A letter to the editor — described by First Nations leaders as racist and ignorant — should be used as an opportunity to educate Canadians about aboriginal culture, say chiefs who took part in a protest outside the Nanaimo Daily News office on Thursday.
“The foundation of racism is ignorance and fear about each other, and what we have been trying to do for many years is try and build greater understanding,” said Snuneymuxw Chief Doug White, who hopes the incident will kickstart educational conferences and a change in school curricula.
“We must close this gap of understanding. … People don’t know us and they don’t know what our values are or our way of life,” White said.
Although racism remains a reality for First Nations, the letter does not reflect the views of most Nanaimo residents, said White, who believes it has tarnished the city’s reputation.
“The Nanaimo name is now being thrown around … as a place where there is some pretty serious, ugly racism going on, and that’s not good for my community or the people I live with,” he said.
The Nanaimo Daily News removed the letter — which denigrated First Nations achievements and dismissed their culture — from its website on Thursday, a day after it was published. Publisher Hugh Nicholson apologized for any distress it might have caused.
The letter sparked outrage across the country. NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder made a statement in the House of Commons, while Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo visited Nanaimo.
“The country is watching what is happening here,” Atleo said. “This letter is a sharp reminder of the dark colonial history we all face.”
Shawn Atleo, chancellor of Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University, suggested universities should host conferences promoting intercultural understanding — an idea welcomed by Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president Cliff Atleo.
“What happened shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and we need to look at opportunities that arise from such an incident,” Cliff Atleo said.
School curricula need to reflect First Nations history, he said.
“There’s an arrogance to people who come to our land and take our land and resources and then talk about their history,” he said. “We were here long before you decided to get lost.”
Racist attitudes continue to permeate daily life for aboriginal people, said Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
“I think this exemplifies that there’s a racist underbelly to Canada, and you have to look at how the government treats us.”
B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould said the letter-writer needs to educate himself about the legal and political reality in B.C.
“I would strongly suggest the Nanaimo Daily News run a series of well-researched and considered articles on historical and contemporary indigenous peoples’ issues for the benefit of its readers,” she said.