Allies can be your worst enemies when practising Aboriginal law

Usually well educated and comfortably white, they rush forward with criticisms and superior insights

Bruce McIvor

Practising Aboriginal law has always meant much more for me than memo writing, court appearances and client meetings.

As with many of my colleagues, regardless of which “side” we represent, I have always believed Aboriginal law practitioners have a professional responsibility, where possible, to contribute to the public discourse on Indigenous rights in Canada.

My commitment to public education is not limited to preaching to the converted. Perhaps perversely, I relish the opportunity to speak to groups of people who do not share my point of view. I have consistently found that many of those who outright disagree with me about respecting Indigenous rights are open to persuasion.

I don't include the committed racists in this category. I’m talking about those whose opinions rest on a lack of information, context and empathy. If I listen to them honestly and without judgement, they often do the same for me. When they realize I will not ridicule them for their opinions, they become more receptive. They begin to acknowledge I might have a point — maybe they should have a rethink.

For example, several years ago I spoke to a group of people working in a resource extraction industry — where I was and the name of the industry doesn’t matter. As expected, I didn’t receive a warm reception. For an hour and a half, I fielded questions and comments I hear on a regular basis: “Why can’t we all be treated equally?,” “Indians don’t pay taxes,” “Don’t your clients want to work?”

After explaining that my clients do in fact pay taxes, that they are the hardest working people I know and why all Canadians should be proud the constitution protects collective rights, many (but not all) in the audience began to reconsider their received opinions. By the end of the session, their hostility had been replaced by friendliness and a greater understanding of the legal and historical context for recognizing Indigenous rights. I left the session exhausted and hopeful.

In contrast, allies can move me to tears. I’m not referring to the vast majority who are well intentioned and committed to doing their best to understand a complex issue and play a supportive role. I’m not even referring to the minority who indulge in “performative allyship”; they are easily recognizable and increasingly find themselves without an audience.

The people I have in mind are the handful of allies perfectly suited to be cast as judges in a gameshow entitled “Defend Your Life.” Usually well educated and comfortably white, buoyed and insulated by entitlement and privilege, they rush forward with opinions, criticisms and superior insights unburdened by doubt or humility.

I often encounter these people when my criticism touches their core understanding of what it means to be Canadian. On the second anniversary of the acquittal of the Saskatchewan farmer who killed Colten Boushie, I gave a talk to a group of allies about the systemic violence perpetrated against Indigenous people by non-Indigenous Canadians and the Canadian state. It was a difficult talk to give. Professionally, we had just witnessed the RCMP’s arrest of our Wet’suwet’en clients. Personally, it stirred memories of growing up in rural Manitoba.

At the end of my talk an ally rushed forward to challenge me. The nub of his rebuttal was: “Indians killed Indians before white men arrived.” Looking around the room I noticed one of Colten’s cousins eager to speak to me but blocked by this domineering ally. I struggled to distance myself from him and to contain my emotions. I was being corrected, put in my place by a white man confident not just in his opinions but in his right and, from his perspective, his obligation to school me.

I felt myself back in grade school, a kid without privilege, confident in my family’s support but constantly reminded of my position on the margins of respectability. At some point in high school I realized questioning had limits. A line existed between acceptable, polite criticism and the unspeakable. The national myth of “Canada the good” was sacrosanct. Cross the line and you risked being disciplined, punished, cast out.

Some allies do more than act as self-appointed arbiters of acceptable discourse; they strive to establish themselves as stronger and more determined than those they purport to support.

Two days after news emerged of the bodies of 215 Indigenous children discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, I was about to sit down for dinner with my family. Knowing that clients, friends and family members across the country were struggling with loss and grief, I was engulfed in a fog of sadness and despair.

Unthinkingly, I opened the email on my phone. Waiting for me was an email in reply to an essay I had published nine months earlier entitled “Reconciliation as a Massive Failure.” The writer was a self-described member of a well known national non-profit organization dedicated to dismantling racism and colonization. The tragic news from Kamloops had motivated him to reach out to me. He “had a problem” with my use of the word “acceptance” in the second to last paragraph of my essay. In his view I should have used “acknowledge” because the word is “made of sterner stuff.” For my edification, he helpfully included dictionary definitions.

I had never cried in front of my kids. But in that moment, slumped over the table with my head in my hands, I cried. I cried for the 215 children and their families. I cried for all the stolen, abused and murdered Indigenous children across Canada. I cried for my lack of words to explain any of this to my children. I cried for the marginalized, oppressed and abused whose voices are stolen and silenced by their allies.

This essay will be included in Bruce McIvor’s forthcoming collection entitled Standoff: Why Reconciliation Fails Indigenous People and How to Fix It published by Harbour Publishing in the fall of 2021.

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