"You don’t ignore those knocks again."
This has become a symbolic quotation for me, ever since the news broke about the tragic loss of two Canadian native babies, who recently froze to death in the middle of a sub-zero winter night.
In fact, the word "you" is symbolic of our entire country, Canada, its diverse people and its government. I now think about how those persistent knocks on the door of our collective consciousness have come for so long from our Aboriginal and First Nations peoples – our one million "forgotten" citizens.
That quotation was spoken "in real time," however, by a shocked Chief Wally Burns, leader of the James Smith Cree Nation near Melfort, Saskatchewan. He was referring to the knocks on his door one winter day by a native toddler "wearing just a shirt and Pampers."
Memories of that past incident came flooding back to him when the media reported that two native children — 3-year-old Kaydance Pauchay and her 1- year-old sister Santana — were found frozen to death in a snow-covered playground at Yellow Quill, another Saskatchewan native reserve, about 250 kilometers east of Saskatoon.
Chief Burns added that the parents of the toddler, who earlier escaped the fate of the Pauchay girls by knocking on his door, were so shocked by the realization of what could have happened to their family, that they quit drinking.
Alcohol abuse has been identified as a major factor in the neglect and subsequent death of the Pauchay children. Friends and relatives of the girls’ father, 25-year-old Christopher Pauchay, say alcoholism and drug addiction are chronic problems on the 800-member Yellow Quill reserve.
Pauchay was drunk and passed out while trying to take them to a friend’s home just 400 meters away. The toddlers were found wearing only T-shirts and diapers in minus-50C blizzard conditions. Their father, also wearing no outdoor clothing, was taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
Although a criminal investigation is ongoing, Canadian media lost interest in the story within a week of first reporting it. Worse still, no politician has so far spoken out about this tragedy as a wake-up call on the bleak future of indigenous and native peoples in our midst.
Chief Robert Whitehead of the Yellow Quill First Nation said his nearly bankrupt and addiction-plagued community desperately needs help. Although the band had a plebiscite on the books to ban alcohol entirely on Yellow Quill, paperwork and bureaucratic red tape have stalled the effort.
Many Canadians have simple notions about their native people. Most have the attitude that as long as "Indians" don’t cost taxpayers more money or get in the way of development, they are no problem; basically, they are benignly ignored. But, if they are seen as impeding development or chronically drawing on government resources, that’s a different matter.
As a result, Aboriginal and First Nations Canadians are reduced to negative stereotyped media imagery, or at best to idealized, even romanticized, museum exhibits.
As written by European colonists, conventional history has described natives as primitive, savage, pre-industrial and heathen, while those same colonist settlers saw their own cultures as modern, civilized, industrial, and Christian.
"This was a simple world, of nations destined by God to win and dominate, and of cultures doomed by history to wither and die," said Canadian professor Kenneth S. Coates in his book, A Global History of Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle and Survival. "Notions of cultural supremacy characterized the entire colonial enterprise," he continues, "and determined the manner in which generations of readers, students, and scholars understood the lifeways and cultures of indigenous peoples."
The contemporary situation of Canadian native peoples is indeed complex. But as a nation of moral witnesses to the death of two innocent babies, can we make a difference that will give life back to their nation?
Is anyone listening to their muffled cries for help?