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Colonialism, hate, and the media

By: | July 12, 2017

Racism and hatred are growing in Canada. The role of the media should be to combat it, not promote it.

Hans Rollmann
To Each Their Own examines political issues impacting Newfoundland and Labrador.

> Other Posts in this Column
Nalcor and the corporation's subcontractors consistently filmed and documented Indigenous-led protests, prayers and ceremonies at the Muskrat Falls site. Photo by Justin Brake.

Talk about making a bad situation worse.

On July 1, as many celebrated Canada Day, dozens gathered at the statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis where Chief Grizzly Mamma shaved her head in a ceremony to mourn the atrocities committed against Indigenous Peoples on that very land.

Grizzly Mama, who hails from Gitxsan Nation in British Columbia but now lives in Mi’kma’ki, told APTN News that cutting her hair symbolized “cutting [the] genocide off of my people.”

According to APTN’s article, her daughter was one of the many Indigenous women who have gone missing along British Columbia’s notorious Highway of Tears.

“For me to cut my hair is to finally let my daughter go on to the spirit world along with my brothers and sisters that were murdered,” she said. “[The ceremony] wasn’t only for me, it was for my sisters and brothers in Winnipeg and Ontario and New Brunswick and Mi’kmaq territory.”

Cornwallis was Britain’s first governor of what is now Nova Scotia. Upon arrival with 2,500 other British settlers in 1749, he founded Halifax against the will of the local Indigenous people and in violation of an existing Mi’kmaq-British treaty. The Mi’kmaq responded to the colonial invasion with attacks on British people and ships. In response, Corwallis noted in a letter to the Board of Trade in September 1749, that “it would be better to ‘root’ the Micmac out of the peninsula decisively and forever.”

Days later, during an Oct. 1 council meeting aboard the HMS Beaufort, Cornwallis issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps, proclaiming that “in order to secure the Province from further attempts of the Indians, some effectual methods should be taken to pursue them to their haunts, and show them that because of such actions, they shall not be secure within the Province.” The initial “reward” for “every Indian Micmac taken, or killed” was 10 Guineas.

As those in attendance at the July 1 ceremony in Halifax engaged in prayer, five men clad in matching black and yellow shirts, who were later discovered to be off-duty members of the Canadian Armed Forces, disrupted the ceremony. They identified as members of Proud Boys, a national hate group self-described on its Facebook page as a “fraternal organization of Western Chauvinists who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world.”

CBC responded to the Proud Boys’ ceremony disruption by inviting Gavin McInnes, the group’s founder, onto their national Power and Politics program to talk about his racist views.

To say this was a poorly thought out decision is an understatement.

The CBC’s actions speak volumes about the state of the liberal media in a country whose journalistic institutions desperately need to get with the times.

A systemic issue

While the Proud Boys’ obtrusion on an Indigenous ceremony exemplifies a form of direct colonial violence, the attitudes reflected in this action exist closer to home in more complex forms of systemic state violence against Indigenous Peoples.

In some ways, Nalcor Energy, this province’s crown energy corporation, is like the Proud Boys — both are institutions of colonial, anti-Indigenous violence wrapped in excuses designed to appeal to a complacent, privileged settler class.

Are those grinning Proud Boys marching up the hill to plant their flag so very different from Stan Marshall, or Ed Martin, or Danny Williams, planting their own flag atop an Indigenous spiritual and ceremonial site? (Indeed, tens of thousands of ancient artifacts belonging to the Innu’s ancestors were unearthed directly on what is now the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.)

"In some ways, Nalcor Energy...is like the Proud Boys -- both are institutions of colonial, anti-Indigenous violence wrapped in excuses designed to appeal to a complacent, privileged settler class," writes Hans Rollmann. Pictured above: Employees of Speuata Security film Indigenous land protectors and others protesting outside the main gate of the Muskrat Falls site. Photo by Justin Brake.

“In some ways, Nalcor Energy…is like the Proud Boys — both are institutions of colonial, anti-Indigenous violence wrapped in excuses designed to appeal to a complacent, privileged settler class,” writes Hans Rollmann. Pictured above: Employees of Speuata Security, a subcontractor on the Muskrat Falls project, film Indigenous land protectors and others protesting outside the project’s main gate. Photo by Justin Brake.

When Indigenous Peoples gathered in Halifax to symbolically right a historical wrong, and when Land Protectors gather outside Muskrat Falls in an effort to right an environmental, political and cultural wrong, both were met with the indignant cruelty of the colonizer, intent on affirming and celebrating the wrongs of the present.

Both Muskrat Falls, and the Proud Boys’ intrusion on the Mi’kmaq ceremony in Halifax, are grounded in very specific and very similar views of history and of settlers’ relationships with Indigenous people and communities. These views are necessary to justify their aggressive presence in these places—Nalcor’s presence on Innu and Inuit lands, and the Proud Boys’ presence in Halifax and elsewhere in so-called Canada and the United States.

For the Proud Boys to acknowledge that they are on unceded Mi’kmaq territory would be to acknowledge their presence as guests on that land, and thereby to acknowledge that Canada 150 was in fact a celebration of 150 years of unwanted colonization and oppression.

Similarly, if Nalcor (and by extension the provincial government) in fact acknowledged Indigenous rights, title to the land, and all the concerns around methylmercury and other environmental and health impacts on the joint Nitassinan and NunatuKavut territory, then they probably wouldn’t have been able to proceed with the project. If all Indigenous rights were respected before the project was sanctioned and construction began, Muskrat Falls either wouldn’t have been approved, or it would have been too expensive.

By ignoring Indigenous Peoples’ concerns, ceremonies, and acts of resistance, these colonial entities—Proud Boys and Nalcor, among others—are practicing an act of oppression, intentionally or not. Like most acts of colonial violence, this is a self-interested one; if Nalcor and the Proud Boys allowed Indigenous people to unite, empower themselves in ceremony and resist colonialism, then their own interests and legitimacy would be threatened.

At least the Proud Boys are, we are told, going to face disciplinary justice from the Canadian military. Sadly, those affected by Nalcor’s destructive and scandalized Muskrat Falls project are still waiting for their justice.

Power and Politics

Almost as offensive as the original program has been CBC’s tortured non-apologies for it.

As Evan Balgord reported for Canadaland, Chuck Thompson, CBC’s head of public affairs, said that “while the intention was to provide insight and context about the group, we erred in not providing details of Mr. McInnes’s published anti-Jewish sentiments nor did we adequately challenge him on some of his and the Proud Boys’ controversial views.”

Thompson went on to say that Power and Politics “did have an expert on immediately following Mr. McInnes’s appearance who challenged what the group stands for, but a more comprehensive response would have included an Indigenous representative to critique Mr. McInnes’s views.”

The implication here is that had CBC simply provided a bit more detail about McInnes’ racism, and asked a few more hard-hitting questions, everything would have been okay. To be fair, he’s correct in saying that bringing an Indigenous person onto the show would have made the situation a bit better, however even that sentiment reflects a degree of white liberal ignorance, by suggesting that a member of any Indigenous group would suffice. White people all too often use the term ‘Indigenous’ in a way that homogenizes all First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

Of course, there’s also the important point that McInnes’ claims on the show were false, as has been pointed out by other media outlets. That too ought to be addressed by CBC, which should be in the business of broadcasting accurate news.

But more broadly, nowhere was there an acknowledgement that the act of inviting McInnes onto the program was wrong. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement that CBC should not be giving public airtime to hate groups whose actions promote violence. And nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the harm done by McInnes and the Proud Boys’ anti-Indigenous sentiments; by singling out his anti-Jewish sentiments, it almost sounds like CBC considers those to be worse, as though one could rank hatreds.

On the following edition of Power and Politics, host Hannah Thibedeau began the show with a more elaborate, but equally torturous, non-apology, stating “we made mistakes in our interview yesterday,” and that they “failed to inform you of some anti-Jewish sentiments Mr. McInnes has expressed in the past.”

Thibedeau suggested the CBC team “could have also challenged [McInnes] more on his controversial views,” and that they could have included an “Indigenous voice” in the segment.

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada encounter bigotry from a hate-group, why is CBC’s response to think that Canadians ought to “learn more about that group”? Should not the lesson of this bigotry be that Canadians need to learn more about the Indigenous groups experiencing this hate, and of the history of how Canada came to be?

A bigger problem than just one show

In many ways, the entire debacle is an indictment of the sorry state of liberal journalism in the country. Many of the widely accepted norms of Canadian (and North American) journalism were established by liberal white middle-class journalists. This includes an increasingly fraught reliance on the notion of ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’—for every issue, there’s another side, and it’s important to present equal and competing perspectives on any issue.

As a journalistic principle crafted out of the experience of predominantly male settler journalists, this notion reflects their experience of the world — one that was not inflected by the brutal realities of racism, discrimination, misogyny, poverty, dispossession and genocide. Indeed, there have also been thriving journalistic enterprises—newspapers, magazines, radio, and more—cultivated by the oppressed, but their journalistic norms and principles, inflected by the experience of the other side of the power relationship in Canadian history, never made it into journalism schools.

As a result, the obsessive quest for ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ often winds up privileging the voice of the oppressor, by pretending that every debate has two equally valid sides — that every perspective is worth providing equal air-time, and that every voice deserves to be heard.

Pull Quote Hans Rollmann ObjectivityUnder this traditional journalistic paradigm, liberal white men could argue about abortion, or anti-black racism, with conservative white men until they were blue in the face, and then go and enjoy a pint and a game of pool in the pub with their erstwhile foes at the end of the day; no harm done. None of them had to endure the agony of seeking out illegal abortions, or being physically threatened, or denied promotion because of the colour of their skin. If they had, they might have felt very differently about the feigned innocence of objectivity in those debates.

When CBC refuses to acknowledge why inviting McInnes onto the show was wrong, they reveal that they don’t really comprehend how their own institution often helps to sustain colonialism in Canada.

Thibedeau made some poor calls, but she shouldn’t be taking the brunt of the blame. There’s an entire system at fault here: multiple senior managers and producers bear fault for having incited or authorized the appearance of McInnes on the show.

Indeed, perhaps it’s a fault ingrained into the very nature of a CNN-like combative journalism programs like Power and Politics. The notion that politics reduces to power reinforces the system of oppression which lies at the core of colonialism—that might makes right—and denies the pivotally important dimensions of identity, experience, and empathy in politics.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that a program like Power and Politics chose to give voice to those who exert power and dominance over others in society, while denying the voice and experience of those whose ongoing oppression and exploitation is an enduring blight on the face of this country.

The state of journalism in this country, reflected by this incident, also manifests whenever and wherever liberal white journalists make the conscious choice to use the term ‘protester’ instead of ‘land protector’ for Indigenous Peoples struggling to defend their lands, waters, communities, families and even their very lives. Some of these journalists even defend their use of the term as a matter of journalistic integrity, failing to recognize the privilege invested in those who decide what to label others, instead of acknowledging the names and identities those people choose for themselves.

But…free speech?

Media must recognize that providing balanced and informed public dialogue does not mean giving space to hate groups, however much racists and free-speech purists might argue that it does.

Not having a Proud Boys representative on the program would not have constituted censorship. CBC did not face a choice of letting them speak or not letting them speak. CBC invited them to come. It was an active decision to give the group space and voice on the public airwaves, which are far too often denied to Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized communities.

We all have that ‘friend’ on our social media—the one who trolls about, hiding behind a facade of ‘free speech,’ digging for opportunities to spout racist rants while pretending to be innocent and merely wanting to learn more.

Pull Quote Hans Rollmann Power Politics“I’m not racist, but I’m just wondering what’s the big deal with what the Proud Boys did?”

“I’m not racist, but I’m just wondering white civilization is getting a bad rap due to over-sensitive minorities?”

And so on and so forth.

These are all on a spectrum. The annoying social media troll who claims their thinly veiled racism is merely innocent questions. The journalist who indignantly rails against calling Indigenous land defenders anything other than ‘protesters’.

And the public broadcaster who responds to an attack on Indigenous communities by inviting the attackers to preach their message on the national airwaves.

Yes, we must try to educate these people. But we must do so without legitimizing reprehensible, oppressive speech and hate. The fact is, if we value the equitable and democratic principles which we as a society have evolved, we will not treat all views as equal and balanced. We will not create space for hate and the promotion of colonialism and other forms of system and state-sanctioned violence. We will not deceive ourselves into believing that objectivity means legitimizing hateful and violent fringe groups, or that freedom of speech means letting those who have dominated our society for centuries continue to drown out the voices of those who have suffered so much for so long.

There are some views and perspectives that do not deserve to be aired in an equitable, democratic society that is grounded on empathy, dignity, and decolonizing principles.

Gavin McInnes and the Proud Boys, like other hate groups, are among them.

Until we hear CBC apologize for inviting them on to the program, accompanied by an acknowledgement of why such a decision is dangerous to society, in particular to Indigenous communities, it will be hard to trust the integrity of our national broadcaster and the journalistic community that it represents.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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