“The Two Row Wampum opposes integration; Aboriginals are an underdeveloped stone age people; Aboriginal medicine – otherwise known as traditional quackery; Customary law is logically unviable and considered as legal wrangling; Prior to the “aboriginal industry” lawyers and land claims were not thought of; Aboriginal sentencing is ‘doing the crime but not doing the time.’”
These are a few examples of statements made on Feb. 4th 2015 by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard at a law student led conference I attended at Thompson Rivers University (TRU). The context of these statements was framed within a racist narrative and a defamatory trajectory.
One does not need to search very hard before finding academic and media sources that publicly debate Widdowson and Howard’s message as hate speech. Indigenous advocate and former lawyer Michelle Good articulated a strong response to these presenters and their pseudo-academic work in a CBC interview the following day.
Before I continue, I should emphasize that while only a fraction of law students attended Widdowson and Howard’s presentation, the majority of people present did seem bothered to varying degrees. One of our faculty members approached Widdowson and Howard afterwards in order to offer them her input on their blatantly racist content.
In a CBC interview Howard misrepresented his presentation, but it is also believable that several students were likely supportive as Howard claims.
I am in my second semester of law school. Within the first week, some of my colleagues, who are primarily comprised of students from the top 25% earning families in Canada (according to stats on Canadian law schools), stated their position on social justice issues such as Indigenous rights, trans-rights and persons with disabilities. The results were deeply disconcerting.
I have tracked the language used by my peers for the last two semesters as a therapeutic process and framework that I also used in my academic research. Here are a few samples of what they’ve been saying:
Indians contested the White Paper in 1960s and now they complain that the Indian Act is still in place. They just use it as an excuse to live off the government while my family immigrated here with nothing and had to work for what they got, not receiving any handouts.
- Two Row Wampum is a racist doctrine.
- Mohawk Indians are as racist as the Nazis.
- First Nations were not conquered eh? How about we conquer them instead of being so nice.
- Aboriginals keep complaining and they never get enough.
- Residential school claims were a cash cow and now they are paid out, they should just move on.
- I am afraid that aboriginal rights in BC will result in me losing my fee simple land.
- Courts are too lenient on matters concerning Indigenous rights.
- Aboriginal rights infringe upon the rights of Canadians.
- There is no such thing as a dominant culture.
- The Canadian government is not racist against First Nations peoples.
- The Indian Act is not evidence of systemic racism.
- Stephen Harper never had connections with white supremacists.
The list is much longer than this. After revisiting this list it is believable that some TRU law students – as Howard claimed in a CBC interview – congratulated him for his presentation. Racism is everywhere, but that does not mean we should openly accept it.
I am not merely disturbed at the fact that Widdowson and Frances were invited to spew their racist ideas. I am concerned that the student body I am a part of are complicit in further support of hate speech that should not be invited nor permitted at a conference; nor should it be normalized within a group of future law practitioners and leaders.
I am whole-heartedly concerned about the future for Indigenous peoples if these students are the products of professional legal training that fosters and encourages such hate speech.
One of my colleagues was so disturbed by Widdowson and Howard that CBC was called in to do a story on the racist presentation. Law students were quick to defend the school and student body by rejecting these racist views, yet many defended the presenters’ freedom of expression.
Unfortunately people believe free speech is a justified right to make racist and abusive statements. This happens far more than I want to admit, because it hurts people. It is a grotesque misrepresentation of what free speech in Canada actually means. This misapplication of freedom of expression and free speech is often used to exploit and justify systemic racism.
Hate speech is mapped out in Canadian law. There is substantive law in the Criminal Code and other Federal and Provincial legislation and a wide variety of common law precedents on hate speech. I do not understand how and why a group of law students feel it is necessary to inappropriately defend their colleagues and those responsible for such recklessness.
I am profoundly perturbed that a couple of the students, who represented my cohort in the CBC interview had personally invited these presenters, were deceptive to media about the background of the invitation offered to these presenters, which is another equally disturbing story.
Later, another student and I became targets of a brash social media blitz of reactive comments that deny and reject that complicity in racism ever happened and that the real issue is Widdowson and Howard’s freedom of expression. Sadly, the privileged class of law students that initiated the attack do not seem to affect a great deal of self reflection and critical thinking in context of Indigenous realities relating to law, politics and society.
I am a social worker, a published writer and academic researcher. I am in my first year of law school at TRU. I had chosen to sit and listen to both Widdowson and Howard spew out their abhorrently racist defamation of Indigenous cultures and peoples. I was there not to necessarily listen to the racist rant, but more so to gauge my colleagues’ reactions.
As a former neo-nazi who sought recovery vis-à-vis the Red Road, this position of my colleagues is a problematic normalization and complicit participation of racism justified through freedom of expression. This begins to sound like the ignorant and uneducated perspective of the Tories that led to the repeal of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Code, which was Canada’s most effective hate speech legislation.
Simply put, I have not heard so many racist comments in the past 15 years since I left the white power movement, as I have from this particular group of law students.
There are many students and faculty who vehemently oppose these views. However, there are a larger number of students who feel compelled to stand up for the free expression of racism than there are whom directly counter it. This is scary.
However, there is an even more important story here about relationships between friends. It is my understanding that treaties, including the Two Row Wampum are about relationships between friends. We must hold our own peoples accountable for the way we carry these sacred stories, histories, agreements and relationships.
The Two Row Wampum is a story about two canoes that travel on the same waters in the same direction, together, in relationship. My friend, who beads, said it would take a long time to create the Wampum Belt and the stories that live inside the treaty. She told me that a beader is a storyteller and that creativity of the oral history is an offering to the other. That is Indigenous law.
It is up to each and every one of us to remember the story of the Two Row Wampum. We must honor the story within the Wampum. We cannot control the direction of the river, but we must be accountable for the way in which we travel, and it is up to each of us to admit when we are wrong so that we can amend our behavior.
Much like how I was taught to let go of my grotesque racism and violence in order to move beyond my own limitations, which were reflections of the same challenges to Canadian law. We need to recognize Indigenous law.
I did not learn the story of the Two Row Wampum from a racist person presenting at a law school conference, nor from my non-indigenous family; I learned about the treaties from my family, friends, elders, medicine people and all my relations.
I am sad that some people learned about the Two Row Wampum in a bad way at my law school. It is my hope that people, my people, will consider honoring the story of the Two Row Wampum in the way it was meant to be. It is a legal history, a combination of colonial and Indigenous law that should be honored, and not abused.