There is prejudice against Indigenous Canadians. We grew up with it. We see alcoholism, crime and violence among Indigenous people and say, “Oh, well, that’s just the way they are.” We grew up this way on the Prairies. If only we’d understood.
I’m from a little Prairie town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, High River. It is surrounded by five First Nations. I have witnessed violence against Indigenous women in the streets of our town, and participated in the indifference. Members of the nearby Stoney Nation often came to town to drink. I once saw an Aboriginal man punch his wife outside a bar and leave her unconscious on the sidewalk. It’s a vivid and terrible memory that stayed with me.
One recollection haunts me. I was a teenage lifeguard at the High River swimming pool, where a little girl came to swim. Her name was Georgina Papin. She and her brother Ricky were from the Hobbema reserve; they were sent to live with foster parents in High River who had seven children of their own. I knew the foster family. They were good people, a guidance counsellor and school superintendent, highly regarded in our town.
Summers in High River saw all the young children spend their days at the pool. I taught little Georgina how to swim. She and her brother Ricky never misbehaved. I remember them as sweet kids. In time they rebelled against their strict house rules, as some children do, and ran away from home in their mid-teens. Nobody heard of the Papin kids again.
Looking back, I don’t think they ever had a chance. The Papins had a horrific home life on the reserve. Neighbours in High River protested when they enrolled with white classmates at school in the 1970s. It couldn’t have been easy. We guessed that as runaways they’d left for the city and lived on the streets. Everything in their life seemed to point to a tragic conclusion.
I lost track of Georgina Papin till two years ago when a friend told me he’d seen her name in the newspaper. She’d moved to Vancouver and vanished one night in 1999. She was one of 49 women murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton. She lived as a vulnerable person, and died a violent death.
Her murder shocked me. Every tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women made sense now; I realized Georgina’s story had been repeated, over and over. I wondered, how many times in Georgina’s life did she have a chance to feel good about herself?
An inquiry will be held into these missing and murdered women. Much hope is pinned on the outcome. I hope we can find the answers we’re looking for, though it will take candour and an unflinching search for the truth.
We must examine the circle of violence I first witnessed on the streets of High River. This is not merely a responsibility for government. All Canadians should reflect on our attitudes, and our prejudices, and our indifference to suffering that was part of community life in our hometowns.
(Editor’s note: the author is a lifelong resident of High River, Alta.)