Brenda Macdougall, chair in Métis research, Department of Geography, University of Ottawa
Like many, I have been struck by public reactions to the shooting death in Saskatchewan of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree, for which a white farmer, Gerald Stanley, is charged with second-degree murder.
The Saskatchewan I grew up in exhibited a generous spirit, but I also know a different province, one where casual racism and routine discrimination are a daily reality. What was strike about racist and derogatory comments made after Mr. Boushie's death was that they weren't made privately at the supper table with family or while having a coffee among close friends, but instead were posted publicly, online and in social media. Those making such comments apparently feel comfortable sharing their views this way.
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Many have spoken out about what this incident means in a larger social context. Some see it as just another incident in a long-standing historical pattern of colonial oppression justifying individual, institutional or structural racism. But what is happening in Saskatchewan is connected to the events in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee where black men were killed by police officers. But the comparison to be made isn't about the deaths, but rather the narrative of white victimhood.
This sense of white victimization were reflected in social media posts about the Boushie case, such as: "Time to go all cowboy and Indian on these useless leeches in society that live off of everyone else," or "the very sad truth is that being 'white' we can be discriminated upon more than any other race and no one faces any repercussions," or, "Canada has millions of hard working people who get up everyday and work their guts out contributing to society while … we also have a million indigenous people many who contribute absolutely nothing to Canadian society."
The traditional power and privilege reserved for white men is gradually eroding, and being replaced by more genuine participation and inclusion of historically marginalized peoples. The vile comments made in the Boushie case, and others, betray a sense that the writers can no longer count on the structures of the state to support them economically, politically and socially; as their privilege diminishes, they respond with racist and sexist hatred, while proclaiming their own victimization.
In the context of the Canadian West, this narrative is rooted in the historical myth of settlement, which tells us that hardy pioneers made productive unoccupied, unused, and unencumbered lands. This mythology was partly constructed for settlers by their government, then embellished by a citizenry who have excised from historical memory the contributions of indigenous people to their prosperity.
Two or three generations ago, there was no need for any rhetoric about white victimization. Settlers knew the state supported and protected their interests over those of indigenous people. Historically, many aboriginal communities did make a successful transition to farming, but unlike settlers they did so under discriminatory policies. White farmers were not subjected to the peasant farming policies of the Department of Indian Affairs, which limited Indian farms to 40 acres while homesteaders got 160 acres; nor did white farmers have a state agent dictate when, where, or at what price they could sell their produce. More egregiously, settlers had the political clout to demand that "unused" reserve lands be expropriated, resulting in the alienation of thousands of acres, which then became the property of white famers. The first generations of settlers knew where power lay and leveraged it to build their lives at the expense of others. Succeeding generations have directly benefited.
Today there are fewer assurances of political favour or privilege based on whiteness. Neo-liberalism and the decline of the welfare state has eaten into the once-assured prosperity of working- and middle-class whites, and so the visible and purposeful participation of historically marginalized people – women, aboriginals, LBGTQ people – becomes the scapegoat for, and target of, white anger. Today the possibilities of operating a family farm, or being land owners (or even homeowners) is less likely than for earlier generations; thus, it seems that some white people come to see themselves as victims. No longer enjoying the special status of their parents and grandparents, they regard themselves as losing rights in a system that once invested in them power and authority by virtue of their skin colour.
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We need to have an honest conversation about violence rooted in white anxieties and the fears white people have about having to fairly compete with aboriginal people. As long as we valorize a settler mythology instead of actually knowing our history, we will remain incapable of dealing with the type of violent discourse that validates the death of a young indigenous man.