Words have meaning.  Words can hurt.  It doesn’t matter if you grasp their full meaning or if have any intent to hurt someone with a particular word, their meaning is fixed and absolute. Don’t believe me?  Try walking into the Ottawa airport and shouting BOMB really, really loud.  Try the same thing at the front gates of the American Embassy.  Oh, here’s a good one, I dare you to walk right up to your wife or girlfriend or significant other with a big smile on your face on call her the infamous B word (but be sure to let her know its only word).  Better yet, walk into Harlem and yell the N word at the top of your lungs, then get back to me and let me know how well any of these experiments turned out.  Or if you’re feeling really adventurous, take a trip to Russia, walk right into the middle of Red Square and scream GAY PRIDE over and over (just don’t send me your dental bill).  So when someone complains that the name of a sports team is discriminatory and their logo racist, everyone should take a moment to think it through a little before resorting to their reflexive eye roll and false indignation.

On Tuesday, Ian Campeau (an Ojibway Aboriginal and member of Polaris nominated band A Tribe Called Red) filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal objecting to the name and logo of the Nepean Redskins minor league football team.  He feels the branding is discriminatory against Canadian Aboriginals (and he’s right, but more on that later) and this story is painfully similar to the protest that resulted last February when Ottawa’s new National Basketball League of Canada franchise announced they were going to be called the Tomahawks (which was probably nothing more a marketing stunt to get everyone in Ottawa talking about basketball for a day instead of hockey-why else do you think they were able to unveil a brand new name and logo just a few weeks later?).

A lot of the public feedback on this story resembles the same recycled arguments from many previous arguments on the same topic.  People are tossing out the reliable “politically over-correct,” and “language police” criticisms and the “its only a word, it only has the power we give it” line has been thrown around more than the proverbial football.  And I’ve read a lot of comments actually arguing the validity of the word redskins as a racist term or outright mocking of Campeau’s complaint.  And if someone hasn’t tried to assassinate Campeau’s character yet, it’s only a matter of time.

Look up redskins in any dictionary you want and it will tell you, by its very definition, the word is a racially derogatory term for all First Nations Peoples.  Not one dictionary that isn’t written by a neo-nazi will tell you it’s an acceptable word.  And whether or not someone knows it’s meaning, it’s history or even the intent behind using it is irrelevant.  If your child were to yell out the N word in the playground, would you laugh it off and dismiss it with a “kids will be kids smile?”  What if they used it while talking to someone who was black, despite not knowing what it meant?  Would it be acceptable?  And would anyone defend a team name that included the N word (or any other racially offensive term for any other identifiable group)?  Of course they wouldn’t.  And while some members of the Aboriginal community my accept the term, there are many who are offended by it, and consider it just as offensive and degrading.  So why is calling a football team played by teenagers redskins acceptable?

You’re going to find the majority of people who are up in arms over this complaint are mostly white, which makes my next point even more potent.  Like it or not, Canada (and the United States) inherited a legacy of genocide.  Each and every First Nation in North America was brutally slaughtered by invading white, European imperialists.  Canada’s methods weren’t always as brutal as the Americans, but just as lethal.  Our preferred methods of cultural erasure included starvation, biological warfare (giving Aboriginals blankets infected with fatal diseases) and addiction.  Historians are in agreement that well over 120 million aboriginals were massacred by the territories and colonies that would become Canada and the United States (Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany pale by comparison).  Canada’s Residential schools, responsible for the deaths of an estimated 3000 children and an unacceptable amount of sexual, physical and emotional suffering, typifies the abuse and neglect we’ve visited upon the descendants of the cultures our ancestors tried so hard to exterminate.  The Canadian and American reserve system was even studied by South Africa as a model for their Apartheid system.  Yes, Canada’s treatment of its Aboriginal community was almost inspiration for one of the greatest humanitarian crimes of the twentieth century.  Given that blood soaked history and the deplorable conditions faced by Aboriginals today (a shockingly high teenage suicide rate among them), maybe we should back away from using racist names for minor league sports?  After all, how tasteless would it be if a German minor league football team named itself The Jews?  Or one in Mississippi called itself The Negroes?

Campeau didn’t accuse the team of outright racism, and he isn’t seeking any damages or demanding that the team stop playing.  He simply wants them to abandon the name and logo many members of the Aboriginal community find racially offensive (and he’s backed up by every dictionary on the planet).  He’s even said he’d be willing to raise money to help them buy new gear.  But let’s reverse the question; what if there was an Aboriginal team (or Black or Hispanic or Asian) that called themselves the Krackers (or Honkeys or Klansmen)?  Don’t you think a lot of white people would be a bit pissed?  Or would the names merely be words, invested only with the power we give them?

Shayne Kempton

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2 thoughts on “STICKS AND STONES

  1. Teepee12 says:

    Great article. I had a similarly themed argument not long ago with a blogger who just wouldn’t get it. He never will. Actually, I would LOVE to see a Native team called the Honkeys. I would laugh my ass off and not stop for a decade or two.

    The problem is you are rational, logical, and would never let YOUR kid use racial slurs. Sadly, you are untypical. Most people are bigoted and stupid. I spent my life thinking I could present a good argument and convince people. One day, not long ago, I realized the people I am trying to convince don’t want to be confused by facts. Or rational arguments. Their minds are made up.

    Now, I visualize putting duct tape over their stupid mouths. I hold that image in the front of my mind. It keeps me from getting crazy.

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