January 13, 2014

"Sacagawea" at Macdonald Day celebration

Sir John A. Macdonald birthday celebrations set off Twitter debate

Hashtag #SirJAM challenged after photo posted of couple in mock aboriginal dress at Macdonald Day celebrations

By Crystal Greene
Saturday marked the 199th birthday of Canada's founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission has been honouring the event with a series of a celebrations and its own Twitter hashtag, #SirJAM.

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 M├ętis leader Louis Riel for high treason.
Red in the Face over ‘Redface’This weekend saw a number of events held to mark the 199th birthday of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. At one such event, it seems guests were encouraged to dress up in period costume, circa mid-to-late 1800s, the era when ‘SirJAM’ intermittently served as PM.

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 PaikinIf you haven't seen the picture of the couple in question, I'm sure it's out there in the twitterverse. I'm not going to reproduce it here. The couple in question have been blasted incessantly already. Here's what I'm wondering: can we can use this controversy as a bit of a teachable moment for everyone? And I mean everyone. The couple in question are both physicians--specialists, in fact. They're from the south Asian community. Frankly, I'm told like many "ethnic minorities" in Canada, they feel more comfortable attending traditional events in their own community, and had no intention of coming to our event at all, mostly because they feel (as many "ethnic Canadians" apparently do) that these kinds of events are mostly for WASPs, rather than a more multicultural crowd. But our committee has tried hard to broaden the audience for Macdonald's story, to try to get those who are neither English nor French to see themselves reflected in the history of Macdonald and Canada and thus they were convinced to come and even dress in period garb. (Remember: Macdonald was an immigrant too. There's a powerful message in an immigrant being able to seek the highest political office in the land, unlike in the United States where only native born Americans need apply for the presidency).

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:We have 96% of Cdns to educate #IdleKNOWmore Clearly we have many miles to go @odayminan @brando44 @spaikin @nirukumar @mworoniakMy final observation is no doubt an impossible wish, but let's put it out there anyway. In this age of instant information comes instant judgment. None of the critics on Twitter paused for a moment to consider whether there might be mitigating circumstances behind the offending garments. Most tweets were immediate and harsh in their judgments, not once asking whether there might actually be an alternate explanation other than "those ignorant white people are just racists."

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.
Comment:  Few people "intend" to offend others, so that's no excuse. The only possible excuse is that they didn't know any better. I don't buy that either.

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.

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