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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 5: Changing native history

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 17, 2003

Damon Badger-Heit, 23, has spent all night riding a bus across the Great Plains, his people's ancient homeland, working on the valedictory speech he is to give in two days time at his university's convocation ceremony.

He's nervous. Sitting here on a park bench in the blistering sun of downtown Regina, his sleek black ponytail hanging down his back, eyes ringed with the shadows of fatigue, he's a little spooked about speaking for a whole graduating class of aboriginal students.

At first, in honour of the august occasion, he felt obliged to sound stuffy and learned. But now he's thinking he should just speak from his heart.

"We all went there for the same reasons: to improve our lives, to improve ourselves, to improve the communities around us," he said, pulling heavily on a sweaty bottle of lemonade Snapple.

But Mr. Badger-Heit is speaking for more than the 118 members of his graduating class.

As he prepares to take on the world — he's considering a master's degree in fine art, perhaps teaching drama on his reserve or travelling to other countries to teach English — he represents the hopes his aboriginal forebears had for their people when the Europeans started arriving and demanding to share this rich land.

He represents his own generation, too, struggling to learn and earn its way into the aboriginal middle class; to invent itself — it's a tricky game — as both fiercely aboriginal and proudly Canadian.

And he represents the future, a Saskatchewan that is heading toward being more aboriginal than not for the first time since the Europeans arrived all those generations ago.

It could be decades before what many aboriginals here call "the flip" — five or six of them, maybe, depending on birth rates and the pace of white flight and the province's success in attracting and retaining other cultures.

But already, a critical mass of Saskatchewan identifies itself as aboriginal — 13.5 per cent, against 3.3 per cent of Canada as a whole, according to Statistics Canada's 2001 census. More significantly, fully a quarter of Saskatchewan's children are aboriginal. That birth rate is slowing down a little, but Statistics Canada estimates it is still roughly double the rate of Canada as a whole.

As the flip approaches, the province's levers of power may well be shared or possibly controlled by aboriginals, along with the good jobs and the assets and the resources.

In fact, many of the wise elders of Saskatchewan — both native and not — take the view that the very prosperity of this beleaguered Prairie province rests in the hands of this new generation of aboriginals.

There will be implications for all of Canada in this. There will be a joyous stretching of definitions; a painful sharing of wealth; a gradual chipping away of stereotypes, hatred and bigotry. Once one of the provinces is run by aboriginals, what is to stop an aboriginal man or woman from holding the highest offices in the land?

All this rests on the pole-straight shoulders of Damon Badger-Heit as he sits here drinking deeply from his Snapple. And if this brave new dream of peace and mutual prosperity between aboriginals and non-aboriginals fails to take wing?

"Things will carry on," Mr. Badger-Heit said. "There will still be love and kids and everything. But I think it'd be pretty chaotic."

A refrain is humming through Regina on this same sunny day. It is an old and a hellishly common one, carried this time by the local CBC radio affiliate on its cycle of news programs.

"Closing arguments are expected to begin this morning at a sexual-assault trial in Melfort," the announcer tells listeners at 8 a.m. "Three Tisdale men stand accused of assaulting a 12-year-old aboriginal girl. Dean Edmondson is the first to go on trial. The CBC's Dan Kerslake reports . . ."

The trial has transfixed the province; stiffened the stereotypes; angered the native community and stirred the terrible ghosts of historic injustice.

The 12-year-old, not yet 90 pounds or 5 feet tall, had a fight with her mother, walked to the bar in a nearby town in the farming heartland of the province, took a ride in a truck with three white men and woke up hours later, her tender vagina torn and bleeding, cuts and bruises on her back and legs, stinking of alcohol.

A dominant issue at trial is whether the girl looked old enough to pass for 14, when she could legally consent to have sex. The testimony has been heart-rending, including evidence that the girl drank enough liquor to pass out and then awakened in kaleidoscopic snatches to find one man holding her down while another tried to remove her underwear. Most difficult of all is that DNA found on the girl's underwear was that of her own father, possibly from an earlier incident.

The heart and soul of the aboriginal community's rise in this province from desperation to middle class is the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, which is affiliated with the University of Regina. It opened here in 1976 with nine students. Now it has about 2,000 students spread over several campuses and is launching a raft of graduate programs.

Today, the day before Mr. Badger-Heit's convocation address, crews of workers are laying underground watering equipment and plenty of sod, trying to get the site spruced up. As usual, the fabled Saskatchewan weather is not co-operating: Fearsome winds whip the topsoil across the empty fields toward Manitoba, except for the grains that cake inside damp eyes and noses, embed themselves in pores.

On Saturday the college will take a new name: the First Nations University of Canada, to reflect its growing academic ambition in this country. And it will open its new building, which is beyond dispute the centrepiece of the University of Regina campus. Designed by internationally famous architect Douglas Cardinal, who is aboriginal, it is a sinuous, organic structure that eventually will be anchored by two soaring glass tepees, one inside and another at the outer entrance.

This building is visible from the TransCanada Highway and from the main north-south route through town, a beacon of postsecondary education — and of the native place in it. The native community itself raised $30-million privately and through government to construct it.

It is a far cry from when Wes Stevenson, the elegant acting president of the SIFC, started at the University in Regina in 1973. He was a tall kid from the reserve who ended up at university because he loved to play basketball. His first day on campus, a counsellor took him aside, looked him in the eye and said: "Your kind never make it here."

Now the college is the driving force behind young aboriginals, mostly women, getting university degrees in Saskatchewan. The number is still achingly small: For all of Saskatchewan, just 460 aboriginals in their 20s who were out of school held a degree in 2001, when Statistics Canada did its census count, compared with 9,445 non-aboriginals. But the increase is huge from 1996: 78 per cent for aboriginals in the first half of their 20s and 65 per cent for those in the second half, said Andrew Siggner, StatsCan's dean of aboriginal data.

Education means jobs; jobs mean money and good houses and better schools for their children and social influence.

It's a return to the aboriginals' centuries-old dream of respect, sharing wealth, living in harmony.

Aboriginals in Canada were "systematically dispossessed of their lands and livelihood, their cultures and languages, and their social and political institutions," the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples documents. The result was the creation of a Third World underclass with poorer health, housing, water, education and greater poverty than the majority of Canadians; a life expectancy that is still five to seven years shorter; a rate of incarceration that runs roughly six times higher than that of the general population.

In Saskatchewan, just 42 per cent of aboriginals 15 and older were employed — with an average annual income of $15,994 — when the 2001 census was taken, compared with 66 per cent of non-aboriginals who earned an average $26,914.

This is not the Canada that Mr. Badger-Heit's ancestors imagined.

However, while the gaps are still wide, they have narrowed in recent years. Today, slowly but surely, aboriginals are taking their place in the white-collar economy of the province, said Bill Asikinack, one of the most influential professors at SIFC and a man with a deep faith in the future.

"The lazy Indian, the drunken Indian, the welfare Indian, those ideas are going out the window," he said, boxes of his books lining his brand-new office walls, a hammer and nails lying on his desk.

As for the First Nations University of Canada, he sees it growing, too, turning out smart graduates eager to take on the world; a generation that, for the first time, will have all the same choices available to their non-aboriginal peers.

They will not necessarily use their talents on the reserve, either.

"It's not going to be just a minor drip, drip," Mr. Asikinack said. "In a little while, it will be a major explosion."

"Jury deliberations are in their second day at a sexual-assault trial in Melfort," the CBC radio announcer tells Regina at noon. "The trial involves allegations of sexual assault by three men on a 12-year-old girl. As Dan Kerslake reports, the jury asked another question of clarification this morning . . ."

Mr. Badger-Heit's mother, Mary Heit, 51, is telling a story over lunch just hours before the convocation, sitting with some of her family and stepfamily at a fancy brasserie on one of Regina's main streets.

It's a love story. She grew up as one of seven Roman Catholic children in an isolated German-Canadian farming family in Saskatchewan, and never had anything to do with aboriginal Canadians. Then she went to university and fell in love with Jacob Badger, the native way of life and the ideal of racial equality.

His Cree people were isolated, too, on the reserve at Mistawasis near Saskatoon; five families living in five houses right next to each other, having little contact with non-aboriginals.

Their fathers were against the marriage, but it went ahead. Damon was 2 when it ended and 10 when his dad, an alcoholic and drug abuser who by then was living on the streets of Saskatoon, was killed, a fate far too common for men and women of his generation. The other Badgers of Mistawasis pitched in to help Mary keep Damon's native roots alive.

Ms. Heit raised her son alone, teaching at SIFC, a linguist by education, holding both professionally and personally to the dream that aboriginal Canadians could have equal opportunity in her country.

A few years ago, she fell in love again — again with a Cree man, an academic who taught social work at SIFC. Now she is stepmother to the three children Sid Fiddler, 51, had with his first wife, a German-Canadian physician.

She turns to her mother, Kay Heit, 78, sitting across the table. The elder Mrs. Heit lives in a seniors' home in Unity now, but she wasn't about to have an aboriginal grandson and not know about his culture. After her husband died, she insisted on experiencing native sweats and other spiritual rituals, and on knowing her grandson's native relatives.

The other day, she tells the table, she had a get-together with some old acquaintances who were going on about all the good-for-nothing Indians who were ruining Saskatchewan. Finally, she piped up: "Listen here, I've got a son-in-law who's an Indian and who's educated," she recounted telling them. She's trying to puzzle out why people she knows would feel free to express such bigotry.

Rachel Fiddler, 21, Damon's stepsister, has just finished her first year at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and she has seen the prejudice firsthand, she tells the family. Some of her fellow students don't know she is proudly native. They let things slip.

She is eager for the day when aboriginal Canadians are routinely elected to political office: mayors, city councillors, MPs. She believes hers is the generation that will do it. They are emotionally healthy, educated, secure, without the scars of residential schools, abuse and addiction.

"We were born at a time of crossing over," she said.

Then she tosses this out and the breath catches in everyone's throat: "I think people realize that Indian people are people, not some kind of infestation."

Just about the time the family rises from lunch, the jury reaches a verdict.

"A 26-year-old man has been found guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl near Tisdale," the CBC announcer says. "Dean Edmondson is first of three men to go to trial charged with the crime. The court was told that Edmondson and his two friends got the girl drunk and then sexually assaulted her on a country road. The CBC's Dan Kerslake has this report . . ."

Later, Mr. Edmondson's lawyer says he will ask the court for a conditional sentence.

In native culture, credit is collective. The honour of one is the honour of all. So a convocation of 118 aboriginal students from all over the province — and even from other parts of Canada — is an event like no other, a tonic to all the times native Canadians have gathered to mourn. More than 700 people have assembled here in the grand ballroom of the Delta Hotel to bear witness.

The tables are covered with white linen; candles shine softly. There is a forest of videocameras, each one at the ready. The women are in chiffon, silk and high heels; there is a little girl in a sleeveless pink linen dress and pink sandals.

A few older people get up to the microphone to remind the revellers that just a generation ago, aboriginals were overtly consigned to "paraprofessions," allowed to be handmaids to the white people who held the real jobs in teaching, engineering and law. Tonight, some of the graduates are getting master's degrees, leaders in their fields.

Then it's time for the valedictorian.

Mr. Badger-Heit rises slowly from his chair. Ramrod straight, he walks the long carpet up to the podium, papers clutched in his hand. "Go, baby!" his mother shouts.

When he starts to speak, everyone in the room falls silent, even the children. His voice rings out, strong, vibrant, patient and clear, telling the future of his people, a people who have stumbled and endured. And who will prevail. ROBTv Workopolis