BY TRACY CALOGHEROS
The Exploration Place
I was angry. Really angry.
“How” my internal voice screamed, “could Elections Canada possibly think that it was acceptable, let alone inclusive, to choose the Prince George Diocese as the headquarters and as a polling station, for thousands of people in the riding of Cariboo-Prince George, in this federal election?”
At this moment in time, in a riding with a significant Indigenous population, in an election that is supposed to be about bringing Canadians together and providing real opportunities for participation and growth as we try to climb out of this pandemic together, it felt like a slap in the face to every Indigenous person on the land.
As I am wont to do, I spoke up. Expressing my outrage and disgust was met with a variety of responses. As I watched the dumbfounded realization of what I was saying coming across people’s faces, good people, people I have known for decades, I realized that this is actually a spectacular teaching moment and that I was blowing it. For all that I couldn’t believe it, this had truly, honestly, never occurred to them. So bear with me while I try to do a better job, a more useful and constructive job, on the subject.
This is a spectacular example of systemic racism in action and it really is invisible to the dominant society, even when they are on the lookout for it.
We are in this situation not because of any intent on the part of Elections Canada Officials. Not because any one party was seeking to disenfranchise the Indigenous population. Not even because the Diocese was seeking to express any sort of control or influence (though the separation of church and state is a topic for another time and is one upon which I most definitely have an opinion).
It happened because there are virtually no Indigenous advisors or staff members informing this system and the chilling effect of being asked to walk through the doors of the organization that is the representative of so much harm to Indigenous people was simply not on the radar screen. Elections Canada was dealing with a pandemic and a snap election call. They needed space for people to be able to vote and the schools that normally serve as polling stations were closed due to COVID-19. The Diocese had lots of space and was available.
But it is still systemic racism. And it still causes profound, lasting harm.
Put yourself in the shoes of a young Lheidli T’enneh woman, a first-time voter who was looking for her first contact with Elections Canada. She was excited to vote. She had been researching candidates, following the election campaigns, and wanted to speak to someone in person to make sure she was registered and ready for voting day. And then she is told she will have to come to the Diocese in order to participate.
What should have been an exciting rite of passage, an opportunity to engage in civil society and begin to find her own voice, became an exercise in personal compromise. Why should she trust that her vote and her voice meant anything in that space? How could she believe that her views and her issues mattered to a government who is sending her to the Diocese? We are all lucky that she didn’t just write off non-Indigenous Canada and turn her back on a system that didn’t see her, or recognize her. My deepest fear is that many, many others will simply shrug and walk away, convinced yet again that all the talk of reconciliation is just that, talk, and that it obviously means nothing.
This is the danger and the damage of systemic racism. It’s a difficult idea to understand if you are not one of the people being shut out. I thought I was pretty well-versed on the challenges around
reconciliation and the need to dismantle structures that originated in an era of institutionalized racism and yet here I am, coming to the realization that my own anger was causing harm to the effort. The people I expressed my anger to were hurt. People who are hurt get defensive and resentful and the initial harm becomes polarizing instead of being seen as the genuine mistake that it was, with a path forward that recognizes and corrects the error.
For that I unreservedly apologize. I will do better. I’m learning too.
This is important because if we are ever to come together in the partnership that was envisioned by Indigenous leaders at the times of initial contact, we must hear each other and consider each other.
We need the wisdom of Indigenous experience at our decision-making tables. That can’t happen if even our elections feel unwelcoming, uncaring, and hypocritical. Reconciliation is ultimately about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, even (maybe especially) when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so. It means pausing to consider your choices and your assumptions in order to determine if you are unknowingly causing harm. And it’s about recognizing when you make a mistake, because we all do, and then working to rectify it while mitigating the harm it has done. It is about friendship and trust and honesty and humility. When Indigenous people say “all my relations” they aren’t talking only about their families, they are talking about the Earth, the animals, the intangibles, the spirits, the elements and the non-indigenous people who are here as well.
So, let’s circle back to the young Indigenous woman I started with. Her experience has now been that she identified a problem that mattered to her. Her concerns were valid, and were validated, and she was assisted by Elections Canada to be able to participate in the election without having to go to the Diocese. She has been both seen and heard and will, perhaps, be more inclined to speak up in the future if she has a similar experience. In her case, I think this mistake may have empowered her a little and given her a little more trust in a system that has a long way to go.
But now, let’s think about the hundreds, thousands perhaps, of Indigenous people who will not speak up. Who will simply not vote and who will take this as such an affront, such an obvious confirmation of evil intent, that it will reinforce their distrust and further deepen the divide.
It’s important to also consider the non-Indigenous people who will see this as wrong and as an embarrassment, as confirmation that our government is out of touch with contemporary society and Canadian’s values, further disenfranchising them. Keep in mind, the mistake we are talking about is one that was passed through multiple hands and minds before we have gotten to today. Many people saw contracts, ordered signage, sent mail and packages to the Diocese and yet, no one stopped, or even recognized, the mistake; a mistake that has happened in concert with non-Indigenous Canada’s awakening to the genocide, the horrors, the evil, visited on thousands of children by the church and Canadian government in residential schools. In Prince George the representative for all of that is the Diocese with Elections Canada standing in for the government right there beside them.
We need more understanding and participation in our electoral process not less. We need more ways for Indigenous people to engage with non-Indigenous Canada on their own terms with dignity and respect. My angry reaction didn’t help that cause this week but I’m trying to rectify that wrong now.
There is no question that Elections Canada should never have rented the Diocese for anything. But I also believe it was a genuine mistake with no ill intent. Elections Canada needs to apologize, and if possible, ensure that everyone knows that there is an alternative available for this election. They need to provide a promise and a plan to ensure that this sort of mistake can never happen again. They need to acknowledge the chilling effect that asking Indigenous people, to attend a church or a Diocese, in order to vote in a national (or any) election, has on voter participation.
For those Indigenous voters who are not comfortable with attending at the Diocese to vote, you can ask for an exception to be made that will allow you to vote at a different polling station. That exception is what this lovely young Lheidli woman asked for yesterday and the Elections Canada poll captain was wonderful and accommodating and went out of his way to reassure her and to make her feel welcome here at the Exploration Place polling station.
We are all in this together. We all need to recognize our blind spots, acknowledge our mistakes and be generous with those made by others. We need to work together, to have every voice at the table if we expect to tackle the multiple, existential threats to humanity we are all faced with today.
And finally, the most important thing this week is that everyone votes. It really does matter and it really can change the world.