October 26, 2008
Racism Among the Heavenly Hamlets on the Prairies
Plenty of progress has been made in relations between Aboriginals and other Canadians over the past several decades, but regrettably, not enough to dispel all prejudice. This was driven home to me again recently, and painfully, in a story from an Aboriginal friend whom I will refer to as “Peter.”
Peter left his home reserve years ago to work and find a place of peace and solitude to which he could eventually retire. The northern Saskatchewan hamlet where he now lives was like many that dot the prairie landscape: a big open sky, brisk cleansing air, and great people – but with some rednecks, two in this case. “Cletus and Elrod” moved there from the city to join forces and apparently to discharge their ignorance and hatred towards any Aboriginal they see.
Cletus is never seen without his bibbed coveralls; Elrod usually patrols the village on his quad, looking for newcomers. He tells people he is an undercover RCMP officer. Cletus is a loner and rarely talks to anyone. He claims to have injured himself at work and has never been gainfully employed since. However, those who see him haul firewood or continuously working on his properties say he works harder than most people. Elrod’s story is similar. How they survive financially is anyone’s guess. Elrod shoots animals, in and out of season and on any property, so we know he will not starve anytime soon.
Do Aboriginals still face prejudice in modern-day Canada? Tragically yes. Consider my interview with Peter:
“My wife and I have been coming to this area for the past ten years, camping up in the hills and savouring the scenery. One day we decided to buy land here. For us, this was the perfect place to build a retreat -- a place of peace and solitude to recharge the batteries. Back then, we had a wide choice of properties to choose from. Today there is not one lot available for miles, having been purchased mostly by game hunters or others like myself, wanting the country lifestyle.
“Originally our population totalled eight people here full-time; five were lifelong residents, the other two turned out to be the rednecks.
In our discussion, Peter stops speaking to watch a white pickup drive slowly by, and at its occupant who glares in our direction. “That’s Cletus,” Peter says. “He lives to the east of me and has hated me since the day we hauled my home in here. That day, Cletus came running over, screaming like a madman, ‘You can’t put that trailer here; this is my land!’”
“‘No!” Peter replies to Cletus. “I purchased these two lots from the Rural Municipality.” Cletus already owned a sizeable chunk of land next to the old town site, but wanted more. He already owned the two lots near Peter. But Cletus said the local reeve was supposed to call him when these lots became available.
After Cletus wandered off, another friend who hauled Peter’s trailer looked on with great amusement – and apprehension at Cletus’s performance: “Good luck with your new neighbour,” he said, “By the look of things, you’re going to need it!’
Peter continues, “Things really heated up about three weeks ago when Elrod shot my dog. He had threatened to kill her before. She was a friendly dog and we loved her but, according to Elrod, she got in his chicken coop.”
“It gets a bit tiring at times but entertaining all the same,” remarks Peter. “Cletus has never made a racist remark to me, but he did to a friend. The sad part is that James (his friend), who is not even Aboriginal, couldn’t stand it any longer, decided to board up his house and leave; he said what these guys are doing is just too much. James often cared for my dog and the two took many long walks in the woods.”
Peter and Cletus exchanged heated words over property issues again recently, Cletus parted with this warning to Peter: “If you get another dog I am going to shoot it. “
Peter has a choice: he can try the courts or simply sell and let these rednecks have their town.
But it’s tragic that in 21st-century Canada, status Indians – who defy the stereotypes, who live away from the reserve on purpose, and who work hard along with many other Canadians – have only these two choices available them in this situation, especially in a tiny, get-away-from-it-all heavenly hamlet on the prairies.
Don Sandberg, Aboriginal Policy Fellow
was born in the Pas, Manitoba and raised in the northern community of Gillam, Manitoba. He attended school with the peoples of the Fox Lake First Nation. He is a Band member of the Norway House Cree Nation, where his mother attended residential school. Has lived in First Nations communities in BC and Manitoba He is a first cousin to former Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi. Mr. Sandberg was a columnist for the Aboriginal paper “The Drum” for several years. He has been employed with many First Nations in both Manitoba and British Columbia over the years in senior management positions. In 1999, Mr. Sandberg ran as a Liberal candidate in the Manitoba Provincial election. He has spoken on native issues at political forums and on television and radio over the years. He is constantly in touch with the people and the issues on many First Nations and brings forward on their behalf the problems and possible solutions that affect them.