Opinion

Our casual racism causes Indigenous suffering: Neil Macdonald

Quibbling over the definition of genocide does nothing but help obscure the long history of vicious racism and undeniable suffering of Indigenous people in this country. It's bad enough whatever you want to call it.

Call in the RCMP commissioner, offer her $100M to open an Indigenous cold case unit

Come hell, high water, or recession, budgets for Indigenous people should be increased, never cut. They have absolute rights in law and by treaty. Rights, not granted privileges. We owe them. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As Marion Buller stood before her audience Monday morning, struggling to adequately convey in her few allotted minutes the crushing load of sadness she and her fellow commissioners had collected in the past few years, and her fear that Canadians won't listen, the country's two main cable news channels abruptly decided to make her point.

In the lower quadrant of the country's TV screens, up popped live video of U.S. President Donald Trump, of all people, visiting Westminster Abbey, of all places.

Seriously. Someone thought it was a good idea, during a solemn ceremony meant to honour and remember the thousands of Indigenous women raped, murdered, sold, brutalized, kidnapped and otherwise treated like chattel, to provide the audience with the distraction of a foreign leader who makes sniggering allusions to "Pocahontas," and belittling references to the tragic history of the Trail of Tears, visiting a symbol of the Western religion that was such an enthusiastic partner in the merciless, murderous subjugation of the doomed people who were living in North America when European explorers "discovered" it.

Just in case all this sobbing and feathers and drums and costumes are boring you, dear viewer, here's the personification of white nationalist power, touring one of white empire's principal tools of colonization.

Casual racism

In a sense, it was understandable: Trump is a travelling freak show, and bound to say or do something laughably stupid wherever he goes, so, because he's president, he's news. But it was also precisely the sort of casual racism Buller was trying to talk about. Ask yourself this: If the main event was, say, the funeral of the teenage hockey players from Humboldt, Sask., would anyone even think of profaning the occasion by intercutting footage of the vulgar boor in the White House strolling around a big church overseas?

But of course Monday's ceremony was not about vital young hockey players whose deaths call up dark insecurities about the fragilities of our own children, and the daily dangers from which we simply cannot protect them. It was about the suffering of a marginal community of "others," people whose culture and language are incomprehensible to most of us, and whose existence is mostly invisible.

Chief Commissioner Marion Buller addresses the crowd at the opening ceremony of the MMIWG inquiry. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In any case, I will acknowledge some white guilt. I am deeply sympathetic to Indigenous treatment at the hands of white society. I was in Oka for the whole summer of that crisis, watching the Mohawks of Kanesatake threatened, loathed and brutalized by racist police who were acting as armed enforcers for a white city council that wanted to expand its golf course onto sacred Indian land, and I remember thinking that if I was a young Mohawk man, I'd be on the barricade with a rifle, too.

I've spent time up north reporting on suicide rates and the unspeakable habit of "huffing" – inhaling gasoline fumes until the mind unhinges – that afflicts remote Indigenous communities. The depth of hopelessness there was suffocating, especially in the perpetual darkness of winter.

I am delighted to see the government spending more money to improve Indigenous life, and I would be happy to see even more spent. I recognize the ruthless violence inflicted on them by my ancestors, but I feel no personal responsibility for that. And when yet another story about Indigenous culture appears, almost by rote, on television or media websites — unless it's a news report about a manifest injustice, say, annual flooding or undrinkable water or mouldy, uninhabitable dwellings, or police brutality, stories like the ones about the cops in Val D'Or who would abuse or harass Indigenous women, then drop them somewhere out of town, even in winter — I just tune out.

Like a lot of people, I suspect. It is no doubt that sort of benign indifference on the part of some Canadians that prompted the MMIWG commissioners to deploy the incendiary accusation of genocide against Canadian society.

Buller, with her serene smile, was explicit at the ceremony: "The significant, persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human and indigenous rights violations and abuses perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state … is the cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence experienced by Indigenous women … and this is genocide."

I'm not going to argue with that, as some foolish people like former Conservative minister Bernard Valcourt have already loudly done. Quibbling over the definition of genocide does nothing but help obscure the long history of vicious racism and undeniable suffering of Indigenous people in this country. It's bad enough whatever you want to call it.

MMIWG recommendations

As for the commission's long list of recommendations, which Buller, a retired B.C. provincial court judge, calls legal imperatives and says the government must absolutely implement in their entirety, I can confidently say most won't find their way into law. Reform moves glacially, especially reform of governance. And certain of the recommendations are unworkable.

Punishing abusers of Indigenous women more severely, for example, could create an unwanted paradox: because the abuser (as the MMIWG report itself notes) is often an Indigenous man, the system could wind up imposing a more severe punishment on him than on a white man who has abused a white woman. Which would be lunacy.

However. Come hell, high water, or recession, budgets for Indigenous people should be increased, never cut. They have absolute rights in law and by treaty. Rights, not granted privileges. We owe them.

Affirmative action programs, to the extent by which Indigenous people can be enticed into participating in Canadian society and economy, must continue.

And with all due respect to Buller and her commission, they did not solve any missing or murdered cases (they never intended to try). My guess is the families who have complained so bitterly about the commission's work simply want to know what happened to their sisters, daughters and mothers.

The prime minister could and should call in the RCMP commissioner, offer her a hundred million dollars or so to open an Indigenous cold case unit, and tell her to get cracking on results, or expect to be replaced.

That would be actual action, as opposed to the slacktivism of proclaiming which tribe's unsurrendered (and never to be returned) land the speaker is standing on. Conscience demands it.


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

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.