Eskan Racism – Bottled and Sourced in Canada for Over 500 Years

With the warming of the days that comes with summer and the positive effect a little vacation and relaxation has on many of us, I had hoped that the red necks would be able to take some time off as well. Yet, this latest advertisement for Eska Water is another testament to the fact that racism in Canada is an ongoing problem that doesn’t just surface when there is tension or disagreement – but is, in fact, so embedded in some parts of the population that they themselves don’t even recognize it. Some of you may think that I am being too harsh and that none of the folks as Eaux Vives Canada Inc ever “intended” for anyone to take offence. Some of you might also feel that if any of us don’t like the ad, we should simply refrain from watching it. Alternatively, it has been suggested that anyone who is offended by the ad should take solice in the fact that the ad was intended to be “funny” and not meant to represent any particular group. Eaux Vives Canada has explained that they had no indication that anything in the ad might cause a problem – nothing to make them “suspect” an issue. In fact, Eaux Vives conducted a focus group of the local population and received “all positive feedback”. They admit, however, that there may not have been any First Nations people included in that sample. Eaux Vives Canada Inc is responsible for approving such an ad, so this reflects very poorly on their company, including those in the senior-most positions who make the decisions. However, one should also shine the spotlight on the ad’s creators – KBS & P which stands for Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal and Partners. They are owned by MDC Partners Inc. A company that specializes in marketing. You’ll notice that KBS & P’s bigger clients include Coke, Levis, North Face and Victoria’s Secret. They work in the big leagues, so to speak, and either know better or should have known better. Further, for anyone who does any kind of advertising – be it print, television or online media – they all know or should know, the laws relating to discrimination, racism, hate crimes and limitations on free speech. Its not like these companies do not have access to legal advisors, community relations experts and senior management-types to appropriately review and approve public ads. Afterall, these ads don’t just sell products, they reflect on the character or lack thereof of the company and it’s leaders. That is why when the company’s spokesperson, Gilles Corriveau said to the media that the company had “no intention to hurt people”, he made the company look even worse. Anyone who studies anti-discrimination law knows that it is NOT the intention that counts – but the effect that it has on the person or groups offended. But more than that, big companies like Eska Water, KBS & P or MDC Partners cannot plead ignorance when they ALL have the resources, capacity and experience to know better. I might also ad that there are no shortage of people that work in the area of human rights, anti-discrimination, anti-racism, and First Nations issues. Any number of people, groups, organizations or universities could have been consulted to provide input on any number of ads that has the potential to impact certain groups in society. Let’s pretend no such experts or advisors exist, is there any excuse for not googling the issue of racism in the media and making sure that your company is adequately aware of the issue? I googled the issue just now and tons of sources came up. Even the first source that popped up would have made the company think twice – had they taken the time to read it: The issue, sadly, is much deeper than that. The company itself indicated that it may have failed to include First Nations people in their focus sample, which amounts to more than a mere oversight – some might even call it incompetent. There is no doubt that the company was trying to portray an Indigenous group, whether or not it was a fictional one. In so doing, they used stereotypes about what Indigenous people look and act like – neither of which were presented with accuracy, thoughtfulness or dignity. Indigenous people in Canada and indeed all over the world must fight the colonially-imposed requirement to be “authentic” or “pure” Indians. The stereotype includes the requirement to live and behave as this did at some arbitrary and distant point in pre-contact times. Real Indians wear feathers, paint their bodies and carry around spears, arrows and other weapons. Real Indians are primitive and fierce and seek only to make war with non-Indians. These stereotypes are not just promoted in the media, but are also promoted by right-wing academics and governments. In the Eaux Vives Eska water ad, we see the age-old stereotype of purity. The mixing of orange juice with water is portrayed as being an offence to maintaining the purity of the water. Colonial governments have been obsessed with defining Indigenous peoples in terms of “purity” both legally and politically. Even Canada, through the Indian Act and other laws and policies, tries to exclude from legal recognition any Indigenous person who is not a “pure” Indian – i.e., someone who is mixed Indian and non-Indian (water and orange juice). This means that the public at large is constantly bombarded by these types messages and no consistent education about Indigenous realities in Canada. Even the omission of positive images of Indigenous peoples in the media serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. How often do you see an Indigenous woman consulted as a legal or political expert on the news, in the papers or in advertisements of any kind? What about Indigenous men as business analysts, foreign affairs experts or champions of human rights? We are led to believe that Aboriginal women are all victims of violence and Aboriginal men all corrupt leaders or criminals. It is simply not enough to say, if you don’t like the commercial don’t watch it. Even if we could be with out children and youth 24-hours a day, the fact is they will eventually be exposed to these sorts of ads. However, what is worse is that Canadians will be exposed to these kinds of ads and thus these old stereotypes will continue to be reinforced and played out in relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Consider the situation where racist jokes are told to co-workers but not the Indigenous person in an office. This still has the effect of creating a hostile work environment for the Indigenous person. I would argue that ads like Eska Water helps create a hostile country for Indigenous peoples where we are seen as the savage terrorists as opposed to the First Peoples. We as Indigenous people already know, that none of these stereotypes reflect our wonderfully diverse and rich realities, ways of being and relations. We do indeed have many social issues created and perpetuated by colonial governments, like the inequities in funding for essential services, Canada’s failure to live up to treaty and self-government obligations, the theft of our lands and the failure to share our resources with us – like water. Over 50% of First Nations in Canada have unsafe drinking water according to the Auditor General. The very least Eaux Vives Canada should have done was issue an IMMEDIATE apology. The hiring of a public relations firm shows more concern for minimizing loss of profit than for the humanity of others. They don’t need a meeting with First Nations leaders to know that the right thing to do is to pull the ad. What an insult for Eaux Vives Canada to make such a mockery of Indigenous peoples and profit from OUR water sources while First Nations are denied access to this and other basic necessities of life. This water ad serves, ironically, to highlight the problem in ideology (racist ad) and in practice (lack of clean water for First Nations). Racism has been ongoing in Canada for over 500 years since contact. It is time to acknowledge the problem and work towards addressing it.