NWT society has made progress in addressing racism compared to several decades ago, said Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge, but a lot more work remains.
Bonnetrouge has borne the brunt of racism since he was a child.
“(There were) some institutions like residential schools, where we got the full tilt and the European and church beliefs were forced on us. You grow up discriminated against, you’re told that your people are no good,” he said.
“When I was a child, holy, man, it was racist. I wasn’t proud of being Dene or being Native. I’m not proud to say it but I hated white people. But now I’m also proud to say that I have lots of white people who are my friends and I have a lot of respect for them.”
Even the old term “Indian” was a sign for Bonnetrouge that the ignorance of Canadians was part of the daily language used around him.
“We’re educated about how in 1492 Christopher Columbus came here, which he thought was India. And lo and behold he landed on our shores. From that day the newcomers have been calling us Indians. For guys like that me that’s offensive. Indians (are from) India, not here. From that perspective we’ve gotten used to racism. It’s not good but now we have to deal with it.”
The more respectful terms of “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” replaced “Indian” years ago, but Bonnetrouge said prejudice is still there even though it’s well-hidden.
“Sometimes when you go to Yellowknife or Grande Prairie it’s kind of inert. You just take it with a grain of salt, knowing full well it could flare up. If there’s drinking or drug use it can become black and brown versus white. It’s a big, serious issue,” he said.
Meeting people different than him through cross-cultural workshops helped Bonnetrouge cut through the racism. It was a valuable first step in moving beyond what he characterized as the locked mindset of “those people are different.”
“(In the workshops) 20-30 years ago, there was us Natives and white people — like a circle of 30-40 people finding out about each other on any subject matter and how to make a better world. You could learn a lot because it’s human interaction. You can make real progress and momentum (and learn) what racism is and what prejudice is. It’s more important for young people than older people who are already set in their ways.”
Looking to the future, the chief said one of the most important ways to combat racism is facing fears that he says keep young people inside their homes and reluctant to engage with others.
“For years I liked working with my hands and doing stuff around the house. Then years later I found there was a lot of neglect around my house. I never considered myself lazy but I guess inadvertently I became lazy. The more I looked into it, (I realized) laziness comes from fear of not being good enough. Unfortunately a lot of our young people don’t even leave their houses. They don’t even know how to rake a yard.”
A difficult but key part of discussions on racism is police treatment of minorities and Indigenous people, an issue that has exploded in North American society over the last few weeks following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Closer to home, Canadians have been reminded that our police forces face similar concerns of disproportionate force and racial targeting, after a video surfaced earlier this month showing the RCMP making a violent arrest of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in Fort McMurray.
And on Tuesday, a police officer in Edmonton was charged with assault related to an incident on Aug. 17, 2019 when he violently arrested an Indigenous man, as seen in a video shot with a cellphone.
Bonnetrouge acknowledges that racism among police forces will be a very difficult problem to solve.
“Even in Fort Providence we’ve had instances of police violence and brutality. Some people have been scared to submit complaints,” he said. “We need to call a timeout and take a look at these problems, but most people will not. It’s too much work. But you have to start somewhere and have a deliberate approach or plan — a sustained approach. But, holy, man, it will take time and sometimes a gut wrenching commitment from both sides.”
It’s a problem that most of us have more time to deal with as the pandemic has slowed down society and forced us to be more alone than before.
“Especially with Covid-19 now, maybe it’s a good thing,” Bonnetrouge said. “We can look at who we are and what we’re doing.”