A month prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, I entered a store in Prince Albert. An affable black male greeted me at the door and asked if he could help me. “Yes, please,” I told him. We fell into an amiable conversation as he led me to the whereabouts of the items on my list.
“You sound like you’re from the deep south,” I ventured
“Alabama,” he replied.
“My Lord, what brings you to Saskatchewan?”
“Love brought me and work kept me,” he conceded.
“Au contraire, work brought me and love kept me,” I confessed
“So, tell me,” I probe. “Has Canada been good to you? Do Canadians treat black people better than you were treated back home?”
“Much better,” he acknowledged,” “I still get attitude, like the other day I called a middle-aged white woman dearie and she took exception to that.” “Its how we talk back home,” he shrugged.
Instinctively my saucy self popped out. “You should have told her, ‘My apologies, I mistook you for one’!” He laughed. Then his face turned serious.
“You treat Aboriginal people here like black folks get treated down south” he said, averting his eyes as he rang up the cash register.
I first came to Prince Albert from a neighbouring province on my 26th birthday in 1986 to work as a news reporter for the local television station. I had never been here before and didn’t know Prince Albert had such a high Aboriginal population.
“Dad!” I exclaimed when I phoned home to my parent’s farm in Manitoba. “There’s a lot of Indians here and I’m afraid.” “Just work hard and be careful,” he told me. I had never had a negative encounter with an Aboriginal person. But I was afraid.
Through accident of birth, I am white. I spent my youth endeavouring to fit into a mold I wasn’t born to. My life unravelled when I was a 10-year-old girl and my parents left our Hutterite community on the Canadian prairies for life in the outside world. The unfounded hostilities we faced due to misperceptions about Hutterites placed us firmly in the “us” and “them” category. I became deeply ashamed of my culture because it had so little value in mainstream. By the time I arrived in Prince Albert as a young adult I had re-invented myself to fit in for the pleasure of popular society. It pains me to confess that my judgments about Aboriginal people were as baseless as the ones I had faced after we left the Hutterite colony. Yet here I was manifesting a peculiar form of racism while concealing my own vulnerability.
The best thing that happened to me as a young reporter was that I had to get to know the Indigenous community up close. To more fully understand their history and struggles gave me a much-needed attitude overhaul.
In 1993 Prince Albert was chosen to host the North American Indigenous Games. As the then mayor’s wife, I had the opportunity to help create something special.
We fell upon the idea to showcase Aboriginal Fashion without fully realizing the magnitude of the talent pool. We invited Indigenous designers from across Canada and gathered Indigenous young people from Northern Saskatchewan to model the clothes. These beautiful souls took to the stage like they were born to it. The runways of New York and Milan had nothing on them. Nearly 800 people came to the Exhibition Center in Prince Albert to watch this amazing display of Aboriginal excellence. Supported by the incomparable sounds of Aboriginal artists like Buffy Sainte-
Marie the event brought the house down. As you can see in the video, it was an unforgettable experience.
Overcoming racism takes a concerted effort. It can not be overcome by law, though just laws are essential. It cannot be overcome by politicians though moral leaders are critical to creating a meaningful framework. Racism will be overcome one person at a time. That is the way of salvation. We all have a role to play and are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Indifference is the wall behind which racism hides. We see it in our community in the same way as my friend at the store sees it.
For those, like me, who lay claim to Christianity, our responsibility to push back against racism is particularly unambiguous. The fruit of reconciliation is the manna from heaven for which human hearts long. For to believe that one race of people is superior to another is to believe in an inferior God.
I want to send heartfelt condolences to the families at Spring Valley Hutterite Colony in Alberta who tragically lost 3 precious young women. Mein herzliches Beileid to the heartbroken parents and the entire community.
Last but not least, Happy Fathers Day tzu die gontzen Voten!
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Canadian writer and author of the award-winning, national best-selling memoir, I Am Hutterite. Her portrait of life on a Hutterite colony in Western Canada and the difficult transition to mainstream society is a Canadian Prairie Classic
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