Labellium, Labellia, Labellioooo

(this post has been featured on Five Star Friday! Five Star Friday )

We are all so frightened of labels. We say we’re not, but really, we are. You say you don’t give a fig what other people think of you, but when someone calls you a bully or an intolerant bitch, there are plenty of figs to be given. It’s a veritable cornucopia of figs. A HORN O’FIGS A’PLENTY, one might say.

This has really struck home in the last few weeks as the Idle No More movement has swept across the country sparking action and debate. I made the mistake of listening to the radio this morning (it behoves me that there are so many ass-o-penny dinglehoppers on the radio nowabouts, because radio really is my first love, and lover, you’re losing me) and some jubejube said something about how Idle No More doesn’t really have a ‘focus’ and how their ‘platform’ is ‘vague’. I complained a little about this in my last post.

I’ve read the Idle No More website, and their focus seems pretty focussed to me. Sovereignty and working towards sustainable, renewable development of resources which need to be protected. That’s…that’s pretty clear. I mean, short of saying “we want a say in how our environment is going to be used”, I’m really not sure how much more clear that could be. Personally, I think there are people who CHOOSE not to “get it”. Just so that they can be thicky thick thick McThickertons from Thickville (to borrow liberally from my favourite Doctor). Perhaps I have misunderstood entirely what the movement is about.

Anyway, aside from the thicky thick thick McThickertons from Thickville, there’s something else going on that’s really interesting. People are talking. And most of the time, they’re skirting around some pretty big button items. They’re speaking in a kind of code. It’s not a subtle code, but it’s code nonetheless. And they’re speaking in this code because they’re terrified of being labelled. Specifically, they’re terrified of being labelled racists.

Whether you support this grassroots movement or not, you are entitled to your opinion. Whether you believe Canada’s First Nations are actually sovereign nations is your decision entirely. Whether you believe the Government of Canada is doing all the treaty people a huge disservice by inserting the thin edge of the wedge into waterways and environmental protection is completely your game. You get to think what you want and you get to say what you want and personally I think you ought to do so without being afraid of the labels you’re going to have stuck on you.

I mean, if you *are* a racist, then I want to hear you say it. I want to hear you say “I just don’t like Native people.” Then I know where I stand.

And…and here’s the really important bit. It’s super duper important. It’s probably one of the most important things I’m going to say in a while. Just because you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean you are being discriminatory or bigoted. That means you can disagree with Idle No More without being a racist. You can disagree with the treaties themselves without being a racist. You can hate the fact that ANY Canadians get treated differently from any OTHER Canadians, and that doesn’t make you a racist.

You’re going to hear a lot of words bandied about in this narrative. You’re going to hear words like patriarchal and colonial and my own personal favourite, “white privilege” (I get a kick out of people who don’t think the term white privilege is racist. Of COURSE it’s racist. If it were just ‘privilege’, it’d be different, but once you assign an ethnicity/skin colour to it by which you define a group of people who may or may not be a part of the group, you’re using bigoted terminology). You’re going to hear a lot about sovereignty and nation-to-nation consultation and discussion. You’re going to hear a lot about injustice and inequity.

I’m not saying those things don’t exist. I’m saying they’re buzzwords. And a lot of the time, people use buzzwords like that because either they think it makes them sound more clever or more authentic or they think it gives their arguments more gravitas. The *problem* with using buzzwords is that they begin to lose their meaning. They begin to be a bit fuzzy.

I, and my family for the past three generations are part of Treaty 4. You can find the entirety of Treaty 4 here. And you can find a guide to Treaty 4 here. In fact, you can find all of the treaties signed between the British Empire and the First Nations peoples in those same locations. I am not going to go in to much about the treaties, because I am by no means a scholar in the subject and barely even have a working knowledge of them. But I have read Treaty 4, and much of Treaties 5 and 6, and some of Treaty 7. I may have read more than that in grade school, but I don’t now recall it if I did (yes, we did study the treaties when I was in grade school).

I come from a place of privilege. Great privilege, in fact. Both of my parents are University graduates and had good-paying careers. All four of my grandparents had careers (not just jobs) and earned good incomes for their families. Seven out of eight of my great-grandparents had paying jobs that helped them provide for their families. None of my grandparents were harmed in residential schools. None of them was told they could not practice their religion nor speak their language. Only the women were told they could not go to the same public places others could. My grandparents and my parents were able to provide for me the sort of life their own grandparents couldn’t have imagined. And I benefitted from this over and over, and still do, to this day.

I had a stable home to live in. We had good food to eat. I had good clothes to wear. I received an excellent education. I received excellent health care. We owned our own land, and our own home. We had income and savings. We could afford to travel. I was able to participate in sports and in cultural groups and events. The cycle of substance abuse was stopped. The history of violence ended before I ever came into the world. My life was stable. But more than that, my life was SAFE.

Perhaps this all happened because of the colour of my great-grandparents’ skin. Or because of the religion my grandparents observed. My ancestors are survivors of colonialism and were driven from their native land. Their religion and culture was outlawed as well. Yet I still come from a place of privilege. And I don’t think for a moment that that makes me better or worse than anyone else. I also recognise that’s probably the privilege talking. It’s easy for me to say that because I don’t know what it’s like any other way. And that is absolutely, 100% true. I could very well be talking out of my arse here.

When I was young, there were families living on the student residence up the street from my home. My neighbour’s auntie, who was an elder, used to have me over for fry bread and tea. I learned a lot from that terrifying woman. I think most of all, I learned respect. Because she demanded it. Because she lived it. She just…she HAD it, you know?

So listen, I don’t consider myself a bigot. I really don’t. Maybe I am. Maybe I have some outdated ideas, or maybe my ideas come from ignorance or from a lack of empathy or understanding. I freely admit these are all possibilities.

I also freely admit that I don’t know if “assimilation” is good or bad. I can see both sides of the argument. Sure, every citizen of a country ought to have the same rights and privileges. Sure, there are historical inequities and injustices that must be addressed before we can consider ourselves to be on equal ground with many cultural groups in Canada. First Nations, whose ancestral grounds we now call ‘home’. Asian peoples, whose ancestors emigrated here and were essentially treated as indentured servants. Japanese and eastern European people, who were placed in internment camps during the war on suspicion of espionage and treason. We all of us have rights, and we all of us deserve to be treated with respect and with a mind to the historical wrongs which have been committed against us by our own government.

My point here is why can’t we have these discussions with one another without fear of reprisal of being labelled as intolerant, discriminatory, racist bigots? Why can’t we express our opinions without having to FIGHT about them? I support the Idle No More movement. I support the Duty to Consult (incidentally, if you’d like to know more about the government’s legislated duty to consult with First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples regarding land use, stewardship, etc., there’s a really good book out there about it called The Duty to Consult: New Relationships with Aboriginal Peoples by Dwight G. Newman. And if you’d like to read up on Treaty and Constitutional Rights, check out Aboriginal Law: Commentary and Analysis by Thomas Isaac). I don’t know what I think about “assimilation”; it sounds terrible. I don’t know what I think about Bills C-30 and C-45 (did I get those both right?). My gut reaction is that the federal government, which I don’t trust any further than I can stand to PM Harper Himself, is using these omnibus bills to, if you’ll pardon the expression, bend us over a sawhorse and leave us with our britches to the wind when it comes to environmental protection and the sovereignty of our waterways. I haven’t any evidence to substantiate that suspicion.

But I don’t think it’s fair to call me a racist if I don’t agree with your position. If I don’t want to use words like colonialism and patriarchy and ‘white privilege’. I agree that genocides have been committed, without agreeing that my family is in some way personally responsible. Particularly when they were fleeing the same institutions that did the same thing to their families so far away. They didn’t vote for the King or the Queen. They didn’t want that government. And for cripe’s sake, some of them weren’t even white. WHY DOES THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN MATTER?

Argh. I’ve got myself all off-topic again.

But the gist of all of this is that I think it’s *possible* and, indeed *necessary* to get rid of the incendiary language if we’re going to actually have meaningful discussions. You can say what you mean to say without being arrogant or aggressive or cruel or vindictive, and so can I. We can talk about important things that matter without starting a fight. And we must. Because whether you agree with me or not, if you live in this country, your future depends on the Treaties. Your future depends on the sovereignty of our nation, of our nation’s ability to and willingness to provide due diligence when it comes to land and resource use policy and implementation. Your future depends on our ability to speak plainly to one another and to try to understand, even if we’ll never live in one another’s lives, and never truly share each other’s memories and souls. Your future depends on our government’s willingness to follow their own laws without passing new legislation that works around other legislation or that provides a convenient loophole or exception to the laws and agreements that this country was founded upon.

Because if you will not uphold Canada’s foundations, the entire house of cards will come tumbling down around us, eagle feathers, wheat sheaves, and all.

cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.


  1. C-30 is the “We can look at your internet communications anytime we like, without judicial oversight, and if you don’t agree to this then you are a child pornographer” bill.

    C-38 is the “Screw ordinary Canadians and the environment too because we are in the employ of rapacious corporations” omnibus bill.

    C-45 is the “Let’s screw over the environment some more and, while we’re at it, might as well screw the native peoples too because our employers want their land and resources” omnibus bill.

    Hope that helps explain the legislative angle.

  2. I would suggest that understanding how privilege functions is pretty essential to understanding racism (or sexism, or hetrocentricism, or…). Not using the word (or others) is fine. Not understanding it is fine. We don’t all have to understand the same stuff, after all. I absolutely agree it is probably unfair to call people a racist because of that (and most folks do enough other racist stuff you can probably call them on that anyway, if you need to).

    That being said, coming in without some understanding of things like that is a good way to wave a big shiney flag that says “You should probably disregard my opinion on this!” Folks don’t have to disregard it rudely, though they often will. But when you’re a member of a privileged class speaking up about the struggles of the underprivileged, you just gotta understand that your opinions are just not as useful to start with, so any gaps in understanding make you just that much more useless to listen to.

    I think part of the problem is privileged people are used to being listened to, obviously. We grow up with it. Thus you get phenomena like the Feminist Dude talking over actual women to explain feminism to someone, when maybe he should just Shut The Fuck Up and silently back the women who have something to say. Not that there isn’t a time for him to talk, but that time almost certainly isn’t when there are women with something relevant to say who haven’t gotten a chance to talk yet.

    1. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood you, Wade.

      Are you saying that because I come from privilege, I don’t get to agree with or support efforts to make things better for people who have not come from privilege? That my opinions are worth *less* simply because I have not suffered in the same way(s)? Are you saying we who come from privilege shouldn’t speak up in favour of (or against) something if non-privileged people are involved?

      I mean, I understand what ‘patriarchal’ means, and I understand that it’s come to be as big a cussword as ‘fascist’ in a lot of circles. But if what you’re saying is that because I was raised with and others were raised without, that what I have to say isn’t relevant, I have a HUGE problem. And I think everyone should have a huge problem, if that’s the case.

      What I was getting at with using incendiary or triggering language had NOTHING to do with a lack of understanding. I would HOPE that people who use words like “patriarchal” and “colonial” and “privilege” know what they’re talking about, and if they don’t, they ought to be ashamed. What I was getting at was that I think we should be able to say things like “I think the treaties are bad for Canada and for all Canadians” without being labelled racist. We need to be able to express our opinions, if we can do so respectfully and backed up with *facts* (not rhetoric), in order to have meaningful discussions.

      We may be used to being listened to. That could very well be true. And if that’s the case, what’s wrong with being listened to? It doesn’t make our opinions any less valid. It doesn’t make what we have to say any less important.

  3. You have misunderstood me. Sort of. Though not entirely.

    Instead of race, we’re talking about Shakespeare.

    Someone with privilege is someone who has never read or seen the plays. Someone without privilege is someone who has.

    Now, this doesn’t prevent the privileged person from knowing things about Shakespeare. They’ve probably casually picked up the plot of Romeo and Juliet just from osmosis. And maybe some of our No Shakespeare Privilege people have made a dedicated study of the work – they’ve still never read or seen Romeo and Juliet, but they’ve listened to folks who have, they’ve read secondary sources talking about the work, they’ve stayed up late at night discussing the themes and issues in Romeo and Juliet. They’ve just never experienced it first hand.

    And on the other hand, there are probably people without No Shakespeare privilege who don’t really think about it much. They’ve seen Romeo and Juliet a few times, they know the lines, but they haven’t thought about the plays much, they don’t discuss them, and they certainly don’t stay up all night debating the plays.

    Of course, there’ll be some people who’ve done both – they’ve experienced the plays, and thought and talked about them a great deal.

    Anyway, as a No Shakespeare privileged person coming into a conversation about Shakespeare, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to shut up. Especially if you’ve studied the plays, you might have worthwhile things to say. But what it does mean is that a) you should acknowledge when someone says “Dude, you haven’t seen the plays!” that, yeah, you’re coming from an underinformed place instead of getting defensive, and b) if someone who has seen the plays contradicts you, maybe you should consider they might be right on this and you misinformed (not always, of course – but consider the possibility!).

    It does not mean your opinions are invalid – but it may indeed mean they are less relevant, and they may be less informed. Just like I can have all the opinions about pregnancy and childbirth that I want, but they are likely less relevant and less informed than yours. And, honestly, my opinion on the legality of abortion *is* less relevant than the opinion of a woman. Doesn’t mean my opinion is invalid or even wrong, or that a woman’s opinion is necessarily right – plenty of women out there who are staunch anti-choice advocates, after all – but I do need to understand I’m coming from a position of relative ignorance.

    Does that help clarify what I’m getting at a little?

    1. Kind of. It does make me less scratchy.

      However, I completely disagree that as a man, your opinion on the legality of abortion is less relevant than a woman’s opinion on the legality of abortion. Women don’t usually get pregnant without some kind of input from a man (aside: heh). And I don’t think your opinion on pregnancy and childbirth are less relevant than mine.

      I concede that there is a level of experience you, as a man, can never physically have that women do; and likewise, there are experiences that men have that women will never go through. I STRONGLY argue the idea that that means we can never understand one another’s rights and privileges and experiences, and that our opinions about one anothers’ experiences are less valuable.

      With the Shakespeare example, I do see your point. But again, just because someone hasn’t seen the play doesn’t mean they don’t understand the work. And it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean their opinion is less VALUABLE. Your second point there is the better one, but I also think that the moment we *assume* that the person we’re arguing with is less informed or undereducated, that’s where everything goes off the rails. We should ALWAYS consider the possibility that the people we are debating with may be right. THAT IS THE CRUX OF THE MATTER, I think. Or, more to the point, there may actually be no right or wrong answer.

      This is the nature of consensus-based resolution; to accept that there probably is not right or wrong answer and to agree to go forth with the best possible outcome, given that consideration.

    2. Unless of course the argument in the Shakespeare example was a criticism of, say, a specific stage direction in a specific performance of the play. In which case, the debate is about a particular point about which someone who has not seen that particular performance may have no frame of reference.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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