After viewing a documentary called, “Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide.” I instantly identified it as a case of what is referred to as the “white saviour syndrome.” The “white savior syndrome” is the idea that oppressed racialized people can escape their marginalized realities through the guidance and intervention of a seemingly selfless white person. The white savior syndrome can be observed in Hollywood movies such as Dances with Wolves and Avatar but also throughout history. Abraham Lincoln is seen as a hero for opposing slavery and John F Kennedy is revered for his commitment to civil rights. These white figures overshadow the oppressed people who organized to fight for their own freedoms. History, it seems, always favours the dominant white narrative, this is very disempowering for all racialized people who are fighting for their rights as it reinforces the idea that their rights can only be legitimized by a white person.
My concern is that Kevin Annett is expropriating the experiences of Native residential school survivors for selfish reasons. Some potential reasons could be to get revenge with the church who terminated his employment or for fame, respect and admiration. It is beyond the scope of this paper to identify if any of these things are true in Kevin Annett’s case and in reality, the reason for the expropriation in my view isn’t as important as the act of expropriation itself.
In this paper I will demonstrate how Kevin Annett exemplifies the “white savior syndrome,” by first examining how the title of the documentary indicates Kevin Annett’s self-perceived importance to the issue of genocide in Canada and secondly by explaining the importance of how much time he is shown on camera, how much he is narrating the documentary and the overall character development and central importance of himself in relation to other people in the documentary.
One of the most striking and immediate examples of Kevin Annett’s “white savior syndrome” is the title of his documentary, “Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide.” His name in the title indicates, in his view his central importance to the issue being examined in the documentary, the genocide of indigenous people in Canada. Someone who may be unfamiliar with both the genocidal practices perpetrated against indigenous people within Canada and Kevin Annett’s work would immediately deduct from the title that Kevin Annett has some sort of important relevance to the topic of indigenous genocide in Canada. At first though it may be unclear as to what his role could potentially be in relation to the genocide. A reader of the title may assume his role was as a victim of the genocide or as a perpetrator of it. The title is not revealing of his role, but the documentary itself is. The documentary content itself reveals Kevin Annett as more than an advocate of Native rights, but as a spokesperson for Native victims of state and church abuses.
Kevin Annett is pictured and narrates more than any other person in the documentary and there may be no mistaking that since he wrote and directed the documentary, that he intended that he be the star of it. In this sense, the title of the documentary was a suitable one. Two main topics were discussed in the documentary – Kevin Annett and the Canadian genocide. It is the relationship between the two topics which require greater investigation here.
Kevin began to narrate his life story near the beginning of the documentary . He began when he arrived in Port Alberni B.C. for a job interview at a St. Andrew’s United Church where he hoped he would be hired as minister. He was hired and soon began his work with his congregation. He found it curious that while Port Alberni was comprised of a large Native population, no Natives were part of his congregation. He began to investigate why the community was so segregated and soon discovered that the Port Alberni residential school which was run by the Port Alberni United Church had perpetrated horrific crimes against Native children.
The concept of ‘discovery’ is important here. Kevin Annett ‘discovered’ that abuses had been perpetrated against Native children by the Port Alberni United Church, he took ownership of that discovery and filmed a documentary about it. In accepting the idea that he, a white man has ‘discovered’ that great injustices have occurred, it is objectifying the victims of the crimes and framing Kevin Annett as a hero for bringing these crimes to light. Of course, there are many residential school survivors who have been trying for many years for their stories to be exposed to the mainstream society, but none of the courageous work of the victims themselves was given exposure. Victims were only interviewed to serve as factual evidence that abuses had occurred, backing up Annett’s ‘discovery.’
Kevin’s biographical story continues in the documentary as he reaches out to the Native population of Port Alberni by inviting them to church. As the Natives began to tell their stories of abuse at the hands of the Port Alberni Church officials, the white members of his congregation were increasingly adamant that Natives not be allowed to attend their church. He then says his employers had him fired and ex-communicated from the church because he was making the church look bad by allowing the Natives to use the pulpit to tell their stories.
In the documentary, Kevin tells of further research he conducted, outside of Port Alberni once he was ex-communicated. He claims he ‘discovered’ to his horror that other residential schools had existed all over the country. He began to create awareness around the issue and then he asserts the church tried to ruin his life by destroying his family. He says that the United Church approached his wife, convinced her to divorce him and paid her legal fees for the divorce which amounted to $250,000. He also states that the returned to university in hopes of working toward a PhD at the University of Victoria, but the RCMP had blocked his funding since he had exposed information that was damaging to the Canadian government. These claims sound far fetched, but not as far fetched as Kevin’s later online assertions that the Queen of England herself had kidnapped Native children who were never to be seen again.
One of the troubles with allowing those who exemplify the “white savior syndrome” to speak on behalf of a group of people they are not a member of, is that they can take legitimate stories of oppression and distort them through sensationalism which can be fueled by ‘white savior’ selfishness. The distortions caused by desperate attempts for attention by the ‘white savior’ make the stories themselves less credible, when really, residential school stories as truth are horrifying enough to be worthy of attention.
If Indigenous people allow white people to speak for us, even to allow one to be the spokesperson for our pain – we will never be viewed as equals. We must tell our own stories if we are to show the world that we are human beings worthy of respect. Allies are important but they must not try to lead us. This can be frustrating for everyone involved in equity work. Those with privilege must use that influence to get others with privilege to listen directly to the Indigenous narrative.
Kevin Annett used the 2011 “Occupy movements” all over Canada it as an opportunity to promote his work. An “Occupy” member describes Annett as follows; “Annett has left a trail of pain in his wake. He’s stolen the stories of many brave residential school survivors and used them to promote his sideshow. Each time someone asked him to stop what he was doing he publicly attacked and defiled their reputation in public forums.”
To be clear, I don’t think Kevin Annett is a bad person, further, I do believe that he cares about Native rights. Allies are not meant to lead but to support and follow.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that Kevin Annett has objectified the Native victims of church and state violence for his own gain. He did interview Native residential school survivors who had the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words but no further character development was done on them. Their purpose in the documentary was merely to support Kevin’s ‘discovery’ of injustices perpetrated by church and state. I have shown that he is an example of the “white savior syndrome” by having examined how the title of the documentary indicates Kevin Annett’s self-perceived importance to the issue of genocide in Canada and secondly by having explained the importance of how much time he is shown on camera, how much of the documentary is his narrative and the his overall character development and central importance of himself in relation to other people in the documentary.