The death of Colten Boushie in August opened an ugly wound in rural Saskatchewan.
I’ll refrain from speculating about what happened on Gerald Stanley’s farm near Biggar because the truth is I don’t know much about it. But we all know that a young man is dead and that is tragic.
I also wasn’t surprised by the vitriol against First Nations people that flooded the Internet.
Sometimes I resent the implication that rural people are more racist than our urban counterparts. I’m not sure that’s true in Western Canada (or anywhere, for that matter — racism is widespread). But when I lived in the city, it seemed like racial slurs were more likely to be whispered instead of voiced openly. That might be changing now. Social media has a way of revealing what’s simmering just under the surface.
Carrying that history around
Like many of you, I’m descended from farmers and ranchers who settled in Western Canada. People like my great-grandfather, who left Czechoslovakia at the age of 16. Family lore has it that he was bawled out by the postmaster for not tipping his hat to a doctor. Tired of stuffy classism, he set sail for North America, and eventually farmed at Scott, Saskatchewan.
I think I was lucky to be born into a farming and ranching culture. That kind of childhood can instil independence, resiliency, an appreciation for community, a love of nature and animals, work ethic and an ability to take advantage of whatever opportunities life presents. It’s not the only way to be exposed to those things, and there are downsides. But overall I think those cultural values are huge benefits, and I suspect that’s what my stubborn great-grandfather was hoping to find in Canada.
The thing that muddies it for us, of course, is that while our ancestors were given an opportunity to succeed, those opportunities were taken from their First Nations neighbours. For example, Thunderchild First Nation, which now occupies reserve land near Turtleford and Turtle Lake, was originally located on rich agricultural land farther south. When the rail line came through, the Department of Indian Affairs started pressuring Thunderchild to give up that land. They really didn’t want to move, but in 1908 they capitulated. Some of the land they hold today is decent farmland, but a lot of it is rough, suitable for pasture at best.
Thunderchild wasn’t the only reserve pressured off good farmland, or away from traditional territory. When you combine that with generations suffering abuse at residential schools, and a litany of other hardships, some designed by the government to assimilate these people by destroying their language and culture, it’s no mystery why those communities face so many struggles.
I don’t write this to suggest that farmers, ranchers, and their descendants should be personally ashamed of that past. Nor do I believe in pity. But more understanding would go a long way in all this. In fact, I think we need empathy to make any progress at all. And I do believe we’re all responsible for trying to make things better right now.
Back in August, my colleague Gord Gilmour at the Manitoba Co-operator wrote an editorial on this same subject. It’s definitely worth a read. He points out that First Nations communities are often still very separate from neighbouring rural communities.
There are exceptions of course, but I think that holds true for most communities. I don’t know too many non-First Nations people out here who attend social events on the reserve, and it goes the other way, too. There are a few exceptional events, such as pow-wow, bingo, and some of the town fairs. It’s too bad because we’re neighbours, and we’d all be better off if we could tear down that segregation. But it’s hard to do that with the history we’ve all inherited.
I do think there are reasons for hope. I know farming families who’ve had good relationships with First Nations people several generations back. There’s a bit of a cultural revolution going on, as more First Nations, Inuit, and Metis artists make their mark. Some of Canada’s best writers these days are First Nations or Metis. For the last few years, there’s been an Indigenous Agriculture Summit held in conjunction with Agribition in Regina. And the public beaches I go to are more integrated than they were when I was a kid.
I don’t have hard numbers for any of these changes, but progress can’t be measured by stats alone. Sometimes it’s about the conversations we have and who we talk to and who we count as part of our community.