Project Democracy Crosses Line with Meme Monstrosity Making Light of Indigenous People

Dear Canadians,

We’re into Week ‘WE’VE ALL LOST COUNT’ (ie. Week 7) of our federal election campaign, which means that besides growing tired of hearing about Stephen Harper’s hair, we’re also neck-deep in memes about party leaders and their issues. Who could forget about Conservative Angry Old Guy? All the Harper deficit memes? Or Harper’s new plane memes. Ok, as the target of the meme-making generation, Stephen Harper seems to be taking the most direct hit. I mean, there is an actual Facebook page dedicated exclusively to anti-Harper Election 42 memes.

What do most memes have in common? They’re funny or clever. They’re meant to take the context in which something is presented and repurpose it to fit something else. Sometimes, they miss the mark.

Case in point: THIS MONSTROSITY.

[edit: the link above represents the original post. It has since been edited to this]


While it’s been making the rounds on the internet, this meme came to my attention via the Facebook page for “Project Democracy”. Though I have seen it presented in different ways, the image is always the same – a photo of Avião, a piece of art developed by Havana-based creative collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) accompanied by the text, “Stephen Harper recently returned from a flyover of an aboriginal community to see what living conditions are like.”

Um…? I know I’m not the first to say it, but this is straight-up RACIST.

This is yet another example of cultural stereotyping against Indigenous Canadians, used to make a cheap joke under the cover of ‘raising awareness’ or ‘making a statement’. It perpetuates notions of the ‘savage Indian’ showing displeasure with her western occupiers by idealistically attempting to spear their great mechanical bird out of the sky. This isn’t a matter of the politically correct police trying to make something ‘off limits’, it’s an outcry from people who live in the year 2015 about a joke that would have been nauseating 20 years ago.

There’s a reason nobody makes Handi-Man jokes anymore, not even to ‘support’ or ‘shine a light’ on the plight of persons with disabilities.

Or watch this and try not to cringe.

What it means is that attitudes change and evolve. It means we learn that the world is full of fascinating nuance as we’re exposed to new people and places.

So go ahead and try to be the one who gets to make the last hackneyed ’Savage Native’ joke. Or the last Effeminate Gay Guy impression. Or the last Brownface joke. Just don’t be taken aback and astonished when people can’t be bothered to laugh anymore—and don’t die on the hill that Project Democracy has apparently decided to die on; the bizarre insistence by the organization’s social media account that—despite popular opinion in the comments section – the the post isn’t racist. When reading through the replies to comments calling it racist, you’re treated to what is basically the equivalent of a 5-year old telling you, “It’s not racist, you just don’t get it.”

Not taking a page from the Beaverton’s Ashley Burnham faux-pas, the Project Democracy commenter continually denies that the meme is racist, choosing to claim that the art’s original context and meaning is directly applicable to the “political satire” text that has been added to the image. Text stating that Avião is representative of the issues Indigenous Canadians face as a direct result of Stephen Harper’s reign.

Here’s the point, whether or not you believe this meme is racist: protest art is what we might call ‘hyper-localized’. It has the potential to be provocative and impactful specifically because it is so specifically directed at its target, and you can’t remove that from its original context and reassign other cultural associations to it.

Oh, and maybe if we hadn’t spent the last several decades stripping arts funding down to nothing but corporate garden sculptures we’d actually have our own version of Los Carpinteros to raise awareness. I digress.

Unlike the “fun-time” memes of Election 42, many of which have resulted from real-time blunders and events, this meme is hurtful, even if it’s origins were meant in humour and as support.

The bottom-line is this: when you see a meme, think critically about it. Think about its history and it’s impact. Even if you’re not offended, would someone be hurt by it? Is that “someone” a group of individuals historically punished and kept down by government? A group that continues to struggle to gain legitimacy for basic human rights in the eyes of our leaders?

We’re better than that, Canada. Let’s use this election to prove it.


As of Wednesday, September 16, the post has been removed from Project Democracy’s Facebook page and the individual responsible for maintaining the page has decided to move on to other pursuits.

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