Part of my job is to provide answers to the dozens of inquiries that reach my desk every week, some of which can seem pretty trivial, but many of which have far more serious implications.
Like the Anishinaabe-kwe living in Oshawa who phoned very upset about the discussion she just had with her real estate agent. She and her husband were selling their home – very tidy and well-kept, she assured me – and their realtor had offered a suggestion she felt would make it easier to find a buyer.
“Get rid of all your Native art,” she advised. “People won’t want to buy if they know Indians have been living here.”
The woman was flabbergasted with a mixture of shock and anger and wanted some advice on what to do about this thoughtless insult.
I suggested she look in the phone book for a regional office of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, call city hall for information about any local anti-racism organizations, and contact the closest First Nation. Her nearest cousins – the Mississaugas of Scugog -- are located half an hour north, and I hoped they would be able to offer some moral support, if not actually assign a local warrior to motor over to Oshawa to lend a practical hand.
Scugog established its reputation as a defender of rights when every adult male in the community enlisted for Canadian military service in World War I.
Sometimes just a phone call from a First Nation spokesperson can get results.
A used-record shopkeeper in Sudbury refused to honour a customer’s status card tax exemption until he heard someone on the other end of the phone identify himself as representing the Union of Ontario Indians. There was a similar positive outcome for a Native woman who got rude treatment from a waitress in a Sturgeon Falls restaurant.
But nothing beats the personal touch for getting the attention of individuals or businesses who have been less than courteous with Native clients. It’s positively amazing how fast folks will pay attention to a complaint when a VBI – Very Big Indian – shows up on their doorstep.
My colleague Bob Goulais and I happened to be in Sudbury one Monday morning when we heard that a local radio station deejay had ad-libbed some stereotypical drivel about Indians and alcohol. We thought we’d drop by the rock station studio to ask in person what the station intended to do about this lapse in broadcast judgement.
The receptionist turned a whiter shade of pale when she saw the two of us coming in the front door, me a modest-sized middle-aged man accompanied by Bob, who happens to be half my age but twice my size. She nervously arranged for us to have an instant audience with the station manager, on whose forehead beads of perspiration quickly began to form.
Within two minutes he offered us an on-air apology, a cash donation to the local friendship centre, and sponsorship of an upcoming conference about media coverage of Aboriginal issues. I often think we should have asked him for our own weekly show. But he steadfastly refused to let us speak in person with the young announcer who I imagined was cowering behind his console praying that those scary Native people would not storm the studio and relieve him of his healthy head of hair.
In cross-cultural training sessions we have warned business owners that lousy customer service leaves them vulnerable to accusations of racism if the customer on the receiving end is from a visible minority. There’s lots of room for improvement. News reports frequently cite examples of everyone from police officers to Members of Parliament for not showing respect for people of various cultural backgrounds.
The appropriate response to such treatment need not be angry or intimidating, or involve wearing masks or camouflage. But there should be a response, first from the target of such behaviour, then, if necessary, from those of us who are given the responsibility of representing the rights of others. We have various tools at our disposal – likebringing media attention to problem situations – that are not as easily accessed by individuals.
To be a warrior – an ogitchidaa – is about defending your family, your home, and your community -- taking care of others. This usually requires nothing more than speaking out, using your voice.
When people don’t listen, that’s entirely another matter.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.