Ian Campeau on Leaving A Tribe Called Red for a Life of Advocacy

‘In Tribe I didn't feel I was doing the political work I could be doing.’
Image via Wikipedia Commons

Ian Campeau, formerly the most outspoken member of Indigenous electronic trio A Tribe Called Red, is now the most outspoken former member. Despite Tribe’s outsize success—or rather because of it, given their exhausting tour schedule—the Nippising Anishinaabe artist also known as DJ NDN left the award-winning group to focus more on changing minds than moving bodies.

Not that he wasn’t already one of Canada’s highest-profile social-justice activists, online and off. Campeau weaponized his Twitter feed against racists, misogynists and other hatemongers long before we had a name for the alt-right. He got the Nepean Redskins, a suburban Ottawa youth football club, to change their name to the Nepean Eagles by filing a human rights complaint in 2013. And he made his presence felt during the Canada 150 “re-occupation” protest on Parliament Hill, calling it a “mausoleum” and asking a Mountie if he was proud to be Canadian. (“No comment.”)


Now Campeau’s stepping up his fight. He’s using his celebrity platform to advocate directly to politicians and policymakers and launched a public speaking career on topics like toxic masculinity and how to be an ally. (“Step One: Be Quiet.”) After discovering medical marijuana light during his wife’s breast cancer battle, he’s become an ambassador for cannabis site Leafly to influence legalization legislation. He still occasionally DJs but to fundraiser for women’s shelters. And when not trying to save the world, he’s busy chopping wood to heat his home and farming to feed his family.

VICE: What’s it been like since you got off the road?
Ian Campeau: It’s been so nice to focus on something other than managing my depression and anxiety of traveling and mega-FOMO about having a baby and having a garden. I didn’t have it in me to continue the facade. I had to go onstage and pretend to be happy [but] now I am so happy to be around this baby—and my wife is so happy that I’m there. Living on the farm we have different priorities.

Do you miss performing?
No. I got cripplingly nervous before performing. That’s why I used to wear a mask. Now my performing is speaking engagements and the people I’m talking to have potential to actually change policy. I’m speaking to big corporate people about wealth redistribution, work harassment and assessing your privileges. I’m saying these things to banks! If I was trying to get this message to them through Tribe alone, I’d have to hope their kids liked our music and might’ve read an article where it was mentioned. Now I have direct access.


Your talks are so calm while your online persona is… aggressive.
I’m being aggressive to aggressive ideas. Like these Nazi ideologies that are being thrown around. We don’t even need to be talking about this. There was a whole war about it. And why do people want to emulate historic losers? The Nazis lost. The South lost. These were ideologies that were stomped into the ground. It’s beyond my comprehension.

Do you ever feel like you’re screaming into the abyss?
I feel like I’m having a concrete impact in the world when I see actual change, and who is listening. Like with VICE and talking to Justin Trudeau about cannabis legalization and how that's going to impact me and my wife. It’s my anxiety medication and my wife’s pain medication, she’s off all of her opiates and only using cannabis for nerve damage pain after her mastectomy. It’s her cancer meds. My follow-up question was: ‘As an Indigenous person, how can you expect me to believe you?’ That was the most therapeutic thing I’ve ever done in my life. What’s Trudeau doing right on marijuana legalization?
I wouldn't say anything to be perfectly honest. It’s not legalization, it’s monopolization if they’re just making it legal for them to sell it and making it extra illegal for everyone else to sell it. It’s policies being made by people who haven’t smoked weed. They see it as a narcotic and I see it as something that sits between coffee and wine. Also, it’s medicinal no matter how you use it. If you use it after work to calm down, that’s medicinal. If you’re using it to help you sleep, it’s medicinal.


How do you feel about marijuana as an Indigenous economic driver?
I talked to my chief about it and he wasn't really receptive to the idea. There’s a stigma behind it still. There are opioid problems in my community and also alcoholism. The generation that are in power right now see [marijuana] as another narcotic, and that bringing in more would be bad for the community. It’s hard to convince him that it will curb all of that.

I’d love to have a discussion about it as an economic opportunity for Indigenous people to exercise sovereignty. In an ideal world, I’d hope that cannabis residuals would be used to help with infrastructure in their communities so they wouldn't have to rely on the government and would have their own sustainability.

Should the Indian Act be amended or gotten rid of?
Abolished because it’s legislating the hierarchy of race, it’s dictating who can be a part of our nationhood—which means it’s not recognizing us as sovereign nations. [The Indian Act uses] blood quantum, a colonial system to make the equation zero. They’re trying to breed us out.

What should replace it?
The treaties. I always wondered why Canada didn’t just obliterate the treaties but a lawyer friend pointed out that it's what legitimizes Canada. They need to prove they have title, that they’re allowed to be here. If you get rid of the treaties, you don’t have Canada.

Jody Wilson-Raybould is Canada’s first Indigenous Justice Minister. How do you think she’s done?
She’s an agent of the government. If you work for the government, then you’re working for an oppressive system. That’s how I feel about Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Wab Kinew, in politics. The government’s not meant for us.


What’s the relationship between Indigenous people and the police?
We need to understand the history of police in Canada before we can address that relationship. The RCMP was created to displace and starve Indigenous people—to oppress Indigenous people—and all police in Canada are modeled after the RCMP. This is why we have missing and murdered Indigenous women at the rates that we do. Police don't seem to want to help in a real way. I’m sure there are decent human beings who are concerned with what’s going on but they’re not doing any real work to change it. The relationship between police and Indigenous people is bad when tactics have name like starlight tours. There's a long history of these things.

How do you foresee Indigenous and Non-Indigenous relations rolling out?
You know how I act on Twitter, right? My tactic is to hold people accountable to what they're saying, these trolls who say racist, homophobic, Islamophobic things. When you take away their arguments, and prove their ideologies false, they’re painted into a corner and lash out with the ad hominem attacks to hurt my feelings. That's when they start calling me a drunken Indian, or go live in a tipi. Overt racism is a societal reaction to running out of arguments. We need to confront this in a real way. It's going to be hard but I see this as one of the last fights before everyone finally gets it and realizes how inefficient racism and misogyny is for a society.

What do you think about what’s been going on with sexual harassment and abuse?
The last month has been incredible. It's been revolutionary. Us men are finally being held accountable and being taught how to act. We’ve had this entitlement perpetuated through media—fucking Say Anything tells you to go harass women while they’re sleeping and she'll fall in love with you. Belt out some Peter Gabriel, bro, and you’ll be fine. This is what we were taught!

There’s so much happening on so many fronts. What’s it feel like to be in this political moment?
It’s really empowering to see what’s going on. What a time to be alive! My job is to explain the power dynamics, the reasons why things are the way they are. We are literally shattering people’s realities—they see the world in a certain way, and we're trying to tell them it's not that way. So I’m targeting specific problems or knots within this web of fucked-upness. In Tribe I didn't feel I was doing the political work I could be doing.

Follow Joshua on Twitter.