Premier David Eby must not overlook British Columbia context of Minister Selina Robinson’s hurtful comments

Feb 4, 2024 | Blog, Governance, Indigenous | 0 comments

Calls for Premier David Eby to replace Advanced Education Minister Selina Robinson grow louder following comments she made at an online forum last week.

Calling the comments “wrong” and “hurtful” the Premier also said,

“We are in positions of authority, responsibility, and power. And that brings with it an expectation on the part of all British Columbians that when we take on these roles, that we do not use them to belittle or dismiss anybody or any community, whether in our province or elsewhere. And I expressed my disappointment to her about not meeting that standard.”

Premier Eby is hoping that by accepting Minister Robinson’s inadequate apology, that he can push aside her deeply offensive comments.

Likewise, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh made a partial statement that acknowledges the harmful comments, attempts to contain the harm, and also ends with no substantial call to action.

Despite the international nature, the harm of Minister Robinson’s comments must be applied to our provincial context because she herself made the connection. There are three parts of the Minister’s statement that directly apply to contemporary Indigenous-Crown relations in British Columbia. When viewed through this perspective it reveals a deeply troubling moral fracture that the BC NDP must address.

The three parts of Minister Robinson’s comments are as follows.

    1. “it was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it…”
    2. “you know there were several hundred thousand people, but other than that, it didn’t produce an economy, it couldn’t grow things, it didn’t have anything on it.”
    3. “if there was a conflict between the Tsleil-Waututh and the Squamish Nations over a piece of land, would we weigh in? Regular people.”

First, it is important to understand that the notion of a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it” is a racist idea that empowered colonial exploits for hundreds of years. Minister Robinson is advancing the same argument grounded in the doctrine of discovery and terra nullius that I wrote about at length here.

The phrase “with nothing on it” may seem like a throw away, however, it is fully loaded with meaning.  As Bob Joseph, author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes, “if the lands were not occupied by Christians they were vacant and therefore could be defined as “discovered” and sovereignty, dominion, title and jurisdiction claimed. If the land was defined as empty it was free for the taking.” Joseph continues, “Euro-Americans often considered lands that were actually owned, occupied, and being actively utilized by indigenous people to be “vacant” and available for Discovery claims if they were not being “properly used” according to European and American law and culture.”

Second, the diminishment of the “you know several hundred thousand people” needs immediate and forceful resistance because it is a racist and destructive narrative pushed by Minister Robinson. Whether she meant it or not, by linking “several hundred thousand people” with the previous phrase “crappy piece of land with nothing on it” she reduces the “several hundred thousand people” to irrelevance.

This is a problem in the international context which she raises it. It is a problem in the context of her role as a Minister of the Crown in British Columbia. These are familiar colonial narratives that North American leaders and governments used to diminish Indigenous people in order to justify their claims of sovereignty over the “discovered” and “empty” land as well as many other despicable genocidal acts they deployed over decades.

If you want to begin to explore the growing body of academic literature on the topic of so-called vacant land and its dispossession in our British Columbia context, and how these ideas are directly connected with the philosophy of 17th century John Locke, you could start with this piece published by Cliff Atleo and Jonathan Boron in 2022.

By accepting the Minister’s apology with no meaningful consequences, Premier Eby is actually accepting a narrative that diminishes a “few hundred thousand people” just has been done here in British Columbia for more than 175 years. We must forcefully reject that narrative because if there are “a few hundred thousand people” on the land then we should know now in 2024 that the land is not empty.

This is entirely relevant to the jurisdiction in which Minister Robinson and Premier Eby are responsible for. Joseph states, “North America was far from vacant when European explorers began arriving. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, the lands were indeed occupied by 100 million Indigenous Peoples or one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. But, as they were not Christians, they were not humans.” Humans are humans and deserve to be recognized as such. Right?

Let to stand unchallenged this hurtful language is dangerous and continues to perpetuate a worldview that was articulated in 1901 by WIlliam McGee, the first American Anthropological Association (AAA) president, who is quoted as saying “through observation of a typical [Native American] tribe,” it was clear that “the savage stands strikingly close to sub-human species in every aspect.” It should be noted that on November 17, 2022, the AAA apologized for the “traumatic effects of anthropology’s enduring legacy on Indigenous communities.”

Finally, I don’t think I need to get too academic with the “regular people” quote. It is clear Minister Robinson is not considering the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish, as “regular people.”

It appears Minister Robinson holds a uniquely non-21st century belief it is okay to classify humans, if not hierarchically then perhaps just basically as “regular” and “non-regular.” I imagine it could be argued that she is suggesting that the “regular people” are below the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish and that her opinion is that the latter are extraordinary and exceptional. However, when linking all the comments together, as part of her complete presentation, that would require a special kind of gymnastics that frankly even my most empathetic self lacks the flexibility.

What we can conclude from Premier Eby and Singh is that they are setting a dangerous example by allowing harmful behaviour from Minister Robinson to stand with no consequences.

Ideas are not benign, they can and have caused great harm. It was Minister Robinson who chose to link the global and local contexts making it not possible to separate her broader statements from the experience that Indigenous people in British Columbia have had with colonial governments over more than a century and a half. It is entirely inappropriate to attempt to contain it and not apply it here. Inexplicably, Minister Robinson is still a member of the executive council of British Columbia.

How does any member of the BC NDP Caucus, or any potential candidate considering running with this party, also stand by and accept the arguments that the comments of Minister Robinson can be contained to an international humanitarian catastrophe when they are so applicable to the Indigenous experience in British Columbia?

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