An Open Letter to the Edmonton Journal

Background: I live on Treaty 6 Territory in Edmonton, AB. Following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, many non-Aboriginal Canadians are in the process of rethinking their role in relationships with Canada’s many Aboriginal peoples.

Premiere Notley requested that her 11 cabinet ministers consult with Aboriginal peoples to determine how to implement the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This response is to the story published in the Edmonton Journal.

Dear Edmonton Journal/Jodie Sinnema,

I was excited when I read your story about Premier Notley’s request that her cabinet ministers find ways to implement the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Following our government’s historic apology to Aboriginal Peoples earlier this month, this request by the Premier is a logical next step.

However, your headline (Premier wants every cabinet minister to come up with plans to protect and nurture aboriginal community) is not in keeping with the spirit of reconciliation and demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the fundamental issues faced by Aboriginal peoples.

I don’t believe it was your intention to be insulting, but your headline is problematic and is an example of how racism is so deeply embedded in Canada that we don’t recognize it. I am not accusing you of intentional racism, but of continuing the systemic racism that modern Canadian society is based on. This letter is not meant as an assault on your newspaper, but as a way for all of us to learn to recognize that much of the language we use in unintentionally racist.

As the leading newspaper in Edmonton, it is your responsibility to understand the nuances of the stories you cover. Edmonton has the second largest population of urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada and you need to do a better job of representing them. There are several problems with the article. They will seem small, but it these subtle nuances that are important.

  1. The phrase Aboriginal community (singlular) implies that there is a homogenous community of Aboriginal peoples. This is like saying Europeans are one community. Clearly that is not true. There are 3 distinct language groups in Alberta, and many subsets within those classifications. In addition, Alberta has a significant Metis population.
  2. “Protect and nurture.” I am horrified by those words. Think carefully about the implications of choosing those particular words in your heading. Why do you assume that Aboriginal peoples need the protection and nurturing of non-Aboriginal peoples? This idea is based on colonial attitudes embedded in the original Indian Act. When you continue to use language that denies peoples’ abilities to govern themselves, you perpetuate long-standing racist attitudes that this country must put an end to.
  3. You do not capitalize words such as Aboriginal and Indigenous. This may be standard for your newspaper, but please reconsider your policy and rewrite your style guide to better reflect acceptable usage. An excellent resource is the SABAR glossary (the link downloads a PDF).

I hope you take these comments in the spirit of collaboration that I intend them to be. I am also learning about how easy it is to fall into forms of institutional racism because it is hidden from sight. It is only when we become aware of such issues that we can begin to rectify them. We will not fully succeed overnight, but it is critical that we begin to make these changes now — not at some point in the future.

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