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Familiarity breeds acceptance

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A key finding of a recent survey by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation claims that one in four Canadians report a negative attitude towards aboriginal people. The survey also found Canadians who have more contact with aboriginal people also have a more positive attitude toward them.

Whoever said that familiarity breeds contempt seems to be wrong.

Then again, 25 per cent of the mainstream Canadian population maintains a negative perception of aboriginal people. Is this because many Canadians are "unfamiliar."

That is difficult to imagine because First Nations people and issues dominate Canadian news. Self-government, treaty relations, land claims, Indian residential schools, accountability, poverty, incarceration rates; the issues seem endless. There is no group of people or topic more written about today than First Nations.

But with most First Nations people living on "reserves" or separated from other Canadians by economic disparities, direct experience between the two groups remains limited. Most of their experience with First Nations people still comes from what Canadians read in the papers or hear about on the news.

Is that what has created the negative perception 25 per cent of Canadians have towards native people?

Things were simpler back in the 1950s and 1960s. Most Canadians had little or no experience with people who were called "Indians" and their attitude was based on what they learned from textbooks, which were Eurocentric at best, or from Hollywood B movies or TV westerns. These images scared some people and raised sympathy amongst others.

Then the so-called "bus people" flooded into Winnipeg in search of jobs and better housing. Television news reports provided the first pictures of the city's urban native population and those earliest images were either pow wow, protests or poverty. First Nations people quickly became Winnipeg's fastest growing and youngest demographic. Justice Murray Sinclair pointed out, "there are over 70,000 First Nations people in Winnipeg. What are the rest of them doing?"

Many were doing exactly what other Canadians were doing. Working, raising children, enjoying leisure and recreational activities and celebrating their culture and spirituality in their own way. But there are challenges, and media reports included negative and positive stories in almost equal measure. Many Canadians worked with First Nations people and their organizations to overcome social issues as best they could and the image of First Nations remained focused on the human condition.

But then First Nations leaders said things weren't working and it would be better if they regained control over their own affairs. Words like sovereignty and self-government became commonplace in the media along with "devolution" (First Nations control over Child and Family Services) and demands to change things like education curricula and types of health care, and even the who and how of their delivery. Land claims and treaty rights, which First Nations hope will provide the basis for economic development to create wealth and employment, and, ultimately, self-sufficiency began to dominate the headlines.

The image of First Nations people in the media changed drastically. Some well-educated and highly capable leaders have emerged, and some mistakes have been made, while First Nations develop a system of accountability which is relevant and acceptable to their people.

The experience most Canadians have with First Nations continues to come from the media. With news coverage fixated on the political and economic conflicts that divide us, the image of First Nations most Canadians receive is divisive. That may explain the negative attitudes found by the survey.

But here's the rub. The survey also suggests those who have First Nations people as neighbours get along quite well enough and there is little friction when we cross paths while shopping or playing in a park.

And so familiarity breeds acceptance.

There have also been surveys that say when people get to know the history and the details of the issues First Nations people are dealing with they also become more empathetic, accepting and positive.

As for accountability, well, let's just say not all community college presidents file questionable expense claims and the executive directors of all personal care homes don't arrange illegal contracts.

And if people really got to know leaders like Derek Nepinak, David Chartrand or Arlen Dumas personally, as I have, they would find they are really nice people (and accountable for every penny they spend).

If Canadians become more familiar with the issues facing First Nations people and the leaders who are working hard to deal with them, they will develop a more positive image of First Nations overall.

Don't believe everything you read in the papers.

Except this.


Don Marks is a writer in Winnipeg who has worked with and served on the boards of directors of numerous First Nations organizations in Winnipeg for more than 30 years.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 A15


Updated on Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 8:54 AM CDT: corrects byline

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