Remember a number of years back when Canada was shocked to learn of the charming Saskatoon tradition called the starlight tours? This practice, you might recall, was favourite of that city’s police officers, who would arrest Aboriginal men and drop them off outside city limits. In the middle of winter.
After an Aboriginal teenager froze to death, courtesy of the Saskatoon cops, there was outrage and concern across the country.
A recent film, called Out in the Cold, focused on these incidents. When it opened in Saskatoon, the city’s Police Chief Clive Weighill was on hand to speak about what happened and the changes made because of it. For example, First Nations and Metis people now make up 11 per cent of the police force. The chief said things are getting better even if they occasionally make mistakes.
This is good news, and Chief Weighill is to be commended. I would be interested to see if there will be changes in other police forces around the country.
I look to positive change like this when I hear of incidents such as the one that occurred at the Algonquin community of Barriere Lake October 6. That’s when a Surete du Quebec riot squad responded to a peaceful and legitimate anti-logging protest, including pregnant women and young children, with a display of police brutality the likes of which we had hoped were part of the past, not our present.
The SQ moved to dismantle a barricade on Highway 117 by shooting a 17-year-old girl in the chest with a tear-gas cannister, then torturing protestors who had locked themselves to heavy barrels.
There were four people arrested from the communities. They included Yvonne Ratt, a 59-year-old Elder, Deborah Jerome, who is five months pregnant, and two minors.
Kayla Jerome, a disabled youth from Barriere Lake, was sent to the hospital. Also treated was Moise Papatie, who was also hit with a tear-gas canister.
The residents of Barriere Lake are among the poorest of Quebec’s First Nations. As they aren’t beneficiaries under the Indian Act, they receive next to no funding for their community. One would expect more than a peaceful blockade or protest from people who have been ignored and forgotten, but this hasn’t been the case.
After years of sending letters, attempts to negotiate and determined protesting, they seem to be no further ahead then they were before. Back in 1991, former Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come tried to help the community, but to no avail. They are still looking at what they will do in the future given the police response.
Obviously, bureaucrats in Quebec City and Ottawa look at Barriere Lake and see budget increases should they do the honourable thing and recognize the band under the Indian Act. That is short-term thinking, as the long-term social costs will be far higher.
But we see who provincial and federal governments are serving. They both are keeping a community in poverty while outside forestry companies ravage traditional lands. No doubt, after the Algonquins’ resources are plundered, Ottawa might finally deign to negotiate a land base for the community.
The lack of media presence at this remote protest obviously led to a feeling of immunity on the part of the SQ officers involved in brutally suppressing the protest. Those actions are to be condemned, but we know those officers were only following orders. We need to direct our anger at the politicians who believe they can act with impunity when it involves poor, defenseless and remote First Nations communities.
In the long run, we people will learn from positive examples, such as the developments in Saskatoon, and sit down and finally have meaningful discussions on the problems facing the community of Barriere Lake. Violence is never the answer.