Racism the elephant in the room
There is an elephant in the room in the Cowichan Valley. You can catch sightings in every public service, every shop, and it is seen often at festivals and on our parks and hiking trails. It patiently sits in the waiting rooms of many hospitals and the MCFD, reflected in the eyes of too large a percentage of caregivers and public servants who are blind to its existence. This elephant’s presence is either overt or covert, but ubiquitous.
The elephant is better known as the systemic discrimination against First Nations and Métis people, particularly First Nations and Métis people of colour. Stereotypes and assumptions make up the bulk of this elephant, which all revolve around lethargy, alcohol abuse, animal abuse, negligent parenting and drug addiction.
The First Nations or Métis individual who works, hunts, fishes, creates carvings, knitwear, art, and participates in their band’s culture and events since childhood must want to scream when the culturally inept accuse them of “being lazy”. The struggle to overcome generational trauma from their grandparents forcibly taken from their families and abused in residential schools is not given the white man’s diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The compassion and empathy that goes with the diagnosis is too often replaced by judgement and coldly disregarding all First Nations and Métis people have had to overcome. When a white man suffers PTSD flashbacks and nightmares and perhaps cannot maintain their lawn to pristine standards while fighting these psychological demons and keeping their family’s heads above water, no one is drawing the conclusion that all white men are lazy. However, when driving through a reserve, the unkempt lawn or missed garbage pick-up of a First Nations or Métis person for the same reasons represents every First Nations and Métis person. The white man is judged as an individual, while the First Nations and Métis person is seen as representative of all First Nations and Métis people. It’s the white bias and the core of our systemic discrimination.
The white man who battles with alcoholism has addiction issues. The First Nations and Métis person is labeled as a typical drunken First Nations and Métis person. Despite the heavy use of alcohol in many European countries from which the white man derived, despite the predominantly white-owned alcoholic beverage industries that make most of their fortune off of white consumers, there is no stigma of “drunken Caucasians”.
The majority of neglectful and abusive pet owners are white, but any case that occurs on reserve land is soon followed by assertions that “all pets on reserves are neglected and abused”. This double standard is met with almost universal acceptance in certain circles. This does not happen in white neighbourhoods, where three or four cases of animal abuse and neglect translates into all animals in that neighbourhood being neglected and abused.
Likewise, First Nations and Métis people are over-represented in child and family services. I have had many conversations with people who work in family and domestic abuse services and sadly they have unanimously told me that the bias against First Nations and Métis people is ubiquitous. Like taking children away from their culture and families during the dark residential school period of Canadian history, now children are taken away and placed in the foster care system, many times in non-First Nations and Métis households.
You can see First Nations and Métis eyes scanning for the elephant in the room, expecting it to be there, while remaining optimistic that they will be able to trust public servants to treat them fairly and that they will get the unbiased social and health care they need. Hoping that they will not be judged by racist stereotypes based on the colour of their skin, but on the reality of the content of their character.
It’s the least Canada owes our First Nations and Métis people. We can do better.
Colleen Morrison Lyons