by Xavier Kataquapit
ATTAWAPISKAT – These are difficult times for First Nation people as we are trying to move ahead, heal and recover from the colonization of our people and the tragedy of the residential school system. Although we are doing our best at our Native leadership levels and we seem to have entered into a more friendly political environment with the Liberal government in place, recent events remind us of how there is still so much work to do.
Recently two people died while in the custody and interacting with police in Timmins, Ontario. Joey Knapaysweet and Agnes Sutherland died in Timmins in separate incidents. Reports say that Knapaysweet, of Fort Albany, who was only 21 years of age, was shot and killed by a member of the Timmins police department during an incident February 3 on Gillies Lake located in the city. Agnes Sutherland, a First Nation elderly woman aged 62 also from Fort Albany, had been in the Timmins jail because of an incident where she was arrested at a local shelter. While in jail she was discovered in a very critical health situation. The wheelchair-bound woman was taken to hospital where she later passed away. It is believed that both of these First Nation people were dealing with health issues and mental health problems.
Following on the heels of this tragic news affecting all of us in Northern Ontario it was announced that an all-white jury delivered a not guilty verdict to Gerald Stanley, a white Saskatchewan farmer who had shot 22-year-old Colten Boushie. The man had claimed to be defending his property when he shot the young Cree man in the head.
I was happy to see that past Chief Walter Naveau and Elder Maurice Naveau led a protest in Timmins recently to make people realize that something is wrong with our society when our people are dying as a result of misguided violence. Native people always have to contend with the stereotype or misconception that we are always ready to be violent, even if our people are mentally unwell, wheelchair-bound or elderly. I know both these leaders and I realize very well how much strength and courage they have when few others will rise to defend First Nation people. They know what it is like to be part of a visible minority, what it means to be treated unfairly and negatively because of the colour of one’s skin. Both these men are traditional people who are survivors. They are upset, as I am, that such situations are developing in Canada in 2018. Things have to change.
I think we were all relieved to some point when Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government decided as a result of the public outcry to the Colten Boushie verdict to provide a broad based review of the criminal justice system. It seems that Stanley’s defence lawyers may have used its peremptory challenges to leave out First Nation people from the jury pool. At the very least the Prime Minister realizes that the justice system is not working for First Nation people and that although we are a minority in terms of population in this country we are disproportionately filling the nation’s prisons.
We will always have right wing, bigoted and racist people who want to keep the status quo when it comes to how minorities are treated in this country. However, there are a lot of good Canadian people who really understand there is a problem in terms of racism and we have to do something about it. We also need people like Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay and Gilles Bisson, Member of Provincial Parliament for Timmins-James Bay to keep up the pressure to ensure our governments at the federal level and provincially are dealing with these important issues of race.
A few years ago while on a train in the city of New Delhi, India with a white friend of mine I witnessed a special situation. We managed to board a crowded train and we were packed in like sardines in a tin can. My friend looked up at me and whispered that he felt uneasy, a little intimidated and a bit fearful. He realized at that moment that he was the only one on that train of hundreds of people that were white. He shook his head and said that he suddenly realized what it felt like to be a member of a minority. Although he is an open person who is not racist he had never physically felt what it was like to be alone and different from everyone else. I have felt like he did in that short train ride for my entire life. Racism is still around us in pockets all over the place and we need to all join together to educate and heal from it. We need action from government at all levels and the will of the people to make this happen.