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.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read