“Well I know this and anyone who’s ever tried to live knows this: that what you say about somebody else, you know, anybody else, reveals you,” said the author James Baldwin in a 1963 documentary entitled Take This Hammer. “What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessity, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you. I’m describing me.”
Baldwin was exposing America’s habit of investing certain qualities — its own worst characteristics which it dare not acknowledge — onto black people. People who look like us are habitually depicted as angry, lazy, dumb, decrepit, in the grips of a deep and unjustified sense of entitlement, and all the rest. But those qualities aren’t really us. Whatever America refused to admit about itself, it projected onto black people. “I think that the guilt complex of the American white man is so profound,” said Malcolm X during an interview for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s television show, Front Page Challenge, “that he tries to cover it up by accusing his accusers of teaching hate.”
Like too many regrettable features of our social landscape, this habit is as apparent today as it’s ever been. We are as prone as anybody before us to seeing in others the characteristics we can’t stand to face in ourselves. “They put their club upside your head,” Malcolm X thundered in one speech, “and then turn around and accuse you of attacking them.”
Baldwin’s words have travelled — taking hold in, and speaking to, America’s northern neighbour, where the Idle No More movement (protesting the many violations of Indigenous rights) marches on. His declaration “that what you were describing was not me and what you were afraid of was not me” is equally resonant and relevant here, in Canada.
Too many people here in Canada have taken to calling Indigenous people lazy and their community leaders corrupt and wasteful with government money. This is meant to serve as some kind of explanation for the impoverished conditions many of them are in.
Discredit, disparage, demonize.
When Theresa Spence, the Chief of a town called Attawapiskat, undertook a hunger strike in December, Christie Blatchford, a prominent Canadian columnist, called it an act “of intimidation, if not terrorism.” Blatchford once referred, dismissively, to the “broken state of Aboriginal culture… which is pathologically ill.”
Blatchford, and many others who think like her, betray a blinkered and myopic vision. Even one of our former prime ministers, Paul Martin, recently said that Canada has been, and continues to be, a colonial power in its relations with Indigenous peoples.
The effects of colonization are apparent. In December, Amnesty International Canada released a report entitled Matching International Commitments with National Action: A Human Rights Agenda for Canada. The report noted that “the fundamental right to water within First Nations communities continues to be cavalierly disregarded across the country”; and that most of the water and sewage systems they use are contaminated. Their land and resource rights are going unrecognized and unprotected. A fifth of the country’s prison inmates are Indigenous, even though they make up only about three per cent of the population.
On January 28th, there were rallies and demonstrations across Canada. Flashmob dances from Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa. Solidarity movements echoed across the U.S. in Texas, Washington State, Oregon, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Alaska, Michigan, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada Connecticut, Oklahoma, New York, North Carolina, and other locations. Around the world, more than 40 Idle No More events took place. The movement’s even grown large enough to enter the field of the United Nation’s vision, with the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, voicing his concerns. These concerns have led to the four founders of the movement to be invited to speak in May at the United Nations.
The four lawyers from Saskatchewan began Idle No More when they planned a teach-in to protest the omnibus budget bill C-45, which ended up passing without public consultation in early December, withdrawing protection of waterways and facilitating the sale of reserve lands without consultation. The creeping presence of corporate interest in Canada’s political affairs is often felt first by Canada’s First Nations people. And this time they’ve pushed back. “When corporate profit is privileged over the health of our lands and waters, we all suffer,” wrote Jeff Denis, assistant professor of sociology at McMaster University. “When government stifles debate, democracy is diminished. Bill C-45 is just the latest in a slew of legislation that undermines Canadians’ rights. In standing against it, the First Nations are standing for us too.”
As a reward for this noble effort to protect all our interests and to direct attention to some of their concerns (like poverty and imprisonment and the many broken treaty agreements), many Canadians have amplified murmurings of prejudice long kept muffled. Racism directed towards Indigenous people is greater now — and more out in the open — than it was before Idle No More. “I keep thinking, who are these people who write these things?” a Toronto aboriginal artist named Keesic Douglas said about the anonymous readers posting in the comments sections of articles. “Is that my next-door neighbour?” The Facebook page for one newspaper, the Thompson Citizen, for instance, had to be shut down because of the racist remarks against Indigenous people. It’s common to hear a Canadian call Chief Spence lazy or corrupt and seem to forget that our Prime Minister, Conservative Stephen Harper, isn’t exactly a paragon of just leadership.
The charge of mismanagement of funds, for one, is misguided. Their communities are subject to strict accounting and control by the federal government. “Many people seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that First Nations have self-governance and run themselves freely,” wrote Chelsea Vowel in the National Post. “Most First Nations have to get permission before they can spend money… Bands are micromanaged to an extent unseen in nearly any other context that does not involve a minor or someone who lacks capacity due to mental disability.” The narrative of entitled, wasteful freeloaders is borne of little more than prejudice and the unwillingness of the government to accept its involvement. “There is a prevailing myth that Canada’s more than 600 First Nations and native communities live off of money — subsidies — from the Canadian government,” writes Dru Oja Jay in The Media Co-Op. “This myth, though it is loudly proclaimed and widely believed, is remarkable for its boldness; widely accessible, verifiable facts show that the opposite is true.” But the facts are uncomfortable and are difficult to integrate into the consciousness of a society which steadfastly believes it’s all good.
This communal coping mechanism to manage (read: reject) inconvenient facts has deep roots. “There’s a long history of coloured perils. There’s the ‘red peril’,” said Professor Charles Mills in a BBC documentary called Racism: A History. “There’s this idea of the non-white ‘Other’. The non-white ‘Other’ is threatening, the non-white ‘Other’ is scary, the non-white ‘Other’ is maybe coming to attack. And it comes out, you could say, of a bad conscience”.
By continually calling out Aboriginals for their supposed imperfections, they are working to avoid a discussion about their very real, and continued, involvement. As Harsha Walia put it, “the theft and appropriation of Indigenous lands and resources subsidize the Canadian economy rather than the other way around.” Ultimately, this is just individual psychology write large. Canada, as a whole, is doing what immature individuals — or all of us at our most immature — do best.
“This mechanism of projection – or, if one prefers, transference – has been described by classic psychoanalysis,” Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks. “In the degree to which I find in myself something unheard-of, something reprehensible, only one solution remains for me: to get rid of it, to ascribe its origin to someone else. In this way I eliminate a short circuit that threatens to destroy my equilibrium.”
It’s an incredible feat of the imagination when you really think about it. We are complex and cowardly enough to be treacherous and brutal towards others and still find a way to convince ourselves that it’s actually our victims who are treacherous and brutal. “That is why he [Obama, in the eyes of the far right] is the out of control spender when they sat on their hands through all of Bush’s malfeasance,” wrote one anonymous commenter on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. “That is why his talking to schoolchildren is dangerous when our government wiretapping its citizens wasn’t. That is why saving the financial system from years of Republican regulation is taking away our future.”
So what do a people do when their fellow citizens consistently project their worst qualities onto them? How do you respond to this? Well, one move is to go with satire and to simply make fun of those so petty and so small that they must mutate reality in such ways. This attitude inspired the #Ottawapiskat hashtag (merging the capital, Ottawa, with Chief Spence’s Attawapiskat). The idea’s been to have Indigenous people (and others in solidarity with the movement) write the kinds of things about “Chief” Harper they had gotten all too accustomed to hearing about their own leaders. These disparaging Canadians, the reasoning goes, can’t keep pretending that only our communities or our leaders are flawed. “#Ottawapiskat chief is living in a mansion while many of his people are homeless,” reads one tweet. “Have you seen #Ottawapiskat on Canada Day? They all gather in a tribal celebration and they drink so much!” reads another. I contributed one myself with this one: “#Ottawapiskat Chief lazily refuses to walk the short distance to meet our leader.” (Though Spence was conducting her hunger strike near Parliament, where Harper worked, she couldn’t secure a meeting with him.)
It’s comedy rooted in observations of the absurd, of the inconsistent and the incongruous. But it might also be the kind of comedy that only some of us can even see as funny. Those who project might have a difficult time seeing how obvious it is to us that they’re revealing more about themselves than about anybody else.
I hope the fight continues. I hope that they continue to mock the attempts of others to demean them, and to deem them things that better describe themselves. I hope the rest of us can mature enough to admit that we, too, aren’t above the kind of criticism we habitually only mete out to black people and Indigenous people. The myth that there’s some neat division between one sect of people and another, between nobler and more righteous characteristics and their debased inversions, impedes spiritual and social growth. “[E]veryone,” said Vaclav Havel, “has a small part of himself in both.”
How it’ll turn out in the end is anybody’s guess — but, by continuing to reject the old narrative, Idle No More has already won. The movement and Spence’s courageous hunger strike will one day command something approaching universal respect and recognition. In facing the cold winds of governmental indifference and societal projection, their fight speaks to the importance and the power of wearing the cloth of self-knowledge.
Baldwin, at the end of the segment I mentioned above, said he would not accept what his society was trying to tell him about himself. They tried to construct a caricature, or pin their own problems, onto him — but he wasn’t having that. “Well, he’s unnecessary to me,” he said, pointing to this caricature, this scapegoat, this shadow that America needed him to be, “so he must be necessary to you.”
“I give you your problem back.”