Covering the hearing into the wrongful dismissal of two Saskatoon police officers, I was embarrassed. A hard-nosed investigative journalist of many years, as I sat taking notes, I found tears rolling down my cheeks. I could not make them stop. The 2004 hearing was examining the officers’ firing over concerns they might have been involved, in some unknown way, in the freezing death of Neil Stonechild. That day, photos of Neil’s body were projected onto a huge screen for those in attendance to study. He was 17 at the time of his death; my own sons were not much older. The tragedy was heartbreaking. I wanted to learn how his death might have been prevented.
The lad was Aboriginal. At that point in my life, my sister-in-law was my only Native friend (researching this book, I’ve made more Native friends), but I was brought up with great respect for their culture. A favourite childhood story starred the aged Chief Towweeaka who, every Christmas, walked miles from his reserve to my grandparents’ home near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.
“His visit was fascinating because the chief and Father spoke two very different languages,” my elderly aunt told me. “Mother would serve them tea by the fire, my grey-haired father with his bowtie always a little crooked, and this dignified old man with a feather in his braid who sat so straight and looked so wise. Mostly they discussed the health of Towweeaka’s people. There would be much waving of hands, nodding of heads, sign language, and, now and then, laughter. It took a while, but the two would come to understand one another. Finally they would sit in silence, smoking their pipes. The silence was important; it was almost as though they could feel what the other was feeling.
“When the chief was ready to leave, Dad would offer him a ride, but he would shake his head, No.’ And he would walk [six miles]3 home! One Christmas Towweeaka did not appear. My father went to the reserve and they had one last visit together.”
Why did the aged chief make that long, cold walk year after year? My aunt says it was to say, “Thank you.” My grandfather, Dr. George Ferguson, was for many years medical-director of the three tuberculosis sanatoria in Saskatchewan. Many patients were Aboriginal, since they were drastically over-represented in contracting the frequently deadly disease. In Manitoba, for example, although Aboriginal people were then only two percent of the population, they made up 45 percent of TB victims.4 Chief Towweeaka probably remembered the terrible 1880s when, across the country, one Aboriginal person in 10 died of TB.5 In a rare photo of the time, renowned Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot smiles proudly, surrounded by six robust children. The caption reads: “Crowfoot and his family in 1884. All the children in the picture had died of tuberculosis within two years.”6
Because so many on reserves suffered from undiagnosed TB, they unwittingly infected others. Recognizing this, sanatoria staff devised a plan to detect pulmonary tuberculosis before symptoms became apparent, while treatment was still effective and their family uninfected. Devising a portable lung X-ray machine, the staff loaded it and a gas-powered generator onto a truck and visited remote reserves from one end of the province to the other – three times. Meanwhile, glandular TB was treated by local surgeons including Dr. Maurice Seymour who did “extensive resections of glands … on an acutely ill schoolboy. That boy recovered and became Canada’s famous Marathon runner, Paul Acoose.”7
With early detection, immunization, and, in 1929, Saskatchewan pioneering free TB treatment, death rates plummeted. In 1936, the death rate for Native infants in their first year was 1,603 per 100,000; by 1948, it was down to 17 per 100,0008 – a nearly 100% improvement. As my grandfather wrote, “Resistance [to the ‘White man’s disease’], therefore, guaranteed the survival of the tribes.”9
My grandfather was also the North American pioneer in desegregating sanatoria pavilions where patients stayed. “He just couldn’t see any reason why races should be separated,” says my aunt. His greatest tribute, he said, was being named, in 1935, honourary Indian Chief Muskeke-O-Kemacan – Great White Physician. Along with a ceremonial headdress, the bands gave him a plaque inscribed:
“We, the three Bands of the Valley, the Muscowpetung, the Pasqua and the Piapot, have this day set up our tee-pees together for the first time. We have one thought in our hearts and one voice on our lips. Many years ago you came to live among us. You have healed the diseases of our white brothers and have taught us the ways of health. And you have also visited our people scattered throughout the plains and forests of Saskatchewan. You have brought to us, and to our children, sympathy, help and healing. …You have been a great physician to us and have gone in and out among us, always as our friend.”
Knowing a few of the thousands who, to this very day, supported by citizens and government, worked and still work themselves to exhaustion battling the disease once decimating Aboriginal peoples – the reverse of genocide! – we find it hurtful that some educators today fill young Aboriginal minds with hate. Why suppress truth about all the caring, life-saving work done in various fields on behalf of Native people? This suppression promotes hostility, and encourages separation.
The Aboriginal and Caucasian communities are more alike today than at any time in the past because we live in the same cities. Yet many Aboriginal politicians seek separation – even apartheid – by demanding changes such as a separate justice system. What divisive system, creating more “apartness,” will be demanded tomorrow?
Someone is benefiting by fomenting hostility between races, but our country is not. I believe that if, like Towweeaka and my grandfather, Aboriginal and White people worked together sincerely, “The two would come to understand one another.” To appreciate one another. On the other hand, we can only be driven disastrously apart by chicanery and guile, such as the deceit behind alleged “starlight tours” revealed in this book.
As the author, this is my background. As a journalist writing my initial story about Aboriginal freezing deaths in Saskatoon, like many others, I accepted the line fed the public: White police were somehow responsible. Digging deeper, I followed my grandfather’s words: “Constantly struggle for the truth!” When Police Become Prey documents my journey of discovery into the land of myth, followed by efforts to learn how the disastrous lie – the snow-job! – could possibly have been foisted upon the intelligent peoples of my home province.