“Racism” misunderstood?

On Aug. 22, a controversial email from Eric Robinson, Manitoba’s Deputy Premier, came to light. The email was in response to a complaint by Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba’s Special Advisor for Aboriginal Women’s Issues.

The email by Fontaine suggested that a burlesque performance within a fundraiser held by Osborne House was inappropriate.

“It’s just so disappointing and honestly beyond comprehension; and as a woman and as an Aboriginal woman, it’s extremely disheartening to see such a blatantly stupid fundraising exercise,” wrote Fontaine.

Robinson fired back a short email, in which he made comments that Barbara Judt, the CEO of Osborne House, found racist. He suggested that the fundraiser demonstrated “the ignorance of do-good white people.”

Judt filed a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission (MHRC) states that, “Under The Human Rights Code discrimination is treating someone differently based on a protected characteristic or the failure to reasonably accommodate.” MHRC also notes that discriminatory action has “the effect of denying equality of opportunity to a person or group.”

Canadian law does not currently contain a structural definition of racism. However, the Canadian Human Rights Act does specify the grounds in which discrimination can occur.

Debra Parkes, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba, said the comment by Robinson must be examined to discover whether it was discriminatory on the basis of race.

Parkes referred to the importance of considering the context surrounding human rights complaints, which includes whether groups have been disadvantaged historically, as well as how individuals and the group have been affected by the behaviour.

“The courts have not said that [discrimination] only applies to historically disadvantaged groups, but that is the purpose of the law,” she said.

Judt also encouraged Premier Greg Selinger to take action against Robinson.

“The Premier must sanction Robinson for suggesting that Osborne House and our supporters are in any way disrespectful to our aboriginal clients or in any way harm their interests,” wrote Judt in a statement.

Judt told the Manitoban that she is “not at all” satisfied with the response from the NDP government. In order to be satisfied, she said she wants “an apology and a willingness to sit down at the table and meet with [Osborne House administration] so that we can resolve these matters.”

According to Judt, numerous requests have been sent to the NDP government for a meeting, all of which have gone unanswered.

Robinson has since apologized for his controversial language use, commending the positive community actions carried out by Osborne House. In his statement he remained in disapproval of the fundraiser, and has since disagreed that his comments were racist .

In an article published by the Winnipeg Free Press, Robinson referred to his personal experiences with racism, relaying a story of his late mother’s death at 31 years of age at the hands of her non-Aboriginal boyfriend. Only a child at the time, Robinson tried to assist her to no avail. He has since set a personal pledge to work with Aboriginal women.

The issue is far from closed. Minister of Family Services and Labour Jennifer Howard related to reporters that the province has begun a review of Osborne House. Osborne House has also conducted its own review regarding human resources concerns.

One Facebook group entitled “Stamping out the myth of ‘reverse racism’ in Winnipeg” disagrees with Judt’s definition of what constitutes racism. The group wants to address Judt’s response to Robinson’s comment, without reference to the appropriateness of the fundraiser.

“There are a couple of things to address here. The first is that racism against white people doesn’t exist. We know some people (generally white people) hear that and are appalled. It’s different from the popular definition of racism that is, ‘something someone said about race that offended someone.’ That’s why there are 600,000 Internet comments right now crying, ‘If a white person said that, they’d never get away with it!’ Well, number one, yes they would. White people say much, much worse than ‘do-gooder’ about indigenous people all the time and face no consequences. Number two, that’s not a good way to understand racism. It assumes that all racial groups are on equal footing.”

Members of the group believe Judt’s definition ignores centuries of “historical oppression (as well as present and ongoing oppression) by white people against indigenous people.” They further specify that “racism isn’t really about being offended; it’s about real, tangible effects on populations.”

The group members believe that Barbara Judt’s filing of a formal complaint, then, is a “misuse of the Human Rights Commission.”

“That process is not for defending white people from their own personal perceptions of racism. The whole reason that commission exists is to make sure marginalized populations are on a more equal footing with more dominant populations – populations that have a tendency to oppress them and discriminate against them. It’s supposed to be there to level the playing field, and for a white person to use the Human Rights Commission against a racially marginalized person is incredibly wrong,” the group claims.

On the contrary, Marvin Boroditsky, the operations manager at Osborne House commented: “When the government holds the power of the checkbook over Osborne House or over any charity or non-profit, then these theories that white people can’t be the victims of racism go out the window.” He asserted the view that racism is based on equality between groups.

“Even if there were such a thing as racism against white people, this wouldn’t be it,” contends the Facebook group. “It’s hard to tell exactly what Eric Robinson meant by his brief, off-the-cuff comment, but what he seems to be getting at is that the predominately white social services industry, while they may be well-meaning, are ignorant about the racism and other oppression faced by their clients, and thus sometimes make questionable decisions and maybe even unwittingly cause harm. His comment needs to be understood in the context of 500 years and counting of harm. He, and all indigenous people, have every right to feel suspicious or critical of white people’s ‘help.’ How can we forget that most of the assimilationist projects aimed at eradicating indigenous language and culture were done in the name of ‘help’ (see: residential schools)?”

The group stressed that while they do not hold modern-day social services as being somehow equivalent to the human rights travesty that was the residential school system, in this context they do see utility in reexamining the nature of what motivated the implicated parties of largely “white” settlers to form and maintain said institutions.

“White people have always had a habit of positioning themselves as the ‘helpers’ of indigenous people, with a long record of doing more harm than good, and [ . . . ] some indigenous people are understandably wary of that,” stated the group.

The Facebook group has brainstormed several plans of action, including sending Judt a care package, which might include a letter from social service providers, and a “feminist care package” including articles and discussions of the idea of reverse racism. The members are specifically concerned about the behaviour of Judt, and are supportive towards Osborne House as a whole.