Saskatchewan

'We all have brown skin': Sask. woman says racism between immigrants and Indigenous people must end

Kerry Benjoe is seeing more anger and mistrust between Indigenous people by other visible minorities percolating online. There are allegations of attempted abductions. Benjoe believes the fear and mistrust are fed by Indigenous people's resentment at being mistreated and stereotyped by new Canadians.

Allegations of attempted abductions spark debate on issues of race

Kerry Benjoe is the grandmother to a mixed-heritage grandson, half Indo-Canadian and half Indigenous. She's seen mistrust percolating between the two groups, which has her calling for more education to dispel stereotypes that exist on either side. (Bryan Eneas/CBC News)

Kerry Benjoe says it hurts to think how her three-year-old grandson, who is half Indo-Canadian and half Indigenous, might be discriminated against by people in both of those communities.

"Being a grandmother of a child of mixed heritage, it's scary to think that someone can hate him [or] have other Indigenous people hate him just because he's half Punjabi," she said.

"With the way the things are now, that's a real possibility."

She's seeing more anger and mistrust percolating online between Indigenous people and other visible minorities. In particular, there have been posts accusing immigrants of trying to abduct Indigenous women.

Benjoe believes the fear and mistrust are fed by Indigenous people's resentment at being mistreated and stereotyped by new Canadians.

"When there's more negative being fed into that pot, it's going to boil over sooner or later."

Is race an issue?

A newly formed Facebook group, called Regina Human Trafficking Prevention, has become a hub where people share and re-share stories of suspected trafficking or abductions and suspicious behaviour of people circling a block or following woman.

A new Facebook group called Regina Human Trafficking Prevention held an event in Regina's North Central area on May to raise awareness of the problem of human trafficking, and the service they provide. Two women from the area are offering free rides to anyone who needs one, as one way for people to feel safer. (CBC News)

Several posts refer to uncomfortable encounters with cab drivers and others described as "East Indian," "Middle Eastern," or other races, with a couple referring to "Pakis."  

Posts include pictures of people and licence plates. One post refers to a man seen, "creeping around Albert School probably looking for little girls" and saying, "sick of this s--t, if the system won't do s--t we can take s--t into our own hands."

The posted picture of the man's face and his licence plate was shared more than 1,000 times.

Another post shared by a member to the site referenced "Pakis" circling a home and threatened, "I will f---ing kill you and cut your f---ing heads off" with a picture of a car at a Regina neighbourhood.  

Some of these posts have led to some people condemning racism on the site, but organizers of the page deny they're racist. On June 9, administrators said they would do their best to edit each post before it was shared, saying it was not a platform for hate and that the majority of followers are not racist, but rather scared.

"The only reason race matters on this page is for a description, nothing else," the post read.

Avanna Noname is one of the two sisters behind the Facebook page, which also offers safe rides for women. She said the stories being shared on the page highlight the threats of human trafficking.

Growing up in North Central, she would often see gang members but was never afraid of them. Now, she said, seeing faces she doesn't recognize makes her feel unsafe in the inner city neighbourhood.

She said she believes the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is being fuelled by immigrant populations. She said many don't want to say it out loud for fear of being considered discriminatory.

"There's been lots of situations where cab drivers have taken women out of their ways from where they wanted to be, have threatened them, have tried to take them out of the city," she said. "Who's to know these women aren't going missing because they're taking cabs?"

Safe-riding groups have sprung up in other cities to allow women to help other women feel safe. Pictured is Christine Brouzes, co-director of a safe-riding service in Winnipeg, who says Indigenous women are often victims of harassment in cabs. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron shared his own perception on the risk of trafficking during the closing ceremony into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

He told reporters that a couple of weeks ago, his 20-year-old daughter was "followed and stalked inside the Superstore from two East Indians," adding the incident was reported to police.

"This is just one young lady. We're talking about thousands right across the country. Human trafficking, it is here and we have to stop it."

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron also touched on the topic of human trafficking during the closing of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (CBC)

Victimized women

The threat to vulnerable Indigenous women is immense, as highlighted in the report into MMIWG that described the situation as genocide.

Benjoe said she knows the threat is out there. She said she has been victimized and mistreated by cab drivers and that it is a common experience for First Nations women.

But she's also been a victim of domestic violence while in a relationship with an Indigenous man.

"That's why the statistics say we're … more likely to experience violence and die violently. It's because we get it from the outside and we get it from our own," Benjoe said.

Survivors of domestic violence don't see their partners as the bad people, she said.

"They're just the average guy, they're somebody's brother, they're somebody's cousin, they're somebody's best friend. They're an uncle. They're a dad. So that kind of gives them a pass."

A stranger — that unfamiliar face propositioning an Indigenous woman on the street, or the cab driver who asks an Indigenous woman if she wants to "pay another way" — is seen as the greater threat and as a potential trafficker, Benjoe said.

Picture not clear on human trafficking

It is hard to pin down numbers on human trafficking due to its shadowy nature, according to Statistics Canada. Between 2009 and 2016, there were 1,220 cases reported to police. A third of these cases involved trafficking that crossed borders into or out of Canada.

Statistics Canada says incidences of police-reported human trafficking has been on a steady increase, although it's not clear if this is a result of police efforts and tracking or if it is a result of an increase in trafficking itself. (Statistics Canada)

Benjoe noted that with more new immigrant populations moving into neighbourhoods like North Central, it's possible for people to fall under suspicion of being potential traffickers for something as simple as circling an unfamiliar city block.

Regina police and the union representing cab drivers have both spoken out against the sharing online of unsubstantiated claims or photos that may put people in danger, instead urging people to report suspicious behaviour to police.

Benjoe said nothing will change until attitudes change.

Nothing's going to change unless action is taken to create those bridges.- Kerry Benjoe

Indigenous people have had to deal with systematic racism their whole lives, but have held onto their culture, their ownership of the land and a "warrior spirit."

"Rarely will you find an Indigenous person be meek and turn the other cheek when they feel they are being disrespected and discriminated against," she said, explaining why she believes Indigenous people are going online to express their sense of anger against new Canadians.

She believes that to dispel stereotypes that exist on either side, one-on-one interactions between Indigenous and immigrant people are needed.

"We all have brown skin. We've all faced racism because of the colour of our skin and it's really unfortunate now that we're continuing that anger against each other," Benjoe said.

"Nothing's going to change unless action is taken to create those bridges."

She feels it's not an option to stay silent either.

"Just leaving it as is — is dangerous."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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