Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sudbury Star: "Coloured People"

I spotted an interesting article at the top of the front page of today's Sudbury Star -- interesting because it talks about something that the dominant media usually avoids in this country, which is the racist nature of Canada's legal system, and also because there are some important ways in which it does so quite poorly. Here is the link to the article in the Star's online version, but they do not archive content online so it will expire quickly.

The title of the article is very direct: "Colour of justice in Canada is white, panel told."

It begins:

The criminal justice system is failing aboriginal people in Canada, a group of professionals who work in the system said Tuesday.

That's a decent lead. It is perhaps a little euphemistic, but it is still a fairly strong statement. The article then spends a few paragraphs explaining that this was an event by the local university's Native Studies Department, and involved professionals from the criminal justice system.

Then it continues:

Defence lawyer Robert Topp read an excerpt from The Colour of Justice by David Tanovich, a new book that argues the colour of justice in Canada is white.

Sounds like it might be an interesting book. Again, the article avoids using the dread "r" word, and makes sure that it attributes the statement as opinion rather than letting it stand on its own as a fact, but it is still quite blunt.

Topp agreed and said there is no “true justice” for coloured people in our country.

Uhhhhh...excuse me? "Coloured people"? Did I actually just read that?

Yes. Yes, I did.

The expression "coloured people" has been regarded as racist and generally not used by racialized people in North America for decades. The journalist is paraphrasing Topp, and I would bet he used the expression "people of colour." Though there are individuals who object to that expression as well, it is widely accepted among anti-racist activists and writers in North America. It may seem like a small, semantic difference, but the significance is the difference between a name forced on racialized people by white people and white power structures, versus one that originated from leaders and activists and writers in racialized communities themselves. Though it does not explicitly recognize the immense diversity that it encompasses, "people of colour" does indirectly make the point that it exists because of a (differentially) shared experience of racism.

All people, but especially people and institutions that make their living based on the use of words and the conveyance of information, have a responsibility to understand that words have power, and that words have histories. While it is good that racism in the criminal justice system is getting front page treatment (even if the article never uses the word), what does it say about the Sudbury Star that it, as an institution, is unaware of this semantically small but politically very significant difference?

Of course the added complication to that is that the term "people of colour" as I have learned to understand it is not generally used to include the people of the indigenous nations of North America. Though both groups experience racism and suffer at the hands of white supremacy, it is my understanding that indigenous groups have been quite insistent historically on a separate label because being included under "people of colour" would obscure their particular relationship to the land and to the colonizing and genocidal forces that have brought the Canadian settler state into existence. The article seems to treat them as interchangeable.

And on a related note, I suppose it would be useful context for non-local readers that there are more people of indigenous nations in the Sudbury Star's readership area by far than racialized people of other backgrounds, so a primary focus on their issues is understandable. Still, there are small communities of colour in Sudbury as well, and even if theire weren't the issue still impacts people of colour in the rest of Canada. If this author and this expert were connecting the issues to the experiences of people of colour as well, as they seem to have been, surely it would have been appropriate to mention that connection, even if only briefly, in the article.

The article continues:

If Canada is ever to arrive at “true justice,” then it has to abandon the “insane notion” that white people have all the answers, said Topp.

“It’s time, in my ... opinion, that matters of legal questions be returned to the aboriginal community,” said Topp.

Again, some solid stuff. I think to really convey to people what it might mean to return control over legal matters to indigenous nations would require a lot of unpacking -- true self-determination requires changes in this area that are a lot more radical than the very limited kinds of devolution of a limited subset of responsibilities that is currently on the radar for the Canadian state. But, still, this is only a newspaper article.


Assistant Crown attorney Philip Zylberberg shared his experience of travelling to the remote northern community of Kashechewan to appear in court. While “trying to do what’s fair,” there was something bizarre about the situation, he said.

White people were being flown in to administer justice to the Cree. After court adjourned, planes were ready to take the lawyers and judge away.

Okay, sure, that's worth pointing out as a problem. It would be good to point out that five hundred years ago the Cree were perfectly able to handle their own legal issues, and that there is a whole bunch of history between then and now that has lead to white folk coming in by plane to dispense settler state "justice." Some mention of that history would probably provide useful context for readers. But even the basic idea that maybe it's not cool for this to be happening isn't one that would be universally understood by white readers, so pointing out that it is a problem is a useful thing.

And the rest of the article:

Liza Mosher, a native elder, walked into a woman’s federal penitentiary for the first time in the early 1970s.

“I was terrified to go into the women’s prison in Kingston,” she told the audience.

But what was more alarming was how the spirituality of the aboriginal women imprisoned there was violated.

Mosher said she heard their cry for help. Many of the aboriginal offenders were sexually abused and the confines of the prison offered no healing.

The women needed a healing lodge, a place to deal with their pain and “walk the good life.”

Corrections Canada later established a healing lodge at Maple Creek First Nation in Saskatchewan and subsequent jails such as the Sudbury District Jail have adopted similar aboriginal practices.

The Sudbury jail has incorporated a teepee and sweat lodge into the lives of aboriginal prisoners, thanks to the determination of its native liaison officer.

“I spent a couple of years putting people in jail and the last nine years getting them out,” said Vince Pawis.

Pawis worked as a police officer for a couple of years before working at the Sudbury jail. The aboriginal program has had a positive effect within the aboriginal prison community.

“They’ve changed their lives and walk in a different way,” said Pawis.

The aboriginal program has created a ripple effect across the province, acting as a model for other jails, said Pawis.

And so has Greater Sudbury Police’s Mkwa Opportunity Circle, said Pawis, a program spearheaded by Police Chief Ian Davidson, which works to improve the relationship between police and the aboriginal youth while encouraging them to pursue careers in policing.

A few more points: First, you'll notice it wasn't until half way through the article that someone identified as being Native themselves was given space to speak. And while it is good to talk about the history of denial of indigenous spiritualities in the prison system, and that change is happening, this whole last segment -- even as it quotes Native people -- undermines the initial strong words about a racist criminal justice system by making it all about indigenous people who have "changed their lives" (or that need to), thereby focusing attention on the victims to avoid talking about the power structure and people that are the problem, and being able to emphasize changes that have been made and give the impression, "Don't worry. We got it figured out. It'll be fixed in no time."

There is no use of statistical evidence to show that the assertions about a racist justice system at the top of the article are, in fact, more than a handful of professionals spouting off. This material is easy to find. There are lots of studies, including one by the Ontario provincial government in the early nineties, which demonstrate racially disparate (i.e. racist) outcomes at every stage of the criminal justice system. This absence, and the absence of any mention of the history of struggle by indigenous communities and communities of colour against racist policing and a racist judicial system, is a failure to adequately explain (and therefore to adequately support) the assertions by experts early in the article.

The article also fails to explain that while lack of control of legal mechanisms by First Nations on reserve and denial of indigenous spiritualities in prisons are two mechanisms by which the "colour of justice" is made "white," there are also lots of others. Even a vague sentence about how this permeates almost every function of the judicial system is not included.

In fact, though I still think it is good to have this issue make the front page, it is indicative of how the public consciousness is constructed as "white," and the privilege of that whiteness is completely naturalized, that the idea of a racist criminal justice system is news at all and that no statement is included acknowledging that this is really only news to white people.

Anyway, I have no snappy closing. I just wanted to make the point that it is good that this article was present, but that it was present in some pretty messed up ways.


Shadow Eternal said...

Man, thats wicked. I did a lot of research for my book (forum, blog, website) all racialdebate. something or other. I never knew until then that canada was america's racist twin brother.. This whole racism thing is a mental/emotional vietnam, its unwinable. But i enjoyed your view and will check in to see more.

The light in the darkness

Scott said...

Glad you enjoyed the piece...I'll be sure to check out your site!

Yeah, Canada's just as bad, for the most part. I find it is even harder trying to get other white folk to talk about racism here in Canada than it is in the U.S. -- on your side of the border, I've found that liberal-minded white people know the country is racist, even if that doesn't translate into caring or acting. Here in Canada, there's this illusion that it isn't a problem, that it's an "American thing" or maybe a "Toronto thing."

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Makwa said...

I thought your points about racism against FN people was very honest and thoughtful. It is interesting that you have felt like a person in 'occupied land'. As an FN person in Canada, I feel like that all the time. Miigwetch!

Scott said...

Hi Makwa! I'm glad you appreciated the post. I'm not sure that I would say that the blog title exactly comes from having felt like a person in occupied land -- certanly it is not something I have directly experienced in the same ways in which occupation is a daily reality for people of the indigenous nations of this continent. As I talk about a little bit in the post that I did when I changed the name of the blog to the current one -- it was "A Canadian Lefty in the Land of King George" for the first chunk of its existence, because I was living in the U.S. -- I try to be conscious that, in understanding the idea of occupation in the multilayered ways I describe it in that post, I am both occupied and occupier in different ways. Certainly it is still a journey on which I have a long way to travel to really appreciate, intellectually and emotionally and in the ways I engage with the world practically and politically, what it means to be a white Canadian living on stolen land.

Thanks for stopping by and reading!