Cowboys and Indians can be a deadly game in today’s Canada
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, 2003

“Most people… especially the males, can probably remember that the first arguments they had as a kid were who is going to be the Cowboy and who is going to be the Indian. Then they set about killing each other and arguing over who was killed and who wasn’t …”
- Cowboys and Indians, CBC TV drama, Oct. 5.

For anyone growing up in the fifties’ world of noisy children imitating noisy westerns flickering on black-and-white TV sets, this quote is evocative enough, but in the police shooting death of a First Nations chief, John Joseph Harper, that took place on a blustery Winnipeg night in March, 1988, the term “cowboy” takes on special meaning.

“If an officer does not have reasonable and probable grounds to believe that somebody is a suspect … are you allowed to detain somebody in that particular situation?” a lawyer asks a senior police officer at the subsequent inquiry into Harper’s death.

“No. Unless you have the right to detain that person, to hold him against his will, to arrest him, then you must allow him to proceed,” the senior police officer replies. Referring to an earlier examination for discovery, the lawyer further enquires, “What do you mean by the term ‘cowboy’?”

“Someone who is prone to drawing his revolver when there doesn’t appear to be any basis for doing that,” replies the senior police officer.

Based on the book by Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr., Cowboys and Indians chronicles the descent of Harper’s “cowboy” killer, the suicide of his superior officer and the efforts by Harper’s brother to secure justice.

The saga produced Canada’s largest, most comprehensive and cathartic inquiry into native justice issues. “The highly public Aboriginal Justice Inquiry made Winnipeg confront its own bigotry,” says Sinclair. “In spite of itself, it became educated about aboriginal problems.”

Its implications reverberate across western Canada where increasing evidence suggests the “cowboy” syndrome — police treating Indians inappropriately and sometimes brutally — is systemic. This week, an inquiry into the freezing death of Neil Stonechild, one of four “starlight tour” deaths since 1990 in which drunken natives were left at the outskirts of town in sub-zero temperatures, started in Saskatoon. And in B.C., native leaders are calling for investigations into why six aboriginal men have died in as many years after being arrested.

Saskatoon and Winnipeg, with high crime rates and large native populations, lead the pack. Often, the incidents consist only of base discourtesy or misplaced efforts by police to avoid unnecessary paperwork. In a town such as Saskatoon, where police deal with over 2,000 cases of drunk natives a year, short cuts are attractive. But where aboriginals, at 15 per cent of the population, are charged with 50 per cent of the city’s crime and comprise 70 per cent of the prison population, each incident exacerbates tensions and places in higher relief native justice issues as the nexus of Canada’s anguished history of failed aboriginal policies.

In Winnipeg, the effects of J. J. Harper’s 1988 death and subsequent inquiries are mixed. Though their recommendations were effectively shelved, they placed the legal talents of native co-commissioner Judge Murray Sinclair on the map. And the Winnipeg Police Department changed its policies and procedures, says author Sinclair, but not its practices. “They still don’t test for racism in their recruits and they have no separate investigative unit.”

Curiously, though, the 1996 census revealed a 60-per-cent increase in Winnipeg’s aboriginal population — a phenomenon not explained by migration or birthrate. Did more people declare they were aboriginal? “native leaders credited the new-found pride in being Indian and Métis to the aftermath of Indian resistance at Oka and defiance over Meech Lake,” writes Sinclair. “But it (was) … ‘the process’ of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, from 1988 through 1991, that set the historic stage for the actions of Elijah Harper and the Mohawks… ”

Sinclair hopes Cowboys and Indians, destined to be a staple of Aboriginal People’s Television Network programming, will persuade young aboriginals, particularly, that it is possible to fight the system and win. Perhaps it will also inspire much needed leadership, one key to political maturity for First Nations people.

Either way, cowboys need notice their place is on the range, not in the police force.

Margret Kopala's column on western perspectives appears here weekly.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.