There’s an old, racist stereotype about the ‘drunken Indian.’
You all know of it. Some of you will have experienced it first-hand: that assumption by some people that if you belong to an Indigenous group, you have a drinking problem.
I heard that stereotype make the rounds when I was a child growing up in Whitehorse.
You would think that 20 years later, things might have changed — that society had progressed, and people are aware of how harmful such ideas are.
But those old stereotypes still circulate and they still influence the way Indigenous people are treated.
That much is clear after a coroner’s inquest into the 2012 death of Paul Kayuryuk in Baker Lake.
Paul died under tragic circumstances, and although his death was ruled natural causes, it was very, very preventable.
All it takes is a read through the verdict from the coroner’s jury, which held their inquest in late July, to see how badly Paul was failed by the RCMP.
I have to include a caveat here. Many, if not most, RCMP officers genuinely care about their communities. The ones I have known or been acquainted with have all done their absolute best to fulfill their job.
Sadly, sometimes the system fails. Reading between the lines of the coroner’s inquest, which is a fact-finding exercise, it becomes clear policy was not followed in Paul’s case. In fact, there were many failures in this case, from the assumption Paul was intoxicated to the delay in getting him medical attention.
Testimony during the inquiry, posted to social media by Paul’s niece Karen Kabloona, references foam coming from his mouth, vomiting and incontinence while he was being held in cells.
Yet it took an entire night and the following morning for him to be transferred to the health centre.
That’s a harrowing thing for me, who did not know Paul personally, to hear. I can only imagine how it felt for his family.
The coroner’s inquest did the one thing it could: it recommended changes. Most of those changes relate to training of RCMP officers and civilian guards, education and a tightening-up of policy.
Such training can save lives. That includes very basic, common-sense training that encourages officers to – in the words of the jury’s verdict – “challenge assumptions about alcohol use and intoxication in Inuit communities.”
It’s sad that those myths still exist, that people might assume intoxication before they consider the possibility of a medical emergency.
Unfortunately, the road to societal progress is often built on tragedies like this. Circumstances such as Paul’s force us to look at the bigger picture and see just how much work still needs to be done to root out racism wherever it is found.
Hopefully, this is a wake-up call. It’s past time for us as a society to destroy those assumptions once and for all. That would be the best thing to come out of this inquest.