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Racism in Colonial Canada: An Indigenous Perspective

This dialogue is part of MOA series Responsive Dialogues: Racism in Canada, sparked by recent anti-Black and anti-Asian violence in communities across North America, and the continued racism and oppression directed at Indigenous communities. Critically, the continued racism and oppression that is directed at Indigenous communities is a systemic problem that has been plagued this country for many generations, through state and institutional policies.

We start this series with Racism in Colonial Canada: An Indigenous Perspective, an interview with Jacqueline (Jacquie) Adams by Emily Teh, conducted on January 21, 2021.

Their interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jacquie Adams is from Ahousaht and ʔiiḥatisatḥ činax̣int First Nation. She holds a BSW from the University of Victoria and an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Royal Roads University.

Emily Teh is of Lakȟóta, Métis, and Portuguese descent. She is the Library + Archives Assistant at MOA’s Audrey and Harry Hawthorn Library + Archives.


Zoom still of Jacquie Adams and Emily Teh speaking to each other.
Jacquie Adams and Emily Teh meeting over Zoom.

Emily: This series is being created by MOA’s 2020 Committee in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that we’ve seen across Turtle Island. As an Indigenous woman myself, I wanted to explore the Indigenous experience of racism in colonial Canada. I wanted to have a conversation with you, Jacquie, about systemic racism and hear your thoughts.

Jacquie: Well, I’m hoping you can get something out of what I say. I’ll talk about my roles and responsibilities and speak a little bit about my education. I want to go from the broad to the specific, or from the specific to the broad. And talk about my specific experiences. Hopefully in that order (laughs) but I may jump around. I’ll start with my introduction:

ʔuklaasiš hašiiʔukmis uksa. ʔuklaasiš ciikapt aksa. Hist̓ḥšiʔats wahinux̣ḥ takumƛaḥt ehattis. Hist̓ḥšiʔats hašaḥt ahous.

Nature scene showing water, small land masses covered in rocks and trees, and blue/grey cloudy skies.
Photograph of ʔiiḥatisatḥ territory. Photo by Anthony Carter, 1972. MOA Archive #a038135. Anthony Carter fonds.

Jacquie: So, I’ve told you my name is hašiiʔukmis uksa from the hašaḥt of Ahousaht, and I’ve told you that my other name is uksa and I originally belong to ʔiiḥatisatḥ (Ehattesaht), my father’s community. And I’ve also told you I belong to my mother’s community of Ahousaht. My name is Jacquie, and I was born into the ʔiiḥatisatḥ community, a long time ago – I’ve got a few seasons behind me. I had six wonderful years in a small, isolated community being raised by my parents and especially by my grandfather. Back then at the age of six I was taken to the Indian Residential School called Christie, near Tofino.1 And I spent five years in that school.

I was more fortunate than others in my cohort who went to Residential School full time. I spent two years in grade four and five at home with my mom – an experience that kinda helped me at the end of my Residential School experience. Some people didn’t transition as easily as I did. We were assimilated into integrated school in grade seven. I went to high school and floundered in that institution. In grade nine, I signed up for an Algebra class. Because that was one of the requirements for going on into university and in grade eight and nine I wanted to go to university. I signed up in September and there was seven of us Indigenous students, and by October I was the only one left.

I didn’t have the words to name what I was experiencing back then. But it was like, if I put my hand up to ask a question, I was ignored. If I put my hand up to respond to a question, I was ignored. The teacher just ignored me. And in grade nine I didn’t have the language to speak to call it racism, you know, what I was experiencing back then. I was so beaten in that class, you know? And people tried to help me, but when you’re getting battered by three or four different areas in your life and you’re trying to survive – it’s sometimes hard, being an Indian Residential School survivor. And it’s hard to see the magic people are handing me when other people are trying to bash me over the head.

I was twenty-nine when I entered into college, and the challenges of being a single-mom and moving into the city from my geographic isolation into a college setting, there were barriers. You know? And I reflect back to my teachings from my Nan (Grandfather) in the brief summers we had out of Residential School. And he taught me resilience skills. And my life has been full of getting over barriers. I finished my BA Social Work degree in 1996. And I went to work.

I still don’t understand why the Ancestors have guided me to a Social Work degree and towards the work, but I just have complete faith that I am meant to be doing what I’m doing no matter how challenging it is. And I’ve had some really good work experience and I’ve been able to accomplish a lot and be successful. For example, through my time of work I’ve been able to “steal” back ninety-two children from the system and create permanency. That’s the kinda work that feeds my soul, because that system is identified as extremely racist. When we look at the number of children in care of Child Welfare Authorities, it’s over 60 percent of Indigenous children. And there are a lot of reasons for that.

The number one is genocide. The genocidal attempts of the Canadian government on Indigenous people in Canada. And with the Ministry (the way that I’ve come to understand it) is that political will changes, and in 2015 we had the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report and MCFD (The Ministry of Children and Family Development) flexed and changed and moved the political direction. But it takes some time in a system for that political direction (that senior level) to filter down from the top to the individual frontline social workers who are engaging with Indigenous populations. Even though we have broad political decisions, we need to find a way to change the practices of the way the people who are engaging with Indigenous people at the frontline. Because Indigenous people are still experiencing racism.

If we take a look at what happened south of the forty-ninth parallel just in the last couple of weeks and compare it to the experiences of the spring and summer of 2020, where we had a serious movement called “Black Lives Matter” and protests happening not only south of the forty-ninth but also up here in our country. And to have the occurrence last week happen2, where terrorists of a different colour were able to storm federal property, armed, and angry and violent, and they were not met with the same force that the Black Lives Movement were met with last summer. And that to me is probably one of the ultimate examples of how people of colour are treated differently.

Another example that comes to my mind is Colten Boushie who was shot by a white landowner in Saskatchewan while he was sleeping in the front seat of a car and killed.3 In a lunchroom conversation with three or four social workers (who are working in provincial office, mind you,) we all had a conversation about it. And it’s like, that filtering we do about the biases we have. Their argument was he was trespassing. And I was like, “He was asleep in a car that another person was driving.” And they didn’t even bother reading into it that Colten Boushie was actually asleep in the car being driven onto the property. And they didn’t seek to clarify the information. And these are social workers who were supporting the administration of major decisions on Indigenous peoples lives. But they had that bias; they didn’t bother to seek more of the information of the whole story. The information that was readily available. I don’t know if it was just the Indigenous people that were talking about him actually being asleep in the front seat of the car? Or if the non-Indigenous were just not talking about that part. But there are layers to that incident and the way it was reported, and the media plays a large part in perpetuating the racism in our communities.

The other example I think of is Chantel Moore and how the police responded to that, a call for help. 4 So, the police response to that was somebody holding a knife is shot. Fatally. And within a month or two of that somebody storms Rideau Hall but is armed, and they take him alive? 5 And he was non-Indigenous, right? So that’s another one of the systemically racist responses by non-Indigenous towards Indigenous people.

I didn’t finish telling you about my schooling. In 2002 I entered into the Master of Arts in Conflict Analysis and Management at Royal Roads University and my interest in that day and age was around the treaty process and in developing mechanisms, identifying them and analysing them, and then developing solutions. Such as solutions to boundary overlaps, to conflicts between council and the hereditary system which the treaty process was built on. One of my classes was Indigenous Ways of Knowing, and we had some really heartfelt conversations. And in that class the professor approved my using a narrative of my Indigenous way of writing all my papers (including citations), so I orated my papers. And I identified an academic challenge I had with him, that there are some things from an Indigenous way of knowing that we know – but we can’t cite. Because we can’t cite them to a specific person. So, we had a conversation about it and he gave me permission to orate.

And I took a couple classes and in each of my papers I would write my traditional introduction which takes up a bit of the page. I didn’t do this for every subsequent paper, only for my first initial paper with a new instructor. And in one of my classes I submitted my paper, and the instructor turned it back. And she said, “Those six hundred words you used in your introduction could be better applied to other points in your paper.” So, I entered into a literary debate with her and I kept my introduction. And I said to her that I experienced her rejection of my paper as culturally insensitive and not in the spirit of “reconciliation.” And that experienced burnt, you know? When I got her email saying that she was rejecting my paper because of my introduction. And I remember feeling like I just wanted to quit. It was Mr. Thompson and me putting up my hand in algebra all over again, back to grade nine.

Black and white photo of a totem pole totem pole on ʔiiḥatisatḥ territory. Trees are in the background.
Photograph of a totem pole on ʔiiḥatisatḥ territory. Photo by Anthony Carter, 1972. MOA Archive #a038159. Anthony Carter fonds.

And culturally there’s a reason why I do my introduction like that. In our styles of orating in the past, we introduce ourselves. I’m introducing myself. I am saying “I am from here – from Ahousaht.” This identifies to the audience (usually because before when we didn’t have transportations and what not, people liked to travel to Ahousaht by canoe, you know?) So, I’m telling them I’m from the hašaḥt of Ahousaht. Which identifies the house that I come from, which identifies some of my roles and responsibilities. So, as I’m introducing myself, I’m giving context to the audience to who I am. I am offering to you where I come from and this is where my worldview and this is how I think about things. This is how I process things. This is how I see my world and how I operate within my world. And generally, this introduction should be reciprocated.

I had a conversation with Dr. Heinz who was an Associate Dean at the time about my degree. I let them know about my experience I had with the previous instructor rejecting my paper, and I said “You know, I’ve struggled my whole life with trying to fit into the boxes of the academy. I have struggled throughout my whole time at university, through my BSW and through this Interdisciplinary Studies Masters and I’ve tried to fit into the boxes. I’ve tried to fit into the academy. I want your approval for me to take the approach to see how the academy fits into my Indigeneity.” And it’s a different view, right? It’s a different view. For me it’s like, the metaphor that’s coming to me is like, this great big butcher knife that dissects everything. Because that’s the way Western thinkers do it is, to dissect it down to the smallest. Yet Indigenous ways of knowing will take a look at this and see how it interacts with everything else – flowering. So, take a flower for example. A Western thinker dissects the flower down to the smallest part to come to understandings about it. They come away with their understandings – but the flower is good for nothing, because it has been dissected down to the smallest part. Indigenous ways of knowing, I’m going to credit Phil Lane Sr.6  for this teaching: Indigenous ways of knowing will take a look at the flower, where it’s standing, and see how it interacts with the weather, with the bees, with the creepy crawlies, with the other plants around it, with its roots, with the soil. And once they’ve studied it and come to understand it the flower is still there and still alive.

So, I completed that and I convocated in November of 2019 with a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary studies. And when completing that, you get to convocation and everyone says, “What are you gonna wear?” I am a person who went to Indian Residential School, grew up in my community until age six then went to Indian Residential School for grade two, three, and four. I studied grade four and five at home with my mom, and then went back to Indian Residential School for grade six and seven. Grades eight and nine were in a larger institution where I experienced racism, and where many attempts were made to assimilate me.

Another thing with that is I grew up as a 5’9 woman in a community of 5’2 women. And there’s a point to me saying this in that I was discriminated against from my own community. And because of that I didn’t participate in my cultural dances (because of my own self-esteem and being battered at Indian Residential School). And I didn’t learn to dance, and because I didn’t learn to dance, I didn’t have regalia. And most of my adult life has been spent in an urban context – with brief times back at Ahousaht. And so, it’s challenging when people are asking me, “What are you gonna wear?” One of the things I worked really hard on is when people were taking photos at my grad, I’d be holding my wrist – because on my wrist is a cedar bracelet (laughs). When I’m reaching out to shake the hands of the person on the stage I’m reaching out and showing people that I have the cedar bracelet. I don’t know why I’m telling you that story. But there’s even that expectation in my government work that I wear regalia. And I’m not somebody that’s gonna don regalia for any other reason, you know? There’s an expectation that we do it that I experience as racist. So, I just wear Western regalia (laughs).

I’ll just make this closing comment. I participated in this really great conversation with the Royal Roads University Indigenous Advisory Committee, and one of the conversations we had was around intractable conflicts. And I’ll try and find the article to forward to you, but the article was about conflicts that are deep and layered, multifaceted. They are considered intractable conflicts. They are complex. The Wet’suwet’en and the pipeline conflict, for instance. It’s about resources and colonization, but it’s also about the different worldviews. But one of the things the conversation we had led to the question of: Why are Indigenous people always expected to do the heavy lifting in reconciliation? Why are we always approached to answer the question of how people can decolonize themselves? And out of this conversation I came up with the volleying response: I would like you to tell me the ways you are colonial? Because they come to us and are like “Well how do you stop racism?” Well, tell me how you’re racist first. People of colour are always expected to deconstruct our experiences for them, when the heavy work that they should be doing themselves is identifying the ways they are racist within themselves.

I like this YouTube video of Jane Elliot7 where she asks an audience: “Put your hands up if you are willing to trade places with people of colour in America today.” And she says, “You didn’t hear my question? If you are willing to trade places with people of colour in America today, put your hand up.” And nobody is putting their hands up. This is one of my favourite videos. Then she says, “That tells me you know what’s going on, and you don’t want to experience it.”

End notes:
1 The Christie Roman Catholic School, which was located on Meares Island, was the longest Indian Residential School in operation in British Columbia and was open until 1983.
2 The storming of the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2021.
3 Colten Boushie was a twenty-two-year-old Indigenous man from Cree Red Pheasant First Nation who was shot and killed on a rural farm in Saskatchewan by Gerald Stanley, a Caucasian farmer, in 2016. Stanley stood trial for second-degree murder and the lesser charge of manslaughter and was acquitted in 2018.
4 Chantel Moore was a twenty-six-year-old Indigenous woman from Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation who was shot and killed by New Brunswick police after they were called to do a wellness check on her on June 4, 2020
5 On July 2, 2020, Corey Hurren, a Caucasian military reservist from Manitoba rammed a gate at Rideau Hall while heavily armed, heading towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s home.
6 Chief Phil Lane Sr. is an internationally recognized leader in human and community development and has worked with Indigenous peoples across the globe on Indigenous rights. He is of the Chickasaw and Ihanktonwan Dakota Nation.
7 Jane Elliot is an American diversity educator, known for her famous “Blue eyes/Brown eyes” exercise conducted the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to educate her third-grade class on racism.