The great Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock once quipped something to the effect that one of the good things about living in Canada is that you can look over fence at your American neighbours for entertainment and then give thanks for not living there. Leacock’s witticism reveals a smugness to our Canadian psyche. Often enough, we talk about American politics, and we quickly agree that they are simply American phenomena and part of the great American disease.
Most Canadians find the 2016 presidential nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican party incomprehensible. Generally, Canadians are convinced that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is a necessary and overdue response to the persistent systemic racism of American society. Recurrent reports of strong support by Americans for the positions of the National Rifle Association mystify and bemuse most Canadians.
And then, our smugness is challenged.
Of all things, in one year, the province of Saskatchewan experiences the shooting death of four people and wounding of several others in the small northern community of La Loche and eight months later a white man shoots a young Aboriginal man named Colten in a farm yard outside of the small town of Biggar. It is hard to accept the occurrence of such things in the prairie province that the great Canadian journalist Peter Gzowski described as ‘that most Canadian of provinces’.
These incidents shock the Canadian psyche and wipe the maple syrup glaze from our collective self-image. We are forced to ask “Who are we?”
The truth about ourselves is less than pleasant and filled with contradictions.
Saskatchewan is home to:
- Tommy Douglas, the Baptist minister turned politician whose Christian activism initiated significant reforms across Canada including universal healthcare.
- Both the hockey legend Gordie Howe and the violent NHL enforcer (some would say ‘goon’) Derek Boogaard.
- More than half the survivors of Canadian Indian Residential Schools.
- In the 1920’s and 1930’s Saskatchewan hosted the largest gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada.
On Tuesday, August 9th, Colten Boushie, a 22 year-old man from the Red Pheasant First Nation was shot to death in a farm yard outside Biggar, Saskatchewan. Gerald Stanley, a 54 year old Caucasian farmer has been charged with 2nd degree murder. The frustration of Aboriginal people was rightly enflamed by an inappropriate press release by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which was retracted following protestation by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations.
Many will remember another incident in 1991, when Carny Nerland, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leader of the Saskatchewan branch of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nation killed a Cree man, Leo LaChance, with an assault rifle. LaChance had entered Nerland's Prince Albert, Saskatchewan pawn shop to sell furs he had trapped.
Due to the recent occurrence of Colten’s death, the trial of the accused remains in the future and too many conversations are fueled by conjecture and biases. Racism feeds fears that point to rising rural crime rates. (According to Statistics Canada, over the past decade the crime rate in the rural area around Biggar, Saskatchewan has more than doubled.) Too quickly, suspicious eyes are pointed at young Aboriginal adults entering farmyards without a prior invitation. The fear of Aboriginal strangers contradicts the pride of rural citizens who boast about the hospitality and of the rural tradition.
The trial of Gerald Stanley may reveal truths that are hard for people to accept.
Before the revelation of those truths, there is hope in the leadership of relatives of Colten Boushie like Sabrina Peeaychaw, a band Councillor with Red Pheasant Nation and Alvin Baptiste. Sabrina acknowledges the presence of racist white farmers who are angry and afraid of Aboriginal people, but states that, “To this day we are good friends with a lot of them.” Alvin insists, “I don’t want any more people hurt. I want this to be a peaceful way of justice. I don’t want another young man or woman to be killed over Colten.”
There is hope in the leadership of people like Mark Kleiner, a pastor with the Lutheran and Anglican churches in Biggar. “Now that overt racism is again gaining international attention, it’s something people must be honest about in order to move forward, Kleiner said.
“We need to be scandalized by our awfulness. Sometimes that can create real change,” he said.
His church in Biggar, where the congregation is entirely non-indigenous, has worked hard in recent years to talk about reconciliation. They’ve had events acknowledging the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the idea of finding truth and reconciling with indigenous people has made it into Kleiner’s scripture readings. Boushie’s death has put all those teachings to the test. He hopes it will get better.” (Saskatoon Star Phoenix 2016 August 27)
Hope for the change that Kleiner advocates is challenged by the announcement on August 22nd that the provinces funding for the Northern Teacher Education program (NORTEP) would be terminated effective end of July 2017. NORTEP offered Indigenous students access to a four year education degree as well as a bachelor of arts degree in Indigenous studies. The projected termination was made less than a year after the province announced that it was renewing NORTEP’s funding for five years.
So the question remains ‘Who are we?’
Are we good neighbours who are working towards peace and reconciliation or are we strangers divided by racism and poverty?
Are we people of fears with more trust in firearms than hope in the power of renewing love and justice?
May the Holy Spirit empower us to become people of courageous hospitality who welcome strangers across our land.
(Thanks to CBC News and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix for the articles that informed this post.)