Dozens protested the publication of a letter defamatory to First Nations in the Nanaimo Daily News in British Columbia.

Newspaper Recants 'Racist' Letter, Expresses Regret, as Outrage Erupts in British Columbia


The headline alone sparked outrage.

“Educate First Nations to be Modern Citizens,” trumpeted the title.

And it went downhill from there.

The letter to the editor, penned by one Don Olsen, ran last week in the Nanaimo Daily News of British Columbia. Though taken offline almost immediately, it has engendered controversy for having been published in the first place.

Elaborating in bullet points, Olsen outlined the ways that First Nations were supposedly hopelessly antiquated, dismissing their 12,000-year history with assertions that were patently untrue. For one thing, he alleged, they “never ‘discovered’ the wheel.” In addition they “never had a written language,” “never discovered astronomy,” “made almost no inventions” and “made no medical discoveries.”

In a 15-item bulleted list, Olsen stated that aboriginals have spent the past 200 years “getting caught up to most of the rest of the world” and suggested they are not “responsible enough to look after themselves” and manage their money.

Olsen’s solution: “Turn off the taps. Do away with this ‘traditional use’ and ‘cultural’ nonsense. Education their children to become modern citizens,” he wrote. “Instead of finding their identity and source of pride in some folks who occupied the land 15,000 years ago. Let them stand or fall on their own account. Just like the rest of us have to do.”

Full text of the letter to the Nanaimo Daily News

First Nations immediately called out the newspaper. The day after the letter’s March 27 publication, Idle No More was out in force, with at least 100 people picketing the offices of the Nanaimo Daily News. They were joined by Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan. Chiefs from the local to the national level voiced objections, one even vowing to suspend all dealings with the newspaper. 

The letter was soon taken off the newspaper’s website, but the damage had already been done. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council cut ties with the Nanaimo Daily News for publishing what it called “racist drivel.”

“We are under attack. And it is unacceptable,” said Tribal Council President Clifford Atleo in a statement on March 28. “The public needs to know that racism is alive and well at the Nanaimo Daily News, and nothing says this louder than the publication’s decision to give this letter writer a forum to spew his hate. It demonstrates a complete lack of leadership by this publisher, and it is well out of step with fair-minded people everywhere.”

In Ottawa, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said it reveals the deep level of ignorance still rampant in much of mainstream Canadian society and shows the need to foster better education and awareness of aboriginal peoples, culture and their relationship to Canada.

“The comments published by the Nanaimo Daily News show deep misunderstanding and ignorance about First Nations peoples,” Shawn Atleo said in a statement. “The paper must take immediate and sustained actions to work with First Nations to provide accurate information. We need to understand the truth about First Nations.”

He noted stories that had not been reported in the Nanaimo Daily News, such as a historic reconciliation agreement signed the previous day between Chief Douglas White III of Snuneymuxw First Nation and the province of British Columbia. He also highlighted the extraordinary achievement of seven Nishiyuu youth, who had arrived triumphantly in Ottawa after walking for two months, covering 1,600 kilometers from their remote community of Whapmagoostui on Hudson Bay, “to bring a message of unity and peace to First Nations and Canadians.”

Those stories, he said, were virtually ignored by the newspaper.

In a rebuttal to the letter on Huffington Post, feminist activist Danica Denomme matched Olsen point for point, starting with things that Europeans had done but that aboriginals knew better than to do. First Nations “Did not domesticate animals and use items such as chariots and machinery,” she pointed out. They “instead intimately understood the various local living species and their interconnectedness, and took animals and other living creatures for nourishment and sacred purposes, letting the natural ecosystems thrive for millennia.”

In addition was the First Nations’ prowess in language—with 52 to 65 “distinct language groups across Canada,” 32 in British Columbia alone; astronomical knowledge collected as part of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, “which is documented in oral history and many scholarly articles”; and First Nations’ achievements in everything from ethno-botany for medicinal and other purposes, to complex mathematics used in construction and other endeavors.

Canoes, as Denomme pointed out, had been used not only by aboriginals but also by Europeans—for 200 years, no less—as a reliable method of long-distance travel through rivers. The snowshoe and the tobaggan, too, were aboriginal inventions that enabled European exploration of remote areas, she wrote.

Vancouver Island News Group, which owns the paper, ran a statement affirming Olsen’s right to free speech but expressing regret that it had aired his sentiments.

“While we would defend Mr. Olsen's right to hold and express his opinion, the sentiments expressed were entirely his own and in no way reflect the views of the newspaper,” division manager Hugh Nicolson wrote in a statement posted on the newspaper’s website. “The letter should not have run. We apologize for any distress this may have caused our readers.”

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Marcelene Anderson's picture
Marcelene Anderson
Submitted by Marcelene Anderson on
It is regrettable that opinions such Mr. Olsen's exist and that the Nanaimo Daily News was willing to print a racist letter. Sadly, Mr. Olsen and the newspaper editor are victims of a one-sided and flawed education system that has not accurately pointed out the achievements of Aboriginal peoples, how they supported settlers to North America to survive and prosper (at their expense). Furthermore, the views of people like Mr. Olsen the newspaper are uninformed about the damage of the White Paper and subsequent policies on Aboriginal people's right to determine their own future. This is an opportunity to educate people who are product of a limited one sided education system who have not yet questioned why these inequities exist.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Some of these whites are STILL ignorant of the facts when it comes to our people. Some of the biggest discoveries in medicine came about because of native folks knowledge of plants for healing a multitude of ailments. We are FAR ahead of the game in so many aspects in society. I could write for decades about it all if I chose to. Our people are sports achievers, education achievers, leaders, etc. Above all, we know what it takes to raise a family & form strong bonds. It's that love of family that has kept us together since so many were removed from our lands & all of the nature we love so dear. True, we still have issues in various places, due to our ancestors being forced from their family at young ages & placed on those torture & house of horrors called boarding schools. We still issues from being placed on those government concentration camps they called "reservations". Over all, we are once more thriving & through education, are learning what our rights were in the past & are today. No more fooling us because we could not read or understand the white man's writing & laws. We undertand things now. We are once more taking care of our own through investing in our future.We are able to employee our own people, educate our own people & through learning about the past & where we came from, we can understand our future & where we can be in that future. As the old saying went: " We've come a long way, baby!"

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
The ideas olsen has spouted are not new.. I suspect that these kind of attacks on Native People will come more often. The world is changing, and not in the favor of groups who believe in racial stereotypes.

Kris Potter's picture
Kris Potter
Submitted by Kris Potter on
Why target the newspaper? Why not protest at the idiots house who wrote the stupid letter in the first place? Maybe the newspaper just wanted to show an example of the idiot letters they get.

Bo Campbell 's picture
Bo Campbell
Submitted by Bo Campbell on
I do not agree hat the paper should not have published this letter. This kind of Ignorance should be exposed and publicly refuted so everyone can see the absolute wrongheadedness of this kind of thinking. Insisting that these views not be printed just adds fuel to racists fire of hate and feelings of victim hood. Now this Olsen character will just sit around with his freinds and bemoan "political correctness" and not understand his wrong thinking.'s picture
Submitted by randolphsmith35... on
yeah we didn't we didn't destroy the ozone, we didn't create dead zones along the north american coast, we didn't squander all of the natural resouces in the world, we didn't bomb other countries in the name of freedom, we're didn't invent synthetic narcotics that are abused today, we didn't pollute all of the waterways in the world, we didn't extinct any wildlife species, and we are not constantly calling for more jail space for less than ideal citizens, we didn't rewrite our traditional laws as your society has done to justify the inhumane treatment of another people! I glad we didn't do a lot of things your culture has done to our mother earth.

P Freeman's picture
P Freeman
Submitted by P Freeman on
Why is this letter so shocking? This mindset is not something new. Here in the U.S. the term "off the reservation" is common. I have heard it on t.v. shows and even in a political discussion hosted by a "liberal" host. There is a t.v. sit-com that recently refused to back down on apologizing about using a line that included the pharse "drunk Indians"...this is nothing new. They do it because they can and that in itself is wrong.

Queenie Commanda's picture
Queenie Commanda
Submitted by Queenie Commanda on
I like what Gahndi said, First, they ignore you. Then they fight you. Then you win.

Troy's picture
Submitted by Troy on
Actually just read this story & doesn't really surprise me. My Wife & I have only lived on Vancouver Island for 3 years,2 years in Port Hardy & currently Campbell River. (originally from Vancover/Lower mainland) In our short time on the Island I/we have been subjected to numerous incidents of out & out blatant & blunt racism & discrimination & still deal with it on a regular basis. We were actually considering moving to Nanaimo but after reading this story I don't think so now. It appears that the same mind frame & attitude towards natives is pretty much the same as the other 2 smaller towns we have lived in. As for Mr. Olsen: I just look at it as he is just a product of his environment & from my negative experiences on the Island, His opinion & attitude is shared by many. As sad as it is, racism & discrimination is alive & well on Vancouver Island. As I mentioned earlier I grew up in The Lower Mainland/Vancouver and in my 46 years, I have never been subjected to what I have been put through in 3 years of life on Vancouver Island. Pretty disgusting in this day & age. As for the Nanaimo Daily News, I am just speechless at the moment.