There is a couple of things that trouble me about the most recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine (July 20, 2012). Both have to do with the cover story on Canadian singer/ superstar Justin Bieber. The specific quote is as follows:
"He's wearing a Chicago Blackhawks cap ("I'm actually part Indian," he says — "I think Inuit or something? I'm enough percent that in Canada I can get free gas"), a blue short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts that hang all the way off his butt."
I, like several Indigenous tweeters, have commented on Twitter and Facebook (I fell victim to the desire to make the free gas joke about chili and beans, my apologies). Most of the commentary has been calling out and/or making light of his claim of Aboriginality, but there has been an edge to it. Mr. Bieber's comments point to a lack of knowledge about the reality of the Indigenous experience in Canada and presents a misinformed understanding of the rights and privileges enjoyed by First Nations peoples and other Aboriginal groups.
I have spent a lot of time correcting the misinformation that students and teachers have about Aboriginal people's and the so-called privileges we "enjoy". Often I run into an unwillingness to acknowledge truth instead of the wrong bit of knowledge. I have been told I'm lying or have a chip on my shoulder or that somehow I am mistaken. When an Aboriginal person challenges the Canadian mindset on Aboriginal issues, we often face a lot of anger. Giving a workshop once to a group of teachers, i spent a lot of time talking about the residential school experience and the legacy it has given to our students. Even with an Elder present, who shared her experience of residential school, there were some teachers who challenged our claims as not being possible. It is exhausting to have to try to bring understanding and knowledge to people who don't want to understand.
The trouble here is I can't blame Mr. Bieber for has lack of understanding. I have, in teaching my students, been forced to defend my decision to discuss Aboriginal issues in my courses. Why would I teach about Attawapiskat in a Planning class? Why should I teach about the health and safety challenges of an oppressed group in Canada? Because I am teaching Canadians how to live in Canada and if I am tasked to teach them that it is okay to not challenge what happens in Attawapiskat or that Indians get free gas, than I have failed as a teacher of young people. Worse I have failed the ideal that drove me into education: to help create a better future for Aboriginal people. I worry that our education system, in failing to consider the true need of Aboriginal Education for the general population is betraying the ideals of reconciliation and education.
We can be nasty about it with Mr. Bieber, make fun of him and make jokes about our "privilege", but what are educators doing? Justin Bieber is an international superstar and is considered a role model by many, many young people in Canada and beyond. What he says is absorbed and remembered. Will the education system step up and respond, learn to teach the reality and challenge the assumptions or will it be left to frustrated and demoralized Aboriginal people to speak their truth again and wonder if anyone is listening.