Hashtag #SirJAM challenged after photo posted of couple in mock aboriginal dress at Macdonald Day celebrations
By Crystal Greene
But on Saturday, that hashtag was adopted by some Twitter users critical of Macdonald's legacy after a photo appeared on the #SirJAM Twitter feed that showed a couple attending a Sir John A. Macdonald Day event in Toronto dressed in "red face" (mock aboriginal dress).
Macdonald is known as one of the Fathers of Confederation and a "nation-builder" for his effort to build a national railroad stretching from one of the country to the other.
In a statement on his website marking Sir John A. Macdonald Day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised Macdonald for his "drive and ambition to unite and expand the country."
However, Macdonald's legacy is a dark one for many aboriginal people and others with an awareness of Canada’s dark history—one that includes some of the less praise-worthy events of Macdonald's tenure, such as the residential school system, the clearing of the plains, the mistreatment of Chinese railroad workers and the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel for high treason.
Among those costumed revelers, the pair of people you see pictured here, neither of whom are First Nations. The picture originally appeared on Twitter, but has since been taken down after [the photographer of] the woman in the picture faced an instant and sustained backlash, particularly from Indigenous people. In taking down the tweet, the woman [photographer] (Niru Kumar, who happens to be a member of the media and a lawyer in Toronto) also apologized. For some, it seemed, the move was too little, too late, but others apparently took it as a teachable moment.
Immigrants don't know American history?
A Controversial Culture Clash at Sir John's 199th Birthday
By Steve Paikin
The woman in question is an American. She was unaware of the toxic history between Macdonald and First Nations people. She wasn't educated here. She never had history lessons here. But she decided to come to the event and pay tribute to an Indian female legend named Sacagawea, a symbol of female strength and independence, and an honoured figure in American history. So her motives were pure.
Did she and her husband unknowingly make a mistake with their outfits, akin to dressing up in "blackface" as one tweeter suggested? Well, that's a question worthy of a civil discussion. As Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who attended the event, tweeted:
The fact is, the couple didn't intend to offend, aren't from here, had no knowledge of this chapter of Canadian history, and moreover, aren't white. Whether any of that will satisfy the critics, I can't say.
The couple in costumes are well-educated South Asian physicians. The woman is an American. They had plenty of resources and opportunities to learn about Native Americans and whether they should dress as them.
Paikin notes that they're immigrants who weren't educated here. So? Depending on when they immigrated and how old they are, they could've been in Canada or the US for 10-20 years. That's more than enough time to educate themselves on Native issues.
And I thought immigrants had to learn US history and take a test on it before they became citizens. With our stereotype-filled education system, I wouldn't assume that long-time citizens know more than immigrants about Indians. It could be just the opposite.
In any case, if you're ignorant of local customs, all the more reason to do your due diligence before donning a costume. For instance, if I moved to India, I wouldn't think of wearing a silly rajah or guru costume. To avoid an offensive "blackface" situation, I wouldn't proceed unless I got reassurances from several sources.
Why didn't this couple do that? That's the key question here.
Honoring Macdonald with Sacagawea?
The fact that the woman dressed as Sacagawea is a strike against her, not for her. Sacagawea had nothing to do with Macdonald. She was dead by the "mid-to-late 1800s" time frame of the invitation.
Like Pocahontas, Sacagawea is a symbol of the stereotypical Indian maiden or princess. The woman chose a costume that implies Natives and their cultures are a homogeneous mass that conforms to our ignorant beliefs. In short, she "honored" Natives the way any dancing mascot or hipster in a headdress does: not at all.
It would be like dressing as a stereotypical harem girl or belly dancer for an event in India. I doubt anyone at a dignified historical celebration would appreciate a white woman pretending to be Mata Hari. This is about like that.
So no, there's little or no excuse for this kind of ignorance. People (should) know you're not supposed to dress up as ethnic types. Not as Shylock for a Jewish celebration or Al Capone for an Italian celebration.
It's common-sense sensitivity. You don't have to be a long-time resident of a place to understand that.