Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Eric Robinson may be rude, but he is not a racist

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It may be the silly season at the legislative assembly, but via the Osborne House-Eric Robinson controversy, it has become more important, because it offers us all a chance to think seriously about racism in our society.

Ironically, it happens right in the midst of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's extemporaneous "I have a dream" speech, which forced America to confront the racist origins and underpinnings of its economy. So let's get first things first. What is racism?

Racism is a set of beliefs and actions that use the power of some to oppress in fundamental ways a less powerful group, based on their race. Most often, the oppressor is a powerful majority group; occasionally, as in South Africa, it can be a smaller, but still overwhelmingly powerful group oppressing a larger majority, based on race. It stems from unfounded beliefs of superiority of the oppressor's race.

Anyone who reads Canadian aboriginal history knows from the 1880s onward at least until the 1970s, Canada engaged in a carefully formulated policy of racial discrimination and cultural genocide of aboriginal people. The residential school process, forced relocation of communities, refusal of the right to vote or make their own local laws and countless other acts of governments make clear this was conscious and resolutely pursued policy over many decades.

Eric Robinson is a First Nations person, a member of a group that was historically oppressed by racist policies. He personally suffered from these policies. Furthermore, he has abundant experience of well-intentioned white people attempting to "do good" for aboriginal persons. After all, "do-gooders" is hardly an unusual term for many of us to use, whether we be white or any other colour. It refers to someone who perhaps without thinking through a situation, tries to "help."

And here's the situation -- Osborne House and the Selinger government are in conflict. That's hardly unusual, and with goodwill, it can be resolved. But when a government-supported agency serving abused women decides to raise money using a burlesque show, which clearly treats women as sex objects, and anyone, including an aboriginal minister objects privately to a staff person that this is both inappropriate, and an example of "white do-gooders," he is simply stating a fact. His remark may be pejorative, perhaps even rude, but it cannot be classed as racist.

What really is happening here is an agency making much of an uninvolved minister's private comment to further its battle with funders. The press, wittingly or not, played right into Osborne House's hands. Both the abused women served by Osborne House and Eric Robinson deserve better.

Tim Sale is a former NDP

minister of family services.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A17

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