Dave Obee: Cartoon took aim at empty statements

Dave ObeeAt the outset, let me state that we are on the traditional territory of the Straits Salish and Coast Salish peoples. This should be distinctly understood.

It is also important to note that the Times Colonist respects those whose ancestors have roots that go back for centuries. I’m sorry that anything we have published left the impression that we are racist.

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The traditional-territory statement is given, in one form or another, at the start of many, many public events throughout Greater Victoria. I have made that statement at least a dozen times in the past couple of years, at events I have moderated.

Sometimes, the words are clearly coming from the speaker’s heart. At other times, the phrase is jammed into a list of announcements, along with greetings, thanks to sponsors and “be sure to turn off your phones.”

I believe that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was sincere at her inauguration ceremony, when she refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the Queen, and expressed strong support for the Songhees and Esquimalt nations.

I also believe that many other people are not sincere when they mouth those words; they are simply saying what they think is expected. Our cartoonist, Adrian Raeside, believes that as well.

Raeside is one of the best cartoonists in North America. He understands that a cartoonist should not walk on eggshells, and that a cartoonist needs to be bold. Subtle cartoons will be ignored.

Why do we run cartoons? To get people to think about issues. To inspire dialogue. To push and prod to make things better.

If a cartoon does not offend at least one person, it’s not doing its job; at the same time, there is no sense in publishing a cartoon that is blatantly offensive.

Raeside offended many people with Wednesday’s cartoon, and he has apologized for giving people the wrong impression.

The cartoon featured a speech being made inside Victoria City Hall, along with a side comment.

“Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations,” the speech begins.

“I would also like to acknowledge the trees that were cut down to clear the land to build this city hall. And I would also like to acknowledge the wildlife that were displaced due to construction of this is building. OK, I think we got everything covered.”

And then the side comment: “You forgot the bugs trampled by the construction workers.”

Many readers were incensed, saying that the cartoon suggested that First Nations people are on a level with bugs and vermin.

We have seen a no-holds-barred social-media attack on Raeside, on me and on the Times Colonist.

We have been called racist, colonialist, rude and thoughtless. The cartoon has been called offensive, dehumanizing, violent and abhorrent. We have been accused of making light of genocide. Some readers say they won’t be happy until Raeside and I are both fired.

The cartoon was not intended to be racist. It mocked the perfunctory way the phrase is so often delivered, the gap between empty words and real action on First Nations issues and the way the sentiments can seem both patronizing and belittling.

I don’t believe the cartoon should be considered in isolation from our other work on First Nations issues. Consider our extensive coverage of the dispute over Grace Islet, where a private home is being built on a sacred burial ground.

Consider our 2009 series on black mould and rot in homes on reserves; the series shone a light on a serious problem, and helped bring a commitment to change. That series won a national award for excellence in public service journalism.

Go back and read the hundreds of articles and editorials and columns on the shameful way the provincial government has failed aboriginal children in care.

What does Raeside say about Wednesday’s cartoon?

“I have absolutely no objection to the acknowledgment of the traditional lands of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations,” he says. “The cartoon is about the empty mouthing of a mantra that appeases the non-indigenous conscience without any meaningful effort to make things better. It is a perfunctory statement not backed by action.

“Why not mention the deplorable living conditions some have to endure on nearby reserves? Why not do something about the high suicide rates among young people on some reserves?”

He adds that while it is easy to acknowledge First Nations territory, it is not so easy to address issues that are ongoing and deplorable in the 21st century, or to make a real difference.

“The cartoon took a shot at the people who say the right things but take no action — they were the ones I was trying to offend. It appears I offended everyone but them. For that, I am truly sorry.”

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