Back to Anti-racist Basics after the Gerald Stanley “Verdict”

I was at work last week on a quite different blog for the Ryerson CFE when a jury of Gerald Stanley’s peers (or is it settler clones?), seven women and five men none of whom were “visibly Indigenous,” acquitted Stanley of the murder of Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant First Nation in August of 2016.

In a blog at the time of the murder entitled “Prairie Racism and Free Expression,” I responded very directly to that event and the outpouring of settler hatred it occasioned. The recent “verdict” (literally expressing the truth as seen by the jurors), and its ongoing provincial and national reception, have me outraged once again but not yet capable of dealing with the implications of recent legal process overseen by the Chief Justice of Saskatchewan, its political antecedents in the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities and groups like Farmers with Firearms, and with the intervention on Facebook of Brad Wall’s successor as premier of Saskatchewan, Scott Moe.  These matters will be the subject of my next blog in this venue. For now, I invite you to consider my detour through the basics of anti-racism as I understand them. My next blog will be grounded in the following reflections which I have shared in various foms in various settings, but apparently to little effect in rural Saskatchewan, far less social media.           

Systemic Racism:

How does systemic racism occur and, even worse, recur or persist, as it arguably has in Saskatchewan recently? One answer lies in the histories of both “system” and “race” and the circumstances of these terms’ combination. But neither the phenomenon of systemic racism nor the damage it does to both racists and those racialized occurs only in language.

To be sure, words may wound as effectively as they may welcome, and the discursive dimensions of racism offer invaluable evidence of what racism is and does. But racism is perpetrated and experienced in many forms and situations. It draws historically and currently on fully embodied experience in a specific physical territory shared (or contested) with others, as well as on technologically mediated and otherwise virtual interventions and encounters. It cannot be fully understood, far less defeated, through a single lens or from a single social or communicative position. Indeed, it takes lots of diversely talented people a great deal of thought, effort, and collusion to deny dignity, talent, and a full humanity to other people on the basis of their racialized distinctiveness, and to consign them to a sterile or contaminated margin of territory and/or status--or even to outright extinction. Likewise, it requires a collective, multi-talented, trans-cultural, politically savvy and resolute effort to undo the damage caused by such denial and consignment. In Canada these realities of anti-colonial resistance are experienced most conspicuously by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples whose prior occupancy of Turtle Island and generous interactions with newcomers made and still makes them the oldest, most durable, and most lucrative target for unscrupulous settler agendas. Being here first and being everywhere around has for Aboriginal people meant being the primordial and ongoing target of newcomers’ resentful dependency, treachery, greed, and genocide.

Racism appeals to the worst in individuals on the basis of a demonstrable fiction, namely ‘race.’ It mobilizes the negative consequences of such appeals within economic, political, and socio-cultural systems convinced of their own validity and with the power to enforce compliance or punish dissent. Accordingly, aggregates of individual bigotry produce a state apparatus to nationalize and legitimate the move from human difference as enrichment to human difference as a difficulty or blemish to be removed, more or less violently or invasively, in a process blending purity with progress while devaluing otherness. On a personal  level,  ignorance and fear are activated and rewarded  so that the domination or elimination of  difference will appear an act of charity or an act of God.  Ignorance and fear breed phantasies like the necessary adversary or the undeserving Indian which find themselves grander names as they go about their colonizing business: names like history, theology, philosophy, anthropology, law, science, culture, civilization, modernity.

Whatever the dominant systems in the colonizing apparatus, whether faith-based or knowledge-based or both, they behave too often as creatures of an over-arching arrogance and rapacity while ingeniously denying their connections to an underlying hatred. Whether sanctimonious or pseudo-scientific, racism is the reliable and efficient fuel and output of colonialism, in Canada as well as elsewhere, overcoming the misgivings and recantations of individual colonizers and often taking on the aspect of common sense or of a sporadically compassionate social Darwinism. It is therefore no coincidence that self-righteous and pseudo-scientific racisms were at their height precisely when Canada was working towards political independence from Britain, so that a foundational act of emancipation and Anglo-French entente could double as an act of racist subordination and resettlement.  Virtually every aspect of Canadian nation-building in the nineteenth century depended on Aboriginal land and Indigenous knowledge, even while both were being resituated within the frame of quasi-benevolent paternalism where treaties could become pro forma  exercises of conciliation-on-the-cheap and the honour of the Crown be reduced to a cynical fiction. 

The systemic becomes self-sustaining by gathering the willing, the less willing, and even the actively unwilling behind policies and practices that demonize and assault other social fabrics and their attendant knowledge systems to produce such convenient ‘truths’ as: “Our systems are rational and moral, yours irrational and immoral.” Thus does policy seduce or co-opt opportunistic or timid individuals and people of good will in acts of collective bad faith which Alexander Morris, during the signing of the numbered treaties, nervously endorsed as “the cunning of the white man.”

Individualizing and personalizing the challenge of racial discrimination is part of the antidote to the poisons it purveys and the injustices it seeks to legitimate, but this anti-racist impulse needs to be nourished and rewarded with all the consistency and resourcefulness that went into conceptualizing and implementing discrimination as dehumanization and dispossession in the first place. The systemic needs to be challenged at the level of the system, especially when racial discrimination is now illegal in Canada yet thrives inadvertently in the form of “white privilege” (McIntosh) invisible to many of its beneficiaries or encrypted in meritocratic hype which ignores or aggravates social and economic disparities between Aboriginal and other Canadians.

Here is where the enabling instruments and institutions of colonialism need to be transformed or replaced.  Moreover, decolonizing our institutions is work for us all, Aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike.  To this end, Aboriginal Canadians have developed a brilliant double gesture to remedy and move beyond their split-head condition, both mastering the knowledge systems of the dominant and refusing their arbitrary ignorance and unfairness. And the fashioners of this Aboriginal renaissance have inspired and instructed non-Aboriginal scholars working towards a double gesture of their own to counter the operating contradictions of a colonial project both civilizing and brutalizing, Christian and cruel. 

Each of these double gestures seeks to expose and eradicate the deep complicities of Eurocentric knowledge with Euro-Canadian colonialism while attending respectfully and patiently to those aspects of Indigenous Knowledge made available within appropriate protocols of exchange by Aboriginal thinkers, activists, colleagues, neighbours, friends. Recent books by Sa’ke’j Henderson and John Ralston Saul offer guidance and inspiration aplenty for those who seek to make our country more consistently and inclusively what it ought to be: “a just society.” Let’s hope their voices and those of their many supporters at last convince the skeptics and the nay-sayers that Canada has been and continues to be immeasurably enriched by its Aboriginal peoples.  

Three Keys to the Canada We Can Be: Cognitive Justice, Cultural Portage, and Visionary Civics:

As Canadians look to multiple anti-racist remedies within an increasingly public culture of redress with its formal governmental apologies, compensation provisions, and Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I would like to highlight three keys to unlocking the doors to mutual understanding and more respectful, sustainable exchange across differences too often openly racialized in the past and at least tacitly racialized in the present.

One such key, aptly originating with a scholar from the global south, is “cognitive justice” (Santos), understood modestly as “prudent knowledge for a decent life.”  Santos’ phrase and brief definition offer a reminder and an agenda. Human cognition is an extraordinary thing, but it will be more broadly beneficial than divisively harmful only if it is harnessed to a concept like justice which is descriptive, eagerly transystematic,  and aspirational in accord with the covenants and aims of the movement for international human rights and the human rights of Indigenous peoples. Santos combines what some would see as utopian language to sustainability and the needs of others everywhere on the planet, and not to supremacist selfishness and unlimited ‘growth.’ This example of the so-called margin talking back to imperialist centres underscores the multi-directional flow of knowledge and counsel that has always characterized colonizing projects but rarely been admitted to or welcomed by colonial powers. Such knowledge and counsel is generated from Aboriginal sources all across Canada, if only white Canada learns to listen and listens to learn from the most stigmatized and exploited of its others.

A second key is one I introduced in my catalogue essay for an exhibition featuring the visual work of Lori Blondeau of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, co-founder of the Aboriginal-run artist collective, Tribe, and an internationally acclaimed curator and performance artist.  Lori’s work caused me to think once again outside the Euro-centric box, thinking this time of cultural portage as an effortful moving of experiences, ideas, and shareable agendas from one navigable site to another. Portage is strongly associated with the voyageurs and the penetration of the Canadian interior via the fur trade. But, of course, the First Nations had been using such techniques long before contact with newcomers.

The portage is, then, an activity expressive of development yet profoundly dependent on Aboriginal knowledge and the reliable technologies of prior occupation. It is an activity with an important history which no-one today can monopolize and which Aboriginal artists and scholars are reclaiming in endlessly imaginative, carefully researched, decolonizing work. Moreover, it is a term strongly associated with the sense of movement intrinsic to creativity itself and available also in concepts like metaphor, translation, and discovery. It points to a moment of going beyond where we currently are and transforming some things we take with us while preserving others unchanged.

Lori Blondeau takes the human body, especially the thoroughly racialized female Aboriginal body, including her own body, and re-marks it in ways that move us with some collective effort to a place where we can once again make progress. The participants in this process are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and they bear a common freight of durable and mutable socio-cultural practices, values, meanings. We can move to the next stage of this anti-racist project only if we collaborate respectfully, each using her or his version of the portage strap and doing her or his share of the work. The journey undertaken involves cultural openness and mutual discovery, and gestures towards sustainable futures together rather than the avaricious designs of colonial monoculturalists. And we are lucky indeed to have brilliant and courageous guides like Lori Blondeau to help us on our way.         

My third and symptomatic key to changing Canada may seem like yet another tool for assimilation of Aboriginal people to the Euro-Canadian mainstream, but this holds only if we assume civics to be a white monopoly, and the civis or city from which civics derives its name to be an essentially white space where brown presences are ghettoized or criminalized, if tolerated at all. Canada’s cities need to be seedbeds of visionary, post-racist  civics, and to do so they need to be creative not only in Richard Florida’s sense of being receptive to the arts and to all sorts of human differences; they need also to attend to their own particular histories and territories, and the first peoples of those territories, in order to change urban spaces into new configurations of rootedness and movement, residence and transience, that fuel opportunity and friendship rather than endangerment and exclusion.

Both city and country, places of distinctive gathering and dispersal, need to be seen once again through Aboriginal eyes as well as settler-scopes, and recreated as places of sharing and security that rethink relations to the land as well as the built environment, and do so by investing massively in education for the Canada we can be. This entails speaking truth to power, of course, and having the courage and knowledge to remind all those in positions of authority to heed the lessons of multiple histories and cartographies of violence and care, and of the protracted failure to understand treaty federalism and make it work for all Canadians as it was intended and crafted to do.  But it also means speaking youth to power, in an effort of intercultural, intergenerational solidarity that insists that all our young people receive an education that empowers them through honouring their distinctiveness as well as the gifts and aspirations they share with others.

Our classrooms are where this visionary civics can take hold and then take over the Canadian public sphere and public policy. Our classrooms are where we can most critically and creatively reclaim what we have been and infuse the best of that legacy into the heart of what we do henceforth. And perhaps our classrooms can more effectively remediate what happens in our court rooms and in too many social spaces in this country. The task is difficult but not impossible.