Point of View

We need to talk about the cost of calling out abuse within marginalized communities

As allegations against powerful people in the arts continue to pour out, writer Alicia Elliott considers the complications when the abusers are BIPOC.

Writer Alicia Elliott considers the complications of confronting abuse when the accused are BIPOC

Indigenous women supporting each other at an abuse protest in Quebec last year. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Lately, many powerful people in the arts community have been revealed to be abusers and manipulators. This doesn't surprise me — it shouldn't surprise anyone. I respect the many women and growing number of men in the arts world who have come forward to speak about the abuse, harassment and discrimination they have silently endured for years. I wish I could, too. I've encountered racism, harassment, misogyny and abuse. But I so often feel that I can't reveal any of it. I'm not sure how racism will twist my story so that it better fit its own dehumanizing narrative.

Discrimination and abuse are difficult enough to deal with. Unfortunately, when the person perpetrating that discrimination and/or abuse is Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC), that abuse and discrimination becomes even harder to deal with. If the truth about an abusive BIPOC person becomes public, it can get used to perpetuate racist ideologies against entire marginalized communities. This doesn't happen when the person accused or discrimination or abuse is white. Few are claiming, for example, that Harvey Weinstein's accusations are reflective of the inherent sexual violence of all white men.

How can anyone trust the national response when a BIPOC person is the one accused?- Alicia Elliott, writer

Even when a racialized person is the victim of a white person's crime, as happened last year with the murder of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, the victim is treated more like a criminal than the person who killed him. If that type of racial stereotyping happens when a BIPOC person is a victim, how can anyone trust the national response when a BIPOC person is the one accused?

The costs of speaking out

Considering this huge community cost, many would rather just stay quiet than risk bringing more scrutiny onto people who are already heavily and unfairly scrutinized. I can't blame them — I've done the same thing. While I knew certain influential Indigenous men were using their power in destructive ways, and I wanted them to stop, I also knew about the way Canada has always used stories like these.

I still remember 2015, when former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Bernard Valcourt told a room full of chiefs in Calgary that there was no need for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people because 70% of those cases were caused by violent Native men. It was their violence that needed to be addressed, not colonial violence, and the best way to do that was to be harder on crime.

Former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. (CBC)

In other words, Valcourt thought the best way to deal with Canada's systemic dehumanization and abuse of Native women was to put Native men — who are themselves victims of colonialism, and already over-policed and over-represented in the prison system — in prison for even longer. Instead of admitting there is a problem with colonialism, which Canada needs to address at every level, Valcourt took the deaths of our loved ones and conveniently made them into community issues alone — community issues which, as he made very clear, Canada would not help with.

With this in mind, I've always known that if I ever named even one person, I risked falling into the trap that Valcourt and countless others before him had set. Revealing the identity of a person who was hurting my community might further hurt my community. What's more, that person would face much more scrutiny than a white man accused of the same abuse. It's been proven that offenders who are visible minorities are over-represented in the criminal justice system, often facing harsher sentences than white offenders for the same crimes. This is the "justice" we are offered.

An impossible situation

Having to constantly weigh the effects of racism against your own safety or your community's safety puts abused BIPOC people in an impossible situation. Do they come forward against their racialized abuser, knowing that their story will be used to reinforce racist ideas about entire communities, or do they stay silent about their abuse, only whispering warnings to those they love when they can?

Having to constantly weigh the effects of racism against your own safety or your community's safety puts abused  BIPOC  people in an impossible situation.- Alicia Elliott, writer

Recently, six Indigenous women decided they didn't want to stay silent any longer. Erica Violet Lee, Nickita Longman, Sylvia McAdam, Lindsay Knight, Night Kinistino and Dawn Dumont collectively asked University of Regina Press to reconsider publishing Neal McLeod's work in kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices from Where the River Flows Swiftly, an anthology they were all a part of, which highlighted Indigenous writing in Saskatchewan. I do not personally know Neal McLeod, but from what little I do know, he is a man who has been deeply impacted by violence and colonialism, who has been criminalized by Canada's criminal justice system, who is, like all Indigenous people, trying to navigate a very racist world still hoping to wipe us out. But he's also a man who has been convicted of domestic assault. 

The cover of kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices From Where the River Flows Swiftly. (University of Regina Press/Contributed)

Not all women have publishers backing them up, ready to amplify their voices. Not all women have the right to have their voices heard and their perspectives taken just as seriously as McLeod's are being taken. Why are the victims' opinions seldom considered in matters such as these? Why are they so rarely consulted? We are in the middle of a moment when a number of high-profile white women's voices are being elevated when they speak of alleged abuse. Their accounts of their abuse are being reported as legitimate concerns, which they should be. But why is this same privilege never offered to BIPOC people?

After listening to the concerns of the six authors from the anthology, The University of Regina Press decided to stand behind editor Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber's decision to include McLeod in the anthology: an action that caused these authors to post an  open letter about the situation, pull their work from the anthology and turn down what no doubt initially seemed like a wonderful opportunity.  Further, URP wrote a statement defending their actions. In that statement, and subsequent interviews, publisher Bruce Walsh uses phrases like "academic freedom" and "censorship" as a sort of shorthand non-Native people can both understand and get self-righteously furious about. After all, everyone knows there's nothing that fires up a certain type of Canadian more than the idea that they should ever stop talking and start listening.
Author Erica Violet-Lee initiated the open letter and withdrew her work from the anthology. (Rachel Malena-Chan)

The actions the University of Regina Press took in defense of McLeod should be criticized. They made these brave people trying to stand up for abused women and two-spirit people look like unreasonable tornadoes of anger instead of real people who have been told to stay silent about abuse their entire lives, lest it "hurt the community" or "hurt the cause." This is particularly disappointing considering the ways the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People is currently floundering under the burden of colonialism — the same system that made the inquiry necessary in the first place. Where can Indigenous women go to speak our truths? Where can survivors who are BIPOC go to speak their truths? When our abusers' pain is always prioritized above our own, who can we rely on for support, other than one another?

Luckily for the University of Regina Press, McLeod took the heat off of them by pulling his work from the anthology himself. This was a good decision. Tension within the community has gone down significantly. But incredibly complicated situations like this still remain.

Centring BIPOC survivors

I don't know how we can acknowledge the journeys and pain of Indigenous men like Neal McLeod or recently-elected leader of the Manitoba NDP Wab Kinew without silencing Indigenous women and two-spirit people. But I do know that ignoring it or excusing it is not going to help. It is not going to encourage BIPOC women or LGBT2S+ people who have experienced abuse to come forward. It's not going to offer them support. Perhaps it is finally time we critically examine the ways we deal with abuse — specifically, what the criminal justice system actually offers survivors and abusers, and whether it is worth the cost.

More importantly, perhaps it is time we centre survivors in discussions of abuse, specifically survivors who are BIPOC, and ask what they need to move on. And hopefully, after those needs are met, their abusers can centre their own needs as survivors of colonialism and intergenerational violence, get help meeting those needs, and move on themselves — stopping cycles of abuse and starting cycles of support and healing instead.

A response from Bruce Walsh, Director and Publisher, University of Regina Press (November 23, 2017):

I read Alicia Elliott's Point of View with interest and I regard it with the utmost seriousness.

I wanted to underline, though, the point of kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices from Where the River Flows Swiftly was to document Indigenous writing in Saskatchewan right from the 18th Century to the present. As a result, we regret the loss of the six writers in question.

To be clear, when the women first raised their concerns, URP responded by offering them more space in kisiskâciwan, as well as another anthology entirely devoted to female Indigenous writing. These offers were rejected.

Afterwards, I released an open letter defending the vision of the kisiskâciwan editor, Jesse Archibald-Barber, and reiterating that we had listened to the concerns of Erica Violet Lee and the others, but could not accept their demands. As I said then: "It is not what they want and I understand that. But I can't deliver what they want. I must stand with our editor."

As the only self-identified LGBT2S+ person who is the director of a university press in Canada, and as one of only a handful in the world, my work has always embraced intersectionality, whether it be publishing the elderly, trans kids, or the censored languages contained within this territory now known as Canada.

I did not use, "phrases like 'academic freedom' and 'censorship' as a sort of shorthand non-Native people can both understand and get self-righteously furious about."  I use those terms because I have seen firsthand how censorship has been mobilized against marginalized people. As an activist who fought in the courts and on the streets during the height of the AIDS crisis over government censorship, I take all attacks on freedom of expression seriously. Defending free speech and publishing censored histories, languages, and voices remains central to my mission.

Corrections

  • This article initially implied that the authors of the open letter were not consulted by the University of Regina Press. We've updated the story, and have also included a response from Bruce Walsh, Director and Publisher of the University of Regina Press.
    Nov 23, 2017 4:04 PM ET

About the Author

Alicia Elliott

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. Her writing has been published most recently in Room, Grain and The New Quarterly. Her essay "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground," originally appearing in The Malahat Review, is nominated for a National Magazine Award.