THIS IS OUR ALABAMA

Peter Gzowski July 6 1963

THIS IS OUR ALABAMA

Peter Gzowski July 6 1963

Not yet as bloody nor as bitterly committed to open warfare as the American South, nonetheless west-central Saskatchewan is the arena where white Canadians are beginning a struggle to hold off the encroachments of a “second-class” race. Here, for the first time, is a full report of the harsh realities that are setting whites against Indians in Saskatchewan - and may soon touch off a national conflict unless we can find more wisdom than the South


SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT on May 11 this year, a slight young Saulteaux Indian named Allan Thomas was killed in the village of Glaslyn, Sask., when a party of white men raided the encampment in which he was living, pulled down two tents and, apparently, fought with the Indians. The next day, a Sunday, nine white men from the Glaslyn district were arrested and charged with non-capital murder. These men were not, as one might have expected, young toughs out for a brawl. Most were farmers or businessmen. Five of their names are among the forty-seven listed in the local telephone directory for Glaslyn, and, with a significant fraction of its respected heads-of-households under charge of murder, Glaslyn was, in the days after Thomas’ death, a shocked, puzzled town. “I just can’t imagine what could cause a thing like that,” said a pleasant, plump widow who keeps a boarding house at the edge of town. A grim member of the RCMP's two-man contingent said to a reporter only that “there are deep, bitter feelings here. I don't want to add to them by commenting.”

The surrounding area echoed the village’s shock. Glaslyn is one of perhaps two dozen smaller communities that spread out around North Battleford, a friendly, mildly prosperous Prairie city of twelve thousand people about a hundred miles west northwest of Saskatoon. Throughout the North Battleford area are laced ten Indian reserves, home for about thirty-eight hundred Indians. An equal number of Métis, or mixed-breeds, live at the fringes of both the reserves and the white population centres.

This is Canada’s Alabama. In the next few years, we may have there, on a lesser scale, what the U.S. has had in the past few years in the South. One essential difference between our situation and the South’s may save us the South's violence and heartache: virtually no legislation condemns the Canadian Indian to a second-class role, as legislation in many states does condemn the American Negro. But the other pressures exerted on the Southern Negro—social, economic, and just plain discrimination—are exerted at least as strongly on the Saskatchewan Indian. Indeed, in some ways our problems may be worse. Where the Southern Negro has the same language, the same religion and, in most respects, the same culture as his oppressor, many Canadian Indians still speak neither English nor French as their mother tongue, still practice a pagan religion, and still follow a scale of moral and cultural values utterly different from ours. If the Canadian Indian is going to join the twentieth-century way of North American life—and there are almost no alternatives for him—the wrench he will suffer in the process will be far stronger than whatever an American Negro child may suffer when he moves to an integrated school. And our acceptance of him as an equal could well be an even more difficult decision than the Southerner's acceptance of the black man.

Canada's Alabama is not set apart from the rest of the country by any inherent quality of its citizens. Its Indian problem is worse than that of, say, Owen Sound, Ont., simply because it has more Indians than Owen Sound; its prejudices are different only because they have had a chance to come out. Saskatchewan’s Indians are only now beginning to enter the mainstream of its life. In some other parts of Canada, many Indians have already come to terms with the white man’s way of life. In other parts, the Indian does not yet live close enough to the white man to precipitate the problem. Many parts of Canada have no Indian problem because they have no Indians. But North Battlcford and Glaslyn and the towns around them have, and their problems are ours.

I went to Saskatchewan shortly after the death of the young Saulteaux Allan Thomas. My purpose was not so much to dig into Thomas' killing—which was and is still before the courts—as to see what a stranger could learn just from talking to the people of Canada's Alabama. There is race prejudice in North Battleford, and it is an ugly and in some ways frightening thing to behold. But it is, if this is possible, the race prejudice of gentle, friendly people. I do not mean by this that “some of their best friends are Indians.” For one thing, none of their best friends are Indians; practically no white citizen of North Battleford even knows an Indian to talk to. But these are not, at least from the result of my brief investigation, the kind of people one thinks of as racists, or members of secret, murderous societies. The truly frightening thing here is that, in the opinion of many people who have written about the American South, neither were the American Southerners such obvious villains a decade or more ago. And I myself have heard enough white American Southerners talk about “Nigras” to recognize the same bewildered, paternal, hurt cast of mind in white Canadian westerners.

“INDIAN LOVER”

No racists? Well, not quite. A few days after the Glaslyn incident. Mrs. Gladys Johnston, a handsome Cree housewife who also works as a stenographer for the Saskatchewan Department of Social Welfare, was having lunch, as she does most working days, in the North Battleford bus-station restaurant. A group of men at a nearby table were talking about Thomas’ death. Mrs. Johnston heard one of them say: They out to have killed about ninety of the bastards when they were at it.” A white woman who devotes much of her time to working with Indians told me she has been called an “Indian-lover” in the tone of voice Southerners use for “Nigger-lover.” This woman is Mrs. Eileen Berryman, a young grandmother and businesswoman who runs a hobby shop on the main street of North Battleford. In recent uyears, her shop has been devoted more and more to Indian handicraft—she supplies some raw materials to the Indians and sells the finished goods—and has also become a place where Indians often drop in just to pass the time of day. As one result, Mrs. Berryman has become a moving force in the recently formed Battleford Indian-Metis Friendship Council, of which Gladys Johnston is the president. As another, she has had such experiences as, while sitting with somne Indians in a local hotel beer parlor—something one simply does not do in North Battleford—having a man at the next table break into the recently popular song, Don’t Go Near the Indians.

But most of the prejudice in the North Battleford area is less overt. Very few Indians actually live in the city. No one actually keeps a record, but the guess I heard most frequently was about a hundred families out of twelve thousand people. The Indians the townsfolk see are more likely to be casual visitors from the nearby reserves, and these visitors are kept, by unwritten but very real rules, huddled in a small quarter of the older end of town. Mostly, they hang around the corner of Railway Avenue and 101st Street—or King, as it is known locally. In one late evening interview I had with a lawyer I was told that if I left his office and walked around Railway and King I would be certain to see twenty or thirty drunken Indians. (He was wrong that evening, as it happened—it was raining—but right on another night I checked.) On my first day in town, I was taken on a short walking tour by the editor of the local paper. One of the sights he showed me was a vacant lot just off Railway and King where, he said, the Indians liked to take their beer to drink after the beverage rooms closed. Hard by this corner are two of the city’s four beer parlors, and a poolroom. While none of these places is considered the exclusive demesne of Indians, all have a large Indian clientele. In at least one of these beer parlors, one of the largest I have ever seen, there is a sort of indoor Indian reserve; the Indians quietly take up the tables farthest from the bar, and when the room is not full there is usually space between the tables and where the white people sit. The same sort of voluntary segregation, apparently, affects the buses that run from outlying points into North Battleford. Gladys Johnston told me sadly that in her lunch hours at the bus station she often sees buses pull in from the district. Invariably, she has noticed, the white people sit in the front and get off first.

INDIAN SIT-IN

The vocabulary of Canada’s Alabama even contains the phrase, strange to hear in Canada, “integrated schools.” For years, Indian children have been pretty well restricted to federally-run schools on the reserves, and not even the most ardent apologist for Canada’s treatment of the Indian has maintained that these schools have been as good as those in the regular provincial system. Attitudes have been changing, though, and the Indian Affairs Branch has been moving students—slowly, but with what the U.S. might call “all deliberate speed”—into provincial schools. In all Saskatchewan, which has an Indian population of some twenty-six thousand, seven thousand Indian children not attend one sort of school or another. Roughly five thousand are still in segregated schools. Of the ten bands scattered around the North Battleford area, only ninety-five children are in non-Indian schools. Two Indians from the North Battleford area now attend university.

North Battleford has even had its own version of a sit-in. In the fall of 1961, a daughter of Eileen Berryman went to work as a waitress in the café of a hotel called the Auditorium, one of the two near Railway and King which sell quite a lot of their beer to Indians. On her first day on the job, she was told not to serve Indians. If anyone asked her any questions she was to tell them to see the manager. Bothered by these instructions, the girl went to her mother. Mrs. Berryman got in touch with Ray Woollam, a Saskatchewan government employee who is in charge of the province’s Committee for Minority Groups. With Woollam’s coaching, two Indian men and three women, all neatly dressed, entered the Auditorium café a few days later. They quietly took a booth and waited for service. No one came to their table. They waited a little longer, and finally one of the group got up and caught a waitress’ attention. Gladys Johnston, who was one of the women, says the dialogue that followed was pretty close to this:

“I’m sorry, I can’t serve you people.”

“Why not?”

“I’m just not allowed to serve you. You’ll have to see the manager.”

“Where is he?”

“Wells, he’s not in just now.”

“Whom may we see then?”

“You’d better see the girl at the cash register.”

Eventually, the group got an admission that the reason they weren't being served was that they were Indian. They laid a charge under Saskatchewan's antidiscrimination laws; the Auditorium was convicted and fined twenty-five dollars.

"We don't go there even now,” Mrs. Johnston says. "But I think we made our point.”

One man who is making a lot of points in and around North Battleford is the Rev. Ahab Spence, an archdeacon of the Anglican Church in Canada and a Cree. Nearly everyone I talked to about Indians said I must see Spence. They used him, in fact, as a sort of answer to any charge of discrimination they might infer from my questions. "Look at him,” they would say in effect. "He is our equal, and treated equally. Why, he even kids about being an Indian.” Time after time I heard how Spence makes jokes about his children being tired of playing cowboys and Indians—they always lose; or how he points to his nearly bald head and laughs, because Indians aren't supposed to go bald. All of which, to be perfectly frank, made me a little reluctant to see him, since I do not ordinarily seek out self-consciously one-of-the-boys clergymen. But when we finally got together the Rev. Spence turned out to be, under his jollity, a very serious and articulate spokesman for his people. He told me that he is concerned by, among other things, the contempt in which the Indian women are held by Saskatchewan whites. He spoke of white men prowling the reserves, knocking on doors, waving bottles of wine and shouting, “we want women.” He told me of an incident that happened only a couple of weeks before my arrival in North Battleford. A couple of young white men had picked up an Indian girl near Railway and King and offered to drive her home. Following what Spence sadly assured me was usual practice, they drove her the three miles across the North Saskatchewan river to the smaller settlement of Battleford, and produced a bottle of wine. The girl, who was an abstainer, refused. Then they tried to kiss her and fondle her. When she objected, they casually drove her a few more miles into the country and dropped her off in a field of grain, to get home as best she could.

As well as degradation, the Indians around North Battleford often face economic exploitation. Social welfare workers of the province told me of a market gardener north of town who hires "fifteen or twenty Indians for the summer” and "all he gives them is room and board and a little money for tobacco.” "Even our local welfare officer,” they went on, "can't get him to say how much—if anything—he pays them. It's not much better than slave labor.”

The strongest force exerted against the Indian, however, is a subtler one: the all-pervasive atmosphere of unwelcome; the fact, of which he so quickly becomes aware, that the white man does not want him around. For several months, up to and including the time I was in North Battleford, the lndian-Metis Friendship Council had been trying to find a place where it could set up rooms as a referral centre and meeting place for Indians from out of town. To the people of the council this seems a vital part of their program, if for no other reason than that it would give visiting Indians some alternative to the beer parlors as a place to rest and talk. They have had some success in organizing individual functions—the local branch of the Canadian Legion has been “wonderful,” renting them its hall for half price, among other things—but they have found it almost impossible to rent anything on a permanent basis. "Everyone we talk to seems certain that property values would go down,” says Mrs. Berryman, "and some people have even told us flatly that ‘they wouldn’t have anything to do with Indians.’ The only real offer we've had was a place right beside the beer parlors, and we didn't want that.” In my own interviews in North Battleford, I found the same attitude toward Indians that is implied by the landlords' reluctance to rent to them. "I had a delegation of Indians in here last month,” one professional man told me in the course of a conversation about something else, "and it took me a week to air the place out.”

"Oh. we don’t refuse to serve Indians,” said a hotelman, “but we sure as hell watch them closely when they come to the door.” A businessman said: “Liquor will take the veneer of civilization off an Indian as quickly as it will take the polish off this desk.” What North Battleford fears, Glaslyn has already experienced. The Saulteaux are a small, proud band of Ojibwa origin that numbered, before the death of Allan Thomas, two hundred and sixty-three. Mostly from a strong distrust of the white man they did not sign a treaty with Canada until 1954, wiith the result that, although they had a reserve of their own near Cochin, about twenty miles north of North Battleford, none of the Saulteaux who are now adults have ever been to school. Huddled between the plains and bush Cree, the Saulteaux speak a dialect of the Cree language, but they more closely resemble the independent Algonkins of the east than the peaceful, agricultural Cree.

For centuries, they have been a nomadic people, living off what they can shoot or catch or pick. In the late 1950s. the merchants of North Battleford, many of whom had recently organized themselves to promote tourism in their area, began to covet part of the Saulteaux reservation that touches Jackfish Lake, a holiday area around Cochin. North Battleford, the businessmen felt, should have a provincial park; the Saulteaux land, occupying the last unsettled beach on the lake, was the ideal place for it. The negotiations stretched out for many months, and the eventual solution, which was reached in 1960. was stained by politics. The Saulteaux agreed to accept what seemed to be a generous offer by the government. In return for two hundred and sixty-one acres of their reserve at Cochin, they would accept twenty thousand dollars in cash and five thousand acres of crown land, miles north of Glaslyn. The catch was that a number of farmers in the Glaslyn area had been taking hay from these acres of crown land, at the nominal cost of fifty cents a ton. Through their local MLA, a Liberal member named Franklin Foley, the farmers lobbied against the exchange of lands. Although Foley won his next election, he lost his campaign against the park, and about half the Saulteaux band moved north of Glaslyn.

Too many drunks

Now distributed nearly equally on both sides of Glaslyn, the Saulteaux began gathering in and near the village. Also in 1960, Saskatchewan, under a fairly complex section of the federal Indian Act, began to allow its Indians free access to beer parlors and, since Indians are still not allowed to drink on their reserves without a vote of the band (a vote that no band in Saskatchewan has yet passed), the Glaslyn Hotel beer parlor became the favorite meeting place of the Saulteaux. Often they would pitch their tents near or even in the village, and on most nights there would be one or two tents on the Glaslyn sports ground, an untended grassy field on the edge of town. Glaslyn’s problem was simply too many drunken Indians too often, and, since drunken Indians lurching around a Prairie village are not more pleasant than drunken French Canadians or Jews or magazine editors, Glaslyn became a fairly unpleasant place to be after the pub closed. It is still impossible to say how directly this unpleasantness affected the events of the night of May 11, but even if the death of Allan Thomas was a completely isolated event, which one can doubt, the warnings are obvious. In the words of an official of the Indian Affairs Branch, reported indirectly to me: "What happened in Glaslyn could have happened in any one of about nine little places where the Indians congregate.”

Hostility between Indians and whites will almost certainly flare up elsewhere in Canada. For the first time, the Canadian Indian population is now back to where historians figure it was when Jacques Cartier arrived here, around two hundred thousand. With the onslaught of the white man and his diseases, the Indians had dwindled to around one hundred thousand at the turn of the century, but they have been increasing since then at an ever-accelerating rate. Today, with vastly increased welfare and medical services, the Saskatchewan Indian population is growing at a rate of four-and-a-half percent a year—more than double the rate of increase for all Canada. It won’t be long until there just isn’t room on the reserves for all the Indians, and many of those who would rather stay will have to move to the cities. Furthermore, as Indians become more and more exposed to the comforts of civilization as we know them, they are going to be more and more dissatisfied with the squalor in which so many of them now live.

On most Canadian reserves, the day of the noble Indian has long since passed. In spite of welfare allowances and relief and treaty money, most Indians live in conditions that would appall most civilized Canadians. They are undernourished, poorly clothed, rudely housed.

Perhaps a single example will serve better than any catalogue of misery. On one of the days I was in Saskatchewan, I arranged to be taken along with a Cree interpreter to meet the Saulteaux people around Glaslyn. After meeting a Saulteaux chief who was our entré, we passed through the village, turned up a farmer's road, and followed a scarcely defined wagon trail past a few thickets for about a mile. We came upon the camp of two Saulteaux families, and I was introduced to the man of one of the tents, Bill Gopher. Gopher is a big, husky man in his late twenties, with a few black straws of beard on his chin and shaggy black hair. Wearing a faded checked shirt, tan pants and work boots, he came out from the tent and greeted our party near his wagon, a sturdy vehicle he made himself and uses for both family transportation and work. His two horses grazed in a nearby field. He offered me a surprisingly soft handshake. Through most of our conversation his eyes were cast downward and he shuffled awkwardly from one foot to the other, thumbing back and forth—although, like the other adult Saulteaux, he is illiterate—through a ragged comic book. He spoke some English, but to give more than a one-word answer he frequently changed to the soft gutturals of Cree, and our interpreter translated for me.

Gopher was obviously both hurt and baffled by Thomas’ death; when he spoke of the dead youth, who had, Gopher told me, spent two of his twenty years in a TB san. his dark, downcast eyes welled with tears. He interrupted our talk once to ask if I thought the accused men would be let out on bail (they later were) and to express his fear that there would be more trouble. He told me he got along well with nearly all the people in Glaslyn as a rule and that he was frequently given credit by the merchants. He has a house on the new northern reserve, where he spends his winters, but in summer he travels with his family in the tent. He makes most of his living cutting pickets (slim fence-posts) and doing occasional odd jobs for farmers. With welfare and relief, his income last year was about eight hundred dollars, and he spent most of it in Glaslyn, on clothes and flour and tea and beer.

As we spoke, my gaze wandered over the ashes of the Gophers’ campfire, with a tin can converted into a cooking utensil lying beside them, and back beyond that into the opening of the tent. On some ragged blankets spread on the bare ground the Gopher family—wife, grandmother and children—huddled together in what looked to me like a picture of poverty and despair.

Yet treating the Gophers and the scores of thousands of Indians like them as innocent, exploited victims of the white man’s cruelty would be as wrong, or at least as oversimplified, as seeing blatant racism in all the prejudices of the people of North Battleford. Both those concepts arc right, but both are wrong too. Part of this complex and uncomfortable story is that the Indian is a second-class citizen of Canada not only because we have made him one, but because, by nearly any standards one cares to apply—hygiene, North American morality, ambition—the Canadian reserve Indian fails to measure up to what our world demands. Much as I may admire the skill with which Bill Gopher can build a cart with his hands, I would not myself—and please do not begin your letter to the editor until I have finished this paragraph—like to have him for a thinking companion, or, I suppose if I ask myself frankly, for a neighbor. But the other half of this concept is at least equally important. By Bill Gopher’s standards—and who am I to say his are less valid?—I am a second-class person. Much as he may envy my ability to read the comic book he thumbed as we talked, what good would I be out hunting rabbit? If I cannot understand why he would take his whole month's relief allotment and blow it on beer, leaving himself and his family literally not knowing where their next meal is coming from, neither can he understand why I must lock my door in Toronto every night. Ï have told him that my religion preaches generosity and brotherly love—he already knows his does; he would share his last piece of bannock with anyone who was hungry—yet he has seen how I treat my neighbor in the city. He knows that I try to keep my front lawn trimmed, and that if he were my neighbor I would expect him to do the same. Why? Does it keep him warmer? Does it fill his stomach? As John McGilp, the knowledgeable and dedicated supervisor of Indian Agencies for Saskatchewan, put it at the end of a full afternoon's conversation about the plight of the Indian in his province: “They've seen through us."

The reserve itself exerts strong pressures on the Indian to stay out of our way of life. The reserves are not a Canadian system of apartheid, as some critics have charged. No Indian is forced by legislation to stay on one. But the reserve is the Indian's one guarantee against anonymity, the one remainder of his heritage, and his one bulwark against the discrimination he will feel in the city. While no one will get rich on a reserve, no one will starve either. Strong ties of tradition hold him there, too. A welfare officer in North Battleford told me of one boy who was taken from his home on the reserve at the age of five for a lengthy series of stomach operations. He was treated first in the Indian hospital at North Battleford, a hospital the Indians have insisted on keeping separate, and later and more extensively at the University Hospital in Saskatoon. When he got home, he had become so “Europeanized” that he could speak no Cree. Worse, in his family's eyes, he could no longer digest the Indian diet of bannock and rabbit. His father beat him brutally as punishment.

"We don't realize how different their culture is," said the welfare officer who told me this story. "Often we take children home after as much as a year's absence. The parents show no affection at all. It's just not their way. We'll have to learn that. At other times we've had kids who are brought to the most comfortable boarding homes in the city so they can go to high school, and they'll be so ill at case they'll go out and sleep on the river bank, even in winter. They just can't get along in our ways without education."

And there is the terrible dilemma of Canada’s Alabama. Unless the Indian will change his ways completely—change his values, his language, even his religion—he can hardly hope to be accepted into our world. But have we the right to make our values his? Or can we afford not to force him into our mold? ★