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Excerpt - Chapter 5

Corporal Thompson had fifteen years in the force, serving in rural and small municipal detachments in British Columbia where local Indian populations reeled in their struggle with alcohol.

It had been prior to his service that Indians could in no way legally possess or consume alcoholic drinks of any sort. He had lived then in Williams Lake where his father had finished his service and retired from the now disbanded BC police.

There were few detachments outside Williams Lake through the whole of the Cariboo in those days and indeed no need of any. The hinterlands of that cow town were sparsely populated by ranchers preoccupied with working their lands and cattle and surviving the depression. Here and there far apart were Indian reserves of a wide range of sizes and settlements.

Most Indian families had some horses and a few head of beef cattle and rights to a piece of meadow on the reserve where they cut hay to feed their stock in the winter.

A few had substantial herds, good small ranching operations by any standards. Those who had very little of their own worked out for the white ranchers in the haying season and did a little trapping in the winter.

Everybody was poor, white or Indian. Even the large ranches looked in ruins with beef at five cents a pound on the hoof. The man who contracted hay at a dollar a ton in the stack or joined the ranch crew at a dollar a day and his board often had more to show for it after the steers were sold in the fall than the rancher himself.

With everybody on their uppers it didn't occur to anyone, white or Indian, that the Indians were underprivileged or that they suffered under a suffocating paternalism.

There no doubt was paternalism, depending on what you meant by the word. Thompson had travelled, when he wasn't in school, out into the back country with his father on patrol. They stopped at Indian villages that were accessible by road and there was a considerable display of respect on both sides. The Indians all knew his father, they called him Mishter Dompshon in the molasses slow drawl of their labored English, he called them by Chowloo or Pete or Billy-whatever first name they used, Indian or English.

They seemed childishly happy to see him and there was much smiling and nodding along with labored talk-except when his father put specific questions about some misdemeanor in which case there would still be much smiling but no more talking or nodding.

A few times he and his father made joint patrols with the Indian agent. Corporal Thompson's recollections from these trips were of a powerfully decisive but kindly man who listened to plaints of poverty, marital disputes or problems about irrigation ditches, all with equal patience, then gave out clothing, rendered judgements or ordered work to be done as a patriarch might in his own family. The boy gained the impression that the people did do as he told them and that they were satisfied of the wisdom of his instructions but of course it may have been only an impression.

It was paternalism all right, Thompson reflected, and that's pretty bad stuff according to the papers nowadays and the reason the Indians are in such a bad way. Yes, sir. All that stifling paternalism. No chance to live their own lives. Under the thumb of the government all the time. Never learned to make a decision on their own. Well, maybe. But it was damn remarkable how the Indian agent in Williams Lake must have kept all the Indians from living their own lives or making their own decisions when he had such a large territory to cover that he reached some of the more remote reserves less than once a year. Now wait a minute, Thompson. You're getting worked up again about all this unrealism about Indians nowadays. Yeh. Okay. Simmer down.

There was a little trouble in town of course. Indians liked to come into Williams Lake and whoop it up a bit and there was a fluctuating business in back alleys and livery barns, especially at stampede time, in wine and rotgut whisky.

Sometimes even out on the reserves there'd be a little excitement following a home brew party but nothing that ever amounted to much. It all made very little work now and again for the police.

But after the war there was a prosperity such as hardly any Indians and few white men had seen before and a fair sprinkling of Indian men came back from a time of military service and equality. The pressure began to build for granting equal liquor privileges to Indians.

Old Thompson retired about that time but his concern for Indian people stayed very much alive. He understood the arguments for putting everyone on the same footing but he thought he knew his Indians well enough to predict disaster. It was going to be damned expensive equality and the Indians were going to pay the price.

In the event, a compromise was granted in which Indians could drink by the glass in the beer parlors but couldn't buy anything from the parlors or the government liquor stores to take home.

The disaster materialized. The Indians converged on the one place where lawfully they could drink, the beer parlors, and all hell was to pay. Since most of the beer parlors in the Cariboo were located in Williams Lake, most of the paying was done right within the confines of that hitherto fair to middling peaceful place on the frontier.

Some used the phrase "piled up like cordwood" to describe the accumulation of passed-out Indians which developed after closing time in the vicinity of the parlors-the rather predictable consequence of a now you can, now you can't regulation of drinking. Since you couldn't carry any away in a carton, you tried to carry it all away in your stomach.

Piled up like cordwood. The phrase stuck in the younger Thompson's memory. It epitomized the change in attitude of the townspeople to disgust and revulsion, sometimes, at best, of a you-can't-blame-them-it's-our-fault-not-theirs kind of looking down, but even in that there was contempt.

But a change from what? It was hard for Thompson to remember. He knew his father's attitude, he thought, and he remembered bitter words between his father and others following on some phrase that granted less than humanity to Indian people. "Some of that smoked meat," he remembered once in reference to an Indian woman and there'd damned nearly been blows.

Still there hadn't been, he thought, the disgust and revulsion before the terrible spectacle created by opening the beer parlors to them. There had been respect and courtesy in the stores and the hospital and in the government offices. But was that really the town? Did the town really have an attitude? Perhaps the town just ignored the Indian people, apart from necessary trade which, after all, was as profitable to the town as to the Indians.

Thompson, in his memory, was not sure. Because really, apart from the visits on patrol with his father and the evident relationship that existed between his father and many Indian people, his abundant impressions began after the beer drinking started.

In a few short years, good men were reduced to alcoholism and poverty. The cattle were sold, the hay mowers rusted in the long grass of the uncut meadows, and the horses pawed the snow for last summer's grass to see them through the winter.

Men fought with their wives, families broke up, children were neglected and a death toll from accidents and violence in which alcohol was inevitably the decisive factor filled the pages of the small town papers.

The optimistic said, well, it's going to take time, isn't it? I mean, you can't expect this generation to adjust to it. But we had to make a start sometime, didn't we? When the next lot grows up, they'll be used to the privilege and they'll take it in their stride.

Others said, damn it, why this stupid halfway business? Can't anyone realize that it's this business of not being able to take it out that makes it so bad? What would you do if you could only drink in the parlors and you knew that, bang, at eleven o'clock you're cut off till ten o'clock tomorrow morning? You'd do the same thing they're doing and so would I. Knock back glass after glass right up to the wire then stagger out on the street and pass out. For God's sake, give them the whole thing.

A few said, damn it, I told you this would happen but everybody had the equality kick and now look what we've done. We've made beggars and paupers and tramps of the lot of them, standing around with their tongues hanging out, waiting for the parlors to open in the morning.

The senior Thompson, retired now, didn't say much at all. But his son, finishing high school and already with an application made to enlist in the RCMP, sensed the old man's sadness. Once after a comment had been made to him, which formerly he would have leaped upon, the old man turned away and tears came to his eyes. It had become too much, the sight of men who had once had dignity and a family gathered around them, a little meadow they hayed and a few head of cattle, the respect of the neighboring ranchers as well as their own tribesmen, all now reduced to grovelling for change to buy beer.

It was RCMP policy not to post a man back to his home ground but for Thompson an exception was made because of a lingering illness which kept his mother in pain for ten years before her death. He was rotated on a number of postings throughout British Columbia. He began in the mid north, and then served through the south and east. He knew Terrace and Hazelton on the Skeena River, then Smithers, Burns Lake and Prince George. After that came the Okanagan with two years at each of Kamloops, Armstrong and Penticton. Then he served in Cranbrook, followed by Creston and after that he came out to Davis Bay on the coast.

Police work wasn't the congenial, friend-of-the-citizen sort of pursuit it had been for his father and the realization at first profoundly disappointed him, especially in the relationship with Indian people. He was the cop, suspect at best, openly hated at worst. They were the drunks, in and out of the jails and the police courts in an endless round, eternally followed by sheets of blue paper, living, it seemed, constantly as described by Section 94(b) of the Indian Act, intoxicated off a reserve.

He worked it out in one posting: 87 per cent of the total cost of law enforcement for the detachment was devoted to that one section of the Indian Act-arresting, detaining, processing before the courts, escorting to jail. And his calculation did not take into account the cost of transport by aircraft to Oakalla Prison Farm of the people on longer sentences for repeated offenses.

A resigned and rather cheerful Indian prisoner once suggested to him during an escort duty that the Indians might as well buy the aircraft. So many of them flew to Vancouver so often to serve time in Oakalla, it would save the government money.

And if he suffered distress at the relationship with Indians his job imposed on him, it was surely compounded by the attitudes that developed around him in some of his colleagues. Perhaps without having known the people at least a little in the dignity of their own surroundings, they had nothing but the eternal round of arrests and court appearances to judge by. Some said openly that the only sober Indian was the one in jail the morning after. It was perhaps impossible not to feel profound dislike, even disgust. It was, after all, an unpleasant chore to deal constantly in a process which at best is hostile and underscored by force with a people whose standards of cleanliness more often than not were vastly different from one's own and who reeked of drink and frequently vomit besides.

But if it was unpleasant business for the police, what in hell must it be like for the Indians? And Thompson found himself flashing in anger at the callousness of the less thoughtful around him.

He argued with some vigor that they had better all damn well remember that the unfortunate Indians who couldn't cope with alcohol took up so much of their time-after all, it was the nature of the work-that they just didn't meet the men and women who stayed at their jobs and their homes and looked after themselves and their families.

He followed up on that idea once and in the end rather wished he hadn't.

He went into the local Indian Agency and reviewed the band lists with the superintendent. The object was to verify the number of Indian people who were not caught in the alcohol trap.

It was shattering. It was true that in almost every community there were a few who had command of their own lives; in the district there were several exceptional people, exceptional by any standards.

But the great majority over sixteen or seventeen years were in serious trouble with alcohol, most in an apparently hopeless stage, beyond recovery. In one reserve there was not one person who was not reasonably believed to drink to a problem level.

And the estimate was made by two men, a police officer and an Indian Affairs officer, who, whatever public stereotype they might suffer from, were committed to believe as well as they could of the people for whom they shared a responsibility. At least to the best of Thompson's conscience that was the case.

In time, the anomalous business of serving in the parlors only was given up in favor of identical rights for everyone. But this produced no startling results. Perhaps there was a shift to wine from beer and certainly drinking at home was a lot less expensive at liquor store rather than bootleg prices.

Then eventually the province instructed the force to abandon the practice of arresting and charging when the only offense was that of being drunk in a public place. This put an end to the treadmill though occasionally a drunk might be held overnight for his own safety then released in the morning. This new policy applied to both Indians and others, though it was doubtless to the Indians that it made most difference.

And to the police, Thompson thought, who could give up what may one day be seen in retrospect as the most futile sustained effort in law enforcement on a non-criminal issue in the history of Canada.