“Loaded down with bills, squaws become popular as sweethearts.”
Let that sink in for a moment. How does that make you feel?
Uncomfortable? Ashamed? Angry? Imagine seeing your grandmother or your daughter called a name like that in Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper.
Last January, I was looking for historical articles that I could use to attract readers to my Facebook page, Nipissing First Nation Voices. I purchased a three-month pass to search the online archives of the Toronto Star. I chose the paper because of its reputation for stories that brought the plight of Indigenous people to its front pages.
The results, at first, were excellent.
There were stories of two amazing swimmers from my community: Liza Commanda and Betty Goulais. Commanda competed in the Canadian National Exhibition’s 10-mile race in 1932. Goulais swam across Lake Nipissing in 1956.
I also discovered two more community heroes. In the 1930s, two men from the community took the provincial Game & Fish Act and our treaty rights all the way to the Ontario Supreme Court. One of them turned out to be my grandfather.
But I also found much darker material.
When I entered the search word “Indian,” the archive responded with an astounding 300,000 hits.
The first article I found was from 1909 — a story about the Dokis First Nation getting a long-awaited logging rights settlement payment. Right there in the sub-head was that word — “squaw.”
I begin a methodical search, year by year. I was overwhelmed by what I found. Tens of stories quickly grew to hundreds of stories and then to thousands of stories containing racist, condescending, patronizing and outright unbelievable language — words like warpath, red-man, red-skin, scalping and Eskimo — all in reference to Indigenous people.
I have experienced and witnessed racism and injustice toward Indigenous people in my daily life and in my career in local, provincial and federal governments. But sifting through the archive’s stories and the language used was an eye-opening experience.
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