'This conversation should not be about blame': Anti-racism educator responds to comments about race

Leading up to the one-year anniversary of the not-guilty verdict for Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie, CBC Saskatchewan's noon call-in show Blue Sky focused on where we are as a province when it comes to race relations.

Michael Cappello answers tough comments from CBC Saskatchewan phone-in show

Teepees are seen at the Justice for Our Stolen Children camp near the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in Regina on Wednesday June 27, 2018. (Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

Leading up to the one-year anniversary of the not-guilty verdict for Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie, CBC Saskatchewan's noon call-in show Blue Sky focused on where we are as a province when it comes to race relations.

Stanley shot and killed Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, on his farm near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016.

The program received several calls and messages after the show — many critical of the Indigenous guests' comments on the effects of past injustice, two-tiered justice systems and using the word "settler."

While we normally collect these and read them at the start of the next Blue Sky show, I felt that in this case, raising critiques without providing responses would be a disservice to our listeners. So, I reached out to our guest Michael Cappello, who teaches anti-racist education at the University of Regina.

Cappello said when it comes to anti-racist education, "If we understand the racism in Saskatchewan as not an Indigenous issue, but rather a non-Indigenous issue, we can see how it is incumbent upon us to take up this work as well. Reconciliation cannot happen on the backs of Indigenous people."

Calls and response

Listener response #1 

"The guests continuously pointed to the past. Colonialization, residential schools, etc. as viable excuses of criminal activity of Aboriginals today, their misfortune and their incarceration. This must stop. Looking for someone, looking for someone to blame from the past for present misfortune helps no one to achieve opportunities in the future."

Michael Cappello

How can people get over a trauma that is not finished yet? Pointing to the past is an invitation to engage with the context of the present, and it requires an understanding that the past is not really past.

I am not sure that any guests offered viable excuses for criminal activity. What they tried to nuance was an understanding of the lived realities of people and the history of this place.

This conversation should not be about blame. If you hear/feel blamed, it might be an opportunity to look in the mirror and consider how you are interpreting what is being said.

Considering the inter-generational effects of residential schools (for example) or the effects of generational poverty or the ongoing legacy of the child welfare system in the lives of Indigenous people is not about blaming (or removing blame), it is about trying to grapple with the complexities of the effects of our history and present realities in a way that helps us all understand.

Feeling guilty or feeling blamed is a common response from dominantly positioned people, but that guilt/blame compounds the problem and makes it less likely that those who feel that way will be able to listen to what is being offered. It becomes important to consider how our relative positioning to the realities being discussed shape how we can hear/understand/act on the information we are being offered. Justice Murray Sinclair's response to "Why can't you get over it?" is instructive: "Why can't you always remember this?"

Listener response #2

"Settler" to describe (mainly) white people is a derisive term used by Indian leaders or commentators to demean the former. Academics use the term "settler" because they are Aboriginal apologists and have no respect for themselves. You can believe what you want, but you are ignorant to dump your self-loathing on other people.

My maternal grandparents were Saskatchewan pioneers in 1905. Indians and other people like you who are contemptuous of these people have no idea of the incredible hardships they endured when they settled and began building this great country. So stop disrespecting them!

Outside the court, as Gerald Stanley made his first appearance, people rallied for an end to racism in Saskatchewan. (CBC)

Michael Cappello

Canada is a settler colony. That is the term to describe the way that European (mostly) people came here, with the intent to stay. Rather than being a one-off event, the term describes the legal system and the society that has been built in this place over the last 100-plus years. Using the language of "settler" is not meant to demean anyone.

We can honour early settlers while contextualizing the particular policies that made that settlement possible.- Michael Cappello

However, language does help us more clearly understand, and understanding this place as a settler colony is necessary to make sense of the process and shape of Saskatchewan. Reserving the term "settler" for only those first folks that pioneered, erases waves of settlement, erases the specific way that we advertised and carried out polices for settlement. And it erases an understanding of the way that the rules and laws of this place are tied to and constitutive of the settler colony.  It is useful to understand how the settlement of Saskatchewan played out in and through the lens of settler-colonial ideas.

It is surely possible to honour and respect the work and lives of the (mainly) European folks who initiated and shaped this settler-colonial state. I am a settler. My ancestor, a great-great-great-cousin, Adams G. Archibald, was the first lieutenant-governor of Manitoba and the government signatory to both Treaty 1 and Treaty 2. I can understand and honour his work and try to understand the ways that his work made possible the dispossession of Indigenous peoples.

We can honour early settlers while contextualizing the particular policies that made that settlement possible. It takes nothing away from anyone's ancestors to tell the whole story, including the offer of cheap/free land or the peasant farming policy. That the success of European settlers in this place also required the displacement and disappearance of Indigenous people is a necessary part of telling this story in an honest way.

Michael Cappello is an anti-racist educator at the University of Regina. (Eric Anderson/CBC)

Listener response #3

Everyone I know wants to live in peace and the assertion that violence was only introduced by the "settlers" is false. There is violence wherever there are humans. It is a species issue, not a race issue.

Michael Cappello

Sure, all human beings have struggled with violence and developed strategies to respond/control violent tendencies. I am not sure how much this recognition helps us. It is an erasure because it equates all instances of human violence as the same. Then we can't really call out any violence because we are all capable of it.

I think it is useful to temper the recognition that this is a human issue with the realization that human societies have had very different ideas and practices around violence. For the most part, the story of Indigenous North America, pre-contact, is not the story of conquest, warfare and genocide (although those things did happen).

When we make this kind of equivalence, what do we have to erase about the very real and ongoing violence that our colonial systems have and continue to perpetrate on the lives and bodies of Indigenous people? What do we do with the recent findings of systemic racism in two separate reports about policing in Thunder Bay, Ont., or the recent class action lawsuit brought by some 90 Indigenous women for their forced sterilization in Saskatoon (likely much wider spread)? This is not from a long time ago. This is now.

Whatever individual people might say about their peaceful intentions, the results of living in colonial systems have horrific effects on the lives of Indigenous peoples. Violence rooted in the utter dehumanization of Indigenous peoples, requiring a view of Indigenous peoples as less than fully human, reverberates into the present in ways that have powerful consequences now.

Settler society still struggles to care about Indigenous people, as people, as demonstrated by the apathy towards illness and mould in First Nations housing, lack of response to Indigenous youth suicide rates, the ongoing crisis around access to fresh water, etc. If maintaining these violent systems and ignoring these awful realities equals "wanting to live in peace," I want no part of it. 

Listener response #4

A two-tiered justice system is not a justice system. Any system (including the current justice system) that has race-based laws or sentencing or even exceptions is racist. Perhaps your speakers should take a quick look at the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Michael Cappello

Let's start with the caveat that I am not a legal scholar.

First let's address two truths and then I will consider this question.

First, the Indian Act itself is among the most racist pieces of legislation in any so-called developed country.

Second, the application of our justice system is often discriminatory towards Indigenous peoples in ways that are overwhelmingly and demonstrably true. So race/racism against Indigenous people is baked into our legal frameworks and it is baked into the practices that are carried out through policing/courts/sentencing/incarceration. None of this is even really arguable.

I would argue that we already have a two-tiered justice system. 

But, let's take a quick look at the Charter. Section 15 states that everyone is equal and should be protected and benefit equally from the law "without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." This is at best aspirational; we want these things to be true, and while we haven't achieved this yet, we can/should aspire to this becoming more true.

Subsection 2 notes that in order to make things better, it might be necessary in the case of disadvantaged groups to create laws/programs/activities that discriminate (the example being affirmative action programs) in order to address those inequities. The Charter explicitly recognizes that not everyone has been treated equally and some groups have not received equal benefit and that it might be necessary to develop programs that specifically seek to remedy those disadvantages.

A two-tiered system might ameliorate some of these historic and ongoing inequities.

I might add that meaningful reconciliation will require making space for Indigenous sovereignty, and that will mean paying attention to Indigenous legal orders. Section 25 of the Charter might be interpreted as offering such space. 

What was discussed on the show

The first half of the show centred on Indigenous voices reflecting on what kinds of changes are needed in the justice system. Eleanore Sunchild, a Battlefords-area lawyer who represented the Boushie family in both the trial and subsequent advocacy, said the current justice system will never work for Indigenous people.

"When it's a justice system created for our oppression, real change is impossible. I'm advocating for a justice system that has more Indigenous knowledge, and if that means a two-tiered system, yes," she said.

"We can try and Indigenize a system all we want; however, to be truly ours we have to create our own system based on our own experience and our own culture. If Indigenous people are joining police forces and legal systems then they need to know who they are and where they come from or they will only be an Indigenous face in a system that has been working against us."

Davey Gott says the verdict in Gerald Stanley's second-degree murder trial, brought him to tears. He joined hundreds in Winnipeg who rallied for changes to Canada's justice system in light of the verdict. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Andre Bear also joined us. He's a former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council. He is from the Little Pine First Nation in Treaty 6 territory and is now pursuing law school.

Bear called for legal pluralism, which he described as "Indigenous laws co-existing with Indigenous laws through the spirit and intent of our treaties together." He advocated for a jurisdictions to be divided by Treaty area. "For example, if someone breaks a law in Treaty 6 territory they could have an option of going through an Indigenous court process that could be more restorative."

The show transitioned into examining history and anti-racist education in our schools. 

Peter Turner is from the James Smith Cree Nation. He is a PhD student at the University of Regina and he works as an Indigenous advocate at Seven Stones School in Regina. He talked about the hope he finds in working in schools: "I'm seeing a generation being raised with a truthful curriculum based on hope and love for a future that is non-violent."

He said the future is Indigenous, meaning "a shared co-operation on our lands that is based on equitable prosperity and mutual beneficial standards of living where harm is reduced. We need to disrupt this imagined West and the violence that dispossesses one population in order to privilege another."


Nichole Huck


Nichole Huck is a mother of three and producer at CBC Saskatchewan. She is passionate about creating opportunities for open discussions and helping people find common ground. If you have a story idea email