Get a job.
Those are the kinds of things Prescott Demas says are yelled out of car windows at him and his tent mates huddled around a campfire just outside the Saskatchewan Legislative Building.
“They come at night,” he says.
Set up in protest of recent not-guilty verdicts in the deaths of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine and 22-year-old Colten Boushie, a camp meant to raise awareness about how the Canadian justice system is failing Indigenous youth has also become a target for racism.
A 47-year-old Sioux man, it’s something Demas has a lifetime of experience with.
Growing up in the small community of Canupawaka (Pipestone) in southwest Manitoba, Demas thought the people who discriminated against him there were just haters. It wasn’t until he moved to Winnipeg when he was 10 years old, that he realized those same attitudes are deeply entrenched everywhere in Canadian society.
“As years go on you understand that it’s always been there,” he said. “I see it, I feel it.”
Demas moved to Regina when he was 15 and has been back and forth since. But no matter where he calls home, Indigenous stereotypes follow.
Violent. Criminals. Drunks.
“That’s just that misconception that the public has of us,” he said.
He says he’s learned to live with it.
“Those don’t affect me,” he said. “I know why I’m here. I’m here because of those attitudes.”
But not everyone can detach from the pain racism causes. Demas said Indigenous youth often turn to drugs and alcohol numb the pain.
“To walk into a society and to feel that hatred – (they) to turn to something that is more comforting,” he said.
A local community arts organization is hoping to change that.
As part of the research phase of their Respond to Racism Program, Common Weal Community Arts Inc. — based out of Regina — is hosting a series of workshops and community consultations to address the issue of racism in Saskatchewan.
Led by Saskatoon spoken word poet and hip-hop artist Zoey Roy, the events explore prejudice, oppression and the building of allies as well as how art can be used to create social change.
Originally meant to take place solely in Regina’s Heritage community, the shooting death of Colten Boushie and the murder trial of Gerald Stanley that followed, made it clear to organizers that the workshops needed to expand into rural Saskatchewan.
“Obviously there’s that awareness that racism has lived quietly within our communities for a long time,” said Shaunna Dunn, incoming southern artistic director for Common Weal. “It’s these events, these trials that are really catalyzing and making that racism overtly present.”
These high profile trials have put a human face to the realities of Indigenous people in Canada and ignited many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to speak out, says Dunn.
Two of three workshops have already taken place — one in Wolsley and another in Regina. The third and final will take place at the Estevan Art Gallery and Museum on March 26.
Dunn said a major takeaway from the Wolsley consultations, which included participants from Rocanville, Indian Head, Weyburn, Estevan, Grenfell and Montemartre, was the struggle potential allies have in speaking out against racism in small towns.
“In a small rural community, everybody who exists in that small town is somehow intimately connected to your life,” she said. “How do you have a voice when it may create these huge rifts within the community?”
The group identified another challenge — the social divide between communities on reserve and surrounding small towns. But Dunn said this kind of segregation isn’t just a rural problem.
In an urban centre where people can choose a community made up of like-minded people, the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people also exists.
“How do we communicate and connect with privileged neighbourhoods and educate and connect people from different spaces within the urban community?” asks Dunn.
Common Weal is exploring how art can achieve that end. Through large-scale, clearly visible projects, workshops that give a voice to those affected by racism, provide allies with tools for action and empower youth, Dunn said the arts has the power to connect communities.
Connection is key, said Demas.
“It’s coming together and just sharing to understand each other rather than sitting in your house and living with these views,” he said. “Those stereotypes that you see on TV, further enforces whatever is inside you.”
In the case of Colten Boushie’s death, Demas said those steroetypes played a big role in how Gerald Stanley reacted to the presence of Indigenous people on his property.
“It’s the way he perceived us,” he said. “You see a brown person come out, automatically those stereotypes pop into your head.”
He calls on people to seek out places with large Indigenous populations — the First Nations University, All Nations Hope Network, The Bannock House — and talk directly to the people impacted by racism and discrimination.
“People just have to be open minded and willing to step in and to talk with us,” he said.
Demas said the workshops are a valuable tool, especially for Indigenous youth.
“I really support those kind of ideas because … it offers our kids those role models and that’s what we miss,” he said.
The next set of workshops will be led by Indigenous artist Joely Big Eagle-Kequahtooway with Buffalo People Arts Institute and will look quite different says Dunn, but will help Common Weal identify what types of art will work for different communities to effectively create social change. The knowledge gained will be used to develop a longer-term program.
At this stage of the process, Dunn said one question from Roy during one of the workshops has stood out.
“If racism didn’t exist, if you go back to the treaties being signed, if those treaties were held with respect and racism didn’t affect how we moved forward from that point, what would Regina look like?”