Editorial: Racism in Muskoka - Looking within to create change

Posted: 2021-01-31 09:51:59 By: thebay

My name is John Sailors, and I am Moose Cree who has lived most of my life between Moose Factory and Huntsville, Ontario. 

I am also the survivor of intergenerational trauma who has experienced systemic and direct racism throughout my life in Muskoka. 

I reclaimed my culture several years ago and now speak publicly about Indigenous topics, including rights, racism, systemic oppression and how to build stronger communities. I have had speaking engagements at various schools, local events and through organizations such as the Rotary Club. My goal is to create positive change in our communities through education and outreach. 

Although I continue to do this work to spread awareness and change, I don’t think people realize how challenging emotionally it can be for people like myself. Advocacy work can be draining and traumatizing because it literally brings you right back to when you have had moments of trauma. 

It is triggering every time, but I know that my work serves the greater good, which is building stronger communities, so I do what I need to in order to be healthy throughout the process. I am not alone in this: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) frequently experience this every time they read racist comments from people in our community. 

I cannot stress enough how draining it can be. Another trend that I’ve discovered, and it is backed by research, is that often people expect BIPOC to educate others. They do not realize or recognize the time, mental energy and cost it takes to do so, and when BIPOC do decide to take the time to educate they are frequently ignored, dismissed, devalued and argued against.

I once wrote about my experiences being subjected to racism in our community and white people challenged me; they argued with me about my own experiences and made excuses for strangers that they did not even know. This is common practice. When BIPOC share their experiences, they are often outright dismissed and worse, people come to the defense of a stranger. That in and of itself is systemic racism.

Recently in Muskoka we had three incidents of racism occur. One was when a prominent community member posted a video about how she was called out on a photo of her in blackface defending her position by stating that it was tradition (Zwarte Piet) and that she is not racist. 

Another incident was when a white male cottager compared his privilege to George Floyd (the black man who was killed by police which the incident sparked global protests and change). The last incident was when a man from South Asian descent posted that he was looking for housing in Muskoka and the comments were so racist that the moderators had to remove them.

It led me to question why some members of our community feel so comfortable being racist in such public forums. I then decided in order for me to reflect on this I should critically analyze the video and it’s comments.  

I then watched the video posted by the woman who had removed a photo of herself in blackface after it created serious professional consequences for her. I want to point out something very clearly: I am not disputing whether this individual is a good person or kind, or if they did a lot of good work for their community. 

I also want to be clear that a racist ACT does not necessarily make someone RACIST. Upon examining the video, it became clear what some of the problem is. So many times, when a white person does something that is racist, they then turn it around onto to the person who pointed it out and blame the BIPOC. The white person then acts like they are the victim of the situation. 

We hear comments like, “no one came directly to me”. Why would a BIPOC go directly to a person who they do not know who has done something racist? Especially if that BIPOC has experienced racism throughout their life. This video had many problematic things woven into it. 

The person who did the video said she wants to change, but then did not respond to my messages. However, she did respond to others who supported her and told her she wasn’t racist. It seemed that the video was not about really apologizing for her act of racism but instead to list her accomplishments and request validation that she is a good person and not racist. 

Not once was the tradition she said she was representing questioned by her in the video. She did state in the video that it is an antiquated tradition rife with racism and that she will no longer support it. She just continuously stated it was “6 years ago” that she posted it. She made that point 8 times, which to me was dismissive of her act. 

In 6 years, we know that politicians such as Trudeau have come under fire for blackface. All you have to do is search “Dutch Tradition Zwarte Piet” and you will see articles posted about protests surrounding this in the Netherlands and other areas. There is an organization formed to stop this tradition because its roots were based on black slavery. Those are the facts. 

She did not respond to my outreach, which in itself makes me feel that again a white person is controlling the narrative and controlling what she wants to hear. I am always open to having real, respectful conversations with others to create change. 

If we want to change as a community and grow, we need to look critically within and challenge ourselves. We need to respectfully challenge each other when we see things that are not okay.  

I was not surprised that a woman of good standing in our community received dozens of supportive comments from her video, stating that she is not racist, that her photo was not wrong, etc. The amount of support shown to dismiss a racist act simply because, in my view, people “like” her spoke to a huge problem that we have as a community. We are often willing to overlook racism and even challenge our friends because we simply “like” them. 

I also feel confused that she has not addressed me once when she kept saying in her video that the person who initially lodged the complaint did not go to her directly, yet she has not contacted me, a person who IS going to her directly. 

My partner always says that she would rather have people in her life that challenge her way of thinking while continuing to support her than be surrounded by people who are afraid to call her out on things. I agree. 

It must be extremely challenging for the woman who posted that video – I recognize that – and in it she continuously stated she wants to learn and grow. However, I am beginning to question that. 

Do we as a community really want to learn and grow? 

The act of change can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and vulnerable, but we must not let our own biases get in the way of creating real change. If you’ve done something racist, then own it, challenge yourself, remove your emotion from it and look at it critically; reach out to groups who can help you change and keep trying, even if it is uncomfortable. 

I will end this with a comment my partner made about this topic: “We can still like someone, recognize their hard work and know that they are a good person AND acknowledge that an act was racist even if the person themselves is NOT racist. We can as a community admit that it was not okay, that the tradition and practices is not okay. We can try together to be better. Just because we like someone does not mean we cannot look critically at what they do. This is how change occurs. By respecting someone enough to challenge them.” 

I am always open to communicate with people should they want to further this discussion. 


Submitted by John Sailors for

John is an award-winning documentarian, Hunters Bay Radio host, an actor, and an Indigenous Artist. Learn more about John and his work here: