Immigrants to North America have long seemed determined to practice Original Sin. It’s bad enough that we white folk from Europe stole North America at gunpoint from its original inhabitants, but then we went and imported (also at gunpoint) people from yet another continent to serve as our slaves. That must be why we white folks have such a problem with Black Lives Matter: it’s hard enough to admit that we have wronged another race, let alone figure out which one we’re talking about on any given day!
Lest we white Canadians protest that we never had slaves and that we have always treated our Indigenous neighbours fairly through negotiated treaties, I would like to offer this blog post written by my (formerly Australian) wife Valerie, in which she shares a seminal moment in her understanding of Canada’s flawed inter-racial relationships:
In the 1970s we lived for awhile in Slave Lake, where I worked for a time as a bank teller at the local branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia. In those days, the federal government gave coupons to the residents of the First Nations Reservation north of the town. These they would take to the local store on the Res to buy their groceries etc.
There was, apparently, a policy at the time to bring the First Nations people – one at a time – out of the reserve and put them in the town of Slave Lake “to learn to live like the white man”. They were told, “No more coupons, just the government cheque. Go to a bank where they will take the cheque and give you money.”
Most did not speak any English, only Cree. These people would be picked up by a bus and dropped off on Main Street. We knew an Irish Catholic Monk there who would find these people sitting – mostly at night – in doorways, not knowing what to do or where to go. He would take them home and feed and clothe these poor people, which is where we met a number of them.
So, at the end of the month, the government cheques came in: old age pension, family allowance and so on. When a (white) senior came in with her cheque, the teller would be all smiles and very chatty and gave her cash. Then there was another, and another, receiving the same welcoming treatment. Then a very small Indigenous man came in with his cheque and a young man who was his interpreter. The teller said, “we don’t cash those here.” The young man asked, “why not” and she said, “because the government takes too long to pay the bank.” The young man told the old man who looked totally confused: “now what?” The teller said, “move back I have to serve others.”
Then along came a young (white) mum with her two children and her family allowance cheque. The teller was chatty as before and there was no problem. The mum and her kids left with cash in hand. I watched as the old man and young man talked quietly together, not knowing what to do.
Another (white) senior came in and again there was no problem: out he went with his money. The old man and young man shuffled forward to the teller again, and she said, “I told you we don’t cash those here. Step back!” They went and stood by the door, not knowing where to go from here. Then a young Indigenous mum came in with her three children and her family allowance cheque. The teller said, “I’ve told you before we don’t cash those here.” and she, too, left.
I watched this a number of times and when I asked the teller what the difference was between the government cheques, her response was, “We won’t cash their cheques because it takes too long to get our money back.” When I asked, “What about the white peoples’ cheques?” she said “Oh, that’s different, they need their money of course and we always cash their cheques.” I then asked, “So where are Indigenous people supposed to go to get their money?” she replied, “Who cares? Go to the liquor store for all we care, or anywhere else that will cash it.”
I was very angry and very sad. The old man and young man were still standing near the door. So I called the old man over to my wicket. I told the young man to tell him to make his sign and I would cash his cheque. Which is exactly what he did: one “X” later and I cashed his government cheque. And that is when the most heartbreaking thing of all happened: this little man literally bowed down to me and backed all the way to the door bowing to me, because I had given to him what was rightfully his!
A little later a young Indigenous mum came in with her family allowance and came straight to my wicket. Of course, I cashed her cheque. Then came another, and I did the same. I was soon called into the manager’s office, where he told me, “We absolutely do not cash their cheques, telling me the same reason the teller had told. I said “Okay”.
It was no time at all before I had a line-up of Indigenous people, young and old, with their government cheques. I was called three times into the manager’s office who told me off and I would keep saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry I forgot………”
The last time he called me in I was fired. By giving these people their money for their cheques, which they had every right to cash – the same right as all the white folks who came in at the end of the month – it cost me my job. No one, absolutely no one, should feel they have to bow down – let alone walk backwards while bowing – to anyone.
“Heartbreaking” doesn’t come anywhere close to it…