Canadian Anti-Idle No More Racism Grows Online

Heather Mallick, The Star, January 13, 2013

Is Canada more racist than we think?

It turns out that writing a column about Idle No More and the ongoing battle by Indians in Canada for fair treatment attracts racists the way a wet lawn calls out to worms.

I had always thought that one of the joys of Canadian life was its abhorrence of racism. But judging by some of the email I received and the comments I read online elsewhere, it’s getting a bit Mississippian around here.

The racism unleashed after Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, the Federal Court Métis ruling and the effort to get Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the same room as chiefs and the governor-general? It was extraordinary.

It’s unfair to judge all Canadians by the anonymous cowards who post online. But was so troubled by the extreme racism in comments on stories about the Idle No More movement that it asked readers on its Community Blog for advice.

As lawyers know, never ask a witness a question to which you don’t think you already know the answer. Most commenters responded with angry cries about free speech, not appearing to realize that hate speech isn’t free at all. Moderating comment threads is expensive.’s problem is that unless it takes action, it’s going to become a non-paywalled main stage to which racists flock.

CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning host Matt Galloway spoke out about the problem on his radio show. “Legitimate and informed criticism is important,” he said. “Racism is something completely different. For people trying to understand what Idle No More is from a non-aboriginal perspective, those comments muddy the discussion. For First Nations people, it can be much more damaging than that.”

I think I can imagine the pain of Indians reading those racist comments, but I am wrong.

As reported, Galloway talked to a Toronto aboriginal artist named Keesic Douglas, who said he has read the comment threads and has had to make himself stop.

“I keep thinking, who are these people who write these things?” Douglas said. “Is that my next-door neighbour?”

Until websites force readers to use their real name, with address, as newspaper letters pages do, we’re always going to get racist muck on our boots.

But here’s an email that’s much more troubling: A white nurse I’ll call Margaret (she provided her name, email and phone number) wrote to me about Indians she knew in Calgary.

“Out west one sees First Nations daily. They are not hidden away like in Ontario. I have been in some of the homes (on the reserve) and in my experience there was no excuse for the squalor. Not when they had a TV that probably at the time cost a few thousand dollars. But the windows were broken, the sinks were out of order, etc.”

This woman doesn’t know she sounds like a 1950s white lady complaining about shiftless negroes. She doesn’t know how sententious and smug she sounds about the pain of others. Her drains run free and clear.

“I took care of quite a few First Nations for various things,” she wrote. “They were funny, smart, maddening, exasperating. The majority of them could not seem to harness that positive energy to do something constructive.”

This is a competent assessment of a Grade 2 class. As a race descriptor, it’s scarcely better than “pickaninnies.”

And here comes a real beauty: “You have to learn and move on. I have a great deal of admiration for other minority groups that have done just that. The Jews, the Roma faced some of the worst kinds of treatment just for the fact of being born to a certain ethnic group. After WWII they picked themselves up and moved forward. History is full of role models of people that made lemonade out of the lemons in their life.”

That last phrase especially hums, and not just for its inaccuracy. It resembles the 2010 advice of Sharron Angle, the failed Nevada Senate candidate, to children raped and made pregnant by their fathers. She said abortion would be wrong, and the trick was to make “a lemon situation into lemonade.”

What’s with the lemon metaphors? Strange fruit indeed. They’re part of a humblebrag, a disguised boast, an effort to discount the pain of others while subtly pumping one’s own comparative virtue.

Watch out for humblebraggers trying to lure you into companionable anonymous cowardly racism. Don’t fall into their hateful trap.

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