As Corporal Nathan Cirillo was laid to rest on Tuesday October 28, days after being shot dead by a deranged gunman while standing guard at the National War Monument in Ottawa, Canada was united in grief.
Just under a week earlier, as the tragic Parliament Hill shooting unfolded in Ottawa on October 22, a horrified Canada scrambled to figure out who would do such a thing, and why. But some of what burst out over social media in as-it-happened accounts disturbed Native leaders and legal experts, and they are now calling anew for unity, emphasizing that everyone, including them, is united against violence.
In particular a tweet by Globe and Mail journalist Bill Curry, sent out to his 9,000 followers in the heat of the moment, caused much consternation: “Eyewitnesses say the suspect has long dark hair and two said he appeared to be aboriginal.”
In the days after the shooting, major indigenous organizations in Canada issued statements of support and healing, expressing gratitude to the first responders, the country’s leaders and sympathy for Cirillo’s family, friends and colleagues. They stressed unity and invoked historical instances of the ways in which First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples had stood and fought side-by-side with Canada during numerous conflicts.
So they found it doubly disconcerting that the initial observations of those involved would jump to people of color. The issue was first highlighted the day after the shooting, when educator and researcher Eric Ritskes, whose work “exists at the intersections of sociology, education, and digital humanities” with an emphasis on Indigenous Peoples, wrote about it in his blog, Decolonization.
“Shooter was ‘South American’ in colour,” tweeted Ottawa Citizen writer David Reevely, according to “Dark Threats and the Normalization of White Terror: Aboriginals, Muslims & South Americans in the Ottawa Shooting,” published on October 23. “Hoodie with bandanna. Got into a car.”
Ritskes went on to describe the need for mainstream society to “darken” these events so as to make sense of them, and the dangers of doing so. Indigenous leaders were equally alarmed.
“While we have called on our own Peoples to come together in the spirit of peace at this difficult time, we would like to also extend that sentiment to all Canadians,” said Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Stan Beardy in a statement from the Chiefs of Ontario on October 24. He too mentioned The Globe and Mail reporter’s tweet.
“This is problematic for many reasons, and not only did it prove not to be true, we do not condone or excuse these types of blatant and destructive stereotypes being put forth by established media outlets that could have tragic implications to the overall safety of our Peoples,” Beardy said. “We continue to struggle in an imposed colonial system, yet at the same time, continue to work towards peace, friendship and co-existence. This is a working relationship that, while has progressed some over time, continues to be an unbalanced interaction by way of heavy-handed imposition of inappropriate legislation and lack of positive public perception of who the Indigenous Peoples in Canada are.”
A week earlier, the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians had expressed similar sentiments.
“These kinds of assumptions, which also proved not to be true, served only one purpose—to rationalize tragic violence as outside of the realm of the white-colonial state,” said Grand Chief Gord Peters? in a statement from the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. “Looking specifically at Mr. Curry’s tweet, it is problematic in several ways. First, it relies on racial stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples to convey information. How does one ‘appear Aboriginal’? The only signifier used to express ‘Aboriginal-ness’ in this example is long dark hair—a common racial stereotype of the modern Indian. Second, this tweet threw fuel on a fire that was raging inside of the information whirlwind that used charged and emotionally amplified language like ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism.’ ”
Such pronouncements “feed the deeply-rooted and thriving racism in Canada that says Aboriginal peoples are unlawful, dangerous, and citizens with less intrinsic value to society,” he said, expressing the wish that the ensuing dialogue can serve to dispel such stereotypes.
“I challenge Mr. Curry and all members of the media to learn from this example,” Peters said. “Together, we can shape public discourse in a way that accurately reflects all the people in this country, free from bias and stereotypes.”