"Just Another Death in the big city"
A car killed Minnie Sutherland, but so did systemic racism
Fireworks and Folly: How we killed Minnie Sutherland
By John Nihmey
Philip Diamond Books, 200 pages
By Mark Bourrie
The two block strip of scummy bars and shabby restaurants in Hull
used to be one of Canada's toughest places. It was Ottawa's dirty little
back room, drawing the city's riff-raff, university students and
The lure of the place was simple: bars in Hull stayed open until 3:00 AM
two hours after last call in Ontario. People arrived drunk, spent two
hours hammering back drinks, and staggered out to the streets to find
their way back across the river. Stabbings, robberies, fights and rapes
were fairly common.
The strip was Hull's shame, but it also was the backbone of what
passed for tourism in the city. Thousands of Canadian high school
students had their first drinks in the bars of Hull during class
trips to Ottawa. For many of them, it was all they ever saw of Quebec.
New Year's Eve was the busiest night of the year. All of the 20-odd
bars along the two-block strip were packed. In 1988, a tiny woman, old
beyond her 40 years and nearly blind, was amongst the partiers.
After last call, Minnie Sutherland jay-walked onto Promenade du
Portage and was hit by a car.
Around her was a mob of people looking for cars and buses. The street
was crowded with cars and people walking, the snowbanks were abnormally
high and there were virtually no police around to keep order.
When Sutherland fell into the slush, two police officers picked her up
and dumped her in a snowbank. When the driver of the car and passers-by
tried to help, the police told them to stop blocking traffic.
Sutherland eventually ended up in an Ottawa hospital, brought in by an
Ottawa police officer. Her friends had abandoned her. For three days,
none of the medical staff knew she had suffered a severe brain injury.
Sutherland's brain damage masked itself with the symptoms of drunkeness-
disorientation, vomiting, inability to speak coherently. Of all the
places to have this kind of injury, none could have been worse than
that seedy street at last call on New Year's Eve.
Two weeks after she was admitted to hospital, she died.
Except for the outrageous behaviour of the Hull police, Sutherland's
death would have been so statistically typical to be invisible to all
except the people who loved her. She had died at about the median age
for aboriginal women in Canada. She lost her life the way the vast
majority of native women do, in an accident, after moving from her
small Northern Ontario Cree reserve to the city.
But the blame spreads farther, to Hull lawyers and politicians, to
social service agencies, to Ottawa's medical system, to our own
Why were there only two police officers on the Hull strip to handle
the traffic and the potential trouble caused by 2,000 people spilling
out of the huge bars? Why was there no ambulance close by, no
contingency to deal with just this kind of accident? Who was in charge
that night? Why did the cops think it was all right to call Sutherland
a "squaw" on their police radio?
Ottawa authorities showed much more concern for Sutherland, but some
of the tests that could have detected her brain injury were never done
because of a shortage of equipment.
We do have a two-tiered health system. If, the same night, a National
Hockey League player had been brought to an Ontario hospital with a
head injury, he would not have waited for a scan that could detect a
Minnie Sutherland hand no connections. She was a middle-aged, alcoholic
Cree woman from the edge of nowhere, at the very bottom of Canada's
socio-economic pecking order.
By Ottawa author John Nihmey's account, Minnie Sutherland is blameless,
even though she made the choice to continue drinking when alcohol
contributed to, and worsened, the diabetes that was causing her
eyes to fail. She decided to go to a bar instead of the fireworks
display on Parliament Hill. She agreed to go to the shabby saloons of
Hull, and she decided to jaywalk into traffic even though she couldn't
see well enough to navigate a busy street.
In fact, Sutherland comes across as a 40-year-old with the emotional
maturity and social sophistication of an adolescent. She is an
understandable character to any of us who has ever lived with
alcoholism. Booze robbed her of her sight, her children, her
employment prospects and her life.
But it isn't just Minnie Sutherland who falls into this pattern.
Her mother had the same problems. So do many other people.
Nihmey, co-author of Time Of Their Lives: The Dionne Tragedy,
shows how Sutherland came from a place where no one learns the skills
they need to survive in a city. Life on the reserve is a fun-house
mirror of traditional Indian society and North American culture.
Some people in Sutherland's home of Kashechewan, near Fort Albany,
still cure animal hides in hand made tents - even as relatives
line up to pay $50 for a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken flown
in from the south.
People like Minnie Sutherland are leaving reserves every day and moving
to the cities. More than half of Canada's aboriginal people live in
urban centres; many of these 400,000 people come from places like
Kashechawan, where people think nothing of walking on the road because
the streets, like the sidewalks, are just dirt paths.
Nihmey leaves the reader with disturbing questions. Is there any way
to prepare people in isolated reserves for life in a very foreign
world? Are social services capable of helping such people survive in
cities? Should people who no longer depend on hunting and fishing
even continue to live in places as isolated as Kashechawan? Who's to
Yet Sutherland's life and death, and Nihmey's admirable book, stand
as a reminder that native people no longer fit the old stereotypes
of woodsy savants on the reserve. Every day we pass the Minnie
Sutherlands of this world on the street, we pay for the welfare
and the ineffective social agencies that list them as "clients", we
tolerate the marginalization of the drunken, the poor and the homeless.
Ottawa writer Mark Bourrie's most recent book is By Reason of Insanity:
The David Michael Krueger Story.