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Idle No More – From a Deaf Perspective

Similarities between indigenous and deaf struggles in Canada

by Rob Chamberland

Deaf and Dumb Institute in Manitoba.  Deaf and Native communities share some very sad history, such as the residential schools, cultural genocide and imposed sterilization.
Deaf and Dumb Institute in Manitoba. Deaf and Native communities share some very sad history, such as the residential schools, cultural genocide and imposed sterilization.

As a deaf person I have a somewhat different take on the Idle No More movement and Aboriginal issues.  There are many differences, of course, between Deaf issues and Native issues, but there are also some similarities.  For one thing, we share some very sad history, such as the residential schools, cultural genocide and imposed sterilization.  Also, to the extent that Natives have had to endure racism, the Deaf have had to endure ableism and audism, and both Deaf and Native people, as marginalized groups, still endure institutional and systemic barriers to full and equitable participation in society.

Residential Schools, Abuse and the Elimination of Culture

Let’s start with residential schools.  One aspect of Deaf culture is that schools for the Deaf are few and far between.  It has been a rite of passage for deaf children to be sent off to a residential school for long periods of time, sometimes months.  The closer one lived to a school the more often one saw ones parents, but by their nature the distance guaranteed they were far from home.   Older deaf folk tell stories of childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, theft of their allowance money and property by staff, and generally atrocious and punitive conditions, especially in the dorms where everyone lived.  Conditions have only improved recently, just in time to not fall afoul of laws against abuse.

In the old days many of the schools forbade sign language.  Deaf culture and Deaf history is replete with examples of this across North America, but especially in Canada.  In Canada over the years we moved from forbidding sign language, forcing students to speak who couldn’t hear themselves speak, to eventually enforcing a version of sign language called Signed Exact English (SEE).  Rather than seeing sign as its own distinct language, the schools tried to enforce this variation which mimics the English language more or less exactly, with lots of fingerspelling.  So every word in an English sentence was painstakingly signed or spelled, leading to longer conversations than normal.  Needless to say, this was extremely unpopular, especially among those Deaf folk who grew up with or used American Sign Language (ASL) which is much more fluid, dynamic and visual but, more importantly, a proper language in its own right with its own grammar structure, syntax, vocabulary, etc..

Note that these schools did two things.. Not only did they actively forbid Deaf children from using their own language and cultural traditions, they tried to get them to conform to a hearing world.  Residential schools for Natives also forbade them from speaking their own language, forbade their traditional practices and similarly tried to get Native children to conform to non-Native culture.  That is, when they weren’t trying to kill the children off with untreated Tuberculosis.  These schools purposely tried to eliminate or decimate Native culture, just as they tried to eliminate Deaf culture.  And both Native and Deaf had to endure frightening levels of abuse, sexual and otherwise.

Forced Sterilizations

The United States was the first country to implement the forced sterilizations, by law, with the purpose of “improving” the gene pool, preventing certain people and groups from reproducing, often without their awareness of the procedure.  Among the groups targeted were Natives and the disabled.  This fervour for eugenics carried over to Canada, resulting in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta both passing laws which also forced sexual sterilization on Natives and the disabled, laws only repealed in 1973 and 1972.  This goes to show what sort of thinking was in play – eugenics was accepted, openly even, to the point where they were passing laws about it.

It’s important to note that not only were these eugenics programs openly racist and ableist, they tell us what sort of thinking was prevalent at the time, the sort of thinking which held that Natives and the disabled were inferior, lesser or defective human beings if they were considered human beings at all.  Note how Natives and the disabled were placed in the same category, considered more or less similar – undesirable.

These attitudes are still very prevalent today.  For an example, watch this nationally syndicated Canadian news network:

Systemic Barriers, Institutionalized Racism and Audism

Both Native and Deaf groups have extremely high unemployment rates.  Both are due in large part to systemic barriers which prevent them from being hired.  For the former, a prevalent and widespread attitude or belief is that Natives are uneducated drunks living on welfare or in conditions of squalor, are a lower or inferior and less intelligent class of people, that Native culture is not real culture, and that Natives should give up their cultural identity and join white Anglo-Saxon culture where, in so doing, they’ll make the move from pre-industrial (often they’ll say ‘neanderthal’) to post-industrial.  In the case of the latter, Deaf people are not only considered dumb and inferior, not only incapable of transitioning into society but also only capable of low wage manual labour work.  As with Natives, Deaf culture isn’t considered a real culture, Deaf language isn’t considered a proper language, and the Deaf are expected to conform to the hearing world.

In both cases it is never considered that perhaps it is our society which is at fault for failing these groups, for not allowing them to flourish on their own terms, within their own cultural identity, language and values.  They cannot succeed in this society without losing themselves in the process.

In the case of the Deaf, a medical model also currently exists which portrays deafness as illness, a deaf person as incomplete, dysfunctional or broken, in need of fixing or in need of a cure.  This was the sort of thinking which gave rise to forced sterilization.  However, it wasn’t that long ago that the same medical model had the exact same view of aboriginals and of women.

Conclusion: Idle No More – Where Do We Go From Here?

So it is with a sense of poignant history that I see my First Nations comrades fighting the same prevailing attitudes and beliefs which I too struggle against, probably even for as long as we have.  Yes, Idle No More is specifically a struggle against the Canadian government passing omnibus bills which trample on and ignore standing treaties, and yes it’s also about protecting the environment against a capitalist sell-off of land, water, air and resources which Natives hold to be sacred and so should we, but the struggle of Idle No More is bigger than this.  It explicitly includes all of us, we are part of the vision of the Two Row Wampum, a vision where very different peoples live and prosper side-by-side, sharing the river.  If we succeed in this, then we as a society will have evolved to a higher and more advanced level of existence which leaves systemic intersectional oppression behind.  For Two Row Wampum to hold true, we’ll have learned to co-exist even while allowing diverse cultures and languages to flourish.  We would learn to recognize and correct how our current society is structured to systemically discriminate against marginalized groups, to fail them.  We’ll have learned that it is not the Deaf or Natives who are handicapped or inferior, it’s the society imposed upon us which cannot adapt to us, which can’t function without obliterating our culture and way of life, our identities.

For the sake of everyone the struggle of Idle No More must continue.

[This article first appeared on my blog at]

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