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Excerpt from Introduction

When How a People Die was first published I was often asked why I had decided to speak out. The book put my job in the federal Indian service at risk and certainly would offend many Indian people, though not all by any means. Since one doesn't get rich writing this sort of book, why did I do it?

The answer lay in my acute frustration at the reluctance of us allfield workers, Indian leaders, department officials at headquarters, politicians--to talk about the real guts of what it was like in the villages where the people lived--and so often died on account of how they lived.

We administered social assistance, we operated schools and sent children to school, we built houses and, where money and terrain allowed, installed piped water and sewage disposal. We worked with band councils to administer timber, grazing, gravel and other natural resources on reserve lands. We administered the land itself for internal use by the people or through leasing to outsiders for revenue for band funds. Contrary to popular myth, we worked with Indian leadership in most of what we did.

But little of what we did, or even talked about, directly addressed the harsh reality of daily life in the villages--widespread heavy drinking. brutal violence against women and children by husbands, fathers and other men, sexual abuse including considerable incest, dreadful neglect of children.

The silence of the Indian leaders was in some measure understandable. Those who had some talent to lead and who had accepted responsibility for their people were overwhelmed by what they had undertaken. They could deal with the practical difficulties of schools, houses, water systems and resource use. What could they do about the rest of it-the drinking, the beating, the incest, the child neglect?

Particularly what could they do about it when, as was so often the case, some of these horrific behaviours affected their own families, affected themselves?

A majority of the leaders were men and men dominated life in Indian villages, notwithstanding an ostensible respect for prominent women. If these men did not themselves practice the abhorrent behaviours, they most often had male kin who did, male kin against whom they found it impossible to speak, let alone take action.

They did not want to talk about the drinking, the beating, the incest and the child neglect. Senior people in the department, the politicians and an articulate but ignorant segment of the public, imbued with romantic notions, hardly wanted to know about, much less discuss, these harsh realities.

So I decided that I would talk, as best I could with my limited talent, and How a People Die got written and published.

A considerable fuss followed.

A few Indian leaders outside my district demanded that I be fired. Senior officials in the department remained surprisingly calm, however, in what I believe was a tacit acknowledgment that perhaps it was no bad thing to call a spade a spade so long as they hadn't done it and couldn't be held responsible. In the broader community the book attracted a good deal of attention, much of it predictable, and some quite gratifying. Reviews of the book appeared in the press all over Canada and the United States, for the most part overwhelmingly positive.

The Indian leaders in my own district soon sent word to Indian politicians elsewhere to back off, they would deal with me as they saw fit. I had enjoyed an open and forthright relationship with the band councils in my district and they now made clear that my future in the service was their business only. I appreciated enormously their firm stand against pressure from outside the district, and I put to them the position I had known all along I would feel compelled to adopt: I would accept their decision, I would continue to work with them in the same forthright way I always had or I would quit the service.

A meeting of chiefs and a number of leading council members convened of an evening at the district office. Speeches were made and harsh words said but more, I sensed, for appearances necessary to band and tribal politics than because I had done anything truly outrageous. After all the formal speeches were given I left the meeting and the chiefs and councilors got down to the closed-door discussion necessary to a decision.

In the upshot I stayed and over the days that followed several of the chiefs, in the privacy of my office, conveyed their understanding for what I had done. Implicit, of course, was that I must also understand the necessity of their public position. I thought it an abundantly fair exchange.

(I did, in fact, resign from the service four years later but not from any frustration in working with Indian leadership, however much I wished the chiefs and their councils would more directly face the reality of alcoholrelated violence in their villages. When the end came, it grew out of immense frustration with government bureaucracy and the inconsistency between departmental objectives and what might best be done with federal funds in the villages. But that is another long story.)

One of the bands in my district was widely known for its success in adapting to mainstream economic and social conditions. Many of the men in the village were successful seine-boat skippers earning substantial incomes and putting their money to good use. Most families maintained a standard of living which many who perceive themselves secure in the Canadian middle class well might envy.

It was during this time that I asked the chief of this band to go with one of my field officers to see first hand the real life village that was the Kwatsi in How a People Die. The two bands had little in common and the chief of the progressive village had never visited the other. He readily agreed.

After the trip, this chief came to my office to express his horror at what he had seen and his sympathy for my field staff in trying to achieve anything in such a place. It had been beyond his belief that any people could be so hopelessly incapable of doing something for themselves or of making constructive use of the help extended by government. He did not condemn but neither could he understand.

I recall his words: "It's far worse than you made it in your book."

Yet many asked then, is it really that bad?

Many ask now, is it really that bad?

In writing then I used the death statistics of an actual community to demonstrate how bad it was and to say, further, that if you tell us how a people die, we can tell you how a people live.

How bad is it?

I will provide more recent death and other statistics which demonstrate that, indeed, the situation remains persistently desperate.

But first let me give more life to what these numbers mean. The following statements included in the report of the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women bring to life the brutality behind the numbers:

"My father used to beat my mother all the time. When we were young I would hear them coming down the path toward the house after being out drinking. I could hear him yelling and him hitting her. The next day we would go to school and the blood of my mother could be seen on the snow bank and her hair on the road.

"Gang rapes happen, on and off reserve, white men and Aboriginal men, young women and old women. A young girl was at a party, her stepfather and her uncle raped her in front of a friend and some young boys. They stuffed her mouth with pills to try and kill her to prevent her from telling. 'Me friend and the young boys tried to stop it from happening. When the friend told the community social services worker what had happened, the community told the girl it was her fault that she got raped because she went to the party. She pressed charges and the judge asked her if she wanted to continue. The stepfather killed himself, and then it came out that there was incest all through the family over generations.

A friend of mine had foster daughters. She found out her husband had been raping them for years. He was sentenced to ninety days. There was no appeal from the Crown attorney.

By the time I was ten years old I was raped four times. Nothing was done for me.

I was gang-raped at two and a half years of age by a grown man, his brothers and friends. My brother assaulted me until the police intervened and then my grandfather started. I remember them raping me and putting a diaper on me and the diaper filling with blood. They broke my feet, and I remember being put in a room and them coming in to give me suckers. Why did my family do this to me?

There have been gang rapes of teenagers. They're afraid to mention it. One was reported, but charges were withdrawn because the victim was scared. There were two gang rapes last year, in a house in which drinking goes on. One girl refused to go back to her foster home. The three guys that did it, nothing happened to them. They get the girls drunk and use them, have sex with them. They use drinking as an excuse.

I was abused by my parents who were alcoholics. I was sexually abused. I was abused in foster care. I went back to the reserve to be sexually abused by siblings. My daughter was gang-raped at a party when she was sixteen. It is almost normal in this area."

Credible statements and reports from Indian women's associations make clear that violence against women and children is widespread throughout reserve communities.

Information revealed in recent enquiries and studies provides a vivid image of this truly dreadful violence.

From the Report of the Aboriginal justice Inquiry of Manitoba, Hamilton and Sinclair, 1991:

"Presentations of Aboriginal women were blunt and direct. Violence and abuse in Aboriginal communities has reached epidemic proportions. This violence takes a number of forms. Sometimes it involves physical assaults between adult males. More often-and more disturbingly-it involves the victimization of the least powerful members of the community: women and children."

From the Fatality Inquiries Act Report Respectina the Death of Lester Norman Desjarlais, Associate Chief Judge Brian Dale Giesbrecht, 1992:

"The sexual abuse of children is a horror of our time. Lester was only one of a depressingly large number of children who are used like meat by their elders for sexual purposes and then cast aside with their childhoods in shreds.

Problems associated with dysfunctionalism, such as alcohol abuse, child abuse and violence are far more extensive and intractable in reserve communities than in non-Aboriginal communities.

... the evidence is overwhelming that the social problems on Indian reserves are grossly out of proportion to those in the nation at large. . ."

From A New Justice for Indian Children: Final Report of the Child Advocacy Project, Longstaffe & Hamilton, Children's Hospital Child Protection Centre, Winnipeg, 1987:

"The problem of child sexual assault is one that has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. Due to the rapid rise in reported instances of child sexual abuse, demand for knowledge on the subject far exceeds supply.

Children (on Indian reserves in Manitoba) are suffering from trauma, physical injury, and psychological devastation that result from sexual abuse. The injuries to self-esteem, trust, and emotional functioning last a lifetime. The incidence of sniffing, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, suicide, depression, and sexual acting out among Indian children suggest that the problem of child sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions."


From Breaking Free: A Proposal for Change to Aboriginal Family Violence, Ontario Women's Association, 1989:

". .. 84% of respondents indicated that family violence occurs in their communities ...

".. 80% of respondents indicated they had personally experienced family violence.

". .. the incidence of family violence in Aboriginal communities is eight times higher than the average for Canadian society as a whole.

".. 87% of respondents indicated that physical abuse was a feature (of family violence) ...

". .. 57% of respondents suggested that sexual abuse was a feature of family violence in Aboriginal communities.

"The batterer was identified as the husband with an incidence of 84% ...

"... nearly 24% of surveyed individuals indicated they personally know cases of family violence which had led to death-most frequently, to the women."

Into this already perilous mix now comes the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, linked to the deadly disease we call acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS. Given the extensive and indiscriminate sexual activity now common in Indian communities, much of it in drunkenness and much of it by force, a deadly epidemic is virtually certain. Entire villages could be all but wiped out.

Here are some numbers.

A report from Health and Welfare Canada for 1990, Health Status of Canadian Indians and Inuit, discloses that between 1984 and 1988, the death rate for the registered Indian population served in the ages fifteen through forty-five was three and a half times the Canadian average.

Yet another report, this by Indian and Northern Affairs entitled Highlights of Aboriginal Conditions: Part II.- Social Conditions, tells us that in 1976 the overall rate of violent deaths for status Indians was more than three times the national average, that in 1981 it was over four times the national rate' and that by 1986 it was just under three times the national rate. A more recent Health and Welfare Canada report suggests it may really be as high as ten times the non-Indian average.

Crime statistics also suggest that life continues to be harsh and tragic for inordinate numbers of Indian people.

According to a 1988 report by the Solicitor General of Canada, although Aboriginal people represent only 2% of Canada's population, they represent 10% of the nation's federal penitentiary population.

A 1993 report by the Canadian Centre for Justice asserts that the situation is not improving, citing the case of Regina in 1990 where Aboriginal persons, while comprising only 5% of the population, comprised 43% of those accused of criminal offenses. Further, the crime rate for Aboriginal persons was found to be more than twelve times that of non-Aboriginal persons.

Other comparisons from this report are revealing: while Aboriginal persons comprised only 5% of the total Regina population in 1990, they comprised 31% of the victims of violent crime.

The largest proportion of Aboriginal victims were spouses or exspouses (24%); further, 28% of all Aboriginal victims were living with the accused.

The violence pictured in Regina is not unique to the urban situations in which many Indians now live.

Cruel new dimensions have been added to the violence in Indian villages in recent years: gas sniffing and suicide, mainly by young adults, adolescents and children, with sexual abuse emerging as a common ingredient in the early experience of those who take up sniffing and the many who go on from sniffing to end their lives.

In the report Health Status of Canadian Indians and Inuit, we find that the suicide rate for registered Indian boys served by Medical Services of National Health & Welfare (primarily status Indians on reserves or in crown land settlements) between the ages of ten and fourteen years is seven times that of the same age group in the general Canadian population. For Indian girls in the age group, the rate is thirteen times the rate of that age group in the general population. In the age group from fifteen to nineteen, Indian male adolescents commit suicide at five times the national rate; Indian female adolescents at six times the national rate.

What can be done about the frightening complex of alcoholism, violence and death on the reserves is anything but clear. Different panaceas have been popular at different times. I recall when education was declared, ad nauseum, to be the key. Repeatedly, new federal ministers have announced new programs by which, once and for all, housing conditions were to be brought to a decent standard. Brave new programs in economic development emerge from time to time.

The commitment in financial terms has been significant. Federal expenditures on Aboriginal programs have grown from 2.1% of overall federal expenditures (excluding expenditures on public debt) in 1975-76 to 4.2% in 1992-93. In per capita terms, this spending is now in the order of $12,400 for each status Indian living on-reserve or in a crown land settlement.

Now we hear much of the inherent right to self-government, of the need for separate Aboriginal justice systems, of how we Must settle outstanding land claims, of the need for Indians to take charge of their own education and welfare, of how everything will come right when First Nations have control of their own destiny.

With qualification, I sympathize with much of the change being proposed, but I am skeptical of the assumption it will coincidentally purge the myriad social ills that plague aboriginal communities.