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Wednesday February 27, 2013

Forged links between RCMP and aboriginals

After his daughter, Constable Robin Cameron, was murdered on duty, he became even more devoted to tribal duties

Special to The Globe and Mail

WAKAW, SASK. -- Howard Cameron participated in a ritual every parent dreads: the funeral of a child. On July 21, 2006, his beloved daughter, Constable Robin Cameron, 29, was given a full regimental funeral ceremony that combined RCMP and aboriginal traditions at the Willow Cree Memorial Arena. Tents were erected as the building overflowed with fellow officers, community leaders, family and friends, who came to mourn the death of one of the Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation's own.

Friends and observers noted that Mr. Cameron, himself a former RCMP officer, acquitted himself that day with grace, empathy and composure as he courageously responded to the violent and deadly attacks on his daughter and her fellow RCMP member, Marc Bourdages, 26.

The July 7, 2006, shooting at Mildred, in north-central Saskatchewan, was in response to a domestic violence call that resulted in a high-speed chase from Spiritwood to Mildred. The officers both suffered head wounds when their assailant shot them through their windshield. Both later succumbed to their injuries. Curtis Dagenais of Spiritwood was tried and convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.

Ms. Cameron had always wanted to be an RCMP member. She followed proudly in her father's footsteps when she graduated in 2001 from the Regina RCMP Depot. A single mother to daughter Shayne, she overcame personal adversity to join the force. She was very popular in the Spiritwood community she served so diligently.

In an interview in a regional newspaper, Ms. Cameron said she loved putting on her uniform every day. She loved her job and she was dedicated to protecting her community. She was particularly skilled at mentoring youth; in the five brief years she served, she made a large impact. Like her father before her, she acted as a liaison between the RCMP and the aboriginal community.

Howard Cameron died at 58 on Feb. 12 of cancer. His friends and family gathered on Feb. 16 to pay their respects at the Constable Robin Cameron Educational Complex at Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation.

Mr. Cameron leaves his wife, Norlaine. The Beardy's-based couple shared 13 children, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His first wife, Denise Cameron, was Robin's mother. On the day of his wake, his 11 surviving brothers followed his casket from Rosthern Hospital to the reserve. His parents, Mary and Leo, both deceased, were esteemed members of the community and parents of 18 children.

Mr. Cameron, who was fluent in Cree, began his own brief policing career as a "Special" in the early 1970s. Special Constables worked alongside the RCMP. They acted as liaisons with the community and were also translators, said Doug Cuthand, a Saskatoon filmmaker and friend of the family.

The Cameron family has deep roots in the community and demonstrated a flair for leadership, sport and law enforcement in the Duck Lake region, 90 kilometres north of Saskatoon. Leo Cameron, Howard's father, was Band Chief of Beardy's First Nation and played goal with the Rosthern Wheat Kings hockey team in the 1950s. Leo's father, J.B. Cameron, was the team's manager.

The family remains keen on athletics, says Howard's cousin, Oliver Cameron of Saskatoon. "In our family, we love to golf, curl and play hockey. We also play baseball and soccer," said Mr. Cameron, a retired chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council. "But I'd have to say that hockey comes first. Howard played junior and he was pretty good."

Howard Cameron passed his love of hockey on to the next generation. In 2002, he received a minor hockey coaching award from the Canadian Hockey Association for his volunteer coaching contributions.

The family was also party to some key events in Canadian history. William B. Cameron, Howard's great-grandfather, served as a clerk at the Hudson's Bay Co.'s Fort Pitt, a trading post on the North Saskatchewan River. On April 2, 1885, he witnessed the Frog Lake Massacre during the North-West Rebellion.

A breakaway element of Cree Chief Big Bear's warriors, led by Wandering Spirit, was fed up with food shortages and maltreatment. The warriors' disaffection focused on the harsh and arrogant behaviour of Indian Agent Thomas Quinn. The chief''s authority had been weakened because his people were facing starvation owing to the near extinction of the buffalo. The warriors acted against Big Bear's wishes for a peaceful resolution and unity among the tribes. On April 2, 1885, Agent Quinn and eight other men were killed at Frog Lake by the breakaway group, but the popular Mr. Cameron was spared. The women hid him under a blanket from the warriors.

Mr. Cameron was later held prisoner at Big Bear's camp. After two months there, he escaped as the Battle of Frenchman's Butte raged. He later became a scout for the North West Mounted Police.

After the dramatic events of 1885, William B. Cameron married a Cree woman and moved to Beardy's reserve. Their son, J.B. Cameron, served on the band council and married a local girl. J.B. was valued for his literacy and penmanship and played an important role in communications for the band council.

In his later years, Howard Cameron, too, took on the role of elder in his community. "Howard grew into it. He took it very seriously. This role of becoming an elder was something he studied diligently," Mr. Cuthand said.

Mr. Cameron was the elder-in-residence at the Constable Robin Cameron Educational Complex. He was also entrusted with the role of keeper of the medicine bundle (bundles are sacred packages for most Plains tribes and many others) from the Blackfoot tribe.

"Because he was a former RCMP officer, they knew they could trust him with it," Mr. Cuthand said.

Mr. Cameron, in his role as elder, performed a pipe ceremony and prayer for the change-of-command ceremony on Feb. 9, 2011, in Regina. Saskatchewan's Assistant Commissioner, Russ Mirasty, a member of the Lac La Ronge First Nation, assumed command of the RCMP's Saskatchewan branch. Mr. Cameron told Mr. Mirasty that he was very moved to be a part of Canadian history, as Mr. Mirasty was the first aboriginal RCMP officer to be appointed to the post.

The two men were trainees at the Regina Depot during the same era in the mid-1970s. Mr. Cameron worked for the RCMP as a Special Constable for two and a half years. When Robin Cameron graduated from the Depot in 2001 and accepted her first posting at Beauval, Sask., Mr. Cameron re-connected with the RCMP and later served on an aboriginal advisory committee for Mr. Mirasty at "F" Division's Regina headquarters.

Mr. Cameron also played a key role in recruiting future RCMP members. Some "24 or 25 RCMP officers have come to us directly from the Beardy's First Nation," Mr. Mirasty said. "On a per capita basis, that would likely put them first in Canada."

Mr. Mirasty admired Mr. Cameron for his "balanced approach." When consulted, Mr. Cameron always looked at the big picture, and he took the long view when it came to community policing and larger social issues. Since the Cameron family acted as a key bridge between the RCMP and the aboriginal community, Howard Cameron's death leaves a significant leadership gap.

"He and his wisdom will be greatly missed," said Mr. Mirasty.

In 2005, Mr. Cameron was awarded a Centennial Award of Merit from the province of Saskatchewan for his contributions to his home province. As Ceremonial Keeper for his community, he sat on many boards and committees, in addition to performing sacred ceremonies.

The respected elder will be remembered for his integrity, leadership, calm demeanour and ability to connect with youth. His older brother, Ernie Cameron, told the CBC in an interview on the day of Howard's funeral that his brother had no regrets about Robin having joined the RCMP - nor did he hold any grudges.

"He was very proud of his daughter. He always said the RCMP offered a good and rewarding life," Ernie Cameron said. Like many others who knew the elder, Ernie asserted that Mr. Cameron's enduring legacy was that he changed the relationship between the aboriginal community and the RCMP for the better.

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