When it comes to Saskatoon, Joni Mitchell has no illusions. In a story in Wednesday's paper she called Saskatoon an extremely bigoted city, a comment that has infuriated some and caused others to do some serious reflection.
She was born in 1943 at Fort McLeod, Alta., and then her family moved to North Battleford. Neither town is any great shakes when it comes to race relations. And Saskatoon, where her family moved later, was just one more narrow-minded prairie town in the 1950s.
However, she revealed something that stood out in her mind and affected her deeply. She wanted to design a statue of her leaning against a bronze bench facing the Broadway Bridge. The inscription would read, "Cherokee Louise is hiding in this tunnel in the Broadway Bridge." Cherokee Louise was a Cree girl who was a childhood friend. She was adopted into a family and was abused by her foster father. Her name wasn't Louise; it was Mary.
Mitchell's song about her was included on the 1991 album, Night Ride Home, and is a sadly nostalgic story of a childhood friend who was sexually abused by her foster dad. The lyrics reflect the innocent lives of two preteen girls who arrive at 13 and everything changes: "Last year about this time We used to climb up in the branches Just to sway there in the breeze Now the cops on the street They want Cherokee Louise" The lyrics are hard to listen to, but the melody has a beautiful haunting melancholy about it. Joni performed this song after reaching middle age. A younger person might have given it an angry tone and lost the sensitive relationship between two young friends. It is still a powerful indictment to sexual abuse.
"She runs home to her foster dad He opens up a zipper And he yanks her to her knees My friend Poor Cherokee Louise ... Cherokee Louise is hiding in this tunnel In the Broadway Bridge We're crawling on our knees ..." In the 1950s, aboriginal people were just beginning the urban migration that would change the face of Saskatoon. The boarding schools were running on full steam, and the 1960s' scoop was a decade away. Cherokee Louise is a song about an event that was ahead of its time, and it left a lasting impression on Mitchell.
She also referred to Saskatoon as isolated and, "an extremely bigoted community, it's like the deep south."
This comment upset a lot of people. But instead of a knee-jerk reaction, Saskatoon people need to reflect on the racism that exists in this community and Western Canada, as a whole. We need to look at the roots of our community and its history.
I firmly believe that knowledge is the best teacher. Accusing people of racism without explaining its roots only leads to a negative reaction. Understanding the roots of a problem is the best first step.
We live in a country that has a strong streak of settler racism, which is endemic around the world. It exists wherever one group has displaced another; countries like Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Israel among others all share this condition.
First the land is depopulated of the original inhabitants, and it isn't pretty. The practice ranges from treaties and other agreements to outright genocide. The "empty" land is opened for settlement and the original inhabitants are pushed aside. The government treats the former landowners as outdated and obsolete, with little to offer. It is within this climate that genocidal practices such as boarding schools and isolation are allowed to occur. The settlers view the original inhabitants as inferior, and create the myth that the newcomers developed an undeveloped land. They honour the pioneers who broke the virgin Prairie soil. The original use of the land is seen as counterproductive.
The original inhabitants are reduced to marginal beings, with little or no role in the new country. Settler racism is institutionalized and destructive, and exists at various levels across Canada. It has allowed successive federal governments to implement destructive policies against the First Nations.
It allows governments to impose more stringent financial reporting on First Nations than they will accept for themselves, ignore serious underfunding of First Nations education and health and social programs, and demonize groups that fight for land claims, resource revenue sharing and for the environment.
Mitchell was correct when she called Saskatoon an extremely bigoted city, but she could have spread it around to the rest of Western Canada, as well.
She went on to a stellar career as a songwriter and performer; we don't know what happened to Cherokee Louise.
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