Canaries in a Coal Mine – Beyond Colten Boushie

Marquette, Manitoba



There is a spot I have gone to for a half century. Almost the exact centre of the continent named, in English, North America – Latinized version of sailor Amerigo Vespucci’s first name in its feminine form as with Europa, Africa and Asia – it has offered a view to the edge of the earth in every direction since the land was scoured clean by retreating glaciers of the last ice age. If plants had citizenship, the many varieties of the Poaceae family, buffalo grass and big and little bluestem would be the founding populace of this long fertile plain the size of Spain, France and Germany combined. Yet its very magnificence – its fertile and almost perfectly flat extent – has proven, in our time, to be its greatest vice.

Today, eager, for it has been much too long since my last visit, I have taken the unpaved highway that brings me here in a direct line from the airport. To catch the local news, I have the radio on. But not the GPS. No need, I’m a homeboy on familiar turf – though with every return, as I change, as the land changes, my response to this spectacular panorama changes too. The family farm, the village I was raised in, our one-room school are not far away, and city boy now, I am often moved to reminisce. At other times, as amateur geographer, I think of how twenty thousand years back this place was part of our earth’s most extensive biome, the Mammoth Steppe, stretching from the Pyrenees up, east, across half the planet and down to here. Still devoid of any vegetation above waist height, my special spot lingers as a reminder of how that globe-girdling zone might have felt for the first homo sapiens who trod upon it in central Asia – some, as the earth warmed, turning toward the setting sun, but others toward sunrise. Amateur historian, I wonder how their descendants, those first humans here, felt as they migrated south into the unknown, and much later, a mere four centuries ago, what they thought when after no contact for millennia, these long separated ex-citizens of Asia and Europe met again.

As a rule, Indigenous people welcomed the newcomers and at first, life was little different. Though climate change and human predation had killed most large mammals, the remaining herds of bison outnumbered people; all were still afoot, and they co-mingled. Then the horse and rifle arrived. Innovative Métis traders piled their Red River carts with nature’s bounty, pemmican, food to fuel their travel across the vast land. Then the railroads were built, and that last wild quadruped, its hides shipped to eastern industry, was soon gone – replaced by its domesticated Bovidae cousin, cows. With them came the plough, and for a century, houses, barns, fences and lovingly tended trees began to clutter this view, as they did when I was a child. Not so today. Like the bison, their hunters, and the high-wheeled wagons, these too have vanished.

Cruising along, window down, car yawing from side to side as they are wont do on gravel roads, it would have been easy for me to fantasize that this landscape is the unspoilt one of ancient times, but I am focused instead on a radio program about a rural shooting that happened a few days ago. The incident occurred not far from here, and though only a brief item on national broadcasts, a local station has given the incident more time. Its tragic particulars are riveting, so I am not paying much attention to the view… until I realize it has been several kilometres since I crossed, at right angles, a mile road measure of distance here or saw a parallel one. Even these are gone, ploughed up. I stop, to get my bearings, yes, but more to listen to the news report. Details emerge. During an altercation on his property, farmer Gerald Stanley killed Colten Boushie, a young, unarmed Cree man, with a single pistol shot to the back of the head. As I check my phone’s map, a bright green tractor comes into view, rushing toward me at a jogger’s pace.

Afloat on huge double-chocolate-donut tires, driver invisible behind tinted windows, cab high as a house roof, chimney two long pipes spewing black smoke, it pulls toothed cultivator-seeders wide as a tennis court. Turning, the mechanical malice of this manoeuvre triggering a mini earthquake, it retreats toward the horizon, leaving behind a swath of tilled earth fresh and eager as a hopeful lover… and me, alone. Feeling lost despite the GPS, my thoughts in the wake of the deadly violence of the shooting and the anonymous tractor’s equally violent passage turn from the indulgent abstractions I usually reserve for this place to the dark and very concrete: death. Death on a social scale, since although this vast field will grow a crop, no farmer or farmstead can be seen… an entire population has been eliminated. And death on an individual scale, as one human has eliminated another with a semi-automatic handgun, a military weapon designed and manufactured for that purpose alone.

“Canaries in a coal mine” is the insightful term an anthropologist acquaintance used in referring to both men. The term was first employed when miners began to carry caged birds into the deep pits. Their resistance to toxic gas was low, so if one died, the humans knew they were next… and got out. In modern usage it can mean advance warning, but in the way she employed it, I think the metaphor of a noxious atmosphere applies and has the added benefit of being inclusive: all are in danger – a view seldom held with regard to this type of confrontation (one so symptomatic of tensions here).

Her comment reminded me of a remark made by my aunt, now almost a hundred, as we stood here: “Where has it all gone?” she queried in a tone of profound loss, referring to the world of her own youth when a half dozen family homes with barn and outbuildings clustered around could be seen. Why is what she said so resonant? Because this is what all the communities of the grassland nation, Indigenous, Métis and non-Indigenous settlers entreat…“where has it gone?”  Whether their demands are for land rights or recognition or good police work or justice, the common thread is one of lack. There is a sense, part of a much larger mood, one extending far beyond this place, that the human spirit here is engaged in a desperate struggle.

This particular shooting and the subsequent trial – once again ending with the shooter’s acquittal – has proved a tipping point. Polarization of opinion seemed the norm, with those of non-indigenous heritage, the settler farmers, on one side, those of Indigenous heritage, many from reserves or living in cities, on the other, and the long-suffering Métis, still fighting for recognition, in a complex relationship with both. Between these groups, mandated to serve each equally, lay the RCMP and the federal and provincial legal systems and courts… all accused of bias. Tracing my family roots back to the time of the Hudson’s Bay Company, I am in some way connected to each community, first, by marriage, to the Indigenous one, and subsequently to the Métis and European ones. I know, with varying degrees of insight, the origins and history of the opinion they have of themselves, as well as their attitude toward those they see as the other. Fully understanding the many tensions, much less having any idea how they could be reconciled seemed impossible… and truth be told, was I in any way qualified? That is for others to judge, but I found the canary-in-the-coal-mine metaphor and its implications apt. The very atmosphere of the land of grass has been rendered toxic, and all who breathe it are in equal danger.

Government data reveals the tremendous differences between the opposed communities. For the Indigenous peoples, often confined to reserves or living a displaced existence in cities: an incarceration rate six times that of the settlers; high incidences of tuberculosis in the North, long eliminated amongst the population of the South; and thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. For the Métis, who organized a resistance to undemocratic territorial rule and formed a nation long before official confederation, many of the same statistics apply, most often reported in terms of deprivation and lack: lack of housing, lack of potable water, lack of adequate health care, lack of schools, lack of justice.

But what of the third group, the settlers, human tools of the state-building apparatus, who came here after the reserves were created and the resistance defeated? Is their presumed lack of problems the legacy of colonialism and the implied superiority of the colonizer? They do have the best land, better houses, bigger vehicles and more money. They live longer and get better educations. Yet if we accept the coal mine metaphor, they too inhale its poisonous vapours. The view that they as a group are vulnerable, as individuals, families and communities, is seldom advanced, most probably because the same selective amnesia that has obscured Native and Métis history now withholds many truths about them. I submit that this expedient myth is a grave error, and if reconciliation is sought – for it must be and will be, if there is to be a path forward – this group must be looked at and approached from the perspective of their weaknesses. In the same way that an individual farmer, innocent or culpable, was the perpetrator of a killing, as a group they are the perpetrators, innocent or culpable, of a state-sponsored industrial invasion of the land – one of global dimensions – and this, as many see it, is an equally serious offence. Why study the perpetrator? A look at most violent crime reveals that it is the perpetrator who often suffers from far more profound pathologies than the victim.

The land. As I sat at my grade three desk in our one-room school – grade two on my right, grade four on my left and grade five behind – our teacher ran her palm over the unfurled map behind her and described the fertile prairie we lived on as the “bread basket to the world.” Our wheat, plus oats and rye, were exported to make its pasta and pita and panini. At this, the farmer’s children sat up straight and we all looked out through the tall windows at their homes, most less than a kilometre apart and within walking distance of the school. The original homestead grants were I60 acres, a quarter section, a half-mile by a half-mile, and some still lived on them. This surveyed unit was the nation-building block that federal governments used to tempt settlers a century and a half ago, and for a crofter or peasant struggling on a few acres or arpents, it was a gift heaven-sent.

My grandparents, aunts and uncles raised a family on such parcels. Then, my schoolmates’ farmer folks, like everyone, fell victim to national economic policy. The level, treeless prairie was ideal for industrialized agriculture. Survival of the fittest became the order of day and farms, the machines that worked them, the investments needed to fund all this got bigger. Families who could not ‘cut the mustard’ sold out. The snug one-room hubs of rural pedagogy closed. Children spent hours on the bus each day, driven to amalgamated institutions with libraries, laboratories and cafeterias, newly built at the edge of selected towns.


Marquette, Manitoba


The urban/rural demographic of my grassland nation was reversed. It has had a population of one million my entire life, and when I was a youngster, the sign at the perimeter of the central city where we did our Christmas shopping read 250,000: only a quarter of its population in that city. Today, leaving that same city, the sign in my rear-view mirror read 750,000. Now only a quarter of that million people remain in the countryside. Although agriculture seems more efficient since fewer people work more land, analyses reveal that this ‘efficiency’ demands a great quantity of agrichemicals and more caloric input from petrochemicals to power all the labour-saving devices. Since these technologies are so complex, they also require an equally complex infrastructure, often metropolitan. Thus labour input is deferred to city factories where the gas and oil are refined and the herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and all this machinery are produced. Nearly the same amount of human and caloric input goes into a bushel of grain or a pound of beef as it did a half century ago… it is just that, in another demographic turnabout, much of this effort is now urban.

What is it like to live on these isolated places, no distance walkable, no neighbour in sight, where winter snowdrifts can block every road? A recent article about grassland nation was titled Four out of five prairie men have unhealthy lifestyles, including the country’s highest obesity rate. Life on the farm means driving – tractors, trucks and cars – to the field, to town, to a neighbour’s, on a grid of mile roads that date from the original homestead survey. One-hundred-kilometre-per-hour journeys that cross thousands of uncontrolled intersections. Fatality rates in crashes are double the national average. Some junctions are infamous: almost an entire youth hockey team died tragically when a bus returning from a game collided with a semi this year at the exact spot where a family of six lost their lives two decades previous. Not far away, twenty-two railway workers were killed in another truck and bus collision.

Husband is a word with ancient roots, its original meaning perhaps ‘tiller or keeper of the soil.’ This is a reciprocal relationship. You feed it your various physical, mental and sacred labours, and it feeds you, your body, mind and soul. I look out over the immense field. Its harvest will belong to no one I can see or anyone from this parish or this province. A transnational may own this land, the planted, patented hybrid seed and the future harvest. Much of it may not even be healthy food for humans. If it is corn, it might be used to make corn syrup for processed foods, or ethanol; if soybeans, to fatten livestock; if potatoes, for potato chips.

This cannot be dismissed as an aberration caused by greed. What is happening on grassland nation is a story all too common. Farmers took their cues from the wider society and its material pursuit of material success. This yearning is what most North Americans, and indeed most of the world’s peoples, feel. Worse still, while farmers strive to feed the urban population, Canada’s unhealthiest regions and those with the worst access to doctors are rural. Profitably working these immense tracts of land that are as level as a factory floor necessitates many toxic chemicals. The once nurturing acts of seeding and weeding can and do prove injurious or fatal to the human bodies tending the crops. And the mind? If you are not husbanding it, does the land give back? I spoke with farmer couples that decided to quit. They could not go on poisoning the soil and did not want their children to.

These great distances also affect the soul. Rural life is an attributed risk factor for male suicide, and farmer suicide rates are the highest of any occupation. Though this “land of grass” has a violent crime rate twice the national average and triple its urban areas, if there are problems, the thinly spread RCMP often cannot respond in time. For this reason, farmers arm themselves. Gun-related crime and illegal discharge of firearms are common offenses. The radio program on the Boushie-Stanley confrontation stated clearly that the weapon was a pistol. These are not meant for hunting deer or taking out a wolf that menaces your cattle. For such tasks there are rifles of various calibers to suit every budget. No, this weapon’s sole intent is to shoot humans at close range, and the restricted firearm used to kill Colten Boushie is one more typically found in the hands of a big-city criminal. Gerald Stanley’s legal counsel commented that, “Mr. Stanley wishes he had never owned a gun…” and I have no problem believing this is true. On the news he appears to be a decent man. Killing another, as every moral culture recognizes, is the ultimate act of separation, the supreme defiance of, or, sadly, definition of, community. This tragic event represents an absolute form of social division and for the most part is being treated as such.

Yet forgotten is the time not long past when the Cree and Métis were strong, the new immigrants were vulnerable, and co-operation, mutual tolerance and respect were the norm. My great uncles were taught to survive here by its Ojibwe and Saulteaux residents. I was able to work in the far North – on snowshoes all day, living in tents at minus 60 – because my Cree compatriots showed me how. Little recognized is a third demographic volte-face: the Indigenous and Métis populations, though often confined to infertile or unfarmable land, are ascendant, their numbers increasing at a rate four times faster than the rest of Canada’s population. As well, they are better educated than in the past, and more politically powerful. Aware of their problems, they are increasingly equally aware of their strengths. The dispossession of both communities and the settlers’ occupation of this land of grass were inextricably entwined. Is their rise, their growing prominence, being taken into consideration? Could they be, in effect, this land’s new post-modern immigrants?

Perhaps it is time for a meeting of minds. The great bison hunts, birth of an independent Métis state, creation of the CCF, first functional socialist party in North America – this grassland nation witnessed and nurtured them all. Certainly the Cree of Norway house, cultural cohorts just beyond its western boundary, have found a solution in their new medical centre. After a quarter century of planning, they are building a hospital facility that will combine the best aspects of their traditional practices, including a sweat lodge and a family birthing unit, with new practices employed by their own people trained in Western medical methods and the latest technology. It took time, but it proves it can be done. As Grand Chief Garrison Settee commented, “it will happen slowly and gradually, but I believe this vision the people have, for transformative change, […] can be a reality.”



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Clayton Bailey began his education in a one-room school on the great plains and completed it at the New School/NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Besides several exhibitions of his work, he has published articles, a collection of photographs entitled Waiting, a collection of short stories (each about a photo) entitled Optique, and a novel, The Expedition, about a woman photographer disguised as a man, which was nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award.