John Gormley and his upsettlers get their teachable moment

by Carle Steel


The protest of John Gormley’s recent Beyond The Book lecture at the University of Regina is loud, inelegant and aggressive. A masked man with a feathered head beats a drum in Gormley’s face. He and two silent companions bear gifts for the well-known right-wing author and radio pundit: a rubber snake and a flower.

“You speak with a forked tongue,” the protester yells. When Gormley invites him to join the discussion, he refuses. “We don’t speak with people with forked tongues anymore. We learned our lesson.”

Gormley quickly frames the protester’s rant as a stifling of debate. “Do you fear you could identify a defensible point of view?” he asks.

“Do you fear Indians?” the protester responds, with another barrage of yelling.

“Let’s talk about this,” Gormley says. “I sense a great deal of frustration.”

“Oh, God, John, you don’t know frustration,” the protester replies.

On video, the encounter is excruciating. There is something maddening about the clumsiness of the masked man’s speech and Gormley’s easy verbal deflections as he holds his chin and paces the room like a professor. As the three protesters are cleaved off from the group by campus security, Gormley can be heard working the room, playing up the irony of having a conversation drowned out in a university setting.

“You’ve had 500 years to understand!” yells the man. “Look where we are!”

“Then a few more minutes won’t hurt,” the security guard says as he ushers the hecklers out of the room.

And Gormley gamely carries on the reading from his book, The Gormley Papers: I’m Right And You Know It.

It’s uncomfortable to watch, a pissing match between two alpha males in front of a crowd that could go either way. With his loud drum and the element of surprise, the protester may have momentarily won the upper hand, but Gormley can always get his later, with his unfettered access to the airways and print media. (And he does, with a column in both daily papers, posts on social media, and coverage on his morning radio show).

The comments on the video are atrocious, of course. They’re as dismissive and racist as they usually are on news stories like this. And there hasn’t been a lack of news to comment on lately.

The Gormley incident happened against a permanent backdrop of residential schools, murdered and missing women, the erosion of treaty rights and the degradation of the land. It also happened just weeks after photos of the University of Regina’s cheerleading team playing cowboys and Indians set the internet on fire, and not long after First Nations teen Tenelle Starr’s “Got Land? Thank an Indian” T-shirt got her sent home from school.

Who was that masked man and his companions? What did they want? And what is going on with our nations right now?

“We wanted to wake people up, and I think we did,” says protester Sue Deranger, who, along with Kevin Daniels and Evening-Star Andreas, crashed the Gormley book event that night. They did it for many reasons, she says, not least of which was what they describe as the phone-in radio host’s long and public career of whipping up antagonism towards First Nations people, and his deftness at cutting off people with a more nuanced point of view.

“This man has spewed hate forever,” she says. “I know he is a little better now, but in the past he would talk about drunk Indians and say all sorts of things.”

Drowning him out with the drums was their way of hanging up on him. “We’ve felt powerless for so long.”

Did it work? It certainly started a conversation, for better or for worse.

“People who were appalled by it at first are beginning to understand that yes, maybe it needed to happen. Did it bring dialogue? Yes. Did it upset John? Obviously,” Deranger says.

“It made me proud to be Native,” says First Nations artist and businesswoman Joely BigEagle.

She describes Daniels as performing the traditional role of a contrary figure known in Sioux as a Heyoka.

“They come to stir things up and make you wince,” she says. “Society is too comfortable and polite these days, especially when faced with doing what’s right. But how else would they ever get under Gormley’s skin?”

Deranger says the action showed the people in the audience that it was possible to challenge him. Which they did, patiently and persistently, for the rest of the event. The rest of the protesters’ work was done by Gormley himself, who has kept the story alive on the many media platforms he has access to. “Let it go, John,” Deranger joked on Gormley’s Facebook page. “You’re making yourself sick.”

All this bluster is typical of an upset settler — an “upsettler” — says indigenous curator and artist Leena Minifie. “He’s a professional right-wing pundit who gets paid to be contentious and to be the mouthpiece for a bunch of essentially old white settlers whose method and view of the world is dying as quickly as they are.”

As for the bluntness with which Kevin Daniels confronted John Gormley, Minifie says that the performance was completely in keeping with indigenous traditions.

“What he was doing was customary to Native shaming that a lot of our communities have done for a long time,” she says.

Just not lately, and not around here.

“Nobody has felt that they have had the power to do those things. All of our traditions have been taken away, including speaking up for ourselves.”

Especially standing up to people who are the dominant voice and have a huge influence on politics in the province.

If the protest made us uncomfortable, it did its job. With many still not clear on what the problem is with, say, a cheerleading squad dressing up in redface, a little discomfort at the university — whether it’s the denial of an easy audience for someone like Gormley, or the refusal to laugh along with the cheerleading team — is a teachable moment for us all.

“For the first time in their lives there are young students who know that it’s okay to say, ‘This is racist and I feel uncomfortable with it. It’s actually not okay.’ I think it’s the first time that Aboriginal people have had intolerance for racism at this mass level,” says Minifie. “And that’s really scary for settlers.”