Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Race, racism are social constructs that divide

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Doris Pratt was just seven years old when a large farm vehicle pulled onto her Dakota reserve in southern Manitoba. With the innocence of a child, she was excited. It was her first time seeing such a big truck so she couldn't wait to go for a ride with the rest of her young friends.

Now known as Elder Pratt, Doris looks back on that day some 70 years ago, through the eyes of experience. She still wonders why she didn't notice that something wasn't quite right. As the truck pulled away with the children in it, why were all the mothers not just crying, but wailing, as if they were at a funeral?

Like thousands of other First Nations children, Doris was ripped away from her family during the residential schools period in Manitoba's history.

Though the goal was not to physically kill the children, as happened during the atrocity of the Holocaust, it certainly was a paternalistic, abusive, and racist attempt to kill the spirit, language, and traditions of aboriginal children while forever destroying any semblance of normal family relations. Its impact is still felt today.

This past week, there has been a lot of talk in Manitoba about racism and anti-Semitism, springing from the placement of hate-filled posters in downtown Winnipeg. It gave me pause to reflect on some of the experiential parallels between the Jewish and First Nations communities.

Racism is racism, after all, in its many forms. It must be exposed to light and be subject to a full discussion if we are to grow as local, national and global communities.

Ironically, the University of Manitoba held a panel discussion last week on racism and our need to talk about it -- how is our community going to serve as an international human rights destination if we don't?

I participated in the panel as a lay person, having witnessed or heard stories of the hardships my parents and grandparents suffered before me -- from the outlawing of ceremonies, to the pass system that prevented residents from freely moving outside the reserve without the say-so of the Indian agent, to the almost unbelievable concept that aboriginal people evolved from savagery and, hence, were not entitled to legal representation.

For First Nations people, the notion of race itself has been shaped by this hierarchical thinking that placed European people at the top in both physical and mental attributes. Wrongly so, according to modern physical anthropologists who tell us that categories of race have no basis in science, but rather are nothing more than social constructs.

It was this same hierarchical approach that was used to rationalize the systemic genocide during the Holocaust. And with the same motivating ideas, it was within living memory here in Manitoba that the Jewish community was barred from many organizations, prevented from owning a house in some suburbs, not allowed equal entry into universities and, certainly, subject to innumerable racist slanders.

For First Nations people, further complicating the racial imbalance is the Indian Act, unilaterally imposed as a means to "administer" First Nations people (though the term "control" is a more apt description).

As First Nations people, the biggest danger is stuffing the emotions and internalizing the racism. Instead, aboriginal communities need to stand up to it and proudly believe they are capable of achieving high standards. By educating, building bridges, holding people to account, and disproving the myths through actions and accomplishments, I am a believer that, inch by inch, this attitude of lowered expectations can be changed.

However unjust and ugly, we cannot deny we live in a world that has been shaped by our history -- one that encourages some people to keep us trapped in the hierarchies of old.

Elder Pratt became an educator both in university and her home community. She knows the irony of the fact that education, once used as a weapon against her, is now helping her communities to move forward.

To see her spread her message is a touching experience because those of us who care about children cannot help but empathize with what a seven-year-old must have gone through.

If we can visualize our children in those shoes, then we can easily visualize trains coming for Jewish children with a more sinister purpose. We all must unite to fight the racism that permitted this to happen.

 

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2012 A11

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