Canada’s now defunct residential school system will go down in history as one of our grossest violations of human rights and dignity. On July 11, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology to our Indigenous citizens saying:
“The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language,”
With the apology and the payment of reparations, many Canadians consider racism against our First Nations citizens a closed chapter in our history books, thus denying that our Indigenous citizens continue to face racism on a daily basis. Their culture is often constructed under the banner of the “noble savage” or the “long suffering sqaw.”
It is quite common to hear Natives spoken of as though they exist with systemic privileges that are not possible within a racist white supremacist state. Not paying taxes or having the ability to cross the border at will does not compensate for the near destruction of a people, rape, theft of land, murder and poverty. Despite these so-called privileges, very few would be willing to give up the advantages that come with whiteness to trade places with the average Indigenous person in North America.
In the supposed act of civilizing Indigenous Peoples, one of the first crimes committed against them was the cutting of their hair. Though not all tribes had long flowing hair, reflecting European beauty standards was/is often understood as accepting assimilation as the proper goal of all people of color. Some First Nation tribes wore Mohicans or what is known as Mohawks, forelocks, scalplocks, squash blossoms, butterfly whorls, and chongos. Hair played/plays a significant role in their culture and is often not cut unless they are in mourning. To cut the hair of an Indigenous person without permission is a violation of their cultural norms and is seen by many as a humiliation.
A little boy in Thunder Bay, Ontario, was growing his hair so that he could participate in traditional First Nations dancing, when a teacher’s assistant at McKellar Park Central Public School, decided to cut his hair. According to the CBC, she cut ten centimetres off, grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him to look at himself in the mirror, stating, “Look at you now.” Her commentary reveals that many still hold Eurocentric beauty ideals as the preferred norm, even as it erases evidence of culture and individuality.
This incident was investigated and the Crown came to the determination that, “there were no grounds for criminal charges, and it wasn’t in the public interest.” The key words in the aforementioned Crown statement are “public interest.” Despite promoting diversity through Canada’s national policy of multiculturalism, a Canadian identity is still understood as white and therefore the public that the Crown seeks to pacify by not pursuing this does not include our Indigenous citizenry.
How many will be triggered to remember the various incidents of criminal abuse that happened in residential schools by the shearing of this child’s hair?
Public apologies and reparations are meaningless unless a society commits to change. By not pursing this case, the government once again affirmed the whiteness of Canada and the right of said people to violate our First Nation citizens at will. It is in the public interest to affirm the rights and freedoms of all people, otherwise our much valued Charter of Rights and Freedoms is meaningless.