(Guest Blog) Dickens! We Are Ferguson: Reimagining Racism in Canada

January 29, 2015
Brandi Friesen Thorpe |

Today's guest blogger is Deanna Zantingh, a masters of Theology student who currently resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Let her powerful insights and sharp intel be the sparks for a new kind of conversation. 

I have this distinct memory of sitting in a classroom at the age of eight as I learned what the concept of racism was for the first time. “Sometimes,” my teacher said, “people hate other people because of the colour of their skin.” I was in disbelief as I sat among my all white classroom. “How stupid,” I thought, “I’m never going to do anything like that.”  

Yesterday, Maclean’s magazine (American readers, think: the Time Magazine of Canada)published an article entitled “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst.” It’s the kind of article that sends a buzz through the city, and sadly, the sort of article whose comment section works to affirm its thesis by those trying to disprove it. The article addresses (finally!) the major racial divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the city of Winnipeg. And while the major controversy seems to buzz around questioning the author’s well-researched foray into the racial divide, It’s the sort of article where I can literally feel my body begin to boil on the inside as I read.

I am not angry because it is not true – – I am angry and reduced to tears because I know it is too true, and have experienced it in small glimpses spending time with Indigenous youth. What the article’s author offers me most profoundly is not, as it was for many yesterday, an invitation to see Winnipeg’s structured injustice and racism, but rather her hopeful emphasis that a turning point has occurred. That as the old adage goes, the first step to overcoming the divide, is by no longer living in denial that there is one. At a time when it seems a popular western trend to adopt a new name, I don’t think Charlie suits me. I’m increasingly convinced however that I am Ferguson – – that we all are.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that if Charles Dickens was still alive, his next classic work might be named Ferguson too – – and maybe it would be set in Missouri – – but it could just as easily be set anywhere in North America, and Winnipeg for sure. He wouldn’t even have to change the plot line of A Christmas Carole, and it would still be a classic work for its ability to tells us something that our modern minds have been trained to forget.

Just as Mr. Scrooge was visited by three ghosts in an attempt to change the selfish direction of his life, the events of Ferguson and the acts of racism I have witnessed in the lives of friends, and in the structures of Canadian society, remind me that here in North America, we are a continent that has our own ghosts – – and that perhaps like Mr. Scrooge, these ghosts are trying to tell us something we should listen to – – something that has a strong bearing on the outcome of the future.

Mary Carruthers, a scholar of medieval literature, suggests that while we modernly think of knowledge as that which fills our minds, previous generations thought of it as that which structures our minds, it was about how one thought, not about what one thought. She sums it up likes this: “we do not have ideas – – we make them.” In other words, we do not have racial problems – in Ferguson, Winnipeg, or anywhere else – – we make racial problems.

We do not have Indian reserves or black poverty, we have made these things. We don’t simply have power structures of oppression, or an “Indian problem.” We don’t have economic policies of exclusion, cycles of trauma, addiction, and abuse, or breakdown in family and communal relationship. We don’t have broken relationships between nations, disregard for treaties, or an oppressive justice system. We do not simply HAVE these things, we have MADE these things.

Bit by bit, over time, by the process of our own limited imaginations. The present is not disconnected from our past, and we experience the present differently because we are shaped by different memories of the past. We are a continent that is caught amidst these messy narratives; the product of a history that no one wants to talk about because our communities were built on the oppression of blacks slaves and Indigenous tribes. In attempts to ignore these ideas we have made, we try to make new ideas to cover them up. In Canada we tells myths about being peacekeepers; or invest millions to conjure up military celebrations that forge the bonds of Canadian identity.

Ferguson, is really just a microcosm of our continent. Winnipeg, an (intensified) microcosm of Canada’s national problem – – which as it turns out, isn’t an Indian problem at all, but rather that we are a nation of people capable of “making” an Indian problem. Yet, Mr. Scrooge’s ghosts are little more than his own memory, enhanced by the perspective of others. Visited by the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge learns a lesson in listening to the memory of the past amidst the present, in a way that enables him to think differently and to live into a new future.

We too, need to hear the other side of the memory of our past, the stories of black communities and Indigenous communities enable us to see more fully. In this way, we can stop denying the past, and instead allow it to shape within our communities a new future. There are profoundly deep-rooted events of our past crying out loudly in our present in an attempt to reshape the future. That is what Ferguson is, that is what the Idle No More Movement is too. The question remains whether we will listen, but not whether closing our eyes will simply make such events cease. What we need most is to stop running from the events that will continue to pop up from the colonized soils of this continent.

For Dickens sake… We are a continent of a million Fergusons and denying our ghosts will do no good – – we can only welcome them, and listen as we become so haunted by their stories that we’ve no choice but to choose to live into a new future. Hear the voices of our past – not as threats, but supports – as they cry out loudly in the present for a different future. And know you are beginning the hard work of cultivating a mind capable of reimagining the racist structures we have made, and imagining instead a different future together.

For future insights by Deanna, see her work on the following blog collective; http://theracinghouse.com/about/ 


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