When pressed, Saik’uz Chief, Jackie Thomas, still identifies racism as the First Nation’s biggest challenge for the future.
“I’m not sure we will ever totally overcome some of the racism that takes place, but we are working on it, and it starts with us standing up and saying that it’s time for a change…that we will not stand for it any longer,” said Thomas.
The roots of that racism run deep within the community.
One example can be seen in the very offices now occupied by the Omineca Express which once housed the medial clinic in Vanderhoof.
There are two entrances to the building, virtually side by side, because, when the clinic operated, one door and an adjacent waiting room was reserved for non-aboriginal patients while the other was for “Indians”.
At 86 years of age, Margaret Antoine recalls a time when the bakery in town didn’t allow First Nations people to sit and eat with the white people.
“There was a cubbie hole in the back with three tables and that’s where we could eat,” she recalled. (see Antoine’s profile as “senior of the Week in this edition of the Express)
“Those attitudes have gotten better, but they still persist, just under the surface these days,” said Thomas.
A good example comes in the way that First Nations people are treated in the health care system.
Recently, Dermott Kelleher, the Dean of Medicine at UBC, went on record acknowledging that there is systemic racism in the provision of health care to First Nations people.
“There are peer reviewed studies that show that they don’t get the same level of care and that, often, that care is predicated on stereotypical assumptions,” he said while addressing the Stellat’en First Nation.
The admission comes as no surprise to Thomas.
“I’ve gone to meetings with the hospital and sometimes I just play the ‘dumb Indian’ to get them to see what they’re doing instead of challenging them. I say things like ‘Gee, I thought everyone gets asked if they’ve been drinking when they go to the hospital. I wonder why my people get asked that question every time?’,” said Thomas with a rueful laugh.
“I think they’re starting to catch on.”
Thomas points to other, equally serious, aspects of racism in the community.
“We need to get to a point where businesses are hiring First Nations workers. Our young people are getting tired of going to job fairs and filling out a ton of applications and resumés and never getting a job. So we are developing our own industries and training our people to do things like fire fighting and truck driving so they have a chance for getting work.”
Thomas is quick to acknowledge that some of the industries in Vanderhoof are “starting to come around” and points to some successful partnerships that have boosted First Nations hires.
“It’s starting to change and it’s a shame that it’s been so hard.”
One particular incident puts the question of racism into focus for Thomas.
“Last Canada Day I was so sad. I’d been asked to speak at this ceremony down at Riverside Park and before my turn they played a video on a big screen showing pictures of all these pioneers who built Vanderhoof,” Thomas recalled.
“Do you know that there wasn’t one picture of a First Nations person? It was so sad, and it made me angry. I just wanted to punch someone.”
She went on to reflect on the true history of Vanderhoof.
“When the pioneers first came here we worked together to survive…especially in the hungry 20’s and 30’s. Now they don’t have a use for us, that’s why I say ‘out of sight out of mind’. It often seems that when they have a use for us, that’s when we get a call.”
The affect of this lifelong experiences of subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) racism can also play out in decidedly negative forms.
“We have some people who will go into Vanderhoof, and they are angry or frustrated and they go and stand around Riverside Park and drink right out in the open. What people don’t realize is they are doing it to make a point. They’re saying, ‘This is what you expect from us so, here, we’ll do it for you. How do you like that?’. What people have to realize is that this acting out is their way of rebelling and thumbing their nose at the community,” said Thomas.
“I’m not saying for a minute that it’s right, but I understand it. The white community might understand it too if they walked in our shoes for a while. What we’re doing at Saik’uz is teaching our people that regardless of what happens in the white community, we have to find our own pride in who we are and make the change start within our people and within ourselves. We’ll let the white community catch up with us when they can.”