An incident occurred recently which left me feeling sick at heart.
I was at an event, there to offer words of encouragement and acknowledgement for people being honoured for their good work and as well to offer words of prayer, a request to Creator for all to go well. Before things got rolling, a man approached me from the audience and said, “Hey chief, how are you doing?” I immediately told him not to call me ‘chief’. I further stated, “I am not a chief, call me ‘chief’ again and you and I are going to have a major problem on our hands.” The man instantly apologized. He approached me again a few moments later and again expressed words of apology. I let him know that ‘chief’ was a derogatory name racist white people give to First Nations men and that I did not tolerate it. The man said he did not know this. I accepted his apology and we shook hands.
The exchange bothered me the rest of the night and I awoke with it on my mind the next morning. I remember a poster in a prominent place in a room where activists meet. It featured a photo of a lunch room where white workers are sitting at tables in groups. Sitting alone at a table is a First Nations man (worker). At the bottom of the poster it read “His co-workers call him ‘Chief’, at home his children call him ‘Dad’. ‘Zero Tolerance on Racism’ the poster stated in large letters. The poster’s message: The co-workers of the man sitting alone, though they called him ‘chief’, were not motivated to do so out of respect but were doing so because of racism. If the First Nations man was indeed respected, he would not be eating his lunch by himself.
Ignorance is sometimes like a lash across the face. The words of the ignorant can be just as hurtful to a member of a minority as those of a bigot. One must inform themselves about title and protocol before approaching individuals of different cultures for conversation. It simply is all about common sense and respect. That a lot of folks are unaware the name ‘chief’ is derogatory (has been for generations) only proves to me that many Canadians never cared enough about First Nations Peoples to know what is offensive to them and what is not. If I were a chief I would accept the title with honour. I am not a chief so do not call me ‘chief’, please.
I will never accept that ‘chief’ could be said as a show of ‘respect.’ If you really do respect me, then please call me by my name. My name was given to me by my loving parents. Use it! Anyone who believes it is his ‘right’ to bestow ‘respect’ onto a member of a cultural minority with a name ‘he’ feels is appropriate for ‘them’ has a superiority complex boiling in his subconscious. What offends me is what offends ‘me’. You make a huge mistake when you see it otherwise!
As an activist I have a thick skin. I would not be a very good one if I did not. To insults and slurs from my enemies, I say, bring ’em on! I won’t back down! I can take it! But when people who approach me under the guise of what defines respect and friendship and then offend me by calling me a racist name, look out, my reaction will be the same as it would if the hurtful word had been said by a racist and bigot. True friends know better! Respect is what it is, it does not have several definitions. Check the dictionary if you do not believe me.
All I want is respect for First Nations Peoples, the women, the children and the men on this rich land of ours. Is this expecting too much?