I have a dream where my grandchildren
meet from time to time in the old forest
get quietly down on their knees
and thank The Spirit of the holy places
for preserving these last havens for their souls.
I have a dream where pilgrims
walk gently on these sacred paths
and breathe in clean pure oxygen
given generously by the remaining giants
who spread their leaves in the heavens
and create a canopy of green and gold.
I have a dream where the forest gladly
provides homes to all the species
that have been nursed back from extinction,
so eyes can see, ears can hear, and skin can feel,
exciting the neurons of the brain to jump for joy.
I have a dream of pure clean water
bubbling over moss and rock
so pure that we scoop it with our hands
and sip its sweet life-giving freshness.
I have a dream where all mankind
makes a yearly pilgrimage to the forest
to understand the meaning of life
and renew their holy vow to stop and listen
and revive their oath to protect all life.
I have a dream where the guardians of the land,
my Indigenous brothers and sisters,
are honored for their ancient ways
of knowing the Spirit of the Forest
and agree to teach us how to love the land
that they have so graciously shared with us.
I have a dream where my fellow human souls
nurtured by the sweet scents of the forest
finally learn to share the treasures of the land
and recognize the oneness of our bodies,
the wisdom of our collective minds,
and the compassion of our wounded hearts.
“The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” (Elie Wiesel)
We sit here in Canada going tsk, tsk, tsk about what is happening in the United States with police violence against Black Americans. It is easier to look elsewhere and ignore what is happening in our own country. But our treatment of indigenous people in the justice system is part of the same problem, isn’t it? We refuse to hear and act upon the data because of our indifference. Here are some inconvenient facts :
• Between 2000 and 2017 police were involved in at least 460 fatal interactions with civilians across Canada with an average of 25 per year. The general trend has been increasing, peaking at 40 fatalities in 2016.
• 71% of the victims were white, 15% Indigenous (from only 4.8% of the population), 9% were Black Canadians (from only 3.4% of the population). Both racial groups were disproportionately affected by police violence.
• Despite making up just less than 5% of Canada’s population, 30% percent of the country’s prisoners are Indigenous. Across the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta that number rises to 54%.
And before we get complacent here are some facts from BC:
• 2000 – 2001: 179 situations were documented where “numerous cases of police overreaction, abuse of authority and invasion of privacy, lack of communication, as well as cases in which calls to the police for missing persons were not taken seriously”. And that does not include all the ones that were never reported.
• To date there are 160 cases of missing indigenous women and girls.
• And it is still happening. On February 27, 2021, Julian Jones, a 28-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht man, was shot and killed after Tofino police responded to a call for help from the Opitsaht reserve.
These are inconvenient facts that we tend to hear about and then ignore because either we do not want to admit we have a problem or we feel helpless in doing anything about it. There is a third possibility – could it be that we just don’t really care? It’s so easy to blame the police that are overworked and understaffed, especially in support services like social workers ands psychologists. This hides the fact that we, the citizens of this country, are all part of a much larger problem. This is about racism but not just racism. This is about getting rid of our problem people violently or by incarceration instead of doing something real and compassionate about the problem. This is about the difficulties faced by all young people who come from a background of poverty.
So what do we do? We have to go one step at a time, starting at the most obvious and then building from there. To me, the most obvious when it comes to the above data is we are not making a concentrated enough effort to help our struggling younger members of society and the most obvious part of that is that indigenous young men and women are sometimes treated inhumanly by our justice system. But we can’t just blame this on racism – the problem is that we do not value human life enough to intervene in more humane ways. When we lose our values, atrocities can take place.
Let’s take a look at the case of 26 year-old Chantel Moore who was born here on Vancouver Island, a situation that perhaps would have demanded a different response if she had been a white middleclass woman. On June 4, 2020, a police officer in the New Brunswick city of Edmundston responded to a call from her boyfriend requesting a wellness check because she seemed to be experiencing emotional difficulties. She had moved to New Brunswick to be closer to her six-year-old daughter who lived with Grace, Chantel’s mother. Chantel walked out of her apartment onto a balcony with a knife and threatened the officer who then shot her five times. Six months later her 23-year-old brother, Mike Martin, took his own life in a correctional center in British Columbia. In a social media post, Grace wrote: “I think about my granddaughter and my grandson – they should both be alive. It’s so unfair they’re gone …. My heart is aching.”
And we don’t usually shoot people here in Canada like in the USA, but our prejudice against indigenous people tends to be more cold-hearted. Welcome to Saskatchewan’s “starlight tours”. This is the term used to describe when Saskatoon police dropped off intoxicated Indigenous People at the edge of the city during winter. On November 1990, 17 year old Neil Stonechild was found frozen to death face down in the snow wearing one shoe. Neil’s friend, Jason, testified at the inquiry that the last time he saw Neil on the day he died was in the backseat of a police cruiser with a bloodied face. On January 19, 2000, Lloyd Dustyhorn, a 53-year-old First Nations man, was found frozen to death on the outskirts of Saskatoon. The next day the shirtless body of Rodney Naistus, a 25-year-old Indigenous man, was found where police officers had apparently dropped him off. A few days later, on February 3, 2000, 30-year-old Lawrence Kim Wegner was found wearing only a T-shirt, socks, and jeans.
When we take a second look at the data, we see that the problem is more widespread than just use of deadly force. There is a common factor covering the 460 fatal interventions – poverty – perhaps adding a socio-economic factor. Indigenous and Black Canadians in the larger cities tend to be overly represented in areas where crime and poverty seem to go together. However, when we look at individual cases like Chantel and Neil, racism appears to be one of the factors on whether or not to value the humanity of the victim.
Mixed messages here but then again we are dealing with a complex problem. There are so many good people and so many good things that are happening in indigenous communities, but the problem is so vast that too many are still falling between the cracks. These are problems that indigenous communities are trying to address but they need the resources and manpower to eliminate factors like poverty and lack of opportunity facing their communities. As citizens the best way we can help is to try to change our system so that indigenous people are treated fairly when they try to integrate into our world. I believe that a good place to start is with justice, not just equal treatment under the law, but a system that takes into account the economic and cultural struggles these young people have to overcome, and not just because they are indigenous, but because they are struggling human beings who deserve an equal chance for a good life.
The late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel, made this comment about indifference, “his or her neighbors are of no consequence… Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the OTHER to an abstraction.” I think it is time to get real and accept our responsibility as conscious human beings. It is time to “feel something” for all our people who are struggling, including those members of the indigenous community who are having difficulty adjusting to an alien and sometimes hostile world. We have to allow our feelings of disgust and sorrow to evolve into a determination to give ALL our young citizens a fighting chance for life. After all they are all members of our Canadian family, all members of the Comox Valley family, aren’t they?
1. Hannum, Nancy. Accountability – Aboriginal Deaths and Injuries in custody and/or with Police Involvement: An Initial Survey of information and Incidents in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. Report to Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC. 2003.
2. 17 Years of police violence in Canada. Pivot. 2018. https://www.pivotlegal.org/17_years_of_police_violence_in_canada
3. The Indigenous people killed by Canada’s police. Aljazeera, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/3/24/the-indigenous-people-killed-by-canadas-police