Deacon Michael James Robinson has a lifetime of experience that tells him systemic racism is real and it’s embedded in Canadian history and culture.
The reality of racism has a way of hitting Indigenous Canadians hard. Robinson was hit with it — and a police vehicle — just a couple months after he was ordained in 2015.
“I had a police vehicle charge at me on the street because I was wearing my (clerical) shirt and collar,” said Robinson, recounting how the vehicle jumped the curb before it “clipped me with their mirror.”
The Indigenous deacon and hospital chaplain at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre was then interrogated in a manner that belittled him as an Indigenous person and a deacon.
“He (the officer) says, ‘What’s with the collar, Chief? Is there a new gang in town?’ ” Robinson recalled.
As a high school student, Robinson was accused of cheating if he did well on exams. In the workforce, he was passed over for jobs.
So he was not surprised last year when both the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) handed down reports detailing examples of overt racism and racial bias among Thunder Bay police.
“Systemically, it does exist,” he said. “Discrimination and racism does exist, and systematically it exists within many platforms in our society.”
Robinson will get no argument from Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain, who represents the Canadian bishops on the Guadalupe Circle — a group of Indigenous Catholics and clergy who promote healing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Catholics.
“There is clearly an uneven playing field,” Chatlain said.
Chatlain saw that uneven playing field in action while he was taking Dene language courses at First Nations University in Regina. During class one day the fire alarm went off and everybody ended up on the sidewalk waiting for the fire trucks. The trucks pulled to a stop outside the building and a firefighter immediately came to Chatlain, asking for details about the alarm.
“Because I was the white guy,” explained Chatlain. “I just thought, ‘Why did you choose to come to me out of this group?’ There were older people. There were the professors there. It just brought home that we have certain associations that we make that we’re not even really aware of.”
Easy assumptions, racial profiling and bias that sometimes expresses itself in violence has poisoned police-Indigenous relations, said Robinson.
“I have grandchildren. They’re seven and five years old. I tell them, ‘You can’t trust the police here in the city,’ ” said Robinson. “We teach them not to talk to the police. We teach them to distance. We teach them they need an adult if the police come around.”
The only other group of Canadians who need to warn their children about police are black Canadians, the deacon said.
Robinson doesn’t want white Canadians to feel guilty.
“To bring about awareness of systemic racism is not about making people feel guilty,” he said.
The point is to change the system, he said.
“How can we work together? Together to make a good change. How can we address it? To address something as big as systemic racism, you have to restructure so many different platforms in life. It’s a big task. It’s not going to happen in our lifetime.”
It’s not a task the Church can observe from the sidelines, said Chatlain.
“We’re always called to an option for the poor. We look to see who are most stricken by poverty, by voicelessness. Then we’re called to try to bring our voice to that in a healthy way. That would be our call in these situations.”