He is out there somewhere in the audience that has gathered at a public venue, a venue that is tucked inside a shopping mall where people stop to listen to each poet. I know to expect him to show up. He always finds me.
I often try to figure out how he knows where I am. He uses a large walking stick. It is taller than he is. It is a piece of skinny light grey driftwood dotted with the gnarls of age. He always wears a bowler hat. These are the two things that distinguish him from everyone else. No matter where I am, he always stands up when I finish reading. I see that walking stick first, announcing his presence before he pulls the rest of his body upwards. I have just finished reading a poem called “Bunn.” I wrote it as a tribute to a young Inuk girl whose body was found on a golf course one spring morning in Edmonton. I see the grey stick rise first. I watch as he pulls his body skywards and shouts, “She’s alive! I just saw her!”
In my head, a smattering of swear words are swirling. I feel a tinge of anger starting to grow. No one in the audience will see anger on my face. No one in the audience will hear the bad words that I wish to shout back to him. Instead, I say, “Can you repeat that, sir?” He does, but he’s louder this time. The area of the mall that we are in echoes his bold words of disagreement. His words of denial have taken up space and run in and out of every store. Shoppers on the mall’s second level have stopped what they are doing. They are staring down at a display of hostility.
I say, “Sir, if you think you saw her, perhaps you could inform the Edmonton Police and her mother. Her mother was the one who identified her body. Are you able to do that?” He shakes a fist at me and says, “I will!” I watch him walk away. His walking stick leading him to Jasper Avenue. I tell my heart to stop pounding so hard, look out at the audience and say, “Let’s move on.”
That event is hardly the most racist thing that has ever happened to me. For seven years, I spoke against the Edmonton football team name. Every fall, I would receive calls from the media, who always asked the same questions. After years of talking and talking and talking, the team succumbed to a name change while my email inbox loaded up with death threats and hate. It was the first time that I was afraid to leave my apartment. I literally feared for my life.
In all the years that I was a student, through all three of my degrees, I encountered racism over and over again through uninformed non-Inuit professors. I came to understand that I had to work twice as hard as the white students. I came to understand that I had to read more than the required reading. I had to perform at a higher level than my classmates, whether it was an undergrad or a Ph.D. course. My work ethic had to shine. Now I am a professor, Dr. Norma Dunning. I thought that all of the racism would disappear. It has not.
It is tragic that post-secondary institutions can still list racism as the number one reason Indigenous students quit university. In 2023, racism and institutionalized barriers to achievement remain in place. I always say that colonialism and all its cousins are still with us. All they’ve done is put on a new pair of red shoes. So how do we, as Indigenous students, scholars, and artists, handle it all? How do we push past all the hate and assumptions that post-secondary institutions are places where our tuition, living expenses, and books are paid for and that we, as Indigenous people, are getting paid to breathe? I will tell every class I teach that if I were being paid to breathe, I would be living on a beach in Costa Rica waiting for the federal government to direct deposit money into my bank account instead of standing up in front of them. That remark usually gets a giggle, but it is my jumping-off point to begin to dispel all of their non-Inuit assumptions.
One early fall morning, I was sitting with a professor from whom I took a course. She invited me for coffee. We are in a bakery/coffee shop, and it’s very bohemian, with funky music in the background. None of the tables, chairs or couches match. It smells delicious. We are talking about this and that, not very much of anything, when out of nowhere, she asks, “Norma, do all your sons have the same dad?” I can’t believe my ears. My brain is spinning. I feel like I have received the biggest kick to my gut. I had trusted her. My first reaction was to think, “Would you ask that question to a white woman?” I didn’t speak it. Instead, I said quietly, “Yes, they do. Are you disappointed?” I watched her face redden. I enjoyed her discomfort. She did not apologize, and our visit was cut short.
Because most of the mainstream is under and misinformed, I chose never to react in anger. I never raise my voice. I do come back with a question asking that person what makes them think and talk that way. I ask myself, how can I help others put away their racism? A part of me can feel insulted, but a bigger part of me feels pity for their ignorance.
I’ve lived a life of racist encounters. I do not let it stop me from writing or teaching. I write prose and poetry, knowing that the reaction from the audience will be visceral. I do that in hopes of having the audience leave in a way that is thoughtful and more informed. I don’t know if I always achieve that, but as an artist, I have an obligation to all Inuit. I have the opportunity to teach Indigenous truth. In some ways, I am privileged, but that privilege has been hard-earned.
When Inuit walk out into the world, our ancestors come with us. They are the ones who hold us up and give us the strength to get through yet another racist remark. They are the ones that we must honour all the days of our lives. They are the ones who walk beside us and cheer us on. As Inuit, First Nations and Métis peoples, we must remember that we are never alone. When my mother was on her deathbed, she said to me, “Norma, you are kind.” On those hard racist days, I hear her voice saying those same words. Her words are the words that I live by.
 Reference to a 2020 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba found at: https://mra-mb.ca/wp-content/uploads/IndigenousStudentExpwithRacismWpg.pdf