PEI·Point of View

'Failing to act is no longer an option' when it comes to righting wrongs against BIPOC: Point of View

It is hard having to fight for things that others take for granted. And it is frustrating to watch progress move slowly. We need help.

'Allyship is a continuous journey of learning, understanding and action' says P.E.I.'s Brian Francis

An Indigenous Lives Matter walk Friday in Charlottetown brought out thousands to march in solidarity with P.E.I.'s Indigenous population. (Cody MacKay/CBC)

The killing of George Floyd by those supposed to protect people from harm has forced people in the United States and beyond to grapple with systemic racism.

In Canada, systemic racism is a painful reality that many Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) have had no choice but to endure.

However, some continue to question its existence or are ignorant enough to believe that it is not as bad.

This is hurtful, but not surprising, given that systemic racism has often gone unnoticed and/or unaddressed, especially by those who are not directly affected by it. Yet it is not difficult to find historical or contemporary examples. 

In 2018, I was appointed to the Senate. This role places me in a position of significant privilege, and with that privilege comes a responsibility to help improve the conditions of not only fellow Indigenous people but of the communities that have been treated unfairly.

I am compelled, both personally and professionally, to encourage Islanders and Canadians to have meaningful, honest and open conversations about what racism is and how to combat it. 

The conversations around racism are needed if our country wants to move forward. But we all need to start from the understanding that systemic racism is an unquestionable reality that profoundly affects the social, economic and political conditions of BIPOC.

In fact, systemic racism is built into the very foundation of our society and institutions through patterns of behaviour, policies or practices. It operates, both purposefully and inadvertently, to uphold the perceived superiority of white people at the disadvantage of BIPOC.

Identify your privilege, then learn

This, of course, does not mean that white people are racist, but that their whiteness affords them access to valuable benefits and opportunities that are not extended to others.

It further ensures that BIPOC in Canada are not given the same start in life as some of our fellow citizens. Rather, there are rigidly constructed barriers that have prevented generations of us from enjoying the same opportunities to learn, succeed, and secure the future we want.

Brian Francis says educating others about injustice against Indigenous people can be emotionally and physically draining. (Cody MacKay/CBC)

Consider, for example, the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black children in the child-welfare system, which puts so many at higher risk for outcomes such as homelessness, unemployment and incarceration later in life. 

BIPOC cannot eradicate racism alone. We need allies who can help us create the profound and lasting social change that is so desperately needed.— Brian Francis

More education will be needed as we continue to grapple with the challenges ahead.

Those who want to support our struggles must take the time to educate themselves instead of relying on us to inform or comfort them.

Battling racism does not rest solely on the shoulders of BIPOC. You —the collective you — have a responsibility to not only identify your privilege and the benefits you have accrued at the expense of others, but to listen, learn and grow. Otherwise, you are complicit in upholding the status quo. 

We, BIPOC, need — and want — allies to do the work of becoming a more informed and active ally.

There is a wealth of information and resources easily available that can help you better understand our lived realities. A good place to start is reading the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Once you have done the work, then you can help us not only educate but mobilize others (family, friends, co-workers). 

BIPOC cannot eradicate racism alone. We need allies who can help us create the profound and lasting social change that is so desperately needed. This change starts at the individual level and moves progressively outward.

Emotional labour can be debilitating

Without the help of informed and active allies, BIPOC will continue to be burdened by the emotional labour of our work. What is emotional labour? There are many definitions, but it can be broadly understood as the need of some people to suppress their own emotions, or feelings, to protect themselves.

'I am compelled, both personally and professionally, to encourage Islanders and Canadians to have meaningful, honest, and open conversations about what racism is and how to combat it,' says Brian Francis, a former Mi'kmaq chief on P.E.I. who is now a Canadian senator. (Submitted by Brian Francis)

In the case of BIPOC, it can take many forms, such as pretending we are not bothered by the subtle forms of racism directed at us for no other reason than the colour of our skin.

Such can happen when we have no choice but to stay silent when inappropriate or offensive behaviour or remarks are made — for fear of reprisal, conflict, or even worse, violence. It can also be the added expectation that we continually educate the broader public about systemic racism and its lasting and ongoing impact.

Having to always remain polite and respectful during disturbing incidents of racism and
violence, or we can face serious risks (such as imprisonment or, worse, death).

It takes an emotional and even physical toll to deny or numb our feelings, especially when we are required to share our most personal and painful experiences over and over again.— Brian Francis

The work of educating is, of course, critical to achieving the profound and transformative changes needed to build a more just and equitable society, but it does not come without a cost.

It takes an emotional and even physical toll to deny or numb our feelings, especially when we are required to share our most personal and painful experiences over and over again to gain attention and/or support.

It is, frankly exhausting and sometimes debilitating to keep our emotions in check, especially when our calls for fundamental justice, recognition and/or healing continue to be ignored at too great a cost. Simply put: It is hard having to fight for things that others take for granted. And it is frustrating to watch progress move slowly. We need help.

This call to action is not only directed at white people. The work of becoming more informed and active allies needs to be done both across and within racial groups.

I, for example, need to become more familiar with the different types of racism experienced in everyday life by other communities. Because while I have witnessed and experienced anti Indigenous racism and violence, I have not walked in the shoes of Black or other people of colour.

Allyship is a continuous journey of learning, understanding and action. We all need to do the work. While the work ahead can be uncomfortable and daunting, failing to act is no longer an option. 

Wela'lin. Thank you.

Brian Francis, left, in 2016 at a powwow when he was chief of Abegweit First Nation, along with then-chief Matilda Ramjattan and then-premier Wade MacLauchlan. (Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I./Facebook )

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About the Author

Brian Francis is a proud Mi’kmaq and Prince Edward Islander. He was the elected chief of Abegweit First Nation from 2007-2018. Following his appointment to the Senate in 2018, he became the first person of Mi'kmaq descent in P.E.I. to serve in this role.

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