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Public teach-in on racism held in Thunder Bay

Friday May 2, 2014
Photo submitted by Willow Blasizzo

Damien Lee, one of the organizers of a recent public teach-in on racism, discusses how check-backs are used to shut down conversation during discussions about racism.

A group of concerned citizens and students in Thunder Bay held a public teach-in at the Landmark Inn on April 17 to address the issue of racism in the city in a way that honoured Anishinabe knowledge tradition.

“We wanted to address racism in a way that doesn’t fall into the classic old ways of trying to address it, which we have always thought doesn’t get to the root of the problem,” Damien Lee said.

Lee, Willow Blasizzo, Jana-Rae Yerxa, Adam Barker, and Deanna Therriault created the teach-in to discuss colonialism, how to recognize when racism is occurring, and how racism reproduces itself in supposed anti-racism dialogue. Lee and the other creators have not been happy with the way racism is being discussed in Thunder Bay in the mainstream.

“I’m not talking about acts of racism; I’m talking about the initiatives that are supposedly set up to address racism. We weren’t really happy with it,” said Lee, who has authored popular blog posts to address the issue of racism in the city and on social-media.

The City of Thunder Bay has an Anti-Racism Advisory Committee, as well as a Respect campaign in order to teach youth how to respect each other. Lakehead University also hosted an event entitled Building Bridges in January to discuss the topic of racism, which surfaced again online after the bridge leading into to Fort William First Nation was burned in Oct. 2013.

Blasizzo, who met Lee after reading one of his blog posts, said that she became involved in forming the group after witnessing the ongoing racism that was taking place on social-media even after anti-racism initiatives took place in the city.

“It was something that a few of us were monitoring,” Blasizzo said. “Damien reached out to a few people he knew who were concerned about it. Him, Jana-Rae and me decided to meet. We wanted to do something, to put something on that would start to address the racism and just start dialogue on how that can be addressed in Thunder Bay.”

Jana-Rae Yerxa said that the event was about expanding the way the discussions are framed in Thunder Bay when it comes to addressing the issue of racism.

“Basically, how it came about was we were trying to create a space for different dialogue to occur,” Yerxa said. “When you look at the different strategies that have been taking place in the city, those discussions have been limited in terms of how we are going to talk about racism. I.E, let’s educate people about Aboriginal history and residential schools. What happens is that it never gets to the core in terms of talking about settler colonialism, and how we need to deconstruct that and unpack how we’ve been impacted by colonialism processes because racism is a manifestation of all of that.”

Lee feels that the teach-in was a longtime coming, and that it was a place to address racism in a slightly different way to either add to the existing discussion, or point out ways the existing discussion could change.

“That’s kind of the long-term context,” Lee said. “Since October, since the bridge burned down, racist acts have been much more apparent. Since the bridge burned down, it’s like people are feeling a lot safer to be racist right now. That was kind of an instigator we wanted to do something about that right now.”

The group made it clear on the Facebook event that the teach-in at the Landmark Inn was a non-violent and non-confrontational event.

Lee was pleased with the turn out of the teach-in, including the number of people in attendance and the issues that were discussed.

“There were about 32 people who showed up,” Lee said. “The discussion was awesome because it was clear people were sick of the old, tired ways and initiatives in town that aren’t really working.”

Lee was glad that participants were able to share their stories and speak on their experiences with racism in a safe place.

“The main point was to tease out about five to 10 main narratives that pop up in the Thunder Bay scene every time we try to talk about racism,” Lee said. “Those narratives actually work to shut down the conversation so you never get around to discussing racism. We called those check-backs, those messages people will bring up to try to shut down discussion.”

Some check-back messages included things like “Indians need to just get over it,” “we’re all the same,” “I’m not racist but,” “everyone should be equal,” “my best friend is Native,” and
“I was born here, I’m not a settler.”

Lee said that people felt safe enough to ask questions, like “what do you mean by white supremacy?”

“I don’t think that is ever brought up,” Lee said of other initiatives taken to address racism. “The idea of a settler isn’t even on the table, all that’s on the table is respect, and learn more about Natives. That doesn’t work. Settler society and colonialism is a cannibal. It wants to eat everything around it that is Indigenous knowledge and ways of being.”

Lee said that being able to discuss settlers and colonialism in a safe place was what made the event great because those subjects are what racism in Thunder Bay is tied to.

Yerxa said that settler colonialism is “something we live with every day.”

“What I find happens is for a lot of us, and myself included, for the longest time we’ve lacked the language to be able to describe our experiences, so we go through language and it’s not to say that this is academic language. This is fact, settler colonialism is a fact.”

Blasizzo said that discussing who is a settler and who is an Indigenous person is something that has been avoided for a long time.

“These are things that really make up our society, they make up our country. This is what Canada was built on,” Blasizzo said.

Lee said that after the teach-in, the group was approached by attendees who suggested they hold more teach-ins in their community or at their organization.

“There is definitely an interest,” Lee said. “If it (the teach-in) was a failure, and no one showed up, we probably wouldn’t consider doing it again. But since it was so well-attended, and people are asking for it, then there is a need for this kind of anti-racism organization in Thunder Bay and in northern Ontario.”

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