Over the past two weeks, there has been considerable—and in my estimation, excessive—furore over a sweatshirt worn by a high school student named Tenelle Starr. The sweatshirt bears the words “Got Land? Thank an Indian.”
School officials initially reacted by demanding that Starr remove the garment in question and never wear it again. They later relented, but not until the incident had garnered nationwide publicity. One of the consequences of all that attention was a raft of comments on Starr’s Facebook wall, condemning the sweater’s message as “racist” and offensive.
A reporter at the CBC’s Saskatchewan news division managed to track down a prominent contributor to those Facebook comments, a Vancouver-based “activist” named Michele Tittler, who heads a non-profit political organization called “End Race-Based Law.”
After locating Tittler, CBC journalist Bonnie Allen interviewed the 59-year-old. The eventual result was a radio segment and an online article in which Tittler’s views were broadcast, with little objection raised to the views she expressed. In the written piece, Tittler’s views are simply described as “intense criticism.”
I understand what Allen and her colleagues were striving to accomplish. Journalism is a medium driven by narrative tension. In order for a story to be compelling, there must be at least two sides, and there must be conflict. There is also an accepted ethical principle, particularly in North American journalism, that hard news stories should be “objective” and “balanced”: that is, the facts and opinions they convey should be completely unadulterated by the journalist’s own opinion, and both sides of the conflict should receive roughly equal airtime.
However, the problem with this approach becomes obvious in situations where one party to a conflict is correct, and the other is wrong.
No journalist in h/er right mind (at least, I sincerely hope not) would publish a story reflecting both sides of a “debate” on whether or not the Holocaust happened—the historical evidence of that genocide is unquestionable, and those members of our society who continue to deny it are rightly considered pariahs. And though it has taken some time, many television news organizations have yielded to the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change by declining to offer equal weight to both a climatologist and a climate denier or skeptic, which for many years was common practice.
Though the lesson from these examples is clear, the credo of balance and objectivity still leads many journalists woefully astray. Where CBC’s coverage of Tenelle Starr’s sweater is concerned, the only real conflict is between reality and nonsense.
Let’s examine the question of whether the message on Starr’s sweater is racist, as Tittler claims. Though racism is a notoriously imprecise term, it is commonly understood to be the notion that one’s own race is superior to others. However, while anyone may hold racist attitudes, in the North American context, institutions that enforce various forms of racial discrimination and racial privilege are dominated by white people. Thus, even if a First Nations person or group were to hold racist views against white Canadians, the detrimental consequences to our ethnic group would be negligible.
However, Starr’s sweater does not express the view that her race is superior. Rather, it recalls the undisputed historical fact that Indigenous peoples populated this land for thousands of years before the settler-colonial experiment called Canada took shape. As the Canadian enterprise has evolved and expanded, various treaties between settlers and Indigenous peoples have granted the Crown access to vast expanses of land and a wealth of resources. There are also many areas of the country, including Tittler’s hometown of Vancouver, where treaties have not yet been established. In either case, it is the Indigenous population’s acquiescence to the presence and activities of newcomers (in some cases willingly, in others under duress) that enabled Canada to not only exist, but to become one of the most prosperous countries on earth. Far from “racist,” the fact that some Indigenous peoples should desire a measure of gratitude is warranted.
There is another, more profound issue at play here, however. Michele Tittler is not merely a citizen with a point of view. She is an ideological campaigner who advocates a specific set of policies—namely, the abrogation of treaties, reserve lands, and legal rights that apply specifically to Indigenous peoples in Canada. This idea is not unique to Tittler; since the foundation of the Canadian state, various efforts have been made to integrate the Indigenous “other” into the mainstream of Canadian society—including residential schools and the Trudeau white paper.
Historically, and today, there are many Canadians who sympathize with aspects of Tittler’s message, despite her marginal status. Even among those who reject the contention that the message on the “Got Land?” sweater is racist, there are some—including current and former members of our federal government—who hold that the “special” or “race-based” rights accorded to Indigenous peoples ought to end. These individuals typically dismiss or fail to appreciate the importance of Indigenous concepts of nationhood, sovereignty, and connection to the land, in favour of a “solution” that involves assimilation/integration, and nullification of Indigenous rights that pre-date European contact, and have been affirmed by the United Nations.
To most people, geography is a key component of identity. For example, if the land of France ceased to exist, the claim of French nationality would be rendered meaningless; the French would become a rootless diaspora. This is so to an even greater extent for Indigenous peoples. The earliest inhabitants of Turtle Island already face extraordinary hostility from Canadians over their desire to preserve their heritage, traditions, and rights. By amplifying the voice of Tittler, and offering little in the way of challenge, our country’s public broadcaster has done Indigenous peoples a grave disservice.