and out of mind for many Canadians. And on these reservations, many natives experience a quality of living comparable to third world countries, with limited access to health care and education – but we are not a third world country. That is completely unacceptable. Issues such as alcoholism and abuse are also common among natives in Canada – and not because it is inherent amongst native people, but because between the years of 1876 and 1996 (so within that period of 150 years that we are celebrating today), native children were taken away from their families and forced to attend residential schools in an attempt to teach them to forget the language and culture of their ancestors, to assimilate them into ‘Canadian society’, and while they were there, they faced mental, physical, and sexual abuse so severe that many of the survivors and their children are still dealing with the mental effects of it. And not to mention, as reported by Terry Glavin in 2014, native Canadians are incarcerated ten times more often than the national rate, despite making up 4.3% of Canada’s population, they face an unemployment rate of 14%, and if they go missing or are murdered, there is a chance that the police will not even bother to investigate. And what I have listed here is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the race problem that Canada has.

But why am I saying all of this now? What does all of this have to do with Canada’s 150th anniversary? Well, this year, Canada Day is a celebration of Canada’s history, but all of this is an important part of Canada’s history that needs to be remembered just as much as our strengths need to be celebrated. And not only is it important, it is a part of Canada’s history that frequently goes ignored. Although this is more a part of American history than Canadian history, I think it is important to state that I had only ever heard Christopher Columbus hailed as a hero until I was in my second year of university, when I discovered that he was actually guilty of enslaving natives, part of which involved torturing, raping, beating, and/or kidnapping men, women, and children. It wasn’t until university that my teachers assigned reading from the perspective of native authors either. And as I pointed out when I said that most native reservations are out of sight and out of mind, it is too easy for the majority of Canadians to just ignore what is actually going on in our country.

And we can’t.

If our country is going to have a stronger future than our past, we need to fix it.

And maybe I’m not the best person to say how exactly we fix this, because I lack the lived experience of being a native person in Canada. But I do know that one of the first big steps in moving forward is spreading awareness. It’s taking a moment away from our celebrations this year and remembering every aspect of Canada, the good and the bad.

Why We Need Diversity in Politics

When it comes to politics, I am a firm believer that people from all perspectives should be considered. After all, who knows more about a woman’s experiences than an actual, flesh-and-blood woman? Who knows more about what it’s like to live in a wheelchair than someone who has actually been in a wheelchair? And who can better speak to the issues faced by people of colour than someone who has spent all their lives being a person of colour? Of course, it’s not always perfect – not every person in a specific community represents every aspect of that community. We all have different forms of privilege, we all meet with different challenges in our lives, and some politicians who represent marginalized people have actively fought in support of issues that concern their community. However, that being said, you are still going to make a much more informed decision around what to do with the lives of women if you are actually confronting a group of women, rather than a group of men.

And it is very rare that you see this nowadays. I am very proud of my own country of Canada, whose cabinet is intentionally diverse, made up of immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, native people, and not a small handful but fifteen women. In America, however, Trump’s cabinet is overwhelmingly white and overwhelming male – so much so that it is, in fact, the least diverse cabinet since Reagan’s. And since Trump has been elected, he has continued to make decisions that do not directly affect white men. Abortion, for example, is not a procedure that cisgendered men will ever have to endure, and yet Trump and his cabinet have made the decision for women that their access to it should be limited. I am not necessarily saying that if you asked any random group of women about their opinions on abortion, the answers will be any different – what I am saying is that too few women were consulted. This was a decision made by men for women.

And in my personal opinion, that isn’t okay. I do not think that men should have the ability to limit what a woman can do with her life and body, any more than I think that white people should have the ability to limit what people of colour can do, or that cisgendered people should have the ability to limit what transgender people can do. If you do not have the lived experience of belonging to that particular group, then you do not have the necessary information to tell that group what they should do and how they should behave. You do not know what they deal with.

And yet, I have heard my own perspective countered multiple times. “I think that people should be chosen for a job based on whether or not they are qualified, not based on whether or not they belong to a specific minority,” people will say, and I understand. To a certain extent, I even agree. If someone is faced with hiring one of two people: a black, transgender lesbian who is completely unqualified in every way or a straight, white man who has spent years preparing for this job, of course they should choose the man. But from what I can tell, that isn’t what’s happening. Unqualified people are not being chosen over qualified people to fill a minority quota, as this statement seems to suggest. Rather, in situations such as the one that I described in my home country, where Canada’s cabinet is a diverse one, perfectly qualified people are given jobs where they perform according to standards while simultaneously offering up their marginalized voice, providing a perspective that a straight, white man (a figure that continues to be seen in this workplace) lacks. In other words, the black, transgender lesbian from my example is not only good at her job, but she offers a perspective that would otherwise be lacking.

When I say that we need diversity in politics (and in the workplace, more generally), I am not saying that straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical (etc., etc.) men should go without jobs. I am not saying that minorities should be given any special treatment that their more societally accepted counterparts don’t get. All that I am saying is that we should support minorities achieving positions that they are perfectly capable of filling, but that they haven’t in the past due to societal imbalances. There are a wide variety of people in our world, but if our political system continues to hear the story of only one side, then that is the side that will eternally be catered to. Inequalities will continue to be enforced, because as much as it is completely possible for a cisgendered man to sympathize with the issues of a woman and want to stand up for her, he cannot understand it in the same way that she does because he has not lived it. She has. Let her tell her story. Let all of us tell our stories. And let us all fight these battles together.

Why White People Need to Acknowledge Their Privilege

Let me start this out by saying that I’m pretty much as white as it gets. I was born in Canada, but as far as I can tell, my ancestry is linked almost exclusively to the British Isles. Therefore, I lack the lived experience to completely understand what I’m talking about, and if I put my foot in my mouth and say something offensive, allow me to apologize for that right off the bat, because I might not recognize it if I do.

But more and more frequently, I can’t help but notice my fellow white people refusing to awknowledge or even denying the existence of white privilege.

And I think I understand where this denial comes from. They hear the word ‘white privilege’, and automatically, they assume it’s something they’ve personally done wrong. They feel like they’re being called out on something or attacked, when that really isn’t the case at all. And I think a lot of this feeling comes from misunderstanding what white privilege is.

Put simply, white privilege is something that exists within a society that accepts white people as the norm or the ‘superior’.

White privilege is a systematic imbalance that inherently benefits white people (hence the name ‘white privilege’).

White privilege is being able to watch pretty much any Hollywood film and knowing that someone of your race will appear at some point, and they will not be represented as an offensive stereotype.

White privilege is being able to forget that racism exists if you want to.

White privilege is, god forbid, having your daughter not come home after a night out, and not having to wonder whether the police will actually investigate her disappearance or not.

And, of course, simply being white does not mean that your life is easy, or that you don’t face inequality. There are an infinite amount of other factors that alter your experience within society – gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, mental illness, etc. – but being white does mean that you experience privilege in that regard. It is possible to be privileged in some ways, and not in others. Nobody is dismissing your experience when they accuse you of having white privilege.

And it is important to recognize your privilege – not because it makes you any lesser of a person, but because it might help you to understand your standing in society, and the standing of others.

For example, let’s say that you’re in line at the supermarket. You go through, the cashier is incredibly courteous, you go on your way and all is well. Yet, the black woman behind you goes through, and the same cashier is dismissive, abrupt, and overall difficult. In that specific scenario, you experienced white privilege, but it was not something that made you any lesser of a person. You reaped the benefits of it, most certainly, but it was the fault of the cashier, who expressed blatant racism, as well as the fault of the society that told her that that racism was okay for her to feel and act on. You only become at fault in this scenario if someone afterward tells you that you experienced white privilege, and your response is, “that wasn’t white privilege! That’s just how she should treat every customer! Why do you hate white people so much?”

Because that response isn’t helping anything. That response dismisses the fact that there is a problem, and places the blame on the person who is simply trying to call the problem out. Because, yes, that is how the cashier should treat every customer, but she didn’t. Saying that what you experienced was white privilege does not mean that you should have been treated worse, and it does not mean that the black woman should have been treated better than you. It means that you should have been treated the same and you clearly weren’t.

Too many white people hear the words ‘white privilege’ and immediately associate it with hate. It’s clearly demonizing white people, saying that they’re evil because they receive privilege – but that isn’t the case. The purpose of calling out white privilege is to point out that there is an imbalance in society, and that imbalance needs to be fixed. It’s not necessarily the white person who is malicious (unless they are the one upholding it) – it is the society that said that it was okay for a white person to be treated better than a person of colour. That is what is being called out with the words ‘white privilege’. That is the problem.

We need to stop immediately assuming that any attempt to change society is made out of hate. We need to stop allowing these systems to continue because we feel uncomfortable when they are questioned. And we need to stop dividing ourselves between ‘us’ and ‘them’, assuming that every attempt to become equal is actually an act of hate and oppression. What we need to do is acknowledge our differences, acknowledge the ways in which we are privileged and in which we aren’t, and we need to fight to create a world where no one is systemically privileged over another.