A Local 306 member talks candidly about race, equality, and why we must set the bar higher as union members and Canadians
DOROTHY FENWICK HAS BEEN ON a unique journey pretty much from infancy. Born into a Cree First Nation family in Manitoba, she was placed into the foster system as a baby. At age four, she was adopted by a loving family who had been fostering her.
Since 2011, the 43-year-old Local 306 member has been employed as an educational assistant (EA) in the town of Winkler. Her impressive combination of education, experience, and additional training have made her a highly skilled and empathetic worker.
But she has faced her own set of challenges as an Indigenous person and EA. Dorothy shared her experiences in a recent interview with the Guide.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1977 in Winnipeg, although my family is from South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba. I was involved in the latter part of the “Sixties Scoop.”
When I was a baby, I had several health complications. My birth mom had seven children, and difficulties of her own. Children’s Aid Services took me and two sisters.
My older sisters still recall coming home from school and seeing an empty baby bouncer, and not knowing where I or my sisters were. It remains a poignant memory for them.
What was it like growing up with your adoptive family?
After being placed into foster care, I was brought to the hospital in Thompson, Manitoba, to recover from protracted health complications. My future foster mom was a registered nurse’s assistant, and for this reason I was placed in her care. I was never placed elsewhere. She had over 100 children in her care during her 10-plus years as a foster mom.
When I was about four years old, she and my dad adopted me. They had been waiting for my birth mom to release her rights to me.
My dad was a Baptist pastor and church planter and we moved around a lot, helping to start churches and mission works. We lived in many different towns from Ontario to BC, and I was home-schooled through ACE [Accelerated Christian Education]. I loved every moment, even school, and I am happy to report that I am socially well-adjusted, too!
Each move presented a new adventure, new friends, new experiences. I had a great childhood! We weren’t rich, but there was plenty of love and support within a Christian family. I believe that shaped who I am and how I see the world.
Are you in contact with your birth family?
I have met my four oldest siblings. My oldest sister had to fight to have my adoption records unsealed. She became a social worker, and with faith, many prayers, and determination, she endeavoured to reunite her siblings. It took her 11 years to find me.
I was 33 when she contacted me while I was living in the dormitory of Canadian Baptist Bible College in Winkler, where I was studying. The two other sisters who were taken remain undiscovered.
I continue to remain in contact with my older siblings, and I have also met many cousins in my visits to South Indian Lake. Everywhere I go in Manitoba, I am meeting people who I’m related to by blood. One of the first instructions my older sister Debi gave me before meeting a multitude of relations was to just say, “Hi, cous’! How are you?”
Where did you go to college and what was your major? When did you graduate?
I graduated from Canadian Baptist Bible College with a degree in biblical studies in 2015.
How long have you been an EA, and what are some of your experiences in that role?
I have been working as an educational assistant since January 2011, with some job switches in between, including a trip to Nepal where I was teaching classes for a Christian academy and recording them as an online educational resource.
Being an EA has been a rewarding and challenging job. I have worked with children with autism, Usher syndrome, ADHD, Fragile X syndrome, and Down’s syndrome.
I feel I have learned many things from the children that I have worked with. They have enriched my life, both professionally and personally. Each new student presents an opportunity to make a difference.
What drew you to this career?
I became an early childhood educator when I graduated from College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, BC, in 2000. In my teenage years, I worked with children through various church programs and discovered that I liked it immensely. I also have training in American sign language [ASL] and as an educational therapist [postgraduate].
My training in ASL began when I was 19. After teaching myself all I could from books, I enrolled in a course at my local college—a gift from a friend—and easily passed the Level 1 Signing Naturally ASL course. About 10 years later, I began working at a home for deaf people in Barrie, Ontario, where I honed my skills, continued training, and achieved Level 3.
My training as an educational therapist took place in 2016 through the National Institute for Learning Development. It focusses mainly on strengthening areas of scholastic weakness in students, whether related to math, English, language disorders, or dyslexia.
I also worked as an ESL [English as a second language] teacher. Teaching English to immigrants was eye-opening. Many adult students had experienced discrimination for their inability to speak or write English, for the education they received, or for being Mennonite.
It was hard to see a grown woman cry from shame and frustration over difficulties learning English. But it was rewarding to see that same woman blossom when I reassured her there would be no judgment and criticism from me.
She went on to read independently within two weeks. Much can be said for the lasting effects of either kindness or harsh judgments.
What is it like being an Indigenous person living in Winkler, a predominantly white community?
Winkler is slowly becoming more diverse with many nationalities and religions, although the founding Mennonite culture is evident and celebrated. It is a very industrious community, with a generous, giving spirit. I’ve been here 10 years and have enjoyed the small-city feel.
I like to say that I have a universal face. I’ve met people who are Filipino, Chinese, and even Caribbean who all think I am one of them. The way I grew up, I learned how to mingle with all kinds of people. I was not raised in the Indigenous culture and have determined to learn more about my Indigenous history. I am learning to speak Cree and have a natural affinity for the language.
Is there a supportive community for you in Winkler?
While I have many friends within my church and work community, my closest ties are within the Christian community. The various outreach ministries of my church, such as participating in Union Gospel Mission in Winnipeg, have allowed me the opportunity to reach beyond the borders of Winkler.
It gives me great joy to encourage, uplift, and help others when and where I can. She who gives, receives.
Have you experienced racism?
Racism is not a major issue for me. I am not saying it doesn’t exist, I am merely explaining my personal view. I try to treat others how I want to be treated—with respect, a bit of humour, and plenty of patience! How I define myself means more to me than the attitudes of others.
Everyone has a bad day now and then, and their behaviour will reflect this. Because racism is not well-defined in our culture, many poor behaviours are labelled as racism. It is the consistent, demeaning or degrading behaviours of others toward me that indicate a more serious issue. If one person feels they have the right to belittle, restrict, or impede the day-to-day activities or well-being of another person on the basis of their skin colour, then they are racist.
I personally use the biblical definition of one blood: “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations” [Acts, 17:26a]. This coincides with the Genesis account of Creation. One blood is also a statement of equality. We may look different on the outside, but inside our blood is the same.
What can we do to address racism today?
In recent years, racism has been used as a label that includes any matter that is offensive, no matter how far-fetched, and it has thus become a blurry issue. Racism can exist within any home, workplace, religious group, people group, or society.
To truly eradicate racism, we must pinpoint the seemingly innocuous behaviours that perpetuate it. Any form or amount of racism has a negative impact on the one who experiences it.
Can you provide some examples?
I have worked in many places, and have had the privilege of working among professionals in education, business, tourism, and the healthcare field, to name a few. Within each workplace, I made an effort to become a valued team member, and worked to benefit both the people I worked with and my employer. I have learned through experience, through employers who were my mentors, and also by jumping in with both feet, without experience, only a keen desire to learn. I have also made wonderful friendships along the way.
However, in various ways, I have also encountered a variety of racism. I almost said, “my share of racism,” but this term is misleading. I do not want or need any “share” of racism. I have had interviews where the first comment I heard was, “You’re Native. I would never have guessed that by the way you spoke on the phone.” Or, “We hired you because you were Aboriginal, and we are trying to be multicultural.”
Within the workplace, I have been told where I can sit, where I should stand, or even where to place my purse. There have been instances of people being offended or downright mocking when I dared to cite my education.
Within the community, I have been followed about from rack to rack in stores, made to empty out my bags and show what I had, made to leave my jacket or bag at the counter when no one else was asked to, and I was clearly the only person of colour. These are just a few instances of racism I have faced and not a comprehensive list. I would say for every 50 encounters I have, there is one clearly racist happening.
How do we as a society and as individuals confront such behaviour?
Racism is a multilayered behaviour. Daring to confront it often results in comments such as, “I am sorry you feel that way,” thus implying that you only feel that the behaviour is racist and therefore the problem lies with you, and not the behaviour or person who incites the feeling. Racism must not be defined by feeling alone, but how you feel in an encounter certainly is a good indicator. Demeaning behaviour never leaves you feeling good.
Still, I believe in accountability for my actions and that I can retain my integrity and dignity. I choose to “look for the helpers,” a quote from Mister Rogers. There are helpers everywhere, people committed to equality, fairness, and integrity in their actions, and I choose to be one of them.
By identifying what racism is, we can help prevent it from occurring. I hope that wherever you are on your journey in life, you will choose to be a helper.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created in 2008—as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement—to investigate the history and legacy of the schools. Almost 7,000 statements were gathered from residential school survivors over the next six years.
The commission released its final report in 2015, summarizing the tragic experiences of approximately 150,000 Indigenous students who were taken from their families and communities to assimilate them into Canadian society. Students were prohibited from practicing their culture or speaking their language, and many of these children were sexually abused.
Approximately 3,200 died of malnourishment, tuberculosis, and other diseases caused by poor living conditions. Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the TRC, concluded that many more students died but were not officially counted. The trauma inflicted by residential schools has had a lasting impact on survivors, their children, and grandchildren.
The TRC’s final report included 94 Calls to Action, outlining ways to improve the lives of Indigenous people in the areas of child welfare, education, language and culture, health, justice, and reconciliation. In December 2020, the CBC reported that just 10 of these measures had been completed, while 23 were underway, 38 were in the proposal stage, and 23 had not yet been started.
Sources: CBC, APTN, The Canadian Encyclopedia
The Sixties Scoop
The “Sixties Scoop” is a term now used for a series of policies enacted by provincial child welfare authorities starting in the mid-1950s, which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their homes and families. They were placed in foster homes and eventually adopted out to families across Canada and the United States. These children lost their names, their languages, and all connection to their heritage.
Amnesty International estimates that more than 20,000 children were taken over a 30-year period, most of those during the 1960s. They were often removed from stable, loving extended families that were deemed to be “insufficient” by white middle-class social workers. Making matters worse, siblings were routinely separated, and children were often brought up in entirely white environments. By the 1970s, roughly one-third of all Canadian children in care were Indigenous.
Much like the residential school system before it, the scoop was part of a broader effort to force the assimilation of Indigenous people into the Canadian mainstream. In 1985, Justice Edwin Kimelman reviewed its impacts and concluded that “cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner.” The Kimelman Report marked the end of the Sixties Scoop.
In 2009, survivors launched a $1.3-billion class-action lawsuit against the federal government. After years of arguing that it should not be held liable, the government settled the suit in 2017 after the court found that it breached its duty of care to Indigenous children.
The government agreed to set aside $750 million to compensate First Nations and Inuit children who were removed from their homes and lost their cultural identities. Of that amount, $50 million was earmarked for a Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation; $75 million was set aside for lawyers.
Sources: CBC, Amnesty International
Other Effects of Systemic Racism
Racial discrimination has far-reaching effects, touching almost every aspect of Canadian lives.
The pandemic has sent unemployment rates skyrocketing across Canada, and racialized workers are being impacted the most. Black individuals, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour are experiencing unemployment rates that double those seen in white populations. Stats from August 2020 show that while Caucasian Canadians were subject to a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, the rate for Black residents was 17.6 percent. Similarly, Canadians of South Asian, Indigenous, and Arab backgrounds saw rates between 16 and 18 percent.
Being overlooked during the job interview process has long been a concern of racialized people. But once they accept a role, there are still hurdles to overcome within an organization.
In 2019, Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute looked at the number of visible minorities in leadership positions at Montreal companies. The study found that although racialized people make up more than one-fifth of the Greater Montreal population, they hold only 5.3 percent of the senior leadership positions.
The numbers are even more bleak when examined at a national level. According to a 2020 report, only one percent of executive roles and board seats at large Canadian companies are held by Black individuals.
When examining the data behind Canada’s prison system, it’s clear that systemic racism plays a role in incarceration rates.
More than one-quarter of the prisoner population in Canada is Indigenous, and the majority of this group is being held in prisons, as opposed to serving their sentence in the community. They are also less likely to be paroled and more likely to be in higher security institutions. Startlingly, the percentage of Indigenous people in jails compared to their percentage of the population is five times higher.
Canada’s Black population faces similar discrimination. Their representation within the federal prison system is up to three times that of what is seen in the general population. And when being questioned by the police, Black individuals in Toronto were found to be 50 percent more likely to be taken to a police station and were more likely to be kept overnight.
On the other hand, evidence suggests that Black Canadians are not statistically more likely to be the perpetrators of crimes.
Victims of Crime
In Canada, Indigenous and Black individuals are more likely to be the victims of crime than those from other backgrounds. The murder rate for Indigenous peoples is up to eight times higher than the rates for other Canadians. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, Black people account for as many as 40 percent of murder victims, though they are only four percent of the population.
Medical Treatment and Health
Many of the key factors that relate to good health, including income, education, and access to medical resources, put racialized Canadians at a disadvantage.
Taking these factors into consideration, Indigenous people are at high risk for many health issues that other segments of the population are not. For example, they experience high rates of tuberculosis, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections. They are also twice as likely to suffer a stroke and are among the highest populations at risk for diabetes and diabetes-related complications.
Though statistics relating to racism and health for Black Canadians are slim, research from Ontario may provide some insight. The risk of psychosis for Caribbean, East African, and West African people in the province is 60 percent higher, when compared to residents from other backgrounds.
Black women are also 43 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than Caucasian women.
Sources: hrreporter.com, ryerson.ca, bcg.com, johnhoward.ca, globalnews.ca, Statistics Canada