Yesterday, I read a very disappointing article that summarized an interview with BC MLA Mike Morris about the NDP Government’s commitment to a $50 Million dollar investment in preserving Indigenous languages in British Columbia.
As a Metis person, I could not be happier with this commitment. The vast majority of Indigenous languages are endangered. When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I had the privilege of studying the Musqueam language, which sadly lost its last fluent speaker a few years before I took the course. These languages are only preserved as a result of the hard work of scholars and communities, and having provincial funding to make that happen is so refreshing and inspiring.
Mr. Morris, however, doesn’t see the value in preserving this. When speaking about the commitment, Mr. Morris said this:
They’re spending 50 million dollars on indigenous language preservation, which I think is important, but at the same time the 50 million dollars would have paid for a couple of hundred extra police officers in rural BC and in our First Nations communities to help address the sexual violence and domestic abuse we have in those communities”
Here we have people suffering every day from alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and preserving languages is a higher priority than putting that money into extra policing resources? From a risk management perspective, I think that this really needs to be re-examined.”
These comments are not just unfortunate, but offensive. Particularly given that he is the MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie, an area of British Columbia with a significant First Nations population.
These comments demonstrate that Mike Morris is in desperate need of a history lesson. And while I highly doubt he reads this blog, and I highly doubt he’s going to seek out this information, I’m going to give it to him anyway.
The ongoing eradication of Indigenous languages is no accident. Rather, it is part of a colonial history dating back to shortly after contact. In the same way that scalping was stolen from some Indigenous communities and then used to attempt to eradicate their populations, by paying for the scalps of Native people so too was the removal of language rights.
Remember that most Indigenous people in North America passed their history and customs by way of an oral tradition. And our courts have recognized the importance of oral history in First Nations litigation. But that oral history becomes compromised, lost, and watered down when the elders who possess it in the communities cannot share it with the younger generations. And the colonizers recognized this. In Residential Schools, children were beaten or otherwise severely punished for speaking their languages. They were made to speak English or French (depending on the school) and to forget the language they had otherwise learned to speak.
The removal of children from their families during the Sixties Scoop also assisted with this eradication. Children were forcibly removed from their First Nations families and placed with non-Native families, to learn white customs and white ways. Goodbye oral history. Goodbye language. Goodbye traditions.
And so when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report, it termed the eradication of Indigenous languages as a major part of the culture genocide that was committed and continues to be committed against Canada’s native population. One of the top recommendations in the report was for the Government to commit to preserving, protecting and revitalizing Indigenous languages.
So yeah, Mike Morris, spending this $50 Million is important for reconciliation. Maybe you haven’t heard that word. You should look it up.
Oh, but that’s not all.
The suggestion that the money is better spent on policing resources is deeply rooted in two misconceptions. The first is that First Nations people need some big white (red-coated, horse-riding) saviour to protect them from themselves. This is classic non-Native saviour syndrome, and it’s a form of institutionalized racism that does a heck of a lot more harm than good. Am I calling Mike Morris racist? No. Am I saying he is perpetuating racist stereotypes and attitudes? You bet.
Look -- his comments reveal this. He states that people are “suffering every day” and there needs to be a “risk-management perspective” brought to First Nations communities. That’s got “I’ll save you!” written all over it.
But more problematic than that is the fact that he believes police are the solution to those problems. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that while there are issues with alcoholism, sexual abuse, and domestic violence in First Nations communities, those problems exist by and large because of colonization. So rather than put a band-aid on a bullet hole and police the problem that exists, doesn’t it make more sense to try to get to the root of the problem by doing what we can now to stop the effects of colonization, including by preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages.
You know, that reconciliation thing.
Policing First Nations communities will not stop these problems. They will make them worse. After all, Indigenous people are overrepresented in the justice system and in jails. So putting more police in First Nations communities to catch more “bad Indians” only exacerbates the problem. It also doesn’t help to bring back languages or culture that slips a little further away each day we don’t do something about it.
And going back to that history lesson, the policing of First Nations communities has its very roots in colonization. The RCMP were the child of the Northwest Mounted Police, whose job it was to police the Indigenous communities and to “solve the Indian problem” in the early days of white settlement in Canada. Their very role was to enforce Canada’s colonial policies and ensure that Indigenous people did not practice their culture, gather in large groups, keep their children or hire lawyers (https://thethunderbird.ca/2013/03/25/aboriginal-lawyers-stride-in-footsteps-of-legal-pioneer/) Yes, you read that right. Until 1951 it was illegal for First Nations people to hire lawyers.
Given that the national police force was actually born out of a colonial cultural destruction machine, putting $50 Million into policing Indigenous people instead of revitalizing their language and allowing them to preserve their oral traditions in that way might have some negative consequences.
Mike Morris should read a history book or two the next time he wants to propose a bogus solution to problems affecting Indigenous people, and the next time he wants to criticize bona fide and legitimate attempts at reconciliation. Because with comments like his, not only is he deeply offensive and sorely uneducated about important issues, but he appears as though he does not support reconciliation. And being the MLA for an area that is full of Indigenous people, that doesn’t bode well for him on the next election day.
I won’t forget he made these remarks. And neither will a large number of First Nations people.
Vancouver Criminal Lawyer with a focus on impaired driving, cannabis legalization and related issues, and immediate roadside prohibition defence.