I’m not over it and here’s why you shouldn’t be either

When it first occurred to me to write a post about the pro-rape and anti-Indigenous chants that occurred at various UBC frosh events, my first reaction was to reject the idea on the basis of that topic is terribly last month. The subsequent “WAITAMINUTE” ringing through my head caused me to be disappointed in my own investment in a mass media mindset that a worthy topic has only a couple weeks of shelf life. Especially when that topic relates to the pervasiveness of rape culture, misogyny, racism, and colonialism – how could we ever be done talking about it?

So, why shouldn’t we be over what happened at UBC in those first weeks of September? Why, when student leaders have already stepped down and when UBC has promised us change? We should never be over the trivialization of sexual assault and colonial violence that was implicit in the chants because this isn’t just about the chants. This isn’t merely an issue of a handful of students making bad decisions and a dark mark on the UBC brand. As easy as it would be to scapegoat Sauder or pretend this is all UBC’s problem, to do so would be to overlook the reality that this is about the world we live in – a created culture in which we are all complicit in a public forgetting of colonial history and a social blindness in the face of violence and rape. In a statement made by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, the Institute points out that,

since it is 3rd-year undergraduate students who oriented the Sauder first-year students into singing the YOUNG chant, it is also the case that the older students both learned this chant as part of their UBC education, and have demonstrated that they have not learned anything that would have provided them with the understanding, knowledge and know-how with which to refuse to sing the YOUNG chant… It is also the case that we can rightly conclude there has been a failure of public education in the fact that the C.U.S. 3rd year students did not appear to take responsibility and intervene in – contest or otherwise resist and refuse – the routine socialization of students into anti-aboriginal actions and chants.

Yes, students made bad decisions when they decided to engage in and encourage the chants, but what about the likelihood that they didn’t truly understand how harmful these actions would be? Whose fault is their lack of education?

To draw from a statement released by UBC’s Centre for Feminist Legal Studies (CFLS), we have to ask what made those UBC student ill-equipped to connect the sentiments of the “YOUNG” chant with the fact that

sexual violence against women and girls is unfortunately commonplace. While the exact incidence of sexual assault is difficult to measure, a conservative estimate is that at least 1/3 women will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Rates of sexual violence are highest for adolescents and young women.

Given the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the likelihood that there were women and men sitting on that bus at UBC who have been sexually assaulted is significant. Instead of welcoming them to UBC as a site of critical reflection, safety, and well-being, the “YOUNG” chant made a joke out of what so many understand to be real and long-lasting trauma. To continue borrowing from the CFLS statement, jokes or comments that eroticize young women as “jailbait” or as “tight,” are actions that contribute to the construction and bolstering of rape myths that are mobilized every day to justify, ignore, or diminish the severity of violence. Let us compel universities to be locations where these actions are understood and condemned as displays of rape culture, where we can expect that students are learning to value respect for each other over getting a laugh.

(image courtesy of: http://audreychan.net/myths-of-rape-2012/)

We can’t ignore the connections between the “YOUNG” chant and the anti-Indigenous “Pocahontas” chant. In the words of Daniel Justice, “when white people sold the land, they raped, butchered and dispossessed human beings… Pocahontas is a figure used to justify men’s claims over land and women… It’s not only racist, it’s also misogynist.” Not only did the anti-Indigenous chant make light of colonial violence, but it also functions as part of a glamorization of the story of Pocahontas, given that is what the group’s “theme” was. Despite the hold that the Pocahontas story has had within a North American cultural consciousness, the reality is that

the real Pocahontas was likely no older than fourteen when the middle-aged John Smith wrote his fabricated account of their supposed romance in what was probably a ritual adoption ceremony (Pocahontas would later be kidnapped by English colonial authorities to force her father into political negotiations, finding freedom only through conversion to Christianity and marriage to another colonist, John Rolfe.)

Romanticized versions of her story sit at an intersection between a disregard for the gravity of colonial history and a trivialization of the sexual assault of young girls and women. The statement by UBC’s First Nations Studies program asserts that

combined with the earlier rape chant, the use of the stereotyped Indian Princess version of Pocahontas as a frosh mascot demonstrates just how deeply sexism permeates anti-Aboriginal representations in popular culture, as such figures are routinely used to exoticize and eroticize colonialism through debasing Indigenous women’s bodies. The [anti-Indigenous] chant is not disconnected from the rape chant; they are not isolated incidents, but are instead intersected and mutually reinforcing issues of violence…

Let us also not forget that the anti-Indigenous/Pocahontas chant came to light on the same morning of Vancouver’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, the same morning that UBC students had the day off school in order to educate themselves on residential schools, colonial violence, and the legacy of such violence on Indigenous communities. The irony that the chants, which highlight a lack of education and thoughtful engagement, surfaced on a day dedicated to such engagement is suggestive that there is still so much missing from education on colonial history and Indigenous issues.

(for more information about learning opportunities, check out the First Nations Studies Program’s event page)

Finally, let us decide that we are not okay with the coverage provided by UBC’s student newspaper, the Ubyssey, which could have benefited enormously from a more thoughtful and informed discussion of the chants. The anti-Indigenous chant is only mentioned as a side note in an article covering the “YOUNG” chant – it never receives serious consideration on its own. Further, consideration of the “YOUNG” chant itself suffered from a lack of critical engagement. In an editorial published in the Ubyssey and written by Saint Mary’s University professor Mark Mercer, Mercer claims that

No one was harassed by the chanters. That is, the chanters didn’t chant at anyone, and they didn’t follow anyone around while chanting at them. No one said to the chanters, “Stop it, you’re bothering me.” Since one is unable to culpably harass another before that other signals that the behaviour is unwelcome, no one was culpably harassed. The chanters did not discriminate against anyone. All present were welcome to join in. No one was given the cold shoulder, certainly not on account of sex, race or religion.

This argument stands because it clings to a thread of thin logic based on dredged up “technical” definition of harassment. Would it be too much to ask for a more complex discussion of the ideas of harassment and discrimination so that we might see how the existence of the chant operates to harm and intimidate victims of sexual violence in real ways? Where is an understanding that the responsibility to say “Stop it, you’re bothering me” should never have to be on the shoulders of first-year students in the first place – where is an account of the potential for peer pressure to coerce affected students into silence? The Ubyssey staff goes on to assert in another article that money donated by the Commerce Undergraduate Society that is intended to fund a sexual assault counsellor at the UBC Counselling Centre is

a worthy mission, but UBC already runs a well-staffed counselling services program. So does the AMS-funded Sexual Assault Support Centre… it’s not like [receiving sexual assault counselling] is something students weren’t able to do with the services already available.

What the Ubyssey fails to mention is that the UBC Counselling Centre currently doesn’t have any staff members who specialize in sexual assault support and that the SASC, while doing incredibly important and invaluable work on campus, doesn’t have the funds required to hire a registered counsellor. Not to mention, even going out into the community to receive support is a difficult process for students given that chronic underfunding of sexual assault support organizations results in lengthy wait-lists for counsellors. Furthermore, this understanding of sexual assault support fails to understand that counselling is not a preventative solution to rape culture. Adequate counselling options are important to help many survivors in their recovery, however, promoting counselling as the primary response to sexual violence works to individualize rape by placing the responsibility to respond to violence solely on the victim. What gets lost is the reality that preventing rape requires a cultural shift and a commitment to ending sexism, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ablism, and other forms of oppression. 

Colonial and sexual violence are not punch lines to be mobilized for a “good time”. Disapproval of the “inappropriateness” of the chants is not enough when there are so many conversations about education, cultural acceptance, and respect that need to continue being had. Because of that, I’m not done talking about the chants at UBC and you shouldn’t be either.

*Update: As I was finishing this post, it came to light that a 3rd sexual assault has occurred at UBC in the last 3 weeks. These assaults and the chants are not separate issues. As we continue to have conversations about sexual assault at UBC, let us be thoughtful, critical, and aware of the rape culture in which we all exist and let us collectively understand the paramount importance of ending sexual violence.

**Update: In my original post, I made the mistake of referring to the editorial by Mark Mercer as an article written by a Ubyssey staff member. It is important to note that, although it was published in the newspaper, it is not an article written by a Ubyssey journalist. This has since been corrected.

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Representations of Chief Theresa Spence in News Media

by Caity Goerke 

Since Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat began hunger striking on December 11th, Canadian journalists have shared their many opinions on Chief Spence, her actions, and Indigenous activism in Canada. Well insightful and empowering accounts of Chief Spence’s activism certainly exist, dominant Canadian news media has discovered a plethora of ways to discredit, trivialize, and silence her. Taking note of the general way that media has failed to adequately represent Chief Spence and her actions (or the ways that Canadians have failed to demand fairer media), I began to recognize that the representations of Chief Spence reflects a larger picture of inadequate and harmful representations of Indigenous people.

In her essay, “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women,” Gail Guthrie Valaskakis* discusses contradictory constructions used to represent Indigenous women and explains that

these contradictory images of Indian women continue to objectify and degrade… and neither the romanticized Indian princess nor the primitive squaw allows newcomers to identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” (pg. 149)

While arguments could certainly be made to show how representations of Chief Spence oscillate between “princess” and “squaw” constructions (such as the ways in which she’s represented as a revolutionary leader in contrast with suggestions that she’s selfish, unreasonable, and badly behaved), what stood out in my investigation of news coverage about her strike was the ways in which she has become a part of a larger narrative that refuses to “identify Indians as equals, as owners of this land, as Native North Americans with homes, families, jobs, and indigenous governments.” Instead of recognizing these things, mainstream news coverage regarding Chief Spence ignores her cultural context and the deep history of colonial oppression that informs her actions, it silences her voice, and it makes use of racist, sexist and classist stereotypes.

Before I jump into my analysis, it’s worth while to make two important disclaimers:

1)   Transparency regarding parameters is always helpful: All articles used for this blog were discovered through Google searching and consultations with Canadian Newsstand. As there actually happens to be a fair amount of stuff out there, I went for common themes that seemed to pop up over several articles as opposed to more specific details. Also, for the sake of a manageable scope, I generally focussed on “mainstream” web-based print media.

2)   More importantly, I’m a settler Canadian and I am aware that my presence on this land plays a role in the very systems that Chief Spence is taking a stand against. However, thanks to Canada’s long standing colonial occupation of this land, I nonetheless find myself here. For what it’s worth, writing this is an act of solidarity with Chief Spence and comes from my own acknowledgment of the continued legacy of colonization that threatens Indigenous rights to land, water, and sovereignty. In addition, as I’m not an Indigenous woman, I sincerely hope that my analysis doesn’t contribute to the extensive body of harmful representations of Indigenous women and am open to feedback if it does.

What stood out perhaps most problematically in my investigation of news coverage regarding Chief Spence was the complete lack of acknowledgment for the cultural context in which her actions are located. (And, no, references to her “teepee,” to drum circles and to smudge ceremonies don’t count as cultural context … that’s just lazy journalism’s reliance on stereotyping.) In addition, the ability of journalists to gloss over colonialism never ceases to amaze me and the bull-headed insistence on ignoring the role that settler-Canadians play in the colonial process is, as always, outstanding. What we need more of is analyses like the one given by Devon Meekis in their article “Idle No More: On the meaning of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.” Meekis explains the importance of acknowledging that Spence’s hunger strike has to be considered different from those that have occurred in other contexts because, without this understanding, there is a failure to recognize the “cultural importance and philosophy behind such practice” in a specifically Indigenous sense. As a result, her actions will be forever lost amongst imposed interpretations of what does and doesn’t constitute “proper” activism.

In addition to the absence of cultural context, there is also, by and large, an absence of Chief Spence’s voice. Where many articles are void of any statements made by her or her support team all together, those that do directly quote Chief Spence often push her statements to the end of the article or fail to use them as a focal points. I hesitate to impose too many of my own conclusions on this matter because I recognize that it actually could be Chief Spence’s intention to reduce the amount her voice is heard in order to emphasize the collectivity of her struggle and avoid the hyper-individualization that mainstream North American celebrity culture is so apt to perpetrate. However, that doesn’t excuse anyone from ignoring her voice entirely – if Chief Spence has refused to comment this refusal could certainly be thoughtfully acknowledged and engaged with. In addition, I felt that this point had to be mentioned because it’s hard to imagine that Canadian media’s tendency to silence Indigenous women isn’t at least partly to blame. With the help of Valaskakis, we can locate the lack of Chief Spence’s voice within a continuum of Indigenous people being silenced. Valaskakis explains that the “construction and appropriation of images of Indians” helps to construct histories of the “ageless Western frontier.” (pg. 150) What is key in Valaskakis’ statement is that it is images, not stories, of Indigenous people that play a role in Canadian and American “history” and what’s particularly troubling about images is that they tend to be seen without being heard.

The last point I want to make about the news coverage regarding Chief Spence is the (unfortunately unsurprising) amount of racism, classism and sexism being used to represent her and her actions. The preoccupation with how much she gets paid along with discussions regarding the supposed “mismanagement” of funds on Attiwapiskat is no doubt connected to deeply entrenched ideas of Indigenous people as “free-riders” and “well-fare cheats” that the rest of Canadians “have to pay for.” In considering how this stereotype informs representations of Chief Spence, the reality of her (and Atawapiskat’s) finances don’t actually matter. What matters is that her finances are a constant point of media fixation and that this preoccupation is, of course, part of a larger racist narrative. (For more on this and other negative stereotypes used to represent Indigenous folks, check out what Wab Kinew has to say.) In addition, journalists like Barbara Kay apparently couldn’t help but subject Chief Spence to the kinds of scrutiny so often projected on women in the spot light – specifically those pertaining to appearance and body size. To spare you to experience of actually having to read Kay’s article, I’ll sum it up for you. Essentially, Kay notes that the silver-lining to Chief Spence’s hunger strike is that she’ll lose weight. Now… at this point I could subject you to paragraphs upon paragraphs about why this makes me want to throw my computer at the wall, but as you’re all smart people I’ll assume you’ll manage to be horrified enough without my assistance.

With any luck, I’ve managed to shed a little light on the ways that mainstream Canadian news media manages to represent Indigenous activism in problematic, offensive and entirely inadequate ways. Critical engagement with news media is imperative. Without critical engagement, it’s too easy to lose sight of the ways that Canadian media is steeped in colonial, white-supremacist, patriarchal and classist assumptions that provide Canadians with a distorted perception of Canadian-Indigenous relations. So the next time you read about Chief Spence in the news, consider what’s going on behind the scenes. And, whatever you do, avoid the Sun News Network…  (that is, unless you enjoy flagrant displays of unapologetically obtuse racism).


*Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie. “Sacajawea and Her Sisters: Images and Native Women.” Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. pg 125-150. 2005

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