What’s in a word? ‘Systemic racism’ a roadblock in wake of Perry Trimper incident

In a meeting between Innu leadership and Premier Dwight Ball in the wake of controversy over then-cabinet minister Perry Trimper’s comments about the Innu, there was a sticking point: are the Innu of Labrador facing systemic racism or institutional racism?

Peter Penashue, former Innu Nation chief and federal Conservative cabinet minister, said the difference of opinion was telling.

“Innu Nation, we were calling it systemic racism because this is not in isolation, this is quite common, it’s happening in all of the hospitals, correctional centres, police, social services,” Penashue said during a recent interview on racism with CBC News.

“The premier was insisting on calling it institutional racism, and that was the stumbling block to concluding the communique.”

Penashue said Ball said it wasn’t systemic but it was particular individuals within the systems that are problematic — not the system as a whole.

“We were saying, ‘No, no, it’s right across the board.”

Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich and land claim negotiator Peter Penashue. (Bailey White/CBC)

To expedite the process, Penashue said the Innu Nation agreed to drop their term.

“I found it interesting that a couple weeks ago, the same premier said there is systemic racism in his government,” Penashue said.

“I said, wow, what happened between September and May … six months?”

According to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, systemic racism stems from policies and practices in established institutions which results in favouring one group over another. “It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary,” the centre says. 

Within that form of racism, there’s institutional racism: “racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society,” and structural racism, which the civil liberties centre says is “inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions.”

Penashue said a commitment was also made to review institutions where the Innu Nation says racism exists, but he said he hasn’t heard if there’s been any progress since September 2019 when the meeting was held. 

Working group underway: premier

Ball declined an interview with CBC News about the meeting, and instead forwarded a statement that emphasized the term institutional racism and the government’s pledge to fight against it.

“​In collaborating with the Innu Nation, we are establishing a working group ​that​ will have a mandate to develop concrete measures to ensure elected officials and government employees have an understanding and appreciation of Innu culture, values and history,” Ball’s statement said.

“We are pleased that progress is being achieved on the commitment to ensure Innu people are treated with dignity, equality and respect.”

Ball said a draft terms of reference is now under consideration by the Innu Nation and the provincial government. He said the plan will be implemented for all government programs and services. 

“There have been many social efforts, campaigns, and voices that have shone a light on longstanding and systemic racism,” Ball said.

“As a society, we all have to consider the actions we can take to support the ideas and solutions that elevate tolerance and diversity. These actions have to be incorporated in our everyday lives, our workplaces, in the policies of governments and institutions, and our communities.”

When asked for clarity, a spokesperson from Ball’s office said the meeting in question was about the “institution of government, an elected official, and the provision of services to Innu members.”

“This is not about a divide of institutional and systemic racism,” the spokesperson said. 

In an open letter posted on his Twitter page about Black Lives Matter movement, Ball commended protesters for shining a light on “longstanding and systemic racism.”

Meanwhile, in a separate interview with CBC News Friday, Ball said, “It was institutional racism at that particular point that was dealt with.”

He added: “In terms of systemic racism, I’ve never shied away that as a society we need to deal with this and that racism should never be tolerated in any form.”

Difference of language but hopeful for better future

Natuashish Innu Grand Chief Gregory Rich said the meeting went well with the premier, but said his staff later indicated there were difficulties with the language surrounding institutional and systemic racism.

“I think it’s both. When the Perry Trimper incident came out, when it was on our agenda, we noticed that systemic racism was part of the government and the fact was there,” Rich said.

“Perry Trimper was commenting on a ‘race card’ issue. It’s in the government and I was surprised that the province denied that.”

Trimper, who remains the MHA for Lake Melville but is no longer in cabinet, was unintentionally recorded on a voicemail saying that the “race card” is played by Innu people from “time to time.”

He later apologized and was removed from cabinet.

Gregory Rich is the Innu Nation Grand Chief. (Bailey White/CBC)

Rich said Indigenous people in Labrador continue to feel the effects of racism in government departments.

“It’s like we’re getting a second-hand treatment,” he said, citing health care given at Labrador-Grenfell Health.

As grand chief, Rich said he is constantly hearing issues from Innu people, and he said an overhaul is long overdue.

“We need to work together and get an understanding of the different treatment of all races in Labrador,” he said.

“They need to understand where we are coming from. They need to know how racism is affecting us on our lives. It’s an emotional distress.”

Read more by CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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