Lee Prosper grew up in Saskatoon and Regina. The Willow Cree 28-year-old, of the One Arrow First Nation in central Saskatchewan, is a support worker in Regina’s troubled North Central neighbourhood, and a reconciliation facilitator. He’s training to be a teacher at the University of Regina, and just finished a term as president of the university’s Indigenous Students Association.
Growing up, none of this seemed possible. The future, for a First Nations youth, seemed limited, he says. He saw no Indigenous mayors in Saskatchewan, no Indigenous chiefs of police, no Indigenous CEOs. He never once considered those positions “attainable” for a First Nations person. “It felt like we were in a wholly different class.”
Prosper makes clear he is “not one bit racist,” but those titles seemed reserved for Saskatchewan’s white majority. That’s just the way things were, he says with a shrug. Prosper figured he was destined for fast food work or construction, if he was lucky.
Life, to him and the First Nations kids he knew, was limited to what he calls “our neighbourhoods”—racialized communities like North Central, a majority First Nations neighbourhood near Regina’s core, and Pleasant Hill, Saskatoon’s equivalent. “We were on our own.” Beyond those borders, Prosper says, racism was “a normal thing.” The mayors and MPs he saw on television and the front pages of newspapers who looked nothing like him telegraphed a clear message, he says: You don’t belong.
Right now, 22 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population is non-white: 16 per cent Indigenous, and 6.3 per cent visible minority—figures that are expected to jump when new census figures are released early next year. And yet Saskatchewan’s power structure does not reflect its changing face.
In the course of reporting a story earlier this year about the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in provincial jails, Maclean’s heard complaints of representational deficiencies in the province’s power structure; the magazine undertook a survey that looked at the 265 most powerful people in government, justice, business, and education. Just 17 positions were ﬁlled by non-white people—1.8 per cent by visible minorities, and 4.5 per cent by Metis or First Nations peoples. The mayors of Saskatchewan’s nine biggest cities are white. So are all but one of the chiefs of police and 18 of 19 city councillors in its two major cities, Saskatoon and Regina, the presidents of its two universities and its biggest college, its six major sports teams.
Saskatchewan has never elected a visible minority candidate to the House of Commons, or to the council chambers of Saskatoon or Regina, say academics, political staff and city clerks in Regina and Saskatoon. In the last election, the province made history when it elected Muhammad Fiaz, the first visible minority to sit in the province’s Legislative Assembly, a milestone that surprised even Fiaz, he tells Maclean’s. (Neighbouring Manitoba did this nearly four decades ago.)
Just one of the province’s 21 Crown corporations and one of the six Saskatchewan-based, publicly-traded businesses are headed by a visible minority: Rupen Pandya is president and CEO of SaskBuilds, which manages the province’s large-scale infrastructure projects, and Murad Al-Katib is president and CEO of agribusiness giant Alliance Grain Traders.
In perhaps the most glaring omission of minority voices, just two of the 101 judges in the province—where 81 per cent of those sentenced to provincial custody are Indigenous, higher than in any other province—is either First Nations or Metis.
Therein lies the rub, says Saskatchewan MLA Nicole Sarauer, formerly a lawyer with Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan. The problem isn’t just the unrepresentative power structure, it’s the vast “disconnect” between those making decisions and those most impacted by them. Without adequate representation, the concerns of Indigenous voices are more easily overlooked, which helps spur the growth of the appalling socioeconomic gap dividing Saskatchewan’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.
Indigenous people in Saskatchewan are, for example, 33 times more likely to be incarcerated than a non-Indigenous person—higher odds than an African American in the U.S., or a black South African at the height of apartheid.
Yet calls for an inquiry into Saskatchewan’s over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples continue to fall on deaf ears, despite studies showing that Indigenous offenders in Saskatchewan are being sentenced to more than twice the jail time as their non-Indigenous counterparts. Ignored as well are calls for measures to try to stem the tide, like the 12 First Nations courts that B.C. and Ontario implemented a decade ago. (A Cree-language court operates in Saskatchewan’s north.)
In dozens of interviews with officials, academics and elected representatives, none denied a problem. “I see this as a major weakness in our community,” says Saskatoon councillor Mairin Loewen. “It’s deeply troubling to have a government that doesn’t look like the population,” she says, adding that Saskatchewan also has one of the lowest rates of female mayors and municipal councillors—just 17 per cent, according to data from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Loewen blames the “legacy of racism” for the lack of minority voices at the table. “I have all sorts of privilege allowing me to be elected and re-elected—that’s not the case for everyone. Putting yourself out there in a community where racism is a reality can be a daunting prospect.”
Critics point to three intersecting problems, starting with racism, which makes it harder for Indigenous people to break through. And the less likely they are to see themselves reflected in the top echelons of power, the harder it becomes to force their way in, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Joe Garcea, noting an Indigenous “glass ceiling” keeps many from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy. Finally, Marilyn Poitras, a Harvard-educated Metis law professor at the University of Saskatchewan, believes that “the people doing the appointing are more interested in filling authority placeholders with others who look like them, think like them, and talk like them.”
Although Regina Mayor Michael Fougere concedes these figures are “quite low,” he adds, “You never force anyone to run for office. You encourage as best you can. But they choose to run.”
Indigenous people have traditionally sought power on band councils—initially because they were denied the federal right to vote until 1960. Others have noted that surging immigration rates are a relatively recent phenomenon in Saskatchewan, beginning a decade ago, spurred by the province’s then-booming economy. Because of this, Garcea believes there still isn’t a “critical mass” allowing potential visible-minority candidates to form a community base from which to launch campaigns. He thinks Saskatchewan may be at an “earlier stage of political integration of its visible minority communities,” noting it took two generations for Ukrainian-Canadian politicians, like former Saskatchewan MP and governor general Ray Hnatyshyn and former premier Roy Romanow, to break through Saskatchewan’s decades-long pattern of “electing people, almost entirely, of British descent.”
Right now, Saskatchewan’s combined visible minority and Indigenous population ranks it among the five most diverse provinces, behind Ontario (28.3 per cent), Manitoba (29.8 per cent) and Alberta (24.6 per cent), but well ahead of provinces like Quebec (12.8 per cent) and New Brunswick (5.4 per cent).
In neighbouring Manitoba, whose demographic portrait most closely mirrors Saskatchewan’s (Indigenous people in Manitoba make up 16.7 per cent of the population, and its visible minority population is 13.1 per cent), the power structure is starting to look a bit more like the population it serves. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is Metis. Mike Pagtakhan, the city’s deputy mayor, is of Filipino descent. Devon Clunis, the city’s outgoing police chief, is Jamaican-born.
This spring, the University of Winnipeg’s associate vice-president of Indigenous affairs Wab Kinew, one of Manitoba’s most visible university administrators, was elected to the provincial legislature. In a step backwards, Premier Brian Pallister appointed an all-white cabinet shortly after, and made headlines earlier this month by striking two minority voices from Winnipeg’s police board. But Manitoba’s Opposition NDP caucus is 50 per cent Indigenous and visible minority. And the party seems to be gearing up to run a powerful Indigenous voice against Pallister in the next election.
Three of the NDP’s potential leadership candidates are Indigenous, and they are powerhouses: Kinew, a writer and former broadcaster; tireless Port Douglas MLA Kevin Chief, a retail politician in the mould of former premier Gary Doer; and rookie MLA Nahanni Fontaine, who helped bring the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women to national attention. They’ve forged a deal, according to an NDP source: Only one will run for leadership, and will receive the backing of the NDP’s Indigenous caucus.
The gap between Saskatchewan’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations is deep and troubling.
An Indigenous child born today in Saskatchewan is 13 times more likely to be apprehended by child protection authorities than a non-Indigenous child in the province. (Fully 83 per cent of kids in care in Saskatchewan are Indigenous, a rate second only to Manitoba, where 87 per cent of children in care are Indigenous. Studies show that only a third of children in care will graduate high school.)
They will be six times more likely to be murdered than the national average. (Manitoba has the country’s highest Indigenous homicide rate. There, Indigenous people are nine times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous Manitobans.)
They face a 60 per cent dropout rate from high school, versus 55 per cent in Manitoba.
If they remain on reserve, they are 11 times more likely to contract HIV than a non-Indigenous person in Saskatchewan. No province has a higher on-reserve HIV rate; in fact, some Saskatchewan First Nations have HIV rates equal to African nations like Nigeria and the Central African Republic.
Social scientists and Indigenous leaders say it’s even tougher to overcome odds like these when the wider population is distrustful, unsympathetic or unaware of the reasons things look the way they do.
A June poll by Environics showed that more people in Saskatchewan than any other province blame “Aboriginal peoples themselves,” for their problems (41 per cent, versus 26 per cent nationally). Respondents in Saskatchewan were least likely to consider Indigenous culture and history “important” to the Canadian identity (44 per cent, versus 63 per cent for Atlantic Canada and 61 per cent for Ontario). And they were most likely to see the relationship between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in a “negative” light (60 per cent, versus 40 per cent in B.C.).
While roughly half of Canadians acknowledge that systemic barriers facing non-white Canadians make it harder for them to get ahead, Prairie respondents (a data set that also includes Manitobans) are least likely to accept this—just 36 per cent, according to a 2015 Environics poll.
Part of the problem is the poor job Canada is doing educating its young people about federal policies that forced Indigenous tribes onto reserves, the pass system that imprisoned them there. Many of the country’s ugliest episodes, like Canada’s largest mass execution, occurred in Saskatchewan. On Nov. 27, 1885, eight Cree men were hanged in North Battleford for their role in the Northwest Rebellion, an act intended to “convince the Red Man that the White Man governs,” according to the reasoning of prime minister John A. Macdonald. Indigenous children were pulled from classes at the local residential school and forced to witness the mass hanging, a grotesque warning not to cross the Crown.
This horrific history, from hangings to residential schools, right up to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, has left an enormous gulf of distrust between communities, one that will take targeted efforts to overcome.
“Growing up, I was taught to be fearful of white people, of authorities—they were the ones who took us away,” says Regina resident Darren Maxie, who was removed from his home on the White Bear First Nation at age eight, after his mother’s death, and sent to Gordon’s Residential School, a notorious institution north of the city. “I learned to always be guarded. That’s how I could protect myself, my family.
“It is their system, not ours,” he adds. “Every institution belongs to them. We are not allowed in.” The dynamic, he adds, is one of “master and slave.” This is what forces protest—the only means of power available. But “finding the courage” to do even that can be tough. “When I see white people protest in Regina, I don’t see people honk at them, or yell at them to get a job. Police don’t break it up, or intimidate protesters, asking people to show their ID. That’s what happens whenever we march, or try to advocate for ourselves: We’re confronted by hate. We’re treated like criminals, like terrorists.”
Lee Prosper grew up decades after Maxie, around the time Saskatchewan’s last residential school was shuttered, in 1995. As a child, he sometimes relied on soup kitchens and food banks, especially after his father died by suicide. He was 13. Thereafter, his family “fell apart.”
Growing up, it seemed “everyone was coming out of residential school,” including both his parents. “It felt like we were a sleeping nation. It was like we had no grip on social skills, the avenues to get ahead.”
Saskatchewan is beginning to make progress in diversifying government, however. Its provincial legislature is now 11 per cent visible minority, First Nations and Metis. A decade ago, that figure seemed stalled at three per cent. And after the last election, Premier Brad Wall added a lone Indigenous voice to cabinet: Jennifer Campeau, a member of the Yellow Quill First Nation, minister of central services and the minister responsible for the Saskatchewan Transportation Company.
Both the Regina Police Services and Saskatoon Police Services were ordered to better reflect the communities they serve—the RPS in 1995, by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, the SPS in 2003, part of the recommendations of the public inquiry into the death of Cree teen Neil Stonechild. Both have since made big strides: The RPS is now 9.7 per cent Indigenous and 5.4 per cent visible minority. And the SPS is 11.5 per cent Indigenous, and 4.8 per cent visible minority, according to figures made available to Maclean’s. Even tiny forces like Moose Jaw’s have begun targeted recruitment to diversify, says Chief Rick Bourassa, though he acknowledges efforts are still in their “infancy.”
Indigenizing the University of Saskatchewan and closing the education gap is the university’s “top priority” going forward, says president Peter Stoicheff. It is creating a new vice-provost position for Indigenous engagement, and saw Indigenous enrolment hit 11 per cent last fall. Earlier this month, Lee Ahenakew, a business leader from the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, was elected chair of the board of governors, and the university’s three previous student union presidents were all Indigenous.
The University of Regina, which saw Indigenous enrolment hit 12 per cent last fall, is in the process of renaming buildings, residences and streets using Cree, Dene and Dakota words. They’ve bumped up bursaries, scholarships and a range of supports for the Indigenous student body, president Vianne Timmons tells Maclean’s.
Saskatoon and Regina have also set out to build more diverse civic workforces: 7.7 per cent of Regina’s full-time employees, and 8.6 per cent of Saskatoon’s workforce are now Indigenous.
Private industry is also engaged. One of the Saskatoon Blades’ two directors is Metis, and the team has turned to the Saskatoon Tribal Council to help recruit hockey staff and players, according to president Steve Hogle. Last spring, the Regina Pats appointed Marty Klyne, a Metis businessman, as chief operating officer. Uranium giant Cameco, Canada’s largest industrial employer of Indigenous people, tells Maclean’s it is providing training and assistance to ensure the ascent of Indigenous employees to more senior roles.
Indeed, the province’s old power structure may crater as more and more minority police officers, miners and hockey executives scale the ranks.
Correcting the “stark” imbalance in Saskatchewan’s power structure isn’t just a numbers game, says Poitras, the legal scholar; it’s also about building more effective power structures and organizations. Decades of research—by sociologists, psychologists, economists and organizational scientists—bears this out. Studies show that racially diverse groups are more innovative. They’re better at solving complex problems. And they improve the way people think. (They might even make better business sense: Global consulting giant McKinsey & Company last year reported that companies in the top quartile for diversity were more likely to report returns above the industry median.) Sometimes, they help redress inequity.
In 2006, B.C. judge Marion Buller-Bennett, who was raised on the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan, quietly launched B.C.’s First Nations Court as a pilot project with no budget in a New Westminster provincial courthouse. The program, which recently added a fourth courtroom, in Kamloops, has helped cut recidivism rates for participating Indigenous offenders.
When minister Campeau was a Ph.D. student at the University of Saskatchewan, she was part of a vocal group of Indigenous student leaders who forced the university to focus on Indigenization and inclusion. It has since become a core U of S mandate.
When NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer was once a newly elected female Regina Catholic School Board trustee, she pushed the board to include three nuns to its advisory council; until then, only male church authorities had been advising the board, which subsequently adopted more inclusive policies and protections for LGBT students.
Prince Albert Police Service Chief Troy Cooper says his Metis heritage has been “invaluable” in his role as a police leader in a community where half of high school students are Indigenous, giving him “deeper and personal” knowledge of the issues and struggles of Indigenous people, and the reasons some continue to distrust police.
For one thing, “trust comes easier if the community sees themselves in the members of the service,” Cooper says. “It removes the idea that the police are something imposed on them.”
It all comes back to a basic truth: Representation matters. Kids notice when people who look like them are not represented. It sends a message they are unable, that they don’t fit.
Wab Kinew says his “life was changed” the day he saw then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama speak in South Dakota in 2008. “Until that time, I was skeptical of how far an Indigenous person or member of a visible minority could go in North America,” he later wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press. He felt minority candidates would forever be relegated to “token” status. All that fell apart when he saw Obama win over a room full of skeptical tribal leaders.
That is the “remarkable” thing about role models, Kinew wrote: “The conversation changes from ‘What if?’ to ‘He or she did it; so can I.’ ”
For Lee Prosper, there was no such Obama moment. Ten years ago, when he was a teen, the birth of his son Jordan transformed him: “It felt as if suddenly, I wasn’t living for myself anymore.” He needed to support his baby, but he was being turned down for job after job, pushing him to “rock bottom.” Instead of becoming discouraged, Prosper became fixated on getting ahead. Tiny accomplishments kept “snowballing,” each one leading to the next, bigger step.
Prosper sees change all around him now, as the community recovers from the effects of residential schools, as awareness and understanding spread among Canadians about parts of history once excluded from our textbooks. For now, Prosper is intent on being a mentor for his son, the model he never had.