The Back Streeters and the White Boys: Racism in rural Canada

The story of a prairie town and the First Nations homeless bearing the brunt of its racial divides and traumatic past.

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Howard McGillvery, 55, hitchhikes back to the town of St Paul, after spending the night in Saddle Lake, Alberta [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

This is the first in a five-part series in which Al Jazeera explores racism and reconciliation in rural Canada, unearthing stories of a traumatic past and a troubled present.

Read more from the series here:

Canada’s history of broken promises

‘Just another Indian’: Surviving residential school

‘A matter of life and death’: Rebuilding a Nation

‘How did we become enemies?’: Racism and reconciliation

St Paul, Alberta, Canada – A map of embedded sorrow seems to crisscross the weary face of 55-year-old Howard McGillvery. But when he smiles – a close to toothless grin – there is a warmth in his dark brown eyes; a sparkling of optimism and unpretentiousness that draws people to him.

He is known in the town of St Paul, Alberta, as the leader of the “Back Streeters”- a name the homeless and transient here use for themselves.

St Paul looks like many other prairie towns built primarily on agriculture and the service industry. There is only one main street, about three kilometres long. But it has the staple Canadian coffee franchise, Tim Hortons, typical “mom and pop” stores and a small retro-looking movie theatre. Outside the town’s post office, a bronze statue of a First Nations man in traditional garb holds out a peace pipe.

But there has not always been much in the way of peace here.

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The post office in St Paul, Alberta [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

A troubled history, a troubled present

Recent headlines in the local and national media have captured the simmering racism of non-Indigenous residents towards Indigenous locals, like Howard.

For him, being targeted because of the colour of his skin is a daily reality.

“It’s rough, eh,” he says, sitting in a meeting room at the Mannawanis Native Friendship Centre (MNFC) in St Paul. “We have fights with the White Boys you know…”

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Screen grabs from the Canadian press covering racism in the area between 2005 and 2019, including reports of a 70-year-old man from Ashmont who allegedly threatened to ‘shoot up’ a school and two First Nations near St Paul in November last year [Al Jazeera]

Howard hangs out at the MNFC, in an industrial-style building just a block off the main street, every day. It is a welcoming place to socialise with other Back Streeters, access social services and get a hot meal.

There are hundreds of Native friendship centres across urban Canada. They help Indigenous people navigate life in the city, providing spiritual support, cultural guidance, ways of connecting with other Indigenous people and help finding housing.

The roots of this area are entwined with the history of the Metis, who first settled here in the late 1800s. The Metis are sometimes referred to in Canada as “mixed bloods” – descendants of Indigenous people and European settlers.

According to Canada’s Census Program, in 2016 St Paul had a population of 5,827 people. It is encircled by three First Nations communities and two Metis settlements – each within roughly 100km of the town. Saddle Lake Cree Nation and its sister reserve, Whitefish Lake, together account for the second-largest reserve population, with a total 11,006 residents. Approximately 6,300 nation members live on Saddle Lake, the closest reserve to St Paul.

Kehewin Cree Nation, located 46.8km from St Paul, is home to just under 1,000 Crees. Kikino Metis Settlement has a population of 934 and the Fishing Lake Metis Settlement has 446 residents; both are about an hour’s drive away. St Paul is one of the closest urban areas to them.

Canada - St Paul and reserves map

In Canada, urban Indigenous people experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, which curates the Homeless Hub resource library. A 2013 study found that one in 15 Indigenous people in urban centres experience homelessness compared to one in 128 for the general population.

According to Homeless Hub, homelessness among Indigenous people today is a consequence not only of contemporary racism, discrimination and oppression, but has its roots in other factors, too. These include historical trauma, from colonialism to the Indian Act, residential schools – government-sponsored religious schools established to force Indigenous children to assimilate – and the Sixties Scoop, a practice that lasted from the late 1950s to the 1980s and involved “scooping up” Indigenous children and placing them in foster care or adoption.

Howard estimates that there are around 90 Back Streeters in St Paul.

According to the MNFC Executive Director Hinano Rosa, 90 percent of the homeless population of St Paul are Indigenous.

Drinking to survive, drinking to forget

Howard is a father of seven. He is soft-spoken, enjoys carpentry and good conversation, and has a keen street sense. Some nights, in the winter, he camps out behind the local co-op grocery and hardware store in a cattle shelter with other Back Streeters.

What makes him their leader, he says, is that he looks out for everyone; they respect him and go to him for advice because he is older, knows the ins and outs of street life and is the sort of friend they can share a swig of whisky with.

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Howard is a father of seven and leader of the Back Streeters, a name for the homeless and transient in St Paul [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera] 

For the past 13 years, on and off, Howard has walked the alleyways of St Paul, rummaged through main street rubbish bins for bottles to cash in, and bunkered down somewhere inconspicuous to sleep in the shadows of this small prairie town.

He has battled an addiction to hard liquor since he was young. He drinks most days – not always enough to get drunk, but just enough to dull his heartache.

And he has so much heartache.

Three years ago, the lifeless body of Howard’s 19-month-old grandson, Anthony Raine, (the son of Howard’s daughter Dalyce Raine) was found propped up against the side of a church in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city. The toddler’s father Joey Crier and his girlfriend Tasha-Lee Doreen Mack were convicted of his manslaughter in early January.

There are other memories that Howard “drinks to survive”, like those of his 16-year-old daughter, Linda Raine-McGillvery.

She was shot and killed in their home on a Saddle Lake Cree Nation reserve in 2006, he says.

Howard claims the shooters were his former coworkers from the reserve housing department. He says they were upset with him for turning them in for fraud after they initially accused him of stealing lumber and selling it.

He believes they wanted to shoot him, but hit Linda instead.

Al Jazeera has been unable to verify Howard’s account of his daughter’s death with the police, but a social worker who works closely with him at the MNFC says she believes his word to be reliable.

“My daughter was shot by the window upstairs,” he says, his eyes widening. “We didn’t know where she was, looked all over for her.”

A bewildered expression settles on his face, and he lifts his hand as if to emphasise the intensity of the memory.

“Then I heard my wife yelling for me – she was standing there over my baby daughter; she was shot in the head …. I went outside … I couldn’t even think who I was.”

Two weeks later, Howard’s wife, Ursula, hung herself in their home.

“I drink from 5am to 1am every day now,” he says.

He recalls his early days with Ursula; the young love, the breaking up and making up. They always found their way back to each other, he says.

When she died, Howard felt as though a part of him died, too.

A family of wanderers

The grief was too heavy. So Howard turned to alcohol for solace, and left his other children for the streets of St Paul.

There, he adopted a different family – a family of wanderers, addicts, outcasts and others running from some sort of trauma or tragedy.

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Howard, right, with another of the Back Streeters [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Surviving on the streets is a skill quickly picked up, Howard insists. But it is hard to blend in with brown skin and the added stigma of being homeless.

For Howard, who speaks with a lisp due to a few too many lost teeth, it is just the way it is and always has been.

Racism is “a normality”, he shrugs, casually leaning back in his chair.

On one wall of the room hangs a large, hand-painted copy of a poem called Reconciliation by Rebeka Tabobondung.

“We are waking up to our history / from a forced slumber / We are breathing it into our lungs / so it will be part of us again / It will make us angry at first / because we will see how much you stole from us / and for how long you watched us suffer / we will see how you see us…” the poem reads.

At Howard’s feet sits a tattered backpack filled with his belongings and a bottle of liquor.

The White Boys

The Back Streeters know they should stick together – in groups of at least two or three, Howard explains.

The “White Boys” prowl the town, waiting to pounce on any one of the Back Streeters they catch alone, he adds.

The White Boys, as Howard and other Back Streeters describe them, are local white men between the ages of 15 and 30 who gang up on homeless First Nations here.

It is the White Boys who prey on Back Streeters, beating them up and driving them out of town for fun, Howard says. But he is not scared of them; he has learned to stick up for himself.

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Mitchell Soosay 30, goes looking for useful or valuable items in St Paul [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

“It’s rough,” he says. “The White Boys come around cruising … in their trucks. They throw things at us. In summer it’s rocks, in winter it’s snow with rocks inside.”

He knows of more than a handful of Back Streeters it has happened to, he says, sometimes more than once. He includes himself among them.

Throwing things out of trucks at Indigenous people is not without precedent. Brayden Bushby has been charged with second-degree murder after allegedly throwing a metal trailer hitch from a passing vehicle in January 2017 in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay, a remote city, rich in history of Indigenous and settler relations, is almost 2,000km southeast of St Paul, but the racial tensions there are palpable, too.

The hitch hit 34-year-old Barbara Kentner, an Anishinaabe woman of the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation. Her small intestine was punctured. She died six months later. Bushby was allegedly heard yelling, “I got one,” after Kentner was hit. He has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial this spring.

‘Dirty Indians’

Back Streeter Steven Cardinal, 42, is a friend of Howard’s and also Cree from Saddle Lake. He agrees that there is discrimination against Indigenous people in St Paul, particularly if they are homeless. He and others are called names like “savage”, “wagon burners” and “dirty Indians” all the time, he says. And he is fed up with it. But his tough stance and solid build are enough to hold them off, he explains, adding: “I’m a big guy, eh? I’m not scared.”

“They [the White Boys] have no business at all trying to mess around with us First Nations,” says Steven as he warms up with a steaming cup of coffee inside the MNFC on a biting cold -20C (-4F) afternoon. He laughs at the mention of other people being unable to handle more than a few minutes outside in this kind of weather. He has built up such a tolerance over the past four years living on and off the streets that the cold does not bother him much anymore. With a couple of layers under a hoodie pulled up over his head, he is ready to endure the elements for hours on end, he says.

He is not so sure how to handle the racism he encounters, however.

“We don’t know how to solve it, it’s always been like that. So, should we kick the s*** out of each other, or what? That doesn’t help anything.”

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A statue of the Indigenous Catholic saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, outside the St Paul Roman Catholic Cathedral [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

First Nations and the RCMP: A history of discord

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Sergeant David Graham, the acting detachment commander for St Paul, says he is not aware of the White Boys and seems surprised to hear of them. It is something the RCMP would investigate and take seriously, he says, but as far as he is aware, no one has reported anything about them.

He may not have heard of the gang of white men who allegedly target homeless Indigenous people, but the sergeant, who has worked at the St Paul detachment for the past four years, acknowledges the racism that Indigenous people face here.

“Racism always comes up,” he explains at the St Paul RCMP headquarters. “Just read the [local] paper. We have people come in and discuss this [racism] all the time.”

There is also a history of discord between the RCMP and First Nations.

According to the RCMP Heritage Centre, the RCMP (which was formerly known as the North West Mounted Police or NWMP) “created by an Act of Parliament in 1873, was formed to establish friendly relations with the First Nations, to enforce Canadian authority, pave the way for settlers, and maintain law and order on the western frontier.”

But many First Nations view the mandate of “friendly relations” as a farce.

In her book, Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies, author Katherine Pettipas writes that the RCMP helped governments enforce oppressive laws, enable land grabs and ban cultural practices.

Although there has been a growth in relationship-building with local First Nations communities, Sergeant Graham accepts that there is still a lot of mending to do.

“Our historical relationship with Indigenous Peoples comes up, and there’s a lack of trust in us [the RCMP] and sometimes a lack of trust in [First Nations] communities,” he reflects, pointing out that he has taken steps towards gaining a greater personal understanding of First Nations communities by attending a Saddle Lake powwow celebration with his wife and children, and participating in sweat lodge and smudging ceremonies.

But the gulf between the RCMP and Canada’s Indigenous remains great. The RCMP serve as a conduit for incarceration rates that are off the charts.

On January 21, Canada’s prison ombudsman Ivan Zinger announced in a statement that the number of Indigenous people in federal custody has hit a record high. More than 30 percent of prisoners are Indigenous despite the fact that they make up only five percent of Canada’s population.

Zinger called for the Correctional Service of Canada to do more to resolve the spiralling problem in a system that seems “unresponsive to the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending”.

The threats and the scars

Sixty-year-old Judy Pasquayak is a social worker and volunteer at the MNFC and also Cree from Saddle Lake. She has heard about the White Boys around town, she says.

“They [Back Streeters] have to stay together or run. You can’t walk alone here,” she warns.

It is not surprising to her, because she grew up dealing with racism in St Paul.

She still has the scar on her knee from when she was in sixth grade and a white classmate pushed her over. Judy says the bully buried her face in the ground.

She is passionate when she speaks, and passionate about her work at the MNFC. Taking a break from her paperwork, collating statistics to advocate for more MNFC funding, she recalls the painful childhood memory.

“They said, ‘dirty squaw’. I was crying. I had a bloody knee. I felt humiliated. The teachers were there, and they did nothing.”

She thinks there is growing animosity from locals towards the Indigenous population here, the most recent example being the case of Andy Sydora, a 70-year-old resident of the nearby Hamlet of Ashmont, who in November 2019 was charged with three counts of uttering threats. He allegedly threatened to shoot children at the Ashmont school, where 90 percent of the pupils are Indigenous, as well as to attack the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and the Whitefish Lake First Nation.

Sydora is due to appear at the St Paul courthouse on March 19 to enter a plea. His case has been adjourned several times since the charges were issued due to Sydora’s request for additional time.

The racism here also takes other forms. A photograph of two Back Streeters sleeping in the inner doorway of the Service Credit Union bank recently drew comments of racist and discriminatory disdain on Facebook. The post has since been removed at the request of the men’s families.

There are other complaints – made by townspeople to the RCMP or the MNFC – about Back Streeters panhandling at the 7-Eleven and public intoxication, according to Judy, Hinano and the RCMP. 

Howard thinks the townspeople want to get rid of the homeless Natives.

Steven agrees. “They’re trying to kick us out of this town, but they can’t,” he says.

Judy believes white townspeople ought to think differently.

“First Nations are the ones that built this town up,” she says. “It’s us that are purchasing goods – to keep them [townspeople] sustainable. It’s a reciprocal relationship.”

Hurt, anger and accusations

Ericka Cardinal, 49, a distant relative of Steven, knows only too well that many white townspeople do not see things as Judy believes they should.

In June 2017, she was shopping in the local Giant Tiger store near the main street, looking for T-shirts for her husband and son to wear to her 17-year-old daughter Chelsea’s Ashmont school graduation that was taking place that afternoon.

She got a ride into town from her home in Saddle Lake that day because it is the closest place to shop.

At first, Ericka, who is sitting on a couch in the room designated for elders at the Saddle Lake Cree Nation administration building, is cautious and quiet. But as she describes the events of that day, her dark, furrowed brows convey her anger. Then comes the shame, the hurt and the sadness.

Ericka says she and her husband were singled out by a customer at the store who accused them of stealing her mobile phone. The woman called the RCMP and pointed them out as Back Streeters, she says, because they are First Nations.

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Ericka Cardinal in Saddle Lake, Alberta [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Within a few minutes, Ericka and her husband had been patted down, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car.

The RCMP officers sided with the accuser, says Ericka.

“We kept telling them ‘we don’t steal, we don’t have the phone,'” she recalls, breaking down in tears.

Erika, a receptionist at the Saddle Lake finance department, recounts what an RCMP officer then said to her.

“He said to just admit to it. That I wanted to steal it so that I could pawn it, go buy alcohol and crack cocaine,” she says.

Ericka remembers praying to God to help them make it to her daughter’s graduation.

The couple were released two hours later, after police reviewed the store’s security footage. Ericka says the woman who accused them found her mobile phone in the store.

They missed their daughter’s graduation ceremony, but were able to make it to the dinner reception afterwards. Their daughter wrote an impact statement and submitted it to the police.

Part of Chelsea’s statement to the RCMP, provided to Al Jazeera by Ericka, reads: “This day was my graduation day, so it was pretty important to me …. [It] sucked because I really wished they [my parents] were there. When hearing that they’ve been accused of stealing I thought it was stupid for someone to think that. My parents both raised me never to steal and I thank them for raising us [Chelsea and her siblings] with morals and values …. My parents deserve an apology because all they were doing was picking up last minute outfits for grad. Maybe even I should receive an apology because it affected my high-school graduation and it made it a saddening experience.”

Ericka says she has requested an apology from the RCMP via telephone and was told that the officers were “just doing their job”. 

A boycott

Howard says he does not steal, either, and that people should not fear him or other Back Streeters. He minds his own business, except when he is panhandling; the townspeople are usually generous in their giving of spare change, he adds.

In 2005, in response to a comment by St Paul town Councillor Guy Germain, published in the local newspaper, calling a “small percentage” of Saddle Lake residents “the problem” behind crime in the town, the Saddle Lake leadership organised a year-long boycott of St Paul businesses.

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The streets of St Paul, Alberta [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Former Chief of Saddle Lake Ed Makokis estimates that the boycott cost local businesses more than 20 million Canadian dollars (about $15m).

Residents of all the nearby Indigenous communities descend upon St Paul’s businesses because there are few businesses on the reserves and those that are there, like small petrol stations, tend only to provide limited essentials at more expensive prices than in the towns.

This boosts St Paul’s economy, says Hinano.

“They [First Nations] spend millions upon millions of dollars in this community,” explains the 61-year-old, who is Indigenous to Hawaii and familiar with the negative impacts of colonialism faced there.

“Without them, do you think the farmers can keep this town going?”

Judy believes the townspeople ought to honour the First Nations, even those who are down and out like Howard, instead of treating them like a burden.

“We [First Nations] were the people that walked the land before. We never stood there waiting at the edge of the field saying ‘we want welfare, we want trauma,'” Judy says.

“They’re [the Back Streeters] so lost. They’ve never had the proper help they need.”

There is no homeless shelter in town.

Hinano says town officials will not help the homeless because they think it is the reserve’s job. The reserve is a federally funded entity, run separately from the municipality.

However, Maureen Miller, the mayor of St Paul, says the town council is working toward finding a facility for a shelter and accessing funding for it. In the meantime, the town has started an initiative to provide outreach for the homeless.

“We are trying to take care of all those on the streets,” the mayor explains, in between sips of tea on a cold morning at the St Paul golf course on the edge of town. “The RCMP offer help and services to people discharged from custody. In the summer, the town trucks carry water bottles to give away to people on the streets on hot days.”

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Mayor Maureen Miller in St Paul [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

The world’s biggest secret

The MNFC is one of the main gathering spots for Back Streeters in town. Located a block south of the movie theatre on the main street, the MNFC is in an old industrial building with concrete floors and poor heating. But the space is warmed by walls decorated with colourful native art, the smell of sweetgrass burning in smudge bowls and laughter.

There are only a few paid staff and many funding shortfalls. But there is bread available every day and a sense of community that binds together workers, volunteers and the mostly transient population that the centre serves.

The MNFC is open for people to share stories in the style of a traditional sharing circle. Also known as a talking circle, this is a sacred practice that has been utilised by many Indigenous cultures – including that of the Cree – for thousands of years. Sharing circles are used for multiple purposes, including problem solving and healing. But they are not just for members of Indigenous tribes; anyone is invited and encouraged to participate.

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Howard at the MNFC in St Paul; the town has no overnight shelter, but the MNFC provides a warm place to be during the day [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

One thing that ought to be shared between the Indigenous and white population is the need for truth before reconciliation, says Hinano.

“They [the white residents of St Paul] need to put the cotton ball in their mouth and take it out of their ear so they can hear,” he explains, referring to the systemic racism, discrimination and trauma embedded in Canadian society.

It is this, he believes, that has led to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people among the homeless in St Paul – the ones left in limbo, caught in the middle of a complicated, ongoing conflict.

“It’s a horrific story,” he says, sitting among Back Streeters in the large, open foyer of the MNFC building.

The story of colonisation and the horrors of everything it brought to the Indigenous of Canada is one that needs to be told to the masses, he explains.

“It’s the biggest-kept secret in the world!”

The ripple effects of colonisation are alive and well, he continues, nodding to the room full of homeless Indigenous people.

For his part, Howard dreams of wandering in the sun someday. He wants to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the home of the Pueblo, Apache and Navajo Nations. He would not have any trouble fitting in, he reasons. It is warm and friendly with lots of brown people; a place where he can grow old and live out the rest of his days.

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Howard walks away from the Mannawanis Native Friendship Centre Society in St Paul [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera