BY IAN PATTISON
Lessons on race relations in this country are coming hard and fast.
The City of Thunder Bay has twice run afoul of aboriginal culture in its use -- real and imagined -- of the sacred thunderbird symbol.
In 1992 it commissioned as one of its first public art installations a piece called Animikii, “a thunderbird with outstretched reflective wings.”
The idea incorporated aboriginal symbolism in a city with a long history of relations with aboriginal people, a city said to be named after a translation of Animike Wekwed, “Thunder Bird Bay.”
The intention was sincere but it did not take long for a backlash that accused the city of purloining native culture. The gorgeous sculpture remains a centrepiece of Kam River Heritage Park -- a stylized thunderbird is even featured on the city’s logo -- but for some it will always be a symbol of minority abuse.
It seems that city hall forgot that lesson when it unveiled its 50th anniversary mascot recently, a big bird costume that to some looks a bit like a thunderbird, albeit a goofy one. The city released a video describing a “general bird character” named Thunder. As in Thunder Bay.
Coun. Shelby Ch’ng, chair of the city’s 50th anniversary committee, said she was taken aback by critical online comparisons between Thunder and a thunderbird but nevertheless opted to remove images of the new mascot from the city website and begin the search for a new name.
Really? The character was vetted in 2019 with the city’s elders council and Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins. But because a few critics find fault with a vague resemblance to an aboriginal symbol, the whole project is on hold while something suitable to the politically-correct is concocted.
It isn’t the first minority mess capturing headlines. Consider the case of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam and the RCMP. But first, consider this scenario.
The police pull up behind your vehicle. What do you do? The rule is clear: Don’t get out. Wait for an officer to approach you.
Chief Adam didn’t do that when RCMP stopped behind his truck in the parking lot of a Fort McMurray casino on the night of March 10. Police noticed the licence plate sticker was out of date and were on their radio checking the vehicle registration when Chief Adam got out and approached the police car uttering a stream of profanity.
An officer is heard telling Chief Adam in a reasonable voice that he will be out to explain things soon and to return to the truck, which Adam does while police activate their roof lights. Things have escalated a notch.
Chief Adam returns to the cruiser, still swearing, and is again told to go back to his truck. He stares at the police.
At the three-minute mark on the police dash cam video, an officer gets out and goes to the driver’s door to speak with the chief’s wife, reportedly the designated driver. Adam gets in the other side as the officer explains the reason they stopped.
That might have been the end of it, but for a warning or a ticket. Instead, Chief Adam jumps out, takes off his jacket and challenges the officer to fight. His wife gets out and words are exchanged with the officer who, for reasons that aren’t clear (voices are inaudible) tries to arrest her. Adam pushes the officer who then tries to arrest him.
Backup arrives and Const. Simon Seguin runs at a struggling Adam, tackles and punches him to subdue him. This action caused an uproar. Even the prime minister said he has “serious questions” about the arrest.
We expect police to do the necessary work that few of us are willing to take on. It can be tough. Most try their best in difficult circumstances.
The first officer in this case exhibited calm in the face of repeated confrontation by Chief Adam, who was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a peace officer. Seguin will surely say that he used force befitting the situation. The full 12-minute video is worth watching in order to decide.
RCMP say their officer’s actions were justified. Others say he used excessive violence.
Despite the video evidence, the charges against Chief Adam have since been dropped. A decent cop has been publicly second-guessed. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said that the RCMP should suspend Seguin until the province's police watchdog concludes its investigation.
Over at the CBC, veteran journalist Wendy Mesley is in trouble.
Thunder Bay residents might remember Mesley as guest speaker at the 2009 Luncheon of Hope for breast cancer and in 1990 as guest, with then-husband Peter Mansbridge, at a local press club function. In both cases we saw a woman who was charming and self-assured.
For 35 years Mesley has been a top-notch reporter and program host on CBC Television. That all ended abruptly on June 10 when CBC announced it was suspending Mesley as host of The Weekly pending an internal investigation into her use of “a word that should never be used.”
Mesley uttered the n-word to paraphrase a journalist they were considering as a guest for a show exploring the Black Lives Matter movement. It was not used as “a slur,” Mesley said in a contrite statement, “but in my desire to share and expose an outrage amid this much-need reckoning with anti-Black racism.” She has since apologized.
The matter became problematic for the CBC when associate producer Imani Walker, who is Black, posted a Tweet that said she was on the call when Mesley used the word, adding “I'm seeing tons of support for her but in reality, the behaviour is anti-Black.”
Walker said that use of the n-word at work re-traumatizes Black and Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC) and "weaponizes the space to protect someone like Wendy, while leaving BIPOC journalists to feel unseen, unheard & unsafe."
The Weekly is over for the season and Mesley’s future with the public broadcaster is unclear. This episode confirms just how careful the majority of Canadians need to be when discussing racial issues. As Mesley’s case shows, even those who are fully supportive of minorities must be careful to use language that respects them.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.