“I shouldn’t have to feel like an immigrant in my own country.”
I said that during a dinner with some friends a few weeks ago. Shortly after that I became the target of a hate crime.
We were discussing how we can reach out to the Aboriginal population of my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton has a Aboriginal population of roughly 17,000, bolstered by the Six Nations Reserve, which is about 20 minutes away. Things have been tense in the Hamilton area for Aboriginals ever since they occupied a housing development in nearby Caledonia, claiming it was on land given to them in a treaty signed in 1784. After the occupation and its fallout, I’ve noticed a definite increase in anti-Aboriginal sentiment in Hamilton. Those sentiments flared up again when Idle No More was at it’s height last year.
The dinnertime discussion touched on that Aboriginals in Hamilton face an uphill battle in truly showing what they have to offer. Aboriginal education rates are far below the levels of their non-Aboriginal counterparts in both secondary and post-secondary graduation levels, and Aboriginals are disproportionally over-represented in Canada’s criminal justice system compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
The dinner discussion led to brainstorming ways that we can help Aboriginals, especially young men, rise above the social disparity facing them. We talked about the need for respect, tolerance and forgiveness. We talked about how education was the single biggest factor in determining the potential one’s life has. Unfortunately, all that anger towards Aboriginals came right back to the forefront as we were leaving the restaurant.
A man followed us out and singled me out, convinced that I was one of the Aboriginals who occupied and damaged his home during the Caledonia blockade. I told him that he was mistaken and that I purposely avoided Caledonia because I didn’t agree with what was going on there and didn’t want to be associated with it. My denials only served to further enrage him and he took out that rage by punching me several times, including one hit that broke my nose.
After being hit several times, two police officers on a routine patrol of the area stepped in and arrested him. When I was done giving my statement to the officers, one of them said to me “it’s not that often that we have an Aboriginal file charges. Most of them they seem to want to avoid having anything to do with us”.
In the weeks since that incident, I’ve reflected on what it means to me to be Aboriginal, especially in light of such overt racism. It’s one thing to hear someone talk about an something like racism or a hate crime. It’s a completely different thing to go through that yourself. I’ve read about hate crimes, the victim’s statements, the newspaper commentaries about how our society should be better than this. It’s suddenly all taken on new meaning for me.
As I replay in my head what happened to me, how the incident unfolded, one thing becomes crystal clear: a feeling of being helpless. It’s not that I couldn’t have fought back. I know how to fight. I know how to throw a punch, block an opponent’s punch, look for an opening in their defenses to exploit. No, rather that feeling of helplessness came from the realization that in this type of situation, I couldn’t fight back without quickly being viewed by some witnesses as the troublemaker.
The hardest thing to do when someone is taunting me, trying to get me into a fight, is to stay calm and not go for it. I’ll be honest with you, I have a temper. It can be very difficult to turn the other cheek knowing full well that when I do, the person trying to goad me into a fight will just redouble their attack because they see I’m not fighting back. With the assault, if I fought back just as hard as my attacker fought me, it would be very easy for him to justify to the crowds that every negative thing he believed about Aboriginals was absolutely true.
I wanted to fight back. I wanted to hit him as hard as he was hitting me, but what good would that have accomplished? Most likely I would have been charged with assault, same as he was, and any victory, moral or otherwise, that I could have achieved as an Aboriginal would have been gone. I couldn’t fight back during the assault. It’s almost humiliating on a personal level to stand there and take my attacker’s punches when I know how to fight back. Yet, I took them, knowing full-well that I didn’t want to give him (or any onlooker) any justification for his hateful beliefs. The same goes for times when I’ve been out and people have made racially charged comments towards me. Comments like “I’ve never seen a sober Indian before”, or “What are you doing off your reserve?”, or “Waiting for another government handout?” do get under my skin, even if I seem to not have let them register with me.
The racial comments do get to me. I can’t lie to myself and say they don’t. There have been nights, after someone has said something or done something particularly vicious, that all I can do to get out that anger is punch a couch pillow until my arms feel like lead. There have been nights when I’ve screamed into a pillow until my lungs hurt because that is the only way to get this built-up anger out of me in a way that doesn’t cause more problems. I could have made a snide remark back to the people making loaded comments towards me. I could have pushed back when someone purposely pushes me aside just because of my racial heritage, but what good would that do? Nothing worth doing.
I’m not going to let being assaulted get me down. I have too many other things to work and focus on than being defined by someone else’s anger. As I’ve said before, if we truly desire justice, change, and healing, it can only come when we end our desire to see the other person hurt. I honestly do forgive my attacker for his outburst of anger towards me. He was wronged and mistook me for the person who wronged him. I would imagine hearing someone you believe blockaded, occupied and damaged your home talking about fairness, justice and respect towards others would seem like an extremely hypocritical act.
I don’t harbor any ill-will towards my attacker. I’d rather forgive and move on and hope that he finds a better way to deal with emotions and sentiments he obviously hasn’t dealt with. There’s nothing to be gained by holding on to anger or letting that anger turn into prejudice.
In the weeks since the attack, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the evening’s events. I think about the conversations I had over dinner about wanting to find a better way to help Aboriginals live up to their potential. Unfortunately, I can see all too clearly that the road to achieving a better world for Canadian Aboriginals is one that is going to be littered with more incidents like what happened to me, and done by both sides.
I do dream of a day when I no longer feel the need to say “I shouldn’t have to feel like an immigrant in my own country”. I can’t accomplish that dream on my own and I am well aware that for all the positive steps taken towards eliminating prejudice and intolerance, there will always be those who, when confronted with the choice of self-education or racism, will choose racism because it’s the easy road.
I don’t know if my attacker is racist or just someone who reached their breaking point after having to go through a situation where there were many mistakes made by all sides involved. I’d prefer to believe that he just reached a breaking point and made a bad decision. I’d like to believe that in the weeks since that night he too has spent time contemplating a better way. I could be completely wrong but I want to believe in the best in people.
After all, you can’t truly hate someone you believe in; if they do let you down, you hope that one day they can do better.
I hope that better day comes soon.