The headline alone sparked outrage.
“Educate First Nations to be Modern Citizens,” trumpeted the title.
And it went downhill from there.
The letter to the editor, penned by one Don Olsen, ran last week in the Nanaimo Daily News of British Columbia. Though taken offline almost immediately, it has engendered controversy for having been published in the first place.
Elaborating in bullet points, Olsen outlined the ways that First Nations were supposedly hopelessly antiquated, dismissing their 12,000-year history with assertions that were patently untrue. For one thing, he alleged, they “never ‘discovered’ the wheel.” In addition they “never had a written language,” “never discovered astronomy,” “made almost no inventions” and “made no medical discoveries.”
In a 15-item bulleted list, Olsen stated that aboriginals have spent the past 200 years “getting caught up to most of the rest of the world” and suggested they are not “responsible enough to look after themselves” and manage their money.
Olsen’s solution: “Turn off the taps. Do away with this ‘traditional use’ and ‘cultural’ nonsense. Education their children to become modern citizens,” he wrote. “Instead of finding their identity and source of pride in some folks who occupied the land 15,000 years ago. Let them stand or fall on their own account. Just like the rest of us have to do.”
First Nations immediately called out the newspaper. The day after the letter’s March 27 publication, Idle No More was out in force, with at least 100 people picketing the offices of the Nanaimo Daily News. They were joined by Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan. Chiefs from the local to the national level voiced objections, one even vowing to suspend all dealings with the newspaper.
The letter was soon taken off the newspaper’s website, but the damage had already been done. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council cut ties with the Nanaimo Daily News for publishing what it called “racist drivel.”
“We are under attack. And it is unacceptable,” said Tribal Council President Clifford Atleo in a statement on March 28. “The public needs to know that racism is alive and well at the Nanaimo Daily News, and nothing says this louder than the publication’s decision to give this letter writer a forum to spew his hate. It demonstrates a complete lack of leadership by this publisher, and it is well out of step with fair-minded people everywhere.”
In Ottawa, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said it reveals the deep level of ignorance still rampant in much of mainstream Canadian society and shows the need to foster better education and awareness of aboriginal peoples, culture and their relationship to Canada.
“The comments published by the Nanaimo Daily News show deep misunderstanding and ignorance about First Nations peoples,” Shawn Atleo said in a statement. “The paper must take immediate and sustained actions to work with First Nations to provide accurate information. We need to understand the truth about First Nations.”
He noted stories that had not been reported in the Nanaimo Daily News, such as a historic reconciliation agreement signed the previous day between Chief Douglas White III of Snuneymuxw First Nation and the province of British Columbia. He also highlighted the extraordinary achievement of seven Nishiyuu youth, who had arrived triumphantly in Ottawa after walking for two months, covering 1,600 kilometers from their remote community of Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay, “to bring a message of unity and peace to First Nations and Canadians.”
Those stories, he said, were virtually ignored by the newspaper.
In a rebuttal to the letter on Huffington Post, feminist activist Danica Denomme matched Olsen point for point, starting with things that Europeans had done but that aboriginals knew better than to do. First Nations “Did not domesticate animals and use items such as chariots and machinery,” she pointed out. They “instead intimately understood the various local living species and their interconnectedness, and took animals and other living creatures for nourishment and sacred purposes, letting the natural ecosystems thrive for millennia.”
In addition was the First Nations’ prowess in language—with 52 to 65 “distinct language groups across Canada,” 32 in British Columbia alone; astronomical knowledge collected as part of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, “which is documented in oral history and many scholarly articles”; and First Nations’ achievements in everything from ethno-botany for medicinal and other purposes, to complex mathematics used in construction and other endeavors.
Canoes, as Denomme pointed out, had been used not only by aboriginals but also by Europeans—for 200 years, no less—as a reliable method of long-distance travel through rivers. The snowshoe and the tobaggan, too, were aboriginal inventions that enabled European exploration of remote areas, she wrote.
Vancouver Island News Group, which owns the paper, ran a statement affirming Olsen’s right to free speech but expressing regret that it had aired his sentiments.
“While we would defend Mr. Olsen's right to hold and express his opinion, the sentiments expressed were entirely his own and in no way reflect the views of the newspaper,” division manager Hugh Nicolson wrote in a statement posted on the newspaper’s website. “The letter should not have run. We apologize for any distress this may have caused our readers.”