I’m sure everybody felt the same way I did when I first heard the news. Two children on the Yellowquill First Nation in Saskatchewan frozen to death, clad only in T-shirts and diapers.
The reason: a drunken father, it appears. A drunken native father, to be specific. Once the shock of the news wore off, an unappetizing thought occurred to me. Once more, the dominant culture’s impression of native people has been reinforced.
Native people equals alcohol equals tragedy. Definitely an unhappy equation.
Some would call it the algebra of marginalization.
Canadians may not consciously think thoughts like that. Or maybe they do. But I know they are there, not far below the surface. Like a grave.
The facts are still coming out about that community.
Evidently, it has been struggling with substance abuse for a number of years; these were just the latest casualties.
Astronomers talk about still being able to detect shock waves from the Big Bang, the event that gave rise to the universe 12 to 15 billion years ago. Some might consider misfortunes like Yellowquill shock waves from a different kind of Big Bang 516 years ago.
Other native people have frozen to death in the cold prairie winter. Neil Stonechild comes to mind. Police took him to a field outside Saskatoon, relieved him of his coat and shoes and told him to walk back to the city. He never made it.
There were no drunken fathers involved, just non-native cops. Many, especially First Nations people, have come to think this is a regular occurrence – that there is a constabulary shuttle service of sorts existing in all major centres, and natives should beware. Unfortunately, many Canadians also think events like the Yellowquill tragedy happen all the time in native communities.
It’s the power of prejudice, of media reinforcement, of painting with a broad brush. This brush was populated with well over a million bristles, according to the last census.
A thousand years ago, I left my reserve to attend college in Toronto. I was young and unknowing in the ways of the outside world. But I was armed with cowboy boots, a Metropass and an eagerness to see what the country of Canada outside my sleepy little community had to say.
During my first year, I found myself sharing a house with several people. One of my new roommates, who became my closest friend for many years, came from a town near Sudbury, an exotic place called Falconbridge. After I moved in, he informed his family up north that I was native.
I still remember him telling me that his older sister had cautioned him about me, because “you know how Indians like to drink!” If memory serves, he got blasted just as frequently as I did, if not more. At the time, I was puzzled by her concern over my presumed vices, but I just chalked it up to the weird things white people say.
When, several months later, I was introduced to her, I casually brought up that sight-unseen assessment. Flustered, she tried to justify her original statement by adding, “Well, up where we are, Indians do tend to have a drinking problem.”
Since then, I’ve been up to Sudbury quite a few times and have done some field research in a few bars, especially those patronized by local miners, and – would you believe it? – there were few dark-skinned faces to be seen.
I don’t hold a grudge. If anything, I’m grateful for what she said. When I lecture about native identity and stereotypes, I often mention her warning. It’s generated much interesting discussion. I must buy her a drink.
True, that was way back in the early 80s, and I’m sure a few naive optimists believe things have changed since then. God bless them. It makes me want to ask, “What colour is the sky in your world?” Or maybe, more to the point, “What colour is skin in your world?”
In geological time, a quarter of a century is a millisecond, barely the blink of an eye. The same can be said about how long it takes for attitudes to change.
In a nearby restaurant/tavern close to my reserve, somebody was discussing with a waitress the possibility of holding a wake there. She thought this was odd and jokingly asked, “Is the guy Irish?”
The man said, “Actually, he was part native.” Most of the patrons in the bar burst out laughing – and it was not a pleasant laugh.
It must have been the fellow’s white Irish side wanting a wake. You know how they like to drink.
I don’t think people are laughing in Yellowquill. Once those poor girls are buried, the legacy of their passing will unfortunately live longer then they did. You have to wonder.
It’s been a bad week for children overall. A young girl abandoned in a Toronto parking garage. She looked to be of African-Canadian extraction. Two kids left in a car in -27° Calgary for over half an hour while their mother ran “errands.”
No comment on their nationality.
But I bet you these two incidents will be forgotten way before the two girls in Yellowquill.