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COMMENTARY: Me and systemic racism

The view from a place of privilege

Bill Thomas

Special to the News

My name is Bill Thomas. I am a white man. I am more than 80 years old. I am a husband, a father, a brother, a neighbour, a writer and a teacher. My ancestors came from Greece, and were part of a migration from Europe to North America in the early 1900s. I have lived and worked on the land of the Six Nations and here on the lands of the Ta’an Kwächän Council and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. I volunteer with the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, a non-Indigenous organization that is beginning to examine how to decolonize our work.

I am a settler.

My white privilege means I don’t have to think about or even acknowledge systemic racism.

I don’t even have to name it. Once I do name that awful experience I have a responsibility.

I have to do the work.

When I hear racist statements or slurs against people of colour, I have to be aware that this is an act of violence against them. I have to be aware that turning people of colour into dictionaries so I can understand them may be a racist act.

The work of educating myself about white dominance in Canadian history will be difficult. I think my job is not to feel guilty about the past but to learn from it. I need to think and act every day in a way that reflects my new understanding and desire for change.

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report there are 94 Calls to Action. The commission advocates for more education and skills-based training to support anti-racism efforts in the areas of health care, the justice system and in the business sector.

We need another Call to Action to confront racism in our community and how it contributes to poverty and homelessness. Poverty is expensive. It is expensive for people with low or no income. They cannot afford nutritious food and other essentials so they need health care and go to the hospital. Racism lives there and many receive inadequate treatment. This results in higher healthcare costs and makes the point that racism is expensive too.

We have seen too many examples of violence and racism in the justice system. Many do not trust our institutions. The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition’s Call to Action focuses on the need to get ourselves educated and to support anti-racism actions as much as we can.

Racism is personal prejudice and bias and the systematic misuse and abuse of power by institutions. Systemic racism has a long history in North America. It started around 500 years ago with something called the doctrine of discovery. The purpose of the doctrine was to support decisions made by European settlers to invalidate or ignore Indigenous possession of land and favour colonial governments. If a settler discovered land, he could claim it as his own property. This was done with the rationale that the land was “empty.”

This was the beginning of racism since settlers did not even acknowledge the presence of Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land. They were invisible.

That’s the old story and it still exists today with the call that Indigenous peoples must reclaim the land that was stolen from them. It’s time for a new story of discovery, one of finding ways to overcome poverty, racism and discrimination.

I believe the new story begins with conversation. Such conversations will be difficult and uncomfortable. They may not go well. We have to shift from “nobody talks about it because of guilt, denial and other reasons” to “let’s have the courage to talk about it.”

How else can we learn, unlearn and educate ourselves?

The new story also demands that we are willing to learn the history of treaties and Indigenous rights in Canada. How can it be that a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 has not been upheld and supported in Nova Scotia? The ruling affirmed that “the 1760 and 1761 Peace and Friendship Treaties with the British and Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act gave the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Peskotomuhkati people, the right to hunt, fish and gather in pursuit of a ‘moderate livelihood’ from the resources of the land and waters.” The ruling encompasses a total of 34 First Nations in the maritime provinces and the Gaspé region of Quebec. Marshall II, a subsequent Supreme Court clarification, states that conservation-based regulations would still apply. The fact that even after 20 years, First Nations are fighting for these rights, is systemic racism.

The new story also demands action. In May, an independent expert panel released Putting People First, a comprehensive review of health and social services in Yukon. The report states that: “Many First Nations people told us about experiencing racism in the system and feeling that policies and services do not adequately include their culture or traditional healing practices.”

The recommendations in Putting People First are strong, progressive and can break down systemic racism. Yukon government has accepted all of them. It is time to press for implementation. Period.

As Kerry Nolan, coordinator of Poverty and Homelessness Action Week, has asked all week, we need to support one another to find warmth and spiritual strength for the task ahead. I also believe we need to constantly check our privilege and help build safe spaces for hard discussions and most importantly, action to end systemic racism in our community.