Canada

Two (bitter) solitudes

JUDITH TIMSON September 20 1976
Canada

Two (bitter) solitudes

JUDITH TIMSON September 20 1976

Two (bitter) solitudes

VANDERHOOF, B.C.

It was, at best, a bizarre and tragic coincidence: in the early morning darkness of July 3, Coreen Thomas, a 21-year-old Indian woman from the Stoney Creek Reserve in northern BC, was struck and killed by a car as she and her friends were trying to hitchhike home from a street dance in the town of Vanderhoof. The white driver of the car, 21-year-old Richard Redekop, who lives in the farming community 552 miles northeast of Vancouver, had every reason to believe the accident would, in his words, “look terrible.” Only two years earlier, his younger brother, Stanley, now 19, had run over and killed Coreen’s cousin, Larry Thomas, on the same road.

Coreen was nine months pregnant when she died. During the autopsy they removed the baby, and Coreen’s relatives buried her with her unborn boy in her arms. “That really hurt the Indian people,” recalls Sophie Thomas, an elder of the 300-member reserve, and an aunt of both Coreen and Larry. “They really shed a tear when they saw that baby.” But what hurt the Indian people more was their deepening conviction that Coreen’s death was another sad chapter in a continuing story of harassment between whites and Indians in a town characterized by several members of both races as being “one of the most racially prejudiced towns in BC.”

Reserve representatives charge that local white youths of the classic “punk” variety constantly speed around town, playing “chicken” with the natives walking the nine miles back to their reserve, deliberately pointing their cars at them. They say there have been incidents at one of the town’s two hotels where Indians, drunk to the point of incapacitation, are served still more drinks by an indifferent hotel management, then thrown bodily out. There have also been fights between Indians and whites. (Richard Redekop faces trial De-

cember 16 on a charge of assaulting a native woman with an aluminum crutch.) But the natives say their numerous complaints have been ignored by the RCMP.

In response, several members of the white community—including the RCMP, the local newspaper publisher, and Coroner Eric Turner—maintain Indians often run out in front of cars on the road leading to the reserve, hoping to get a ride. Glen Clark, publisher of the weekly Nechako Chronicle, says he has often had to swerve to avoid hitting them. He also admits: “There is racial prejudice in this town, but no more so than in any other town.”

After interviewing several witnesses and reading RCMP reports, Coroner Turner was satisfied Coreen had died by accident and that an inquest was unnecessary. (Turner had also presided over an inquest that absolved Stanley Redekop of any blame in the death of Larry Thomas.) But then, after reading negative press reports from outside the community detailing Indian claims of harassment and receiving a written request from Sophie Thomas, 63, who is a former chief of the reserve, Turner changed his mind. He set an inquest for September 25, vowing: “I will not let it be turned into a political forum for outsiders to come and air their complaints about race relations.” Turner, however, withdrew from the case, after confirming outside press reports that he had a conviction stemming from a hit and run accident 11 years ago in which a man died. He will be replaced by supervising Coroner Glen McDonald of Vancouver. Turner had already asked that the jurors (three white and three native) be chosen from outside the immediate area.

In the meantime, with some of the Stoney Creek natives threatening “trouble” at the inquest, and townspeople darkly predicting that outside agitators will put in an appearance, the level of bitterness in Vanderhoof (population: 1,650) continues to rise. The Redekops, who

make a comfortable income logging, and who live within a few miles of the reserve on the road where the accidents occurred, report that groups of Indians drive slowly by their house, shouting “murderers” at them. Linda Redekop. mother of the boys, is particularly distraught, perhaps because

of another sad irony: on the night Coreen was killed, their own daughter Bonnie, 17, died in a Prince George hospital of injuries she received during a car crash earlier in the week. “How could they think that our boy, after standing over his dying sister, could have thought about killing someone else?” she asks. Mrs. Redekop, who lost another child, a 10-year-old son, on the same road in an accident, says, “If it hadn’t been for Bonnie’s funeral we would have gone to visit the Thomases and I guess we still should have. I understand how terrible they must be feeling. Why did it have to be one of ours again, and why did it have to be one of theirs?”

The Redekops freely admit their sons are “scrappers”—“they walk around with their fists up,” says their mother. But they are appalled at the accusation the Indian community has leveled at them.

Apart from the inquest, the British Columbia Human Rights Commission is investigating the racial climate in Vanderhoof, and the BC Police Commission is looking into the complaints natives have about the RCMP. Out of the accusations and counter-accusations one certainty has emerged: if there hadn’t been racial tension in Vanderhoof before Coreen Thomas’s death, there is now. JUDITH TIMSON

JUDITH TIMSON