George Floyd’s death at the hands of members of the Minneapolis Police Department was recorded for all to witness and the incident ignited global outrage at the targeted misuse of force. As protests have rolled out in the weeks that have followed, Black leaders remind us that this incident is far from isolated. Communities most impacted by police misconduct understand that Canadian society is shaped by a discriminatory, racist justice system where Black and Indigenous people are treated differently from those who are neither Black nor Indigenous. The message that Black Lives Matter makes a necessary distinction that the Black experience is not the same as other peoples’, that a disproportionate amount of prejudice and hate is focused and targeted and therefore, important to acknowledge as unique.
North of the U.S. border, Black and Indigenous people watch and take note with a deep understanding of continued systemic and overt racism in the U.S. because the same discriminatory attitudes can also be found in Canada. But in many ways, the experiences of Indigenous people are different. Our roots run deep in these lands that are now occupied through broken treaties and violence. Our experience of colonization is one of cultural genocide, the outlawing of our cultures and attempts at forced assimilation. This grotesque abuse represents an ongoing legacy that impacts me and my children to this day.
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On these lands, we are targeted for extinction through racist government policies, no matter which party forms government. As a result, there is a lopsided application of the justice system that sees First Nations, Métis and Inuit people face police brutality at disproportionate rates to other non-Native people. Racist attitudes can be found on a daily basis in any social setting and are sometimes expressed without shame. People filmed treating others with prejudice seem proud of their behaviour and don’t try to conceal it. These disturbing ideas are buried deep in the hearts of people who are unwilling to examine history from an Indigenous lens. Canadians stay purposefully ignorant of how we got to where we are today. In the absence of social and economic justice, poverty, racism, segregation, and the poor social determinants of health will continue to flourish.
I don’t necessarily understand the unique set of circumstances that Black people face on Turtle Island, but that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with the truths that protesters are showing us. I see the courage and dignity of everyday people marching for justice and calling for freedom. I see marginalized people demanding an end to discrimination. It’s important to allow civil rights leaders a chance to be heard so the rest of us can reflect on their message and make social change that reflects inclusivity and appreciation of each community’s uniqueness. When I hear about Black struggles, I think of my own life trying to make my way in a country that can be intolerant and discriminatory. I can relate to the pain and anger experienced by Black folks who live with systemic as well as overt examples of racism on a daily basis.
I hear an unprecedented chorus of voices, united in their stand. Black Lives Matter is a wake-up call for Canadians to examine themselves and supporters of movements such as Idle No More can most certainly relate to ordinary people fighting for social justice, because, as the history of civil rights shows, it is through protest that lives can change for the better.
Mike Alexander is a Kamloops, B.C.-based artist who works primarily with acrylic paints. He has had four solo exhibitions and recently completed his first graphic novel. He is Anishinaabe and originally from Swan Lake First Nation.
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