It was 1981. I had recently moved to Canada. I was a few months past being called a “turban head” or “rag head”, the favourite racist terms for Sikhs who wore turbans. A few months after moving to Canada as a Sikh teenager, my family marched me down to a hair dresser to get my hair cut. It was easier not to stand out so much in a place that was far less diverse than it is now.
After one tumultuous year in Grade 10, my high school principal refused to let me enroll for Grade 11. I was a bad egg he said. But that’s a story for another day.
After refusing to accept the school board’s offer to go to another high school (another story for another day), I went looking for a job. I lived in Charleswood, which is the far southwest of Winnipeg. I found a job at Kildonan Park, which is the far north-northeast of Winnipeg. It was going from the boondocks on one side of the City to the boondocks on the opposite side. Most days, it was at least a ninety-minute bus ride.
I worked at the Witch’s Hut at Kildonan Park. It was a little souvenir and snack shop. In the early 1980’s, Kildonan Park was literally the edge of Winnipeg. It was way down Main Street and there was mostly farmland north of the Park gates. It was the end of the line for Winnipeg Transit’s Main Street Route.
Transit back then didn’t have electronic boards or schedules on bus stop boards at every stop. You had to carry around your own route schedule and if you didn’t have one, you had no choice but to show up at the stop and wait till a bus showed up.
I had finished a Saturday shift at the Witch’s Hut around 3 pm. It was a sunny warm day. It was the usual wait for the bus and I sat at the stop bench a while. As I waited, a Grey Goose Bus pulled up at the stop. The door opened and the driver got out of seat and stormed to the back. I saw his face long enough to see he was angry about something.
A few seconds later, I found out who he was angry with. He dragged an “Indian” to the door and literally threw him out of the bus. The man landed in the dirt and the bus drove off.
I sat there stunned for at least a minute as the man, who looked to be around 30, struggled to his feet. He was a bit intoxicated. After sitting paralyzed for what seemed like forever, I got up and helped the man to his feet and he stumbled to the bus bench. We sat down. He was a bit groggy. He asked me for a smoke.
I gave him one. While smoking our cigarettes, I asked what happened on the bus. The man started talking. And he told some stories. We smoked a few cigarettes and talked. I don’t know how long but I recall missing the first Transit bus that came by. That day, I learned what life was like for the other “Indians” in Canada.
The man was coming from Selkirk to Winnipeg. It was a trip he had made many times. He said he had a couple of beer before getting on the bus and admitted to haggling with a couple of passengers about bumming a smoke on the bus. He figured the bus driver didn’t much care for him and threw him off the bus.
That was not the only story. He had been arrested a few times. He also talked about having been thrown out of a few vehicles before. His told stories about the “fucking cops” picking him up in Selkirk and dropping him off in random places. Twenty years later, when the stories about Saskatoon’s “starlight tours” broke, they sounded very familiar to his. This man had experienced his own starlight tours in Selkirk.
He also told stories about his experience in RCMP holding cells. He told me how he was made to face the cell door and had his hands cuffed to the bars so he couldn’t straighten up. He was then beaten with nightsticks while phonebooks were held over his “ass, thighs or back”. He said it “hurt like fuck but didn’t leave no marks”. He talked about not knowing his old man. I don’t mean not growing up with a father around; I mean he didn’t know who his father was. He was one of 6 or 7 kids his mom had with more than one partner.
As we sat there, I listened to his stories. I didn’t have any painful stories to share. Except I told him a bit about the place I came from and its 200-year colonization by the British. I remember telling him that my grandfather saw establishments in his own homeland that had signs reading “Indians and Dogs Not Allowed”. I remember him saying “right on man” a lot in acknowledgment and appreciation that I knew what he was dealing with.
I don’t know how long I sat there with him. It was probably an hour. I took the second bus that came along. We shook hands before I left him at that bus stop. I can’t remember his name or what he looked like. I don’t know where he was going after or whether he got there. But I remember his hands; he had the most withered and broken hands one can imagine. He was also the first “Indian” I ever met and spoke with.
What I remember most is that I realized that day he wasn’t an “Indian” at all. That’s what he was called. But he was his own man and came from his own people who someone had confused with my people. I was the only Indian on that bus bench that day.
Since that day, I have never driven past Kildonan Park without thinking of him. I have often thought that given who he was and how the system saw and treated him, he is probably not alive today. But his memory lives with me.
As the world awakens to the plight of Black, Indigenous and peoples of colour, I hope there will never be another man who has to live a life so devoid of respect, regard and care for his human dignity and without right to an equal place in our world. If we succeed, people like him will only live in memories like mine. And that will the day we can all say “right on man”.