Toronto music teacher sues after principal, VP call folk song racist
Administrators apologized in an email to the school community after "Land of the Silver Birch" performed, taught in classes at a public school.
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A Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and the public school board for defamation after the administrators sent an email to the school community apologizing that a well-known folk song — “Land of the Silver Birch” — was performed at a school concert, calling it “inappropriate” and “racist.”
In her statement of claim, Violet Shearer, the music teacher at High Park Alternative Public School, said the email effectively suggested that it was her professional judgment and conduct that were “inappropriate and racist.”
Shearer taught the song to her classes at the school and it was performed at a school concert she organized in May 2016, according to her claim.
She is now seeking $75,000 in damages and an “unequivocal apology” from the administrators and the school board.
The school’s principal, Nancy Keenan, vice-principal Edita Tahirovic, and the Toronto District School Board deny in their statement of defence that Shearer suffered any damage to her reputation and said the email was factual and fair comment.
None of the allegations outlined in this story has been proven in court and none of those involved agreed to be interviewed.
According to Shearer’s statement of claim, Keenan and Tahirovic sent an email to the school community two weeks after the concert following concerns from parents about the song, which they say is based on a poem by Pauline Johnson.
“While its lyrics are not overtly racist . . . the historical context of the song is racist,” the email said.
E. Pauline Johnson, “while Indigenous, largely performed for non-native audiences, and performed in a style that was popular at the time, that depicted Native civilization to be replaced by a superior western civilization.
“(The song) romanticizes native people and culture as being pre-modern and connected to nature, while at the same time justifying colonization and the superiority of western culture,” it said.
Shearer, who is representing herself, said the administrators didn’t have “sufficient facts” to support their characterization of the song performance as “inappropriate and racist.”
“Such characterization is incorrect and false,” she said, adding that the email has reduced her professional standing in the community.
The Star spoke with a professor, a poet and an activist — all of whom are familiar with Johnson’s work — about the case, and while their perspectives on the song varied, they all agreed the administrators’ description of Johnson was unfair.
Johnson was born in the mid-1800s in Six Nations, her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was English.
A lot of Johnson’s work “was extremely subversive, very political, especially for the time,” said Terri Monture, a Haudenosaunee activist from Six Nations and a relative of Johnson’s.
While some of Johnson’s work was more simplistic, she was trying to make a living to support her mother and sister by writing what was popular at the time, Monture said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge her by the necessity of having to put food on the table with our ideas of what constitutes racism,” she said.
Bonita Lawrence, a professor of Indigenous Studies at York University who is Mi’kmaq, said it’s “patently false” to suggest Johnson replicated colonial ideas in her work.
“Johnson was a complex writer and was certainly trying on different ideas about how Indigenous peoples could find a way to survive in Canada, but she certainly never depicted that native civilization was to be replaced by a so called ‘superior civilization,’ ” she said in an email.
Rather, said Janet Rogers, a Haudenosaunee poet from Six Nations based in B.C., Johnson saw it “as part of her responsibility . . . to comment on the realities of Indigenous life and the injustices of that life in context to the relationship with the rest of Canada.”
As for the school performance of “Land of the Silver Birch,” which to Rogers’ knowledge was inspired by Johnson’s work, Rogers said while the use of the word “wigwam” is “culturally inaccurate” — she explained that Haudenosaunee don’t build wigwams — she doesn’t see anything in the song to be very concerned about.
“If people are so enthusiastic about speaking on behalf of native people and what is racist and what isn’t then please take that as an opportunity to go deeper because this is a little superficial to me,” she said.
“If you’re going to address Indigenous issues, go deeper, go to the water issue, go to the mould in the housing issue. There’s a lot more you could do to help Indigenous people rather than just pick on a lyric or two.”
The lyric Rogers referred to reads: “High on a rocky ledge, I’ll build my wigwam. Close by the water’s edge, silent and still.”
Though Monture said “Land of the Silver Birch” is simplistic and presents romanticized ideas of the land that at the same time erases Indigenous people, she agreed calling it racist was “overblown.”
However, she noted, performing one of Johnson’s deeper works would have been a better choice.
“I totally get it, settlers are going to get it wrong . . . but that’s part of reconciliation, it shouldn’t be easy, it shouldn’t be comfortable, it should put people in a place where they have to examine stuff . . . but I think that their reaction was a little too much,” she said.
Lawrence also said the song doesn’t relate to Johnson’s work and is another example of “colonialism.”
“The song encapsulates a history of what author Philip Deloria has characterized as ‘playing Indian,’ ” she said.
“While native peoples were dispossessed of land, and were forbidden to express language and identity in residential school, white men appropriated Indianness and pretended to be part of their idea of what native cultures were, as a means of asserting a national identity, or asserting their attachment to the land.”
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