Your disbelief around the story of the death of Raymond Silverfox is understandable; I am still feeling a sickness in my stomach about what happened, and what is not happening, as a result of Siverfox’s death.
Although my contacts in this community are limited to the few people, all of them non-native, that I have gotten to know in my nearly four years living here, I have heard nothing much about it in Watson Lake; no conversations overheard, no posters or announcements or plans for any sort of protest in support of the family’s quest for justice. Any time I have begun a comment, in the hope of initiating a dialogue, of learning what other white people here are thinking and feeling, the one I am addressing acts nervous. The typical response is to acknowledge it was a terrible thing, and move on quickly to another topic. Either it is truly of no interest to them or it is yet another topic that is not up for discussion.
The First Nations community here may be doing something, but not surprisingly, I haven’t heard of it. If there have been overtures made to non-native organizations to join them in expressing anger over this blatant denial of justice, I don’t know about them; probably another example of the lack of trust on the part of the First Nations people.
There has been appropriate coverage by the territorial news agencies, and the demonstration in Whitehorse had 150 people show up, but that is a poor showing for an event of this scope and significance.
I don’t know how to look at this as anything other than an example of the racism that infects this place and casts a darkness over the population. It is a dramatic and obvious example of the gulf that exists between the First Nations and white people. I don’t know how anyone could deny the ugliness and the hatred revealed by this death. I don’t know what must happen before we all realize that no one of us will be clean until this matter has been dealt with to the satisfaction of the people who have been damaged and their pain disregarded – again.
The fact that I do not have even one relationship with a local native person that I could call a friendship, in the real sense of the word, no longer puzzles me. Being without a job, or a religious affiliation, I have been left to attempt to meet and get to know Kaska people as an individual. There have been a few Kaska-sponsored events over the years that I have attended and enjoyed, but no one has taken me up on offers to come to my home, nor have I been invited into theirs. Having now lived here for a few years, I have seen for myself enough evidence of racism to understand why overtures from a white individual might be met with polite guardedness. I understand it, but I continue to mourn it; I feel I will never feel the land as well as I might through a friendship with a person whose roots go as deep as do those of the Kaska.
As I have mentioned to you before, I have seen no evidence among the white population of people who live here struggling to stay sheltered and fed any more than they might anywhere else in the country. Like most non-native folks living here, the federal government provides, and provides well with medical services and a northern tax benefit among other goodies. And then of course there is the plenitude of government jobs. Federal handouts are the underpinning of the economy, and yet it is the dollars given to First Nations programs that seem to cause the most virulent remarks. Money talks, and has the loudest voice.
There is a lack of accountability, and there is a lot of evidence of misspent funds, but that is not restricted to the spending of First Nations people; the government money is just as badly managed by white people in many cases.
Overall, in this instance of the death of a native man in custody, what should concern us as much as the racism is the display of power on the part of the police; that they should be able to get away with nothing more than a public acknowledgment of regret is simply not right, in any sense of the word. There have been far too many events of this nature in the past few years and it is frightening for everyone, native and non-native. One does not have to be guilty of anything to end up in the hands of the law, and to think that one might suffer physical and mental anguish, and perhaps even die while waiting for the law to determine one’s guilt or innocence is unnerving, to say the least. There have been studies done that reveal a new and disturbing attitude; many citizens have expressed distrust of the police and of our justice system. Not a good thing, a populace which has no faith in its own legal system or in those designated to enforce the laws of the land. I have seen children, playing in the baseball field, stop their play and watch in a wary silence when a police truck cruised by, and I wondered, when did this happen? This change from feeling reassured and safe with a police presence, to feeling on guard and discomfited.
In light of recent events here involving police, I have felt myself registering a new dis-ease at the sight of police and it is not a pleasant feeling, it is not one I invite, or welcome. My entire experience till lately has been one of trust and respect for the police in this country and I miss that. However I miss the feeling of trust and respect for the government who control the police, too.
Ultimately, what I am left feeling most profoundly is shock, and sorrow, at what the audio tapes revealed; an appalling lack of simple human compassion on the part of those in charge of Silverfox’s life while he was in their custody. “Black humour” has always been questionable, but there are circumstances where it is understandable; black-heartedness is just evil. In this case, it reveals a coldness that is inhuman, if we are to believe the scientists who claim to have found a ‘compassion’ part in our human brains that causes us to naturally wish to rescue one another.
There are certain qualities needed in a person to make them chose a career that involves wearing a uniform and carrying a gun, and certain qualities needed to chose the job of jail guard. Those qualities do not make a person a bad person; many people choose these jobs with a desire to do right, but in some cases they do make for a hardened person. What they should never make is a guard or a policeman who can watch another person die while in obvious distress, and not lift a hand to save them. If those involved in the death of Silverfox are allowed to go on without consequence, it sends a very scary message to all of us.
Martin Niemoller said it best:
“They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me and by that time there no one was left to speak up.”
This statement is as true now as it was in 1946, and it would appear that there is no more willingness to speak up as there was when the Nazis were on the rise.
Have a nice day.
Heather Bennett is a writer
who lives in Watson Lake.