Confrontations, Indian Villages, and the start of Black History Month

By Special Correspondent Jessica Yee

Okay, so I’ll be honest, my night didn’t really start off too well. Waiting for the streetcar to come so I can go check out the much anticipated photo exhibit for “Prom Night in Mississippi” I see this gem of a display in a popular Queen West shoe store right across the street:

Between debating on going inside to voice my annoyance and offense, or hopping the fast approaching streetcar on this bitterly cold night and making my opinions heard later, I chose to go inside, and become angrier by the second as I make my way over there. Who the hell do they think they are? I’m probably like the tenth person who complained, I mean this is Toronto, for heaven’s sake!

“Excuse me, I am extremely offended by the “Indian” village display at the front of the store, can I speak to the manager?” I ask.

“Thank goodness you said something! No, he’s not here, but yeah, I said something and since I’m just an employee, it didn’t change.” she replies.

Turns out the company making the moccasins, mukluks, and boots on display is called Laurentian Chiefs, and she proceeds to tell me how they are actually from a reserve in Quebec (although I still have yet to confirm all the details of who this company really is).

“So does Laurentian Chiefs mandate the store to put on a display like that?”  I continue.

“No, my boss just went out and bought the stuff.” she says.

Well that’s just great, especially considering all the amazingly gifted (and popular!) Native fashion designers, photographers, artists, and countless others in Toronto who could have easily given them some better guidance on how to put together a more realistic and ethical display.  There are more than 60 000 Aboriginal people who live in this city. And apparently, I’m the first person who has said anything about it.

After collecting said manager’s info and being assured my comments would be passed along, I go back outside to wait for another streetcar, when a group of young Native women come along and also take notice of the display.

“That’s just racist, man.” one of them says.

“Why would they even do something like that?”

“Let’s go inside and say something.” they decide.

I walk over to them to let them know I feel the same and just went inside to say something.  We start to talk about how frustrating this all is, how important it is that we speak up, how bullshit and ignorant mainstream society is, blah, blah, blah. The streetcar comes and I get on. I need to re-focus, the event tonight is supposed to be the launch for Black History Month (and I could go on and on about my thoughts on that, which are quite similar to Aboriginal History Month in Canada every June).

There has been a lot of buzz circulating for Prom Night in Mississippi, which premiered at Sundance this past January. Unbeknownst to many, some high schools in Mississippi still have segregated proms.  In 1997, actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for the senior prom at Charleston High School (the town where he’s from) under one condition: the prom had to be racially integrated. His offer was ignored. In 2008, Freeman offered again. This time the school board accepted, although the White students still paid to have their own segregated one.

Directed by Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman, Toronto-based photographer Catharine Farquharson attended the prom night and took photos, which are currently exhibiting at the Lens Factory here in the city. The documentary itself is slated for public release this year.

As it was the opening reception, bodies were stuffed in wall to wall in this uberly rich and quaintly designed venue. Although I tried my best to get a good look at the photos and think about what was going on in them, I was too distracted by the fact that I was among about three people of colour in the whole place. And believe me; I kept looking at the door to see who was coming in.

Maybe because my night started out on a bad note, maybe because I’ve had it with these so-called equity-seekers who continuously disappoint, but by the time question and answer period came for the director and the photographer, I was on fire. I shot my hand up right away.

“Okay, so yeah, this whole thing seems pretty interesting, but let’s be realistic and take a good look around the room. This event was advertised as the start to kick off Black History month, it’s about two races coming together, it’s about the history of oppression, and what I see is basically a sea of whiteness in here. What is that saying about us? Oh sure, we think because we live in Canada, we’re so much better, we have federally legislated multiculturalism policies, but in fact, this just proves that we’re one in the same. Where is the gathering between the communities tonight you say you so strongly support?”

A few moments of silence linger, until Catharine Farquharson says “I agree. Yes these photos are about a larger issue happening far away from us, but my real hope is that people look at them and challenge their own prejudices in their own lives.”

I appreciated what she said. Then Paul Saltzman replied, “First of all, I’m not sure why we’re still labeled White. I’m Jewish, and I’m more of an off-white, beige I think,” to a room now full of chuckling.

No, he did not just say that. Did he not learn while filming in Mississippi about why the term White is still used?

“Do you want to get into a conversation about White privilege because of the skin colour you walk with in this world?” I pipe up.

He says yeah, he agrees with that, which sounds more to me like a “let me shut you up by answering this uncomfortable question” kind of response, and says a bunch of stuff I honestly stopped listening to as people in the room started staring and moving away from me.

Another question I remember from the evening went something like “Do you think people want an ethnic cleansing there like what we did to the Indians here?” which I’ll give this woman points for trying, although I’m still annoyed why some non-Aboriginal people haven’t picked up on using the word First Nations or Native yet.

As I start to make my way out to leave, this older White man and a female companion stop to ask me if I was pleased with the answer I was given tonight.

“Honestly, not really, but you know, there’s a lot more work we all have to do.” I say.

“Well, what’s wrong with you anyway? Open your mind. You really just need to open your mind.” he says to me with a dead-serious face.

Confrontation number three of the evening follows, where I’m now explaining to this man why it’s even more important that people who face the same kind of oppression in Toronto that can be seen in the photos get a chance to see these pictures. “The Lens Factory is definitely not the most accessible place, and that might have something to do with who we’re seeing here tonight. Why not talk to communities and show it in Regent Park or Jane and Finch, and collectively bring it to where people are at?”

“Well, that’s a good point. But you know you need somewhere to show it, those places probably don’t have anywhere.” was his answer.

I’ve now officially wrote off this guy as just plain ignorant since there’s no chance he would have known about the community centres that exist in those neighbourhoods, whom have hosted photo exhibits before, might have been truly happy and are completely capable of showcasing something like this. I tell him all of this as he’s telling me how bored he is.

I’m outside now, thankful that the friends who were supposed to come with me tonight canceled, since it would have been a waste of their time. I walk back to catch the streetcar home, and am now thoroughly reminded about why people think there needs to be a Black History Month in the first place.

As someone who is First Nations, I assure you, I really do get it.