stats Making the Business of Life Easier

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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)


Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower
The Globe and Mail, November 5, 2001


Missisauga locator Had Crystal's mother not traded native seclusion for the big city, she might still be living on the Munsee-Delaware reserve outside London, Ont. She might have turned out like her cousins there - one has dropped out of high school and another gave up on university after just three months - or the pregnant teens she has seen during return visits.

Crystal's mother, Deanna Dolson, had been bounced from Munsee-Delaware to London and then Toronto as a child, after her own father was shot dead in a fight. At 17, she had her first baby and, since she did not know the father, moved into a Salvation Army residence. Deanna lost that daughter to the Children's Aid Society, but eventually met a man named Darin Samms in a Yonge Street arcade and had three more girls. Crystal was the middle one.

Quick facts

The Munsee-Delaware Nation

• Located on the west bank of the Thames River, 24 kilometres of the small southwestern Ontario town St. Thomas.
• The nearest year-round service centre is within 50 kilmetres.
• As of September 2001, there were 509 natives registered at the Munsee-Delaware reserve, but only 182 actually lived on the reserve.
• Seven Munsee-Delaware natives lived on other reserves.
• Crystal isn't the only one living off the reserve - 319 other natives registered at the Munsee-Delaware reserve live elsewhere.

Aboriginal Canada

Deanna and Darin carried on for years with drugs and booze, and hazy memories of small flats where they tried to raise their girls. Finally, they split. She retreated to Munsee-Delaware with three children under 5, but continued to party. She says there was nothing else for a young woman to do, especially for an urban Indian who was trying to rebuild ties with her people. Once again, Children's Aid came calling, and took the girls to a new home.

Crystal remembers being stuffed into the back seat of a big sedan with her sisters, and bumping down the dirt road from their reserve to the white world and a foster home. She remembers her little sister Charlene getting chicken pox. She remembers an older foster brother popping pills. She remembers him picking on the little girls, throwing them into a pool even though they couldn't swim. And she remembers leaving the place, three months later, after her mother had won back their custody.

Deanna moved again to Toronto, with the girls, in a quiet journey that thousands of natives every year make into Canada's big cities - anonymous, anxious and as unheralded as an immigrant arriving by airplane.

This time, though, Deanna was determined to make something of her life. She enrolled in an aboriginal-run program called Focus on Change, designed to help the down-and-out, especially single mothers, to get back on their feet. She returned to school to get her Grade 12 equivalency and a business administration diploma, and then found steady work selling ads for Aboriginal Voices magazine. She moved with the girls to a native housing project in Scarborough.

With as many as 20,000 other natives in the city, Deanna was able to find a support network that was lacking on her small reserve. She stopped drinking. She started a stable relationship with a new man, who cared for her girls. Working for natives, she was also soon taking business trips to every part of Canada.

But seldom is a native story in the bigger white world so straightforward. For one, the girls began to follow their mother's troubled path. Chantal, the oldest, became a fighter and delinquent, and moved in with Samms, her father, who had remarried. Arrested for beating up a handicapped person, she eventually dropped out of school.

"I hated myself. I looked at my mother and hated her."
Crystal Samms

Crystal, meanwhile, had challenges of her own. With her mother working days and studying at night, she took charge. Every day, she picked up Charlene from school, cooked her dinner, helped with her homework and then reheated dinner for Deanna, who usually got home after 9 p.m. Crystal was 12 and felt like she was taking on the world.

She avoided cigarettes and alcohol, having seen what they did to others, her mother and father included. But like a field mouse being watched by an eagle, she wondered how long she would last. She began to resent her strong-willed mother, especially when Deanna left the native housing project and moved her girls into a motel room, just because she didn't get along with the administrator. The move forced Crystal to switch schools, where she had been in a Head-Start program for aboriginal kids, and lose her spot as top female athlete.

"I hated myself. I looked at my mother and hated her," she says.

Finally, in Grade 8, Crystal moved in with her father even though he rarely remembered her birthday, never came to her soccer games and usually locked himself in his bedroom when she visited. She still doesn't know what drove her there. "I was giving so much and no one was giving anything to me. I was so alone," she remembers.

One night, while living at her father's and attending yet another school, she washed down a fistful of muscle relaxants with a glass of water and went to bed hoping never to wake up. But she did, and says she "cried because I was still alive. That's when I went to church. I realized, `He wants me to be alive.' "

She had been going to a Catholic church off and on for three years but began to do so faithfully. She sought guidance from the priest and started seeing a social worker, who made her realize that at 13 her life was at risk of becoming a native cliché.

"This is exactly the stereotype society expects from us," she says now. "I looked at it, and said, `No.' After that, I did my work at school. I made friends with my teachers. I tried to develop a relationship with my father. I got along with my friends."

And she made the remarkable decision to move on her own to Mississauga, where she knew there would be no natives.

THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 6):

Photo Essay
Bright lights, big city

1. 'This is my country'
On being the lone aboriginal in a suburban Toronto school

2. Crystal and Amber
An unlikely friendship

3. Crystal's family
Searching for a better life meant moving away from the reserve

Reader feedback
Check out what readers had to say about Crystal's Choice
4. Competing faiths
"I haven't decided if I want to believe in heaven or the devil," she says. "In my native faith, there is no heaven."

5. Geography class
Crystal takes up the cause of aboriginals from the north

6. Defying the urban reserve
'I want to be an educated, smart, beautiful native woman'



photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay

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