A few days ago a group of First Nations people were riding the LRT (mass transit) to the National Gathering of Elders at the Edmonton Expo Centre when they were stopped by transit police and asked for proof of purchase. The encounter that ensued has resulted in charges of racial profiling. While I don’t think the article to which I linked provides adequate evidence of racial profiling, the encounter is concerning and worthy of closer scrutiny.
But here I’d like to address the comment of one of those aggrieved indigenous leaders, Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail. In the article she is quoted as follows:
“What happened on that deck is representative of what happens to us on a daily basis, and I am calling the settlers out and saying, ‘No more.'” (emphasis added)
I am sympathetic to Wabano-Iahtail’s frustration. I can’t imagine how infuriating it would be to be subject to subtle (and overt) forms of racial discrimination on a daily basis. And there is no doubt that First Nations people are among the most discriminated-against groups in Canada.
Having said that, I need to ask: is it reverse discrimination when indigenous people refer to non-indigenous people as “settlers”?
As I see it, there are two problems with the term “settlers”.
First, it is inaccurate. A settler is a person who settles a new territory. A majority of non-indigenous people are not, by that definition, settlers of Canada. On the contrary, they were born here and they’ve lived here all their lives.
So why does Wabano-Iahtail refer to non-indigenous people as settlers?
This brings me to the second point: it seems to me that the intent is at least in part to demean non-indigenous people within Canada. This raises many troubling questions including the following: if First Nations people can demean non-immigrants as “settlers” then by the same logic can an individual raised within Canada demean a recent immigrant?
Let me add that when groups that lack power use demeaning and discriminatory language the social implications are not as serious as when groups that possess power use demeaning and discriminatory language, not least because of the power differential.
Nonetheless, in both cases the language is demeaning and discriminatory. And to return to that lesson we all learned from our mother’s knee: two wrongs don’t make a right.