'Thank an Indian' shirt generates intense reaction

The experience of a Saskatchewan teen who wore a shirt with the message "Got Land? Thank an Indian" to her school and found herself in some hot water, is sparking animated discussions on social media about race and Aboriginal relations in Canada.

The original news item about Tenelle Starr on CBC's website garnered close to 100,000 views and attracted around 2,000 comments.

Starr, 13, wore the bright pink hoodie-style sweatshirt to school in Balcarres, Sask., 90 kilometres northeast of Regina in early January. School officials told her to change the shirt and not wear it again. But, after some meetings with Starr and leaders of her reserve, officials relented.

Starr's Facebook page was then swamped with comments, many expressing support and admiration for what she did and others criticizing her.

Joseph Gordon said his niece was bearing the scrutiny well.

"She's fine," Gordon told CBC News Thursday. "She is a strong girl but she has a lot of people sheltering her and keeping this from her."

There were also many negative and hurtful postings, which led to concerns.

"It was racist remarks with attempts to shadow it in opinion but they were pretty forceful, pretty racist," Sheldon Poitras, a friend of the family and a member of the band council for the Star Blanket First Nation, told CBC News. "The family was concerned about Tenelle's safety."

On advice from RCMP, the family decided to deactivate Starr's Facebook account. An officer from the File Hills detachment of the RCMP confirmed that an investigation had begun.

Much of the online discussion dealt with people's perceptions of racism and what was conveyed by the message on the shirt.

Some people felt linking current day land ownership with historic Indian treaties was inappropriate.

Michele Tittler was posting on social media sites connected to the story. Tittler, from Vancouver, is a co-founder of a non-profit political organization called End Race-Based Laws, or ERBL Inc.

"I was immensely offended," Tittler told CBC News Thursday, regarding the message of the shirt. "And I was going to do everything within my power to have that shirt banned from that school."

Tittler said she had written to the Balcarres school and also sent notes to Facebook, complaining about the content on Starr's page.

She is also planning to lodge a formal complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission , although it's not clear on what grounds. Tittler is, however, convinced that the message of the shirt is racist.

"This is racism," she said. "Canadians are really getting sick of the double-standard. No white kid could walk into a school with a shirt that says that in reverse."

Tittler also emphasized that her comments were directed at adults and not Starr and she never meant to frighten the teen.

She said ERBL Inc. was created a year ago as a reaction to the Idle No More movement.

Tittler said she is passionate about the plight of Aboriginal people and wants a unified future for Canada, without race-based laws.

Starblanket's Poitras said despite the sometimes intense criticism, Starr remains convinced her actions in wearing the shirt were right.

"She's okay, you know," he said. "She is sticking to her guns. It hardens her resolve to the whole thing. She isn't backing down by any means."

Starr's family added they contacted the RCMP about some of the postings, to ensure her safety.

"Remember that this first and foremost is a 13 year old girl," her uncle, Joseph Gordon, said. "And it does not matter the colour of her skin. So before you throw a hateful comment at her, remember that this is somebody's child and her safety comes first above all things."