Difficult truths 

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I had not long returned to Canada after 15 years away in England when a colleague at my temporary job in Vancouver dropped a shocking, appallingly racist comment about indigenous people.

It was so casually done and she was confident in my implicit agreement as a white woman. I was as upset by that assumption as by the vile comment.

I spluttered about not feeling the same way and got the hell away from her, which is not a proud memory 12 years later. I should have acted more forcefully against it, but I mostly felt blindsided in confusion.

I'd liked her; we'd had coffee and talked about our children. She was so "normal."

White Brits know a thing or two about casual racism and I did not live in a vacuum while I was there, but I'd somehow drunk the Kool-Aid of Canadian awesomeness. I thought we'd evolved. We were better than that.

But it showed me how much work was still needed, how systemic racism can only be changed through individual action.

I started with myself — I tried to learn more about the divide that continued in my years away. By extension, I concentrated on being deliberate in the values I tried to teach my son.

I tried to find indigenous stories to cover as a journalist, and as an editor I've tried to mentor indigenous writers when I've had the chance.

I stumbled my way back into cultural cognizance as a Canadian and I'm pretty aware of what is good and bad here.

I love this country; I want it to do better. I expect it to be better.

As a journalist I have the privilege of access. I am fortunate enough to meet many people in many situations.

I saw time and again the painful outcomes of Canada's racist policies, past and present, with good people in every situation and of every background dealing with unwillingness from the status quo at best and violence at worst.

The drip-drip of this heritage takes a toll on all of us.

I recall one story on the Gulf Islands, where a newly built resort was partly constructed on a midden mound (domestic and other refuse from centuries of First Nations use) at the site of an old village. It was an archaeological treasure — indeed, it was an archaeologist who took me there — and should have been a national landmark.

The site had been approved for construction and the midden mound had been dug up and used to grade the road. The archaeologist found evidence of human remains from this community, too, later and claims were made that these remains had also been used to build the road.

The first leader I interviewed on my return from England was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

It was meant to be a quick five-minute chat about the legalities of a treaty situation. It lasted 90 minutes.

He very patiently gave me a master class on the B.C. treaty situation from his experience — informally answering my questions about the history and the options. It would have taken me a year of five-minute interviews to get that far.

The point is that we have great potential to move the Canadian story forward to its best chapter yet.

But for the settler class, whether first-generation immigrants (like me) or families established in B.C. for generations, it would take sometimes-painful reflections and a real power sharing.

What this would challenge is the sort of racist commentaries that appeared under news articles on indigenous people on the CBC website until the corporation banned comments altogether.

Invited last week to listen to a panel of indigenous artists and arts administrators, I got a sense of the general frustration and the hope. They had been invited to critique the ways First Nations were treated as artists, communities and administrators, and they made very practical observations and suggestions to fix this.

I felt the audience, largely arts museum representatives, taking in what was sometimes a difficult message filled with criticism.

But took it they did — it was a positive evening of difficult truths.

Character is defined by action, not wishing; this is the same for a nation as well as a person. We can do much, but it means acting decisively when we feel confusion and horror in reaction to racism.


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