Native Programme

It takes an Indian to help an Indian

interview with Dave Courchene

President Manitoba Indian Brotherhood

by

Gloria Shephard

 

 Indian children with problems should be helped by Indians. The most useful thing white people in the treatment field can do is make their knowledge and experience freely available to Indians who can then draw on these resources in setting up their own programs for their people. This is the point of view Dave Courchene, articu­late president of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, expressed during a conversation I had with him in Winnipeg in August.

"I would never send an Indian child to an institution," Mr. Cour­chene told me. "No matter how badly damaged he might be psy­chologically, he's still better off in the Indian community.

"One reason that comes to mind right away is, how can that small child communicate freely in a for­eign language? How can he talk to a white person about the trees, the rivers, the fish, all the things in nature that he used to participate in?

"And although some of our southern Indian communities know about technological devel­opments, children who come from a northern reserve have a hell of a transition to make. A lot of our communities don't even have tele­vision; it's not available in the northern part of our province, so it's a completely new thing to them. They aren't used to the city rat race. They don't have time clocks on the reserve; they aren't used to having to be here at this time, there at that time. The fam­ily life is very different. This is the environment that the child de­velops in.

"Another thing I'm concerned about when they take these chil­dren away from their home com­munities — and I don't deny that sometimes there are valid reasons for taking a child away from his family, a total breakdown of a family unit, for example — is that the child someday is going to grow up and be an individual and where is he going to fit in?"

Almost half of the emotionally disturbed children in residential treatment in the Saskatchewan branch of Browndale are Indian or Metis. We are wondering if the therapeutic family units we have evolved meet the needs of the In­dian children as adequately as they meet the needs of the white children. We are coming to realize that there may be special aspects of traditional Indian family life, of which our white staff are unaware, which should be incorporated into the therapeutic family structure.

Steven Heiber, director of Browndale Saskatchewan has been looking for young Indian men and women who have the poten­tial to train as therapeutic parents for emotionally disturbed children. The establishment of a Browndale all-Black therapeutic family in On­tario* brings up the question of whether Indian emotionally dis­turbed children might be better served in an all-Indian therapeutic family group than in our present integrated units. I discussed these ideas with Mr. Courchene.

"Don't only look for Indian staff," was his reaction. "Develop your program with our people. The staff will develop with you as they participate in building the pro­gram. If you are sincere you should be willing to help our peo­ple develop the kind of program which you have developed and found to be successful. Then it will succeed because it will be our program, not somebody else's pet project."

People both in and out of gov­ernment who draw up plans for projects concerning Indians with­out consulting them until all deci­sions are made and then expect them to get involved, infuriate Mr. Courchene. "In their arrogance they figure that they know the an­swers and they try to force their answers on us.

"The same situation applied in education. They said, let's put the Indian children in the community schools, they'll assimilate. They aren't assimilating, they're walk­ing out. What they didn't look at was the possibility that the Indian parents might have wanted to get involved. But whether it's the fed­eral or the provincial government running the school program there's no parental participation as far as Indians are concerned. So, after a while, the kid says: 'I'm not part of that system, my community isn't, my parents aren't.' And he walks out."

Approximately 94 per cent of Indian children drop out of school before reaching grade 12, the rate for non-Indian children is 12 per cent (Hawthorne Report, October 1967, Volume II, pp. 130).

Three years ago there were only eight Indian students in the Uni­versity of Manitoba; now there are over 200. "But some of these peo­ple have to be very tough to make it through the abuse that they get there. The prejudice is often subtle, but it's just as hard to take." Because such a high per­centage of Indian children drop out of school there are few Indian teachers for the children to iden­tify with, and few Indian doctors, lawyers or other professionals.

 

Cultural genocide

 

"The whole educational system is not geared to the advancement of the Indian. It's geared to the total, cultural genocide of the In­dian. You wonder why Indian kids have problems. I went through an educational process geared to in­culcating an inferiority complex in every Indian kid in the school."

Courchene is an articu­late, forceful, proud man, but he told me that when he left residen­tial school at the age of 13 he felt "so inferior that I couldn't look a white person in the eye. I had been told that I was a savage, a Jesuit killer, the whole bit. I had been told that the medicine my people had was no good. It was good, but I didn't know it then.

"Canadians are too damn smug sometimes, looking across the border, criticizing what the Ameri­cans are doing to the Blacks when they have been doing the same thing to the Indians right from the beginning.

"Ever since Columbus got lost with his three little boats and we discovered them, white society has exerted a continuous pressure on the Indian to lose his identity. They have systematically under­mined our language, our liveli­hood, our way of life, our pride in ourselves as Indians. They totally destroyed the religious belief of the Indian with the different Christian groups that developed here so that now he doesn't know who or what he is. Yet he had a better concept of Christianity than any of the white people who came over. He was willing to share with all people.

"Now they are trying to save the very people they have psycho­logically destroyed. Well, it's not going to be accomplished overnight. Every damn teacher, every missionary, every member of the police forces, the government, the civil service needs to be re­oriented.

"Right now I'm very dissatis­fied with the Children's Aid situa­tion. We've had a number of cases where children have been taken away from their parents on some­one's recommendation and then a few years' later the kid comes to us and asks us: 'Where are my parents? I'm not part of this fam­ily I'm living with.'

Abused in foster homes

 

"The children run away from these foster homes they're put in because they are abused in them.

"We've got a bad case right now in Brandon. A 9-year-old boy has been taken away from the peo­ple he has lived with for eight years. These people have looked after him since he was a year old and they were good people, but someone decided they couldn't look after him any more because they were old age pensioners. Who made the decision we haven't been able to find out yet. But he's been put in a home where he is being abused by older boys and he runs away all the time.

"In another case we had, in Transcona, three children were taken away from their mother but she had the guts to go to court and charge the Department of National Health, the Department of Indian Affairs and the Children's Aid So­ciety with picking up the children and accusing her of a number of things which were completely fab­ricated. She lost the first round but she put in an appeal and won the case. She sued the Department of Indian Affairs for the costs which were over $3,000 but she still has to pay a share of the costs, which she can't afford.

Children's Aid "arrogant"

 

"Recently I got a letter from British Columbia about a 14-year-old girl who had been taken away from her parents in Northern Man­itoba when she was a young kid. She wanted to find her parents. No-one from Children's Aid or any other agency would help. They are so arrogant, the Children's Aid! Finally, we went to the churches and they found the girl's parents.

"The other day we had a 16-year-old girl come into the office here asking us to help her trace her parents. She had been sent to the United States to be adopted when she was a kid. We can't find out how many children, registered Indians, are being sent to the States, because the Children's Aid is a very closed society, but we know this is being done.

"They figure that by taking our kids away they are going to re­structure them. Give us the re­sources, we'll do our own restruc­turing.

"You've had this country fo over 100 years. Now it's our turr to make some decisions. Anc given the chance we'll achievi what you white people, with al your multiplicity of financial am professional resources, have no been able to achieve. We are dis covering some harsh realities. W are discovering that the worst per son is the one who thinks he ha all the answers when he doesn even know the questions.

"I hope you people realize the it's not only a question of workin with the children who come t you. There are reasons why thes children become disturbed. M children don't need to go to a

institution because they have a decent home life. Sure, many In­dian parents don't make it; they break down psychologically be­cause of the stresses they have to suffer.

"Didn't give a damn"

 

"All of a sudden people are taking an interest in the Indians. As recently as two years ago Canadians didn't give a damn about what was happening to our people. And the Department of Indian Affairs was so arrogant as to make believe they were the father of all the Indian people — a complete farce as far as I'm concerned. I'm not the father of any damn white and no white is my father!

"The Province of Manitoba is 165 million acres of which 135 million acres is land base. Do you know how much of that 135 mil­lion acres they reserved for the Indians? Just 400,000 acres of rock and swamp. If you visit some of the northern communities you'll see how barren some of those communities are, communities where our people have to survive. And then they say there is some­thing wrong with the Indians. If the people who say that had to live through the process we have sur­vived they'd discover there was something wrong with them.

"There are some very good people in the Department of Indian Affairs. You can find sincere peo­ple in all government departments, but they're few and far between. Too many civil servants are using the Indian people for a job. They couldn't care less about our peo­ple. There are bigots all over and some in very high places.

"Private industry's no further ahead. The protectors of the forest in Manitoba are the Indians. The dirtiest, lowest paid job is forest fire fighting. And where do the logging companies go when there's a fire and our natural re­sources are burning? They don't go to the universities, the people in the universities are too impor­tant for that kind of dirty work. They don't go to the logging in­dustry itself, their wages are too high. They go and pick the Indians and make them slave 18 hours a day for $5 a day.

"The dirtiest job you can do for the logging companies is log driv­ing — you're up to your behind in mud. Where do they go to get peo­ple to do this? They go to the Indian community.

"Where do they get their sugar beet workers? And where do they put them when they get them? In dirty old chicken coops with no windows, in places where they have a helluva job to find drinking water.

Livelihood destroyed

 

"Our livelihood has been totally destroyed. We were hunters. That's a right we conserved for ourselves when our country was taken away. What did they do with that right? They made farms out of the land where our animals grazed and pushed them out. Wherever there were forests they made game preserves, saving the animals for themselves. The fed­eral government passed legisla­tion saying I can no longer shoot a duck or a goose. How're our people going to live? They're go­ing to shoot them anyway, they get caught and they're thrown in jail.

"We can no longer live in the old way. They've locked us up. They've polluted our waters so that we cannot fish any more. And they scream: 'Look, we're doing everything for the Indian; we're giving him welfare!' . . . the worst damn thing you can do to a per­son. Then they wonder what has happened to the Indian and his pride, his motivation, his initi­ative? Every time we step some­where a block is put in our way.

"Sometimes it's a helluva lot easier to shoot the guy than to de­stroy him the way they are de­stroying the Indians. At least if they had shot us the pain would not have been 60 years of frus­tration.

"And they wonder why these kids are being lost in the pro­cess!"

I asked Mr. Courchene if the younger Indians were becoming militant and he said: "They can­not go any other way. I can see militancy developing within two years, perhaps sooner, if we can­not get the message across to the policy makers of our country. There are pockets of militancy now.

"I was more optimistic that we could work together a year ago than I am now. There is a hold back now in government and in people generally. For many white people interest in the Indian situa­tion is a fad. For us it's not a fad; it's a matter of survival.

"One thing I hope is that we don't repeat the kind of injustice that we have suffered, because to destroy another person is not something we believe in and to participate in such a thing is to lose our cause. I have said this to our people. We still have to use the system. In spite of all the frus­tration we must work together. It's not an easy thing to say, but we're both here on this continent and somehow we've got to live to­gether. But we must live as equals; we cannot go on living the way we have been living the past 100 years."

 

we cannot go on living the way we have been living the past 100 years."

I asked Mr. Courchene what he thought the answer was and he replied without a moment's hesi­tation: "Resources; trust our peo­ple with the resources. They have the ability; there's no doubt in my mind about that.

Want to participate

 

"For the first time, because the present federal government has the guts — and I'll give (Prime Minister) Trudeau and (Indian Af­fairs Minister) Chretien credit for this — to give us some resources we have kids coming into our office saying: 'Look, I want to par­ticipate in the movement of the Indian people, because I am In­dian.' Those kids were walking the streets —17,18, 20-year-olds — now they are going back to uni­versity because they say they need more training now that they can be useful to themselves and to the people — a feeling they didn't have two years ago.

"Right now I've got 60 applica­tions on my desk. Because we haven't got the financial resources I can't hire these people, though there's all kinds of jobs waiting to be filled. Yet this summer, the federal government handed over $25 million to a bunch of kids, 95 per cent of whom didn't need the money and got a damned good holiday out of it.

"The government has signed a contract with the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood for $144,000 for a two-year family planning and health education program. It will be run by five people — four in the field and one co-ordinating in the Fall 1971 office — to cover the whole of Manitoba. Twenty-five million for a bunch of kids to play with and $144,000 for an urgently needed health education program. Do you know what we got from the gov­ernment for economic develop­ment? Two million; yet just one of their projects in this province alone has a budget of $92 million.

"The Indian Affairs Department has a budget of $247 million of which $55 million goes on salaries alone. Our elected repre­sentatives, some of whom are responsible for communities of 2,000 or more people, haven't got any financial resources to carry out their responsibilities. Yet the damn system that's holding them back gets $55 million for salaries.

"The Manitoba Indian Brother­hood has a paid staff of 90 and 90 per cent of them are out working in the field where the action is; they're not sitting in some plush office."

When I asked Mr. Courchene if he thought the money allocated to the Department of Indian Affairs ought to be turned over to such In­dian organizations as the Brother­hood he replied: "Not to the Indian organizations but to the In­dian communities. The worse thing we could do is develop another bureaucracy."

He doesn't intend to seek re­election when this his third two-year term as president is up in March 1972. He wants to work full-time at the community level.

Under Dave Courchene's ener­getic and shrewd leadership the Brotherhood has made good use of the resources it has been able

to procure over the past few years. When Ottawa fired a regional di­rector who "after two years of hard bargaining was finally begin­ning to understand our aims and work with us" the Brotherhood hired him as a consultant. With his inside knowledge of the bureau­cratic intricacies of both the gov­ernment and the medical profes­sion (he's a doctor) he has proved invaluable to them.

Help choose staff

 

Brotherhood representatives now sit on boards which interview applicants seeking promotions or jobs which will bring them into contact with Indians. They are try­ing to find people who do not re­gard Indians as just a means to a job but understand the objectives of the Indians and are interested in helping them. At a board meet­ing held a few days before I talked to Mr. Courchene, only nine were picked from 60 applicants. Three of those rejected appealed the de­cision but that morning Mr. Cour­chene had received a phone call telling him that the appeals had been rejected and the board's de­cision upheld.

Initially, Mr. Courchene told me, the board had been organized to do little more than rubber stamp decisions already made by civil servants. But the Brotherhood had rejected that kind of token parti­cipation and had insisted that their representatives sit down and help draw up the qualifications required for the jobs being sought.

The Brotherhood has become a force to be reckoned with in Mani­toba over the past few years, as have Indian organizations in other provinces. Mr. Courchene gave me several examples of forceful ac­tion taken.

 

 

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I got a radio message from a northern community with a serious complaint against the doctor in charge of the hospital there. They wanted me to bring up senior men from National Health and Indian Affairs who had the authority to make decisions and settle the issue. When we got there, they went to meet with their staff and I met with the Chief and the Band Council."

"The head of the hospital was a doctor who had come directly from England and you couldn't find a more arrogant, dictatorial person. A young man in that com­munity, seriously ill, had been taken to the hospital five times the last time by the RCMP but the doctor refused to admit him. He had once been in a mental hos­pital and a certain regulation says that once a person has been ad­mitted as a mental patient he can only be handled by those author­ities. But at this time he was not suffering from a mental illness, it was a physical sickness he had. They had to charter an aircraft to fly him to The Pas and he was in hospital there for 12 days.

"A week after that a woman in that community who had been very vocal about the things that were happening in that hospital, was taken ill. She had to crawl up the steps of the hospital, the pains in her side were so bad. The doc­tor refused to see her. Her hus­band had to charter an aircraft on credit, he had no money to fly her to The Pas. Three hours after she got to the hospital there she had a very serious operation.

"The people were ready to burn down the hospital, they were so mad.Indians took over hospital "We called a Band Council meeting and the hall was jam-packed. That damn doctor refused to come until he was told by the man from National Health either come or you're fired. The meeting seesawed back and forth, with the man from National Health trying to justify the actions of his staff. Then I asked the chairman if I could speak. I suggested that the people of the community take over the hospital and run it themselves. 'Form a board,' I told them, 'and contract with National Health for the service. You hire the doctors, you hire the nurses and if you're not satisfied with someone, kick him out.'

"They agreed to do this and we stayed there for two days until they had formed their board and put it on a legal footing. Then they gave the Department of National Health an ultimatum: 'You find an­other doctor; that one leaves.'

"We also had trouble with the hospital at The Pas. Until they built the hospital at Thompson the women went to The Pas to have their babies. An administrator there who had been with the De­partment of National Health for 20 years, and become dictatorial and abusive, ridiculed our women. They marched in protest at The Pas. The RCMP helped us or­ganize the march legally; they were on our side for a change. We went to Ottawa and presented a petition to Health Minister John Munro and top civil servants from the department and they told us, 'No problem, she goes'."

The Brotherhood also held a sensitivity training week with the co-operation of the University of Manitoba for the RCMP, the provincial police and the Winnipeg police. "You've never seen such an arrogant bunch of guys as walk­ed in. But the university sent us some of their top people in the field and before that week was out those guys realized for the first time in their lives that Indians were human beings and there has been a tremendous change in this area."

So with its limited resources the Brotherhood has been able to focus on some important areas. And, together with the other Indian organizations across the country, it has given the Indians a voice, a voice we would all do well to listen to because they have impor­tant things to tell us. One thing they're telling us is that we are misusing the country we took from them.

"The Winnipeg River is so con­taminated that the whole of Lake Winnipeg is closed to fishing now. It's a beautiful lake, 100 and some odd miles long and 60 miles wide. Now it is completely polluted be­cause people didn't think about what they were doing.

Sacrificed community

 

"We have had many situations like Cedar Lake in the past. They moved an Indian community be­cause it was in the way of a hydro development they planned. They said, look, we'll move you to a beautiful lake, Cedar Lake, where you'll have unlimited fishing. With­in two years they had polluted the lake so badly they completely des­troyed the economic base of that Indian community. Before they were moved there was hardly any­one in that community on welfare; now they are almost 100 per cent on welfare, the worst destruction of people.

"They sacrificed those people because somebody wanted electri­city. They might have had electri­city without sacrificing the people if they had only realized you can­not plan a one-phase development. You've got to plan on total devel­opment which includes people, natural resources, the ecology of the area, the whole bit. For years, Indians have been trying to tell them this and only now are they beginning to listen because they are beginning to realize they may destroy themselves as well.

"Now we've taken a stand that they are not going to move us around anymore. They develop with us, or no development is go­ing to take place. We fought the same kind of battle at South In­dian Lake and we won there. It developed into an election issue and the government was defeated on it."

Mr. Courchene told me that some of the reserves in Manitoba are beginning to develop their own industries, but the development is limited because the financial re­sources are limited. He dismissed as a fallacy the notion that anyone can pull himself up by his own bootstraps without resources and complained that "governments are prepared to invest millions of dollars in multi-million dollar opera­tions, but they won't help smaller industries which would give a chance of development to small groups of people.

"We're only beginning to con­vince them that it is better to de­velop your human resources than the natural resources; that your human resources are the most im­portant resource in the country. But the way this country has been developed in the past is through plunder. In the process of making one millionnaire we make a mil­lion paupers. Well, that's going to have to change now."