I was in Grade 7 the first time I remember a group of adults making "Indian jokes." A handful of kids—all white, including myself—were downstairs sneaking drinks while they celebrated New Year's Eve upstairs.
These jokes are ubiquitous across the Canadian prairies: formulaic put-downs that rely on stereotypes of Indigenous people. The parents were laughing, and they were our role models, so we started making them too.
For too many years following, even around Indigenous friends and classmates, I continued to make those jokes. It likely wasn't the first time I let the racism of my home province shape my actions, it's just the first one I remember.
I feel shame now for many reasons. I think about the people I hurt—the Indigenous people who were degraded by my attempts at fitting in—but also because younger kids heard me, looked up to me and, just like I mimicked the adults at the party, those kids started to make the jokes too.
This was in Prince Albert, which according to the 2006 census had the highest concentration of Aboriginal people of any city in Saskatchewan. The racism is so normalized that a parent wouldn't think twice about making a disparaging remark about Indigenous people in front of their children. I didn't think it was wrong to degrade my classmates, friends and neighbours.
That's systemic racism. That's Saskatchewan. That's the cycle that left Colten Boushie murdered on a rural road. The 22-year-old First Nations man was shot dead on a Saskatchewan farm on August 9, and farm owner Gerald Stanley has been charged with second degree murder.
Since Boushie's death, questions of racism bubbling beneath the surface of the prairie roads and northern forests have filled newspaper columns and social media feeds across the country. Ben Kautz, a councillor for the rural community of Browning, Saskatchewan, resigned from his position after posting on Facebook that Stanley's only mistake was "leaving witnesses."
Kautz certainly wasn't the only one. The online commenting became so bad that the RCMP warned some "could be criminal in nature." Premier Brad Wall went on Facebook asking for people to stop with "racist and hate-filled comments." Unfortunately his comment section enabled more racism to spew, uninhibited and with ownership from people's personal profiles.
Understanding the hateful climate and the role I played in it in my youth was difficult, but for my Indigenous peers the stakes were much higher. While I was dabbling in discrimination, Eagleclaw Bunnie Thom was learning about the other edge of that dangerous sword in my hometown, Prince Albert.
"It was hard at times. I didn't realize we were poor until I was much older, which is a sign of good parenting I guess," the Indigenous photographer told VICE. "We always had enough food and a roof over our head. I grew up with two older sisters who are half black and one younger sister who is Saulteaux, Cree and Scottish."
He remembers his sister being chased home from school being called derogatory terms because she was black and because she was Indigenous. He says he was held back in Grade 1, not because of his academics, but because of the racial taunting which made it hard to get along with classmates.
"I remember being carted into the principal's office because I got in an argument on the playground and the principal at that time beating my knuckles with his leather belt after he heated it on the radiator," Thom said. "I've talked with other students from that school and no one else experienced that ever."
Indigenous writer and activist Nickita Longman says racism "really came to the surface" when she moved from reserve to Regina. She attended a community school with students of different racial backgrounds. Like Thom, her first experience with racism was "where most forms of bullying take place: the playground."
"I wasn't ever prepared for it," Longman told VICE. "I was unable to vocalize the way it made me feel."
"Growing up Indigenous has meant that my mother has had to have challenging conversations with me that non-Indigenous parents don't," she added. "My mother has come up with safety tips regarding cab rides, walking home alone at night and, as of late, what my sister and I would do if our car ever experienced trouble in rural Saskatchewan."
Andre Bear grew up both on reserve in Little Pine First Nation and within the inner city of Saskatoon. While many rural kids were taking a truck for a "rip" or shotgunning their first beer, Bear got fed up with the stereotypes that were imposed on him—that he wouldn't graduate high school or that he was a criminal. He also learned as a young adult how inequality contributed to racism.
"The provincial and federal government does not equitably support First Nations communities and ignores Treaty obligations made specifically to overcome social injustices," Bear told VICE. "Many First Nations communities in Saskatchewan are drenched within fourth world living conditions without water, power, food, proper education and housing."
The last federally-run residential school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996. For First Nations children living on reserve, they get at least 30 percent less funding for their education than children living in the provincial jurisdiction, a former chief economist with the TD Bank, Don Drummond, told CBC in March. As of July 2015, 93 First Nations across Canada had a total of 133 drinking water advisories, some of them for two decades. That number doesn't include the 25 other First Nations in British Columbia who are also under boil water advisories.
"Non-First Nations people in Saskatchewan are uneducated about these socially imposed inequities that enable an internalized dehumanization of First Nations peoples," he said.
In Bear, many people might see Boushie—a young Indigenous man. In fact, Bear has been pulled over or stopped on the streets on different occasions. But after the shooting, and the racist outrage online, he still has hope.
"This is most important—to identify that racism is evident before we begin finding solutions to a problem that is not only systematic but needs to be addressed through education and compassion on an individual level," he said.
Today, Thom lives in a different Saskatchewan city, but the racist sentiment of his formative years hasn't gone away. He doesn't go to small towns and avoids many parts of cities for fear of getting his "teeth kicked in."
"That's a direct quote from a recent encounter at one of my old favourite bars in Regina," Thom said. "[The man] said 'I don't want to hear your dirty brown mouth talk again or I'll kick your teeth in.' This was a place I frequented for a very, very long time, but only recently have had to deal with this stuff."
It's the Saskatchewan he grew up in and unfortunately it's still the atmosphere of the province, but Thom said he is hopeful a different one will await his children.
"The children are where we need to spend our energies in terms of education," he said. "Building cultural competence. Awareness. It will be their relationships that will be affected and their lives that have to negotiate the cultural landscape that we leave for them. So we all need to do better in that respect."
I wonder if my parents, my friends' parents or my teachers thought the same thing a couple decades ago. In the province that brought to light the "starlight tours" and the last residential school, how can we move forward?
You can still meet up with some of my "old crew" and have a few "too many brews" and hear the "Indian jokes." But you won't hear it from me. You won't hear it from most of the non-Indigenous people I know. That doesn't mean it's not still around, but maybe it represents a slow cultural shift.
For non-Indigenous people, like myself, our shame is on the line, but it needs to move faster on this beautiful land for people like Boushie, who lose their lives to bullshit Saskatchewan cycles.
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