Colonial narratives

in Featured/Opinion/To Each Their Own by

On a bitterly cold Saturday, with ice crystals in the air and a light scattering of snow underfoot, five or six dozen people gather at the steps of the Court House in St. John’s. They’re here to demand Justice for Colten Boushie, the 22-year old Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan who was shot and killed by Gerald Stanley, a 56-year old white farmer.

The rally is hastily organized. There are two cheap loudspeakers, but most of the speakers forget to use them. There are no power outlets, and only one reporter present. One speaker forgot their gloves, and shivers as their skin turns an eerie shade of red. You’d think tears would freeze in cold like this, but they don’t—they flow strong and free. Drummers take to the steps of the Court House, and the rhythms they pound out, coupled with the clear and confident power of their voices, lends strength and warmth to those gathered round. Speakers share tears and stories. Bewildered passers-by take a wide berth; every so often puzzled white folks laden with shopping bags run right through the rally, grinning awkwardly. Unphased, the drums continue to pound.

Does it seem strange to be standing here, at the other end of the country, on an island separated by ocean from the place where Colten was denied justice? Where he was cruelly murdered on August 9, 2016? As the bracing scent of smudge envelops us and seabirds circle overhead, the bright and bitter cold sun sends a message: it’s not so far, really. Colonialism’s violent roots thread deep beneath this country’s soil; they stretch across oceans; they weave silently, bitterly through the air. Colonialism stretches across this land, in so many, many ways.

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Stan Marshall, current CEO of Nalcor, veteran conquistador of Fortis Inc.’s thundering colonial conquest of Indigenous communities in the jungles of Central America in the ’90s, is speaking at Memorial University this week. Muskrat Falls may seem geographically distant from Saskatchewan, but colonialism knows no borders. When Indigenous communities stood up to defend their homes and land against Nalcor’s poisonous hydro development last October, youth were violently arrested by RCMP, and elders subjected to harassment and prosecution. They never knew when they might be arrested, when they would be thrown into the penitentiary, when they’d be summoned for hearings, when they’d be stopped and questioned by undercover officers in unmarked vans, when they’d be falsely accused of violating conditions of release. They were placed under surveillance in their own homes. Nalcor and the RCMP sent a clear and unambiguous message that Indigenous people are not safe; that their lives and dignity and security are at the whim of rich and powerful white folks, and that this dignity and security can be revoked at a moment’s notice. The man responsible for the colonial intervention at Muskrat Falls is now to be an honoured guest at the province’s premiere educational institute. Will Gerald Stanley be next?

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March, 2017. Aboriginal Peoples’ Week, Memorial University. The theme is ‘Building Reconciliation’. But no one who attended it will be able to erase the memory of the Vice-President’s Panel. It was packed to bursting with senior university officials and academics, all eager to be seen by the all-powerful (and mostly all-white) Vice-Presidents of the institution. At one point, the Vice-Presidents burst into song – a surreal rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” – by way of underscoring that they are purportedly the champions of overcoming colonialism in the university system. They are also the ones responsible for hiking the tuition fees which deprive Indigenous students of the post-secondary education that is their right. Rich white folk lining their pockets with the avails of an educational system built on stolen land with stolen resources, and perpetuating the policies that deprive Indigenous youth of an education and a future.

Building Reconciliation, indeed.

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The media has come under fire for its coverage of crimes against Indigenous persons, including Boushie’s murder and the Stanley trial. Tellingly, CBC was nowhere to be seen at the Justice for Colten rally in St. John’s. Perhaps it was too busy recycling media announcements from MHA’s patting themselves on the back for future economic development for Labrador that will probably never come to pass. Even if they do come to pass, it doesn’t change the fact that CBC isn’t here. It doesn’t change the fact that a predominantly white CBC is all too rarely here, where and when it counts.

And now, on Monday, even the CBC’s national website is scoured clear of Colten Boushie’s death, filled with cheery news of Olympic conquests abroad instead.

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Last week, an advisory board meeting for the city’s libraries. It is proposed that we fund an aboriginal diversity training for the city’s library staff. The idea was largely shot down—too niche, apparently; too costly at any rate. But what price can you put on challenging colonialism, and on Indigenous justice—especially in a library built on stolen land? As long as Reconciliation is seen as a niche issue, so will justice for the Indigenous peoples who continue to be dispossessed, exploited, and murdered by white Settlers.

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I have enough lawyers on my social media feeds to know what they’ll say when the Stanley verdict is challenged—the same thing they always do, even the ‘progressive’ ones. Justice is blind, say some. All are equal before the law. People shouldn’t be tried in the court of public opinion. Never try a case in the press—you’ll just anger the judges, warn others. It’s easy to acquiesce to their outrage, and it’s time for us to stop and to reply:

Nonsense.

The white judges and white lawyers need to be reminded that justice is not blind; that all are not equal before the law. White folk get away with murder because this is their justice system. It’s a racist justice system. And it will remain that way, until they acknowledge it, and until they accept their responsibility to listen to those who know better. When they admit the failures of their justice system, then maybe it will be possible to work together in Reconciliation to build a more inclusive one.

Until then, their denials are the soft and innocent edge of a spectrum which builds into the cruel gunshot fired by Gerard Stanley.

*******

Back at the rally, a single child dances. She whirls and spins about in the circle formed by protesters. When organizers ascend the Court House steps to begin speaking, the child curls into her mother’s embrace, shyly listening. When her own mother speaks, she says that the child probably doesn’t entirely understand why she’s here today. But I think that she does. She knows that something is wrong, and that’s more than most adults in this country.

Most importantly, the child listens. Silent, attentive, eyes wide, mouth hesitantly curled in an open smile.

When the rest of this country is able to do as much, then—maybe—there will be justice.

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