Joe Alphonse: Canadian governments don’t understand what racism looks like or its legacy

Opinion: It’s an uncomfortable reality that this collective ignorance helps perpetuate the legacy of racism in our country

This weeks Conversation that Matters features the man at the centre of the Tsilhqotin Supreme Court decision, Chief Joe Alphonse. Alphonse says the Tsilhqotin decision is, beyond a game changer, weve abandoned the game that was being played, were starting something new now. Weve always seen ourselves as a layer of government and its a layer of government industry is going to have to deal with. Join veteran broadcaster Stuart McNish for this important and engaging Conversation that Matters on The Vancouver Sun website. Each week McNish explores the most important issues shaping the future of B.C. Please become a subscriber and support the production of the program. [PNG Merlin Archive]

As Indigenous people, we have to fight every day for recognition of our own agency and expertise.

When an outside agency enters our communities and assumes that we do not know what we are doing — that is racism. This is uncomfortable for everyone involved; however, the brunt of suffering from this type of racism is taken on by Indigenous people. Indigenous leaders wear the burden of knowing that our people must continue a daily fight in this country against systemic racism.

The massive barriers that condemn Indigenous peoples to conditions on par with developing countries are marked by constant tragedy. Rampant youth suicide, increased child mortality rates, gross overrepresentation in the justice system and more Indigenous children in government care now than during the residential schools era are just a few staggering realities that have torn our communities and families apart. Recent lowlights of police brutality and a health and social system that mocks our people in their most vulnerable moments is not news to us.

Over the past years, numerous documents have been produced that provide detailed solutions to the central issues Indigenous peoples face. Woven into these reports and documents (MMIWG Calls to Justice, TRC Calls to Action, UNDRIP) is the uncomfortable reality that all levels of government (regional, municipal, provincial, federal) lack an understanding of what racism looks like and the legacy it leaves in its wake, perpetuating this legacy of racism.

The TRC Calls for Action demand progress on reconciling the gross inequities between our quality of life indicators and those of the average Canadian. The fact that Canada needs a national strategy on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls speaks to the incredible contrast of what it means to be Indigenous in Canada.

Our own Indigenous governments are leading the way by implementing our own solutions. Projects are being pursued to increase safety and security of our Tsilhqot’in women and girls. We are also working to protect our communities from COVID-19 through some of our own innovative solutions. The Tsilhqot’in is actively seeking reform to policing policy and our relationship with the RCMP. Working to modernize police training and establish a new Indigenous court in Williams Lake are just a few examples.

The MMIWG Calls for Justice highlight the idea that our learned environment must change to reduce racism experienced by Indigenous peoples and carried on by all levels of government, institutions and industry, both intentionally and unintentionally. This change starts with education.

Education is fundamental to any progress. The Canadian education system has failed to provide accurate representations of Indigenous history, the legacy of colonization and who we are as a people to those who will grow up to write policy, develop laws and, more importantly, teach their own children. What does the average Canadian really know about Indigenous peoples of this country? Our languages, our belief systems and our ways of life are to be celebrated for the rich diversity they bring to Canada. Overall, the lens by which Canadians understand Indigenous peoples needs to change.

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In the Calls for All Canadians under the MMIWG report it states: “Create time and space for relationships based on respect as human beings, supporting and embracing differences with kindness, love, and respect.” More than ever, in a deeply polarized society we need to not only start working together as equally deserving and capable partners, but trusting in Indigenous peoples’ expertise to guide the way to a brighter future.

The Tsilhqot’in Nation is a nation of warriors, using strength and resiliency to overcome a system weighted against us. We will be relentless in our fight against racial injustice, seeking partners, advocates and fellow champions to stand up, and show up, with us. Our collective voice will be our unyielding call for action.

Change requires moments in history where we all stand up to force a deeper understanding and reform. I hope that what we are witnessing today is our collective moment in history where across this country all Canadians are recognizing the role they can play in ending systemic racism.

Chief Joe Alphonse is tribal chair, Tsilhqot’in National Government and chief of Tl’etinqox.

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