Mayday: Will the Arts Community Heed the Call?

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By Valerie Sing Turner

Mayday: Will the Arts Community Heed the Call?

By Valerie Sing Turner

May 25, 2021, marked the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a callous white police officer.

On May 26th, local artist and activist Naomi Gracechild published an important blogpost on Medium calling out anti-Black racism at Vancouver arts organizations, the systems that allow perpetrators of harmful behaviour to continue with little consequence, and the public funding bodies who reward such behaviour because they lack any systems of accountability.

On May 27th, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation released a press release announcing the heartbreaking discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Three consecutive May days have left the arts community winded by a triple blow – a series of maydays, if you will, the internationally recognized distress signal, a bastardization of the French m’aidez, a literal call to “help me”.

Mayday. Help me.

This past year has been exhausting, not just for me, but for most of my racialized friends and colleagues. While white Canadians claim to be shocked by the latest news of dehumanization by our white supremacist colonial culture, the evidence has always been right in front of our faces had we cared enough to see or listen. In the same way that women are not believed when we dare to daylight the brutalization of the patriarchy – just ask any woman who has ever worked in the Canadian armed forces – Indigenous and racialized people are still more likely to be gaslit when we point out systemic racism, despite dealing with its real impacts on a daily basis.

During research for my play, In the Shadow of the Mountains – which centres three generations of an interracial family that is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), Chinese-Canadian, and Japanese-Canadian – I came across references to Dr. Peter Bryce, who was hired by the federal government as Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the Interior in 1904. His responsibilities included overseeing the health of Indigenous children as wards of the state, so he made it his business to visit all the residential schools in the country. In 1907 – 114 years ago – he reported that the death rate in residential schools averaged an astounding 50%, with the death rate in one school as high as 75%. Can you imagine the public outrage and demands for immediate action if a school in a white neighbourhood had a COVID-19 death rate of even 5%, let alone 50%?

And in case you’re thinking that the good Canadians of 1907 would have done something had they only known, the forerunner of the Ottawa Citizen, The Evening Citizen, splashed the news across its November 15th front page with the headline, “Schools Aid White Plague — Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians — Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health”. And for the next 15 years, Dr. Bryce issued more reports and even published a pamphlet, The Story of a National Crime, in 1922; yet all his efforts were met with governmental indifference and public inaction. So for another nine decades after his first report, residential schools carried on their mission of genocide with impunity until the last school closed its doors in 1996.

The government knew. The media knew. The public knew. For a century.

Mayday. Help me.

Bigotry/prejudice/discrimination + power = systemic racism.

Racism is not just a few ignorant bad apples. Racism is systemic by its very nature; it cannot flourish without power. So “reverse racism” for white people? Not even possible, because racialized peoples in Canada do not have the power to enforce it on a systemic level. To make parallels with Australian philosopher Kate Manne’s work on misogyny and the patriarchy, white supremacy is the social order of white dominance maintained through the subordination and servitude of racialized peoples, while systemic racism encompasses the many structures, forms, and methods employed to keep people of colour in their place. Anti-Asian hate crimes have skyrocketed by 700% in Vancouver during the pandemic because the perpetrators indulge in a power-trip knowing that such acts have historically had the backing of the state with few or zero consequences – or worse, knowing that victims will keep silent, made helpless in the cruel understanding that the system is not built for us, and may even inflict further harm for daring to speak out. After all, our justice systems were founded to uphold white supremacy, enforced by predominantly white police departments who deny that systemic racism exists.

So while individual acts of racism must be condemned – and let’s be clear, each and every one is an act of cowardice because they are always rooted in fear – it is the systems of power that enable the ongoing oppression of Indigenous and racialized people that must be dismantled if we are ever going to achieve lasting and meaningful change. As Naomi Gracechild rightfully notes in her May 26th blog post, “Only white people can dismantle white supremacy.”

It’s too late to respond to the desperate cries for help from those 215 children and the thousands of other Indigenous children who suffered similar fates. But it’s not too late to take decisive and immediate action in response to the desperate maydays from those suffering today. As I was preparing to submit this piece for publication, the breaking news was that a man in London, Ontario, had been charged with four counts of murder and one of attempted murder after mowing down a Muslim family before speeding away. A nine-year-old boy is in hospital with serious injuries. Terrorism charges are possible.

Mayday.

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