Guest Commentary

Jim Hillyer, In Memoriam

Imagine It Happened In Your Town

I have adopted siblings from the Blood Tribe, twin brothers and a little sister. Their mother, Lorna, died of a Listerine overdose. She is buried in a mound grave in a Catholic cemetery.

As the priest was dedicating her grave, an old man dashed up and cried, “I’ve got the bags!” It is the Blackfoot tradition to go into the afterlife with all your earthly belongings. Lorna was buried with four garbage bags of old clothes.

What makes the difference in our lives? What separates First Nations peoples who are sober and free from those who remain in the bondage of poverty and addiction? In documenting the Blood Tribe I discovered three elements were present in almost all who were free: they spoke Blackfoot; they drew strength from spirituality; and they had strong relationships with grandparents.

In 1877 Canada signed Treaty Number Seven with the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes the Blood Tribe. The Blackfoot and the government believed buffalo herds would supply their needs for at least ten years from the signing of the treaty. The herds disappeared the following year. Canada did all in its power, short of actual extermination, to ensure these people would not survive. Later we “came to our senses” and said the pre-Columbian Indian was a wonderful thing. The treatment of First Nations People is our great hypocrisy.

In producing a documentary Coyotes and Indians I found the loss of identity was worse than suffering itself. I met a teenage boy who said, “What the heck is an Indian? I have no idea what that means.” His parents were taken from their community and taught they were savages. And the pre-Columbian ideal? This boy told me, “I can’t be that. So my worth is based on something that cannot exist.”

My hometown of Stirling, Alberta is a village of about 1,000 people. The community is very united in Mormonism, the religion to which most of us belong. I discussed this with my father Jim Sr., a retired schoolteacher: imagine if the government removed all the children from Stirling because we were Mormons; that Mormons were declared unfit parents; that parents left behind could not leave Stirling and were governed by petty regulations.

Then, imagine parents knew our children would be told everything they’d been taught was not only wrong but ridiculous; that our morals were evil, our faith childish, our family values absurd, our self-image distorted.

Would you not feel an agonizing sense of failure? Would you not feel deep loneliness and loss of hope? Consider if it happened in our town, and imagine the impact on our families for generations to come. Then, perhaps we could begin to understand what happened to the Blood Tribe.

(Editor’s note: The author was Conservative MP for Lethbridge and producer of a 2006 documentary and companion book Coyotes and Indians on the Blood Tribe of Alberta. Mr. Hillyer died in his Parliament Hill office in 2016. His commentary was first published July 7, 2013)

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