‘Racist’ letter in Nanaimo newspaper about aboriginal people sparks backlash

One hundred people protested at the Nanaimo Daily News offices for printing a letter to editor that denigrated …We live in an age where any basement-dweller with an Internet connection can set up a blog and spout whatever mouth-breathing drivel that enters his mind into cyberspace.

And more power to them! That's what free speech is all about, isn't it? The right to share your world view - however narrow-minded - with the rest of us? The public square; the marketplace of ideas. As long as you're not advocating murder and mayhem, fill your boots.

Which brings us to Don Olsen of Nanaimo, B.C., who occasionally shares his thoughts with the rest of us via the Nanaimo Daily News. The paper published his latest epistle Wednesday on how to improve the lot of aboriginal people.

Then all hell broke loose.

Olsen's letter, which the Daily News pulled from its web site but has been reproduced here by the Georgia Straight, essentially wrote off First Nations as welfare-dependent do-nothings who never amounted to anything before Europeans arrived. Assimilation is the answer, he concludes.

"The only way to fix this situation is to bring them into society as equals," Olsen writes. "They should be getting jobs and paying taxes like the rest of us because in reality, they are no more special than any of the other hundred or more cultures that call Canada home."

[ Related: 'Racist' view getting support, rural Manitoba editor says ]

It says something about the influence of old-school newspapers that the letter triggered an immediate backlash online and on the street.

Twitter erupted with outrage and, as one tweet noted, the paper didn't have to print Olsen's letter.

Protesters showed up at the Daily News offices Thursday to condemn the paper for publishing what critics considered a racist rant.

Daily News publisher Hugh Nicholson met the demonstrators and apologized.

“The letter ran as part of a letters to the editor," he explained to the crowd, according to CTV News. "It’s unfortunate. We apologize that the letter ran, it should not have ran."

The paper published an "Editorial Clarification" on Thursday reiterating the apology and acknowledging the "considerable concern" the letter had caused.

"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," the notice said. "The letter should not have run."

The language in Olsen's letter and his dubious array of facts probably should have raised flags for the letters page editor, but he appears to have been a regular correspondent.

According to the Georgia Straight, the Daily News published another letter from Olsen on the subject of First Nations back in January.

[ Related: Aboriginal RCMP officers face racism, says ex-Mountie ]

A newspaper's letters page is meant in part to be a forum for the exchange of ideas, often controversial ones. They're the more genteel version of moderated comment threads on the web.

Should Olsen's letter have been published as written? Probably not. I'd have fired it back to him with a demand that he back up his "facts" about First Nations culture or edited the letter down to bare essentials.

But the inconvenient truth is Olsen's views are probably more widely held than we'd like. The best way to counter them is to bring them out in the open where they can be rebutted.

That's what Danica Denomme, a community activist of aboriginal heritage, did in the Huffington Post's blog on Thursday.

Using the same bullet-point format Olsen did in his letter, Denomme eviscerated his arguments by delineating aboriginal achievements before first contact and underlined the importance of First Nations in giving Europeans essential tools to explore this continent.

That's how you deal with bigots.