Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Morstad
The Globe and Mail, November 3, 2001
Part 7 of 9: DIVISION AMONG THE CHIEFS
In a poor and polarized province, some native leaders believe that the police have become the blunt stick of a racist white majority that sees its future threatened. Two generations from now, if recent trends of a high native birth rate and a white exodus continue, half of Saskatchewan's population will be aboriginal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, right-wing political parties are gaining ground in a province that was once a socialist bastion by vowing to tax natives, crack down on crime and fight their special status. But the real fight is on the street, in schools and in workplaces, where two peoples - long separated in the same province - are trying to find common ground.
Last year, Charlene Lavallee, who is native and worked for six years for the Saskatoon police force, filed a discrimination charge with the provincial human-rights commission, complaining that her co-workers continuously referred to "fucking Indians" when they spoke of aboriginals. The complaint was dismissed, although several police said privately that she had a point.
"What I fear is that if you vacate the middle ground, extremists will fill it."
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a provincial court judge, understands the bigotry. A leading advocate for rehabilitation programs in place of many jail sentences, the native woman once got a letter calling her "an Indian bitch" for allegedly being lenient on an aboriginal defendant.
Her husband, George Lafond, elected chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, worries that the racial fissure may be getting too deep to repair.
Lafond is not cut from the same cloth of most native leaders in Saskatchewan. He is a pinstriped native who drives a Jeep, lives in a largely white neighbourhood on the east side of the river and has a small statue of his boyhood hero, John Diefenbaker, in his well-appointed office.
A Red Tory, he believes that the divisions stem from both the province's economic decline and Ottawa's preference to deal with natives on their reserves, rather than in cities. The province's natives used to be pretty much ignored, left to their reserves and cared for by the federal government.
But as they began to stream into cities, in the 1970s and 1980s, the province was told to care for them, with schools, health care, welfare. And police. This was at a time when Saskatchewan was in steep decline, with its agriculture base and federal transfer payments both in question.
One result was fewer public services for natives, which angered Indian groups. Another was fewer public services for the rest of the population, which angered non-native groups just the same.
By the 1990s, white kids were leaving the province in droves. And those who stayed behind - the broom-wielding farm kids, for instance - were as alienated as natives. Despite the social ravages of Saskatoon's west side, they saw aboriginal people getting a special deal at every turn, whether on taxes, university entrance quotas or softer penalties for crime.
No group has yet to bring the two solitudes together.
"What I fear is that if you vacate the middle ground," Lafond says, "extremists will fill it."
If middle ground is to be reclaimed, he believes more than new money will be needed. He, and many natives, would like to see the justice system reformed.
For one, he says, police should stop treating self-inflicted abuse - most commonly drinking and drugs - as crimes that merit formal charges. They also should break the cycle of jail, parole and rearrest, he says, by trying new ways to rehabilitate offenders.
Some attempts have been made at what's called "restorative justice," a traditional native approach that seeks to heal wrongdoers within their communities rather than isolating and punishing them. But the concept has sparked more skeptics than supporters - Louttit says that, in his experience, repeat offenders plead for native sentencing circles and community-based rehabilitation only so they can get back to a life of crime and violence as quickly as possible.
Lafond is aware of such beliefs, among natives and whites. He has struggled to maintain a conciliatory line through the recent wave of troubles. He believes that his council's relationship with the police kept the city from exploding last year when the Darrell Night case went public. He also believes that it is changing the police force, for the better.
Lawrence Joseph disagrees.
If Lafond is a conciliator, Joseph, vice-chairman of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, is a hard-liner, the Al Sharpton of Saskatoon politics, a minority leader who seems to want to inflame racial divisions every time controversy emerges. Confrontation, and at times conflict, are his tools.
To him, just about every problem for his province's natives is the result of a white conspiracy, and just about every offer made to natives is not good enough. He talks of "token Indians" and "piecemeal" measures, and cultural-sensitivity programs that he considers "a joke." (Of the police force, he says: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks.")