Volume 2 Number 11
The Guns Fall Silent in Pukatawagon
01 December 1989

Thirteen years ago it wasn't safe to walk around Pukatawagon, Manitoba. Today the police spend their time showing films. Bob Lowery investigates.

A Canadian Indian band (tribal group) which held the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita homicide rate in North America back in the 1970s has just taken over total responsibility for its medical and health service.

The Mathias Colomb Band is the first among Canada's 596 aboriginal bands to assume this life-and-death responsibility for its people. The Band's 1,500 people live at Pukatawagon in north-western Manitoba, a hundred miles or more from the closest urban health centre. Their decision, says Chief Pascall Bighetty, `is a giant step forward on our way to full self-government'. It's just one milestone on a long road which is reconstructing the community's life-styles, social structure and economy.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Staff Sergeant Ken Jensen has been responsible for policing the area from the darkest days on. He comments, `This is the most dramatic change I've seen anywhere in 28 years with the force.' This remarkable turn of events, he adds, stems largely from one man - Pascall Bighetty.

When Bighetty, then a rebellious student in secondary school, returned to the community he found it loaded down with social problems. There was almost total unemployment, second-rate housing and practically no recreation facilities.

Young and old - Bighetty included - turned to booze to relieve their boredom. There was widespread child abuse, gas and glue sniffing, shootings and killings. At the age of 25, Bighetty was elected Chief -`probably because I was one of the leading local drinkers,' he says.

It was even dangerous to walk about. `People who'd had a few drinks would fire random shots,' Bighetty recalls. `Several times I had very close shaves and once only my heavy cowboy boots saved me from getting a badly injured foot.'

As a result of a major clash between the people and a 30-member police riot squad in 1976, the entire RCMP detachment was transferred and a fresh group took over. To Bighetty's surprise, the new RCMP staff sergeant, Ken Jensen, turned up in his office and said to him, `This community is in a real mess, and the only way we can ever change things is by working together.' Over the next 13 years a new relationship with the police developed.

An old priest, the late Emile Desormeaux, who served the community for more than 55 years, kept telling Bighetty, `Nothing in this place will change until the Chief changes.' One morning Bighetty woke up with the uncomfortable thought that nothing would be different until he led the way. He decided to stop drinking, and started trying to deal with his community's problems. `It was tough,' he recalls. `I had to look for a new set of friends. Even my wife, Marie, who did not give up drinking until some four years later, told me, "Well Chief, there's nothing worse than having to live with a reformed alcoholic."'

Gradually the Band Council began to follow the Chief's lead and set out to find what they could do to help solve some of the community's problems. They started their own home-grown style of gun control, making it compulsory for all guns in the community to be kept under lock and key at the Band office and only picked up when needed for hunting. It proved to be an effective measure.

They tried their hand at stimulating economic growth which never seemed to work out. Finally the Band Council came to the conclusion that no one in the place knew `how to run things'. As a result, Bighetty resigned as Chief, and went to study political science, administration and economics in the University of Brandon. Marie took a teachers' training course.

On completion of their studies, they returned to the reserve. Bighetty was soon reelected Chief and worked with the Band Council on the community's economic planning.

In early 1980, Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley toured a number of the Northern Indian reserves. On Pukatawagon he commented, `It was impressive. The agenda contained just one point: the construction of a powerline to connect the community with the Manitoba Hydro Laurie River Generating System about 40 miles away.'

`Added to this,' Pawley said, `the Band Council had detailed a five-year development plan which would flow from this new source of power.' The plan included facilities to help local fishermen increase their harvest and the construction of a $1.5 million shopping and service centre, which would give the community its first Band-controlled motel, restaurant, laundromat and a store. There would also be space for provincial and federal government offices, as well as private commercial ventures sponsored by local entrepreneurs. This would create jobs and mean that money was recycled within the community.

In June 1985, there was great joy as Chief Bighetty pulled the switch on the installation which gave the community's 1,500 local residents their first supply of unlimited power. During the ceremony, plaques were awarded to people who had helped with the project.

Staff Sergeant Jensen commented, `Today we often send just one-man patrols on the regular five-day visits to the reserve without hesitation. Most of the time, the patrols don't have any real police work to do. They spend their time showing films to the kids and making friends with the community.'

Raising the funds for the community's cherished Missinipi Community Centre was a long, testing experience. However, in August 1986, Michael Cote, Minister of Regional Industrial Expansion in Ottawa, approved $1.3 million for the project. The Province and the federal department for Indian Affairs contributed $100,000 each towards the project. The Northern Development Agreement gave $90,000 and the Band stockpiled all the gravel needed for the construction.

The next priority on the Pukatawagon Development agenda was housing. The Band have negotiated with the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation to have all members living in homes serviced with sewers and water within the next five years. Under this arrangement, Indian Affairs contributes its normal grant for each house and the remaining amount needed for a home built to CMHC standards is the responsibility of the Band member making the purchase.

The first ten homes were built in 1986, the second instalment of 20 in 1987 and a further 30 in 1988. By this year's end, another 40 split-level homes with five bedrooms to accommodate Pukatawagon-sized families will be completed, bringing the total to 100 homes.

A Senior Citizens' Home and a Child Care service are also in full operation. 'We know we have stepped out on a very long trail, but hard work and our faith will make it happen,' says Bighetty. `One day we may yet become a model for the whole of this continent.'

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