Toronto District School Board Gets “Proactive” About Indigenous People

Jobs within the Toronto District School Board done by “Chiefs” will now be done by “Managers”, out of respect for Indigenous cultures.  The move was taken after considering the calls to action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report in 2015 about the Canada’s history, stretching over a century, of placing Indigenous children in residential schools.

The issue is that no one had complained. Toronto District School Board Curator of Indigenous Arts and Culture Dan Redbird says no one from the Indigenous community asked for the change, and that “Chief” isn’t a word that has anything to do with Indigenous traditions.

“It was an imposed word that the government introduced with the Indian Act back in the 1800s.” Redbird told Nick Bosvert of CBC News.  

He acknowledged that it’s come to be used as a micro-aggression, and likes that the Toronto District School Board has taken the step, but “doesn’t envision a dramatic impact from the change.”

Image Description: Young white woman wearing a white blouse and dark blazer rests her head on her laptap keyboard. Her long brown hair is in a ponytail.

Content Note: Residential Schools, Nothing for Us Without Us, Abuse, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Forced Sterilization, Retard

Toronto District School Board Wants to be “Proactive”

Here’s some more about the word “Chief” that I learned from an interview on CBC Radio One’s “As It Happens” on October 11:

  • It means “leader”
  • Its origins are Roman and Old French
  • In French, it’s “chef” (which the Toronto District School Board will not be replacing)

The changes that the Toronto District School Board plans to make affect approximately 20 job titles.

I have thoughts.

The “As It Happens” interview was with  Ryan Bird, the Toronto District School Board’s Manager of Corporate and Social Media Relations. The interview in its entirety can be heard here.

Click for a transcript, at “Toronto District School Board: No Chiefs”

I was in the car with my father as we listened to the interview, and it wasn’t long before I turned to him and said, “And here’s where my friend Geoff would say, ‘Did anyone complain about this?'”

Just as interviewer Carol Ott said, “Did you get complaints?”

Geoff and I have been around and around on the issue of people deciding for other people what *should* offend them. Often it’s been disability-related – Geoff has asked why people who aren’t disabled should decide what terminology should offend disabled people, like the word “retard”, and I’ve said, “I didn’t decide that ‘retard’ should offend intellectually disabled people – they’ve told many people themselves that it does.” More recently, it’s been about the choice to keep Washington’s football team the “Redskins” – Geoff says that Indigenous people don’t find the name offensive, and sends me media clips and articles that support his position. I have media clips and articles of my own by Indigenous people that do find it offensive. We do what we do in our debates on most things – agree to disagree.

And if an organization using “Chiefs” instead of “Managers” is offensive to some or all Indigenous people, the terminology should change. I’d absolutely support the Toronto District School Board ( or any organization) talking to the Indigenous community regarding changing anything that they see as potentially concerning , asking “Would changing this be healing?” and acting on those recommendations. But the Toronto District School Board didn’t do that, or if they did they appeared to reject the recommendations of the community, in favour of being “proactive” (Ken Bird’s word) – deciding for the Indigenous community that they *should* find the Toronto District School Board’s use of “Chiefs” offensive, and therefore worthy of addressing before people started to complain.

And they’re wondering why there’s been mixed reaction to their move that they didn’t anticipate.

“Nothing for Us Without Us”

The disability advocacy community has a saying – “Nothing for us without us”.   It reminds people that make the decisions that affect disabled people that disabled people need to be involved in the process. Policy that’s meant to help disabled people, made without consulting disabled people, could end up being useless to us.

“Nothing for us without us” kept going through my mind as I listened to this interview. The point of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its final report was to document the ways that Canada’s government hurt Indigenous people with its insistence that it knew better than their communities how to raise their children (and the horrific abuse that went on in the residential schools) and exploring ways of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.”

My opinion only, of course…but it’s not “proactive” or respectful to make policy based on what non-Indigenous people think should insult Indigenous people without consulting them, especially when:

  • There’s plenty of easily-accessible evidence out there to suggest that this might not be the case – in this case, commentaries on the word “chief” and its origins, as well as its relationship to Indigenous communities, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. They all agree – it’s a word imposed on Indigenous people, not one with any significance to Indigenous people themselves.
  • There’s no indication that the issue that the policy addresses is actually an issue.
  • The “proactive” behaviour is actually an example of historically problematic behaviour – Non-Indigenous people deciding that they know what’s best for Indigenous people and going ahead and doing it, without caring what Indigenous people think about it.

Again, not “proactive” – offensive. I find it offensive, at least, and there seems to be some evidence that Indigenous people do as well. Indigenous Canadian author Robert Jago expressed his feelings on Twitter:

Are Good Intentions Always Enough?

I’m not suggesting that the Toronto District School Board didn’t have good intentions. I’m suggesting  its action was tone-deaf.

I’m not an Indigenous woman, and I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in an Indigenous person in Canada. But have an imagination, empathy, and as a disabled woman, membership in a group with a similar (not identical, but similar) history of forced institutionalization by the government in highly abusive environments, marginalization, and ongoing discrimination…and hearing about this action by the Toronto District School Board, the rationale behind it, and their self-congratulatory pats on the back for it, made me furious.

I’m a writer and I believe in the power of words to shape attitudes and actions. I’ve had this debate with friends as well. But reconciliation won’t happen because 20 people in a school board get a word in their title changed. You want to make an impression on the kids your schools, Toronto District School Board?  Get some Indigenous speakers in to talk about life for kids their age in reservation towns like Attawapiskat.

Let them learn about the class action suit launched earlier this month by Indigenous women, alleging that they’d been sterilized without consent in the 1990s.

Let them hear stories from the families of over 1000 missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Let them hear stories and ask questions, and find out how they can help. I guarantee that some of these kids have never thought about these issues before simply because no one’s ever talked to them about them…and that once they’re thinking, they’ll want to learn more…and get involved in the dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people about the best ways to bring about reconciliation.

Dialogue, not assumptions. Dialogue will bring about change – it won’t be as easy as changing signs on office doors and printing out new business cards for 20 employees, but it will be deeper and more effective and we’ll all be better people for it.

All That Being Said…

Perhaps there are Indigenous people on the Board at the Toronto District School Board who thought this move was a good idea, and the Board was acting on their guidance. If that’s the case, people should please let Ken Bird know that he needs to speak to this – because nothing in the nearly-eight-minute interview with “As It Happens” or in the multiple media accounts that I read suggests that the Toronto District School Board made this change with any consultation from the Indigenous community.

As always, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about any of this.

Attawapiskat Needs Help

The community of Attawaspikat in Ontario, Canada, is in a state of emergency. Since September 2015, over 100 Indigenous people have attempted suicide, one of them just 11 years old. Eleven of those occurred in the early hours of Sunday, April 10, 2016.

The suicide attempts have put a chronically troubled community in the news once again.

Content Note: Suicide, Suicide Wave, Racism, Residential Schools, Intergenerational Trauma, Politics, Poverty

Stretched leather sign against blue sign says "Wacheeya Welcome to Attawapiskat First Nation". There is a silhouette of a howling wolf on the sign. Keyword: Attawapiskat

Image Description: Stretched leather sign against blue sign says “Wacheeya Welcome to Attawapiskat First Nation”. There is a silhouette of a howling wolf on the sign.

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Canada’s Indigenous peoples have struggled with significantly increased suicide rates when compared to the non-Indigenous population for quite some time.  The Guardian reported in an article about Attawapiskat’s current suicide crisis:

“Across the country, suicides and self-inflicted injuries rank as the leading cause of death for First Nations people younger than 44. For First Nations youth, statistics are even more bleak: suicide rates for young First Nation males are 10 times higher than for non-indigenous male youths. For young First Nations women, the suicide rate climbs to a staggering 21 times that of their non-indigenous counterparts.”

This isn’t the first suicide wave in Attawapiskat or in Indigenous communities like it, and it certainly won’t be the last if the government’s response is to fly a bunch of crisis workers in for just 30 days. Certainly not in Attawapiskat, where the people are living in 3rd world conditions.

Life in Attawapiskat

In 2011, there was a state of emergency declared in Attawapiskat not for a suicide wave, but for a lack of housing.  When politicians paid a visit to Attawapiskat in November of 2011, they found families living homes full of black mold without electricity, plumbing or heat. Residents burned fires in half-barrels to keep themselves warm – a considerable safety risk, especially considering the overcrowded conditions:

“…upwards of 20 people living in three- and four-bedroom homes, where each bedroom housed entire large families.”

Trailers that were donated as temporary shelters by the nearby community of DeBeers in 2009 had become permanent dwellings.  People lived in tents and sheds, and there were hundreds of people with no homes at all. Read more here about Attawpiskat’s housing crisis in 2011 and more here about the crisis at the end of 2015.

After seeing the state of the community, Ontario’s Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs promised to retrofit 15 abandoned houses to make them livable, but Charlie Angus (Member of Parliament at the time) said that the money the government was making available wouldn’t allow that. “If these conditions were faced by tenants anywhere in Southern Ontario there would be charges laid against the landlord, who in this case is the federal government ,” Angus told The Timmins Press.

The legacy of substandard living conditions in Attawpiskat also includes:

There are more reasons why Attawpiskat finds itself in the situation it’s in. It’s “up North” and isolated. Unemployment and poverty rates are high. Its supplies must be brought in, and people in medical emergency must go to larger communities. The winters are dark and very cold. Writer Joseph Boyden, in a recent article in Maclean’s Magazine, talks about how, on his first visit to Attawapiskat, he considered smuggling in some alcohol to help keep him warm, breaking the community’s “no alcohol” rule.

Intergenerational Trauma and Residential Schools

In the same article, Boyden also talks about the  idea of intergenerational trauma and its link to Indigenous communities  like Attawapiskat and Canada’s indigenous peoples in general, focusing on the brutal 140-year history of Canada’s residential school system. These schools housed 150,000 indigenous children ripped from their families.

I know the basics about the residential schools. I’ve heard horrible stories of abuse, similar to the ones that I heard went on in Ontario’s institutions for intellectually disabled. I knew that, like the in the institutions, the students that died in the residential schools were buried in unmarked graves. I remember  hearing a story in a CBC radio documentary about a young girl’s experience in a residential school that horrifies me to this day, left me reeling when I thought I could no longer be shocked. I can’t talk about it.

Boyden talks about the worst memories of two of his friends who were residential schools (the last one only closed in 1996): one talked about being dragged out of bed in the middle of night to be raped repeatedly, and one missed the experience of loving physical contact as she was growing up – hugs from her parents.

I didn’t know these things about the residential schools, which I read in Boyden’s article:

  • One of the central architects of the schools, Duncan Campbell Scott, repeatedly stated that they were designed with the intention of “getting rid of the Indian problem” and used the phrase “the final solution” decades before Hitler did, in reference to the schools.
  • Apartheid was designed after a South African delegation visited Canada and viewed the residential school and reservation system.

“You can’t attempt cultural genocide for 140 years, for seven generations…and not expect some very real fallout from that. Attawapiskat is a brutal example.” writes Boyden.

Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day agrees with Boyden:

“The ills plaguing aboriginal Canadians can be traced back to the Indian Act of 1876, which is marking its 140th anniversary…The act, which effectively transferred all decisions affecting First Nations to officials in Ottawa, set the stage for decades of turmoil, including residential schools. Those experiences are at the heart of issues that include addiction, poor health and unemployment.”

Solutions for Attawapiskat

Boyden believes that education for the children and youth of Attawapiskat and other reserve communities as central to the strategy that will save them. Not the education that the Indigenous children and youth currently receive, but one that is:

  • Funded to the same level as that of non-Indigenous children and youth receiving their education in schools off-reserve.
  • Grounded in a curriculum that builds not only academic skill but cultural identity, building self-esteem through “a pride in self and community.”

Attawapiskat has a high school. In 2012 the drop-out rate was more than 50%, and some students, like education advocates Shannen and Serena Koostachin, leave the community to pursue secondary education. Today Attawapiskat has an elementary school, but elementary students were educated in portables for 15 years after the former elementary school closed in 2000: ” Both soil and groundwater showed evidence of benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylenes and TPH (total petroleum hydrocarbons from gas and diesel) above acceptable levels for human health. Later, construction consultants checking the building also found five species of mould in classrooms and corridors.” Read more about the contaminated school, built in 1976.

In 2008, Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Chuck Strahl announced that Ottawa would not fund a new elementary school. He later relented, and construction began on a new elementary school in 2014, but not without activism on a national scale from Shannen Koostachin. She was killed in a car accident at age 15. In this video, Shannon and Serena address the Ontario Labour Convention in 2009:

Boydon writes:

“Let’s first agree to begin with actually investing just as much in our First Nations, Inuit and Metis youth as we do in every other group of youth across this country. It is simple logic. If there’s one thing I know as deeply in me as I know anything, I too would have been one of these brutal suicide statistics we hear about far too often, if it hadn’t been for the resources available to me to continue my own education in its different forms. This is a right for all youth in our country, not just those who happen to live in more urban places.”

Isn’t it a beautiful idea, that education is the right of all children in our country? That every child is worthy of the investment of education dollars to assist them to reach their full potential? That children should be encouraged to take pride in self and the community of others like them, even when society tells them otherwise?

Where have we heard this before?

Attawapiskat, Oppression and Parallel Paths

It’s interesting to see how even though there are specific experiences of oppression that members of different groups will never understand, there’s a universality behind the experiences that binds what can be very different groups together. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien said recently, in response to Attawapiskat’s turmoil, that it would be easier to help if the residents just moved further south (much easier than it sounds, given that Attawpiskat is accessible only by ice road and by air), and in his words I heard:

  • “It would be much easier if you learned to communicate more like non-autistic people”
  • “It would be much easier if you got a cochlear implant”
  • “It would be much easier if you worked harder not to be so reliant on your wheelchair.”

“It would be much easier for us to help you if you would just become more like us.”

That’s unacceptable. True support isn’t contingent isn’t contingent on giving up self-identity, which for the people of Attawaspikat is tied to the North and its land. True support is about meeting people where they are, not where we want them to be.

Attawapiskat’s story pulls at me because what’s happening there should not be happening in Canada, the politicians have known about it for a long time, and it seems like no one wants to help. But something else grabs me. There’s a universality to the experience of oppression, even when the specifics of the oppression are very different between groups, and in the stories of other oppressed groups in Canada is Attawapiskat’s story – people who want the rights, freedoms and opportunities granted to all Canadians, struggling to live in the face of almost insurmountable barriers.

The difference right now between the Indigenous people of Attawapiskat and other oppressed peoples in Canada is that while other groups are asking for help, Attawapiskat is screaming for it, and the bottom line is that it’s not right to ignore the kind of hopelessness and suffering that causes 5% of any community’s population to attempt suicide in less than a year.

We need to insist that our politicians do the right thing, fellow Canadians. Enough is enough.

 

 

 

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