It’s a drizzling Wednesday night on Commercial and East Broadway Street in East Vancouver. The glaring yellow streetlight illuminates about forty people clustered in loose groups at the Commercial-Broadway Skytrain station entrance.
Seven native teenagers stand at a bus shelter bench tossing jokes back and forth and chatting. Some of them smoke; others pace back and forth gesturing and talking animatedly. People move in and out of the group to buy something at the coffee shop or to talk to someone standing in another group clustered nearby.
“We’re just chuggin’,” said a young native man in a baggy zip-up hoodie when approached. The group around him titters. The young man sways slightly, and steadies himself against the Plexiglass shelter wall. He slumps heavily on the bench.
In Vancouver, ‘chug’ is a racist slang term for people of native (First Nations, aboriginal, Indian status) origin who are heavy drinkers and act rowdy in public places. Young aboriginals are increasingly using the term against each other, a trend some native teens see as further fracturing a community struggling with racism from outsiders.
Joseph Posey ran away from his foster home when he was 12 and lived on the streets for almost a decade. He hung out with aboriginal gang members on Commercial Drive.
He said that he was one of the young aboriginals that people on the street called a ‘chug.’ It’s a term that he and his friends used a lot on the streets as both a casual slang term akin to ‘brother,’ but also as a racist slur against other native people outside their group.
“‘Chug’ is, I don’t know, from my point of view it’s not really racist. It’s one person saying it to another person, ‘Sup, chug.’ But usually cause we’re on the street it’s more family,” he said.
“More time to use the term ‘chug’ is when you’re goin’ against another person. It’s someone that’s- has- a grudge against you, ‘That chug right there,’ you know, he’s talkin’ shit about this person or that person.”
Posey got sober a year ago for his three children and girlfriend. Since then, he’s learned Japanese jiu-jitsu, plays lacrosse. He runs and volunteers at Red Fox, a native youth outreach program that combines physical activity and mentorship.
For him, “chug” is a painful reminder of his previous life. He said that he doesn’t want this term passed down to his kids like it was to him. It’s a term that he heard from an early age in his foster home,and a lot on Commercial Drive.
“Kids learn off their parents. They learn off people that they see,” he said. “And the younger kids hear it all the time, and they think it’s okay, so they’re using the word more frequently.”
About half of Canada’s aboriginal population lives in cities, according to Statistics Canada’s 2006 census. A 2010 nationwide study by Environics Canada found that an overwhelming majority of urban aboriginals felt they negatively stereotyped by non-aboriginal people. Three in four felt stereotyped as substance-addicted, unintelligent, lazy and poor.
“That’s why we grew up rebelling, drinking alcohol, fighting back,” Posey said.
Deana Reder, assistant professor of First Nations Studies and English at Simon Fraser University, said that ‘chug’ has become an cultural insider term for native Canadians.
“I would put ‘chug’ in the same category as the N-word and ‘queer’ in that it’s an insider word that you don’t use unless you’re inside that category,” Reder said.
In the United States, sociologists and scholars have noted some communities’ reclamation of derogatory terms such as the N-word and ‘queer.’ Emerson College professor Jabari Asim charts in his 2007 book The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why the reconfiguration of the word as a cultural insider term, particularly in black American hip-hop and rap.
Works by sociologists and cultural studies scholars such as Steven Seidman in the mid-1990s using the term “queer” to refer to sexual minorities that didn’t fit into the mainstream lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements of the time.
Similarly, ‘chug’ shifted from a racist slur to a more fluid term used amongst natives, especially urban youth.
Divisions among urban native community
Cheryl Robinson, 34, a youth coordinator at Red Fox and native youth worker for almost two decades, said non-native kids called her ‘chug’ in elementary school. She didn’t hear it between native kids often, until she started hanging out with other native teens and experimenting with drugs and alcohol in the early and mid-1990s.
“It was more like sarcasm,” she said. They used ‘chug’ as an insult thinly-veiled as jokes.
Shaydean Wilson, a twelfth grader at Britannia Secondary, agreed.
“It’s a racist word that was put onto us, thinking that we’re like drunks and that’s all we do,” she said.
“I know some of those kids, I grew up with some of those kids from my elementary. Some of them do volunteer work and most of them aren’t a bunch of ‘chugs’ like people say they are.”
Wilson skipped school and fell behind in ninth grade, but that changed after she transferred to an alternative program for native youth at Britannia.
These days, she focuses more on school. She volunteers at Red Fox and thinks about her future.
Wilson was born in Bella Bella, a small island town 1,300 kilometres north of Vancouver. She identifies as a member of the Heiltsuk nation.
She lives with her parents in East Vancouver, where her father grew up. He attended Britannia Secondary, which was as ethnically diverse back then as it is in 2011.
Britannia’s student body reflects the diversity of Commercial Drive. In the last few years, more Middle Eastern and African refugees settled and sent their children to elementary and secondary school in East Vancouver. These children mingle with their first- or second-generation Vietnamese, Italian, and Chinese peers, most of whose parents came in the last three decades. The result: a colourful mix of students in the hallways at lunchtime.
“I see a lot of little couples,” Shaydean said about interracial dating at the school. Her dad loved Britannia, and encouraged his daughter to attend. He had friends with people from different places. There wasn’t a lot of racism at school, a respite from the outside world.
“He doesn’t want his kids to grow up in that kind of environment, he wants his kids to look at different options,” Shaydean said. “And not to be racist.”
However, for Posey this is a difficult lesson to teach to some of the native youth he interacts with on the Drive. It’s difficult to convince them not to use a term that’s so familiar to them.
“The word chug, trying to explain it to them is complicated,” he said. “Just like school, you can’t explain it all at once. Just over time, people change over time.”