Why a writer's attempt to draw attention to Winnipeg's Indigenous community probably did more harm than good

A Winnipeg author says a Globe and Mail opinion, which was critical of the living conditions of Winnipeg's Indigenous population while celebrating 'hard-working' new Canadians, perpetuates a number of dangerous stereotypes.

Reconciliation requires more than just 'lip service'

Winnipeg author David A. Robertson compares a misguided attempt to draw attention to challenges faced by Indigenous people to wearing a Cleveland baseball cap with "Chief Wahoo" on it. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

When we were kids, my brother and I walked to Styx Comics with our allowance every weekend. We'd pick up a few comics each, then stay up late reading them under a blanket with a flashlight. Mom would eventually catch us but it was totally worth it.

There's a comic shop close to where I live now in Winnipeg. I go there to ogle the action figures, peruse the comics. I like the vintage stuff.

I read those old comics differently now than how I used to. I don't mean that I read them without a flashlight, but rather with a more critical lens.

I've dedicated my writing career to educating people about First Nations cultures, communities, history and contemporary issues. It should be no surprise that, since I read them so much as a kid, I've chosen to do this work primarily through comics.

But there's more to it than that. Comics have been historically awful in their representation of Indigenous people.

Take The Fury of Firestorm #1. Johnny Ravenhair turns into Black Bison, a super-villain bent on avenging the wrongs done to the Native Americans. How does he gain his powers? He breaks into a museum, where a Bison Clan headdress costume is on display behind a glass case.

The act of reconciliation is an act of understanding, of working to educate ourselves in order to heal broken relationships

Black Bison represents the stereotype of the "dead Indian," First Nations people as a relic of the past.

There's also the "noble savage;" the uncivilized animalistic red man, whose only redeeming quality is, well, nobility.

Comics aren't the only culprit of course. Negative, widely held beliefs about Indigenous people are supported in media and popular culture. They aren't a relic of the past and their impact is profound.

Over the past month, I've bumped into no less than five non-Indigenous men wearing Chief Wahoo baseball caps right here in Winnipeg. Big deal, right? I've read the comments on social media: "They're honouring you," "Get over it," "Are Vikings offended by Minnesota's football club?"

The very real conversation I had with my son when he asked why people wear those hats and explained to me how it made him feel would suggest a different reality.

Last week the Globe and Mail published an opinion piece titled "The Jets are out, but Winnipeg is most definitely 'in,'" by Benjamin Shinewald. The article discusses the impact the Jets' success has had on the city, and the progress Winnipeg has made since the Pan Am Games in 1999. Except how the "deplorable conditions" Indigenous people live in is a stain on that progress. Mr. Shinewald then goes on to talk about other ethnic groups in the city who are "hard-working."

It's a baffling juxtaposition that perpetuates yet another tired stereotype associated with First Nations people, the "lazy Indian."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman retweeted the article, but later deleted the post. A spokesperson said he tweeted "without fully reviewing the article." 

Mr. Shinewald has offered a "sorry not sorry" explanation, citing his intent to shed light on the conditions Indigenous people live in.

We don't really need the whole white saviour thing, but if you're going to go for social commentary, it requires more than lip service.

Talk about the systemic and colonial barriers Indigenous people face that others do not: The residential school system, the Sixties Scoop, the child welfare system, access to adequate health care and quality education on reserve, intergenerational trauma. You know, context.

It gives people a chance to get a full understanding of a statement. It helps to eliminate the stereotype.

Truth heals

We need to do better. I'm using the word "we" here because we are in this together. Reconciliation is an all hands on deck thing. The act of reconciliation is an act of understanding, of working to educate ourselves in order to heal broken relationships. It's you sitting across from me and not seeing the stereotype, but rather, looking past it and connecting with me on a human level.

Ask me questions. Listen. Learn. It is not a complex process.

That's the truth part in reconciliation and there is no reconciliation without truth. Truth heals, but it is also pre-emptive. It grants foresight to consider actions before taking them, whatever those actions might be: Writing an article that perpetuates a tired but damaging stereotype, retweeting that same article without noticing the stereotype or considering how damaging it has been and continues to be, or wearing a Cleveland baseball cap.

I mean, if you're going to do it, the hats come with just a "C" on them. They're quite sharp, and, you know, not racist.

Or choosing the right comics to buy. I could recommend some for you, but $10 doesn't go as far as it used to.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


David A. Robertson is an award-winning writer whose books include When We Were Alone (Governor General’s Literary Award winner) and the YA novel Strangers. David educates as well as entertains through his writings about Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, reflecting their cultures, histories, communities, as well as illuminating many contemporary issues.