‘It made me feel fear and anger’: Ontario’s Regional Chief reflects on his first brush with racism

Ontario's Regional Chief Isadore Day speaks about #FirstTimeIwasCalled

Ontario’s Regional Chief Isadore Day was in Grade 2 when a group of children called him a “wagon burner.”

At first, the words confused him, but he quickly realized the name reminded him of something he had once seen in a western movie: First Nations people causing chaos, acting violent, and setting fire to wagons.

Day knew the words weren’t true but the taunts still stung.

“It made me feel shame. It made me feel fear and anger,” he said.

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“That was a very offensive term that I didn’t fully understand, but I knew what I saw in the western movies and I saw how native people were depicted and they were depicted as violent, as unruly and as being very disregarding to white people.”

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READ MORE: Farah Nasser: My first experience with racism

Day is Ojibway. He was born in Elliot Lake, and grew up on Serpent River First Nation Reserve in Ontario, where he was elected chief in 2005.

Global News anchor Farah Nasser spoke with Day about this experience as part of #FirstTimeIwasCalled — a series of interviews with high-profile Canadians about the first time they experienced racism or discrimination and how that experience affected them.

READ MORE: ‘It’s a traumatic moment’: How everyday racism can impact mental, physical health

Over the past decade, Day said people have been educated about racial slurs like “wagon burner” and “squaw” and the words aren’t frequently used, but he adds, racism against indigenous people still exists in Ontario, in more subtle and institutionalized forms.

WATCH: Ontario’s Regional Chief Isadore Day speaks about #FirstTimeIwasCalled

Ontario’s Regional Chief Isadore Day speaks about #FirstTimeIwasCalled
Ontario’s Regional Chief Isadore Day speaks about #FirstTimeIwasCalled

“There are levels and layers of racism and discrimination and we’re now past the point of just the obvious glaring uttering of these types of names. People generally know that’s wrong. Then there are other levels and layers that we’re dealing with of racism and discrimination that are more institutional,” Day said.

“And basically it’s because we haven’t removed that one race-based piece of legislation in this country that still exists to this day: the Indian Act.”

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Day said in the 1870s, when settlers first came to Canada, they entered into treaties, meant to share the land with indigenous people.

The #FirstTimeIWasCalled project:

Part 1: Jagmeet Singh

Part 2: Jully Black

Part 3: Farheen Khan

Part 4: Kathleen Wynne

“We first entered into peace and friendship treaties, but what colonial governments did in those early days is they established policies and laws of their own mind and of their own might,” he said.

“And in this instance, in 1876, April 12, the Royal Assent was provided to the Indian Act and from that point forward it was basically a race-based piece of legislation that controlled the land, the people and our resources.”

Day said even the name of the Act is offensive.

“It’s wrong to continue to refer to First Nations people in this country as Indian.”

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“We are not Indian. As a matter of fact, the earlier explorers were noted as being incorrect and they thought they found the land where Indians were because we look similar, but they referred to us as Indians, but we were, in fact, a number of different nations on this land that they now call Canada.”

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Working to establish better rights for First Nations people, Day’s focus as Regional Chief of Ontario is on bettering health, infrastructure and quality of life for indigenous people living in Ontario, adding there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“It plays itself out in a lot of different areas, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s education, whether it’s infrastructure,” he said.

READ MORE: ‘It’s a traumatic moment’: How everyday racism can impact mental, physical health

“Let’s face it. In Ontario, in the year 2000 during the Walkerton Inquiry process, they realized that they needed to fix 144 water systems across the province of Ontario. They did it in a year. Now today, our people — 133 First Nations in Ontario — we have the highest number of boil water advisories in our country. Why is it that we can’t do what was done in the Walkerton era? It’s because we are segregated as Indian people under a piece of legislation that does not allow us to have access to the wealth of resources that other jurisdictions have in this country.”

Learn more about #FirstTimeIwasCalled and share your stories using the hashtag #FirstTimeIwasCalled.

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