Canada’s native Indians are much maligned. White folks usually see them at their worst: drunk and disorderly, fighting or in court. We don’t often see their human side. Doctors see them at both their worst and their best. At their worst, in the ER, they are bruised and bleeding, victims of the mayhem and violence they inflict upon each other when drinking. At their best we see the stoicism, resilience, humanity and humour that that they often display, even in the face of humiliation.
One summer, when I was a young crusading doctor, I did a locum in The Pas, Manitoba, then a small pulp and paper town on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. It has achieved some notoriety recently because of an old unsolved murder. It seems that everyone in town, except the police, knew of the three white boys who had raped and murdered a native girl fifteen years back. That is not part of this story but does point out the long roots of mistrust and anger between the two populations. Most whites abuse the Indians, some try to reform them.
In order to appreciate the events of Mary Bear’s mishap you have to know the geography of The Pas. At that time the town site was located on the South side of the river, directly across from the Opaskwayak reservation, where most of the Indians lived. There were two bridges across the river, a railway bridge and a road bridge. The Canadian National Railway line (now the Hudson Bay Railway) bisected the town, spanned the river with a long steel bridge and one set of rails, and continued through the reservation to Churchill. Stern warnings posted at both ends of the bridge cautioned pedestrians not to use it as a short cut. Each week, at 2 a.m. every Sunday morning, the Churchill Express passed over that bridge and through the town. The road bridge, which included the only pedestrian walkway, required a detour of about one mile south of town and a mile back to the reserve.
Mary was a good citizen who worked during the week to support her family of three school age children. I never saw or heard her mention a male provider. She came regularly to the |Health Clinic for her diabetes and chronic cough. When I examined her she was quiet, respectful, and almost taciturn and didn’t waste our time with idle chatter. Her main concern seemed to be to get back to her work and family. Mary had some vices, minor or major depending upon your moralistic bent. She was too fond of sweets and cigarettes and it was frustrating to treat her diabetes and bronchitis. I tried to educate her, and she listened politely, but my lectures had absolutely no effect. Her other vice, and apparently her sole source of recreation, was to get drunk on Saturday nights. This was a ritual in most small towns of western Canada, for both whites and Indians, and it would be unfair to slur Mary by calling her a Saturday night drunk. However, that was her life and her habits were well known.
Generally, Mary and a small entourage of fellow revelers would walk into Town after supper on Saturday evening. Because it was still daylight in summer and they were sober, law abiding citizens at that time of the evening, they would make the long trek by the highway to the footbridge. It was well known that after the pub closed most would return by the short cut across the railway bridge.
Mary and her company went directly to the Paskoyac Lounge and Beverage Room, a fancy name for the local beer parlour. By the time the bar closed at midnight they would all be quite soused.
I was on duty that weekend but it had been quiet, with only one or two minor cases in the ER. About 3 a.m. the telephone ended my slumber. As always I was awake before the first ring ended, preparing mentally for the summons to patch up contestants from the inevitable late night brawls. The ER charge nurse was apologetic. “Don’t rush.” she said, “its only Mary Bear. Her drunken friends found her on the railway bridge about a half-hour ago, after the train went through. She made it about half way across. Must have passed out and was run over. You’ll have to pronounce her and sign the death certificate before we can send her to the morgue, but take your time. We’ll just cover the body with a sheet and keep it in the ER till you can come.”
I arrived about fifteen minutes later to officiate at what appeared to be a tragic but routine ceremony. Removal of the sheet and a cursory examination revealed that she was indeed dead – dead drunk. Painful stimuli elicited a grunt but no eye opening. The only remarkable physical findings were the stench of booze and complete absence of any signs of recent trauma. There were no lacerations or bruises that were not several days old, and absolutely no sign of head injury. Since she was breathing and otherwise stable we decided to put her in the recovery position and let her sleep it off.
Next morning Mary was awake, sitting up in bed, head cradled in her hands. She was suffering from that remorseless tyrant of the once a week drinker, an awful hangover. As well, she was confused as to why she wasn’t home in her own bed. Although she remembered part of the evening, she couldn’t recall leaving the pub or starting across the railway bridge. I explained the sequence of events, as best we knew, that had brought her to us. She had left the pub shortly after midnight and had fallen asleep, or had passed out, on the railway bridge. Fortunately for her she must have stretched out between the rails. The Churchill Express roared over her on its regular schedule without touching her or waking her. When her friends found her they thought she was dead and had brought her to the Hospital.
Mary listened to this account in complete silence; her way was not to interrupt or question the word of authority. She was attentive, pensive, perhaps contemplating her near miss and good fortune to be alive. Maybe this was to be the turning point in her life, cleansing her of her vice and bad habits. Would she see the hand of God in her salvation? A chance to redeem herself? Although certainly not an Evangelist, I saw this as an opportunity for some explicit health education in the guise of a moral lesson. I reminded her that that because of her excessive drinking her children had come very close to being orphans. Maybe this miracle was a message to her to take stock of her lifestyle and reform her bad habits.
She had listened thoughtfully but her response was quite unexpected. “I guess it’s a good thing I drink so much, eh!”
I was perplexed, “How can you say that, Mary? Why is it a good thing you drink so much? Getting so drunk almost got you killed last night.”
She was unperturbed by my disapproval and remained adamant “Yes, it sure is a good thing I drink so much. If I hadn’t have been so drunk I’d have sat up, and that bloody train would have taken my head right off.”
Mary was not a flippant woman. This was said with a most sober tone of voice and serious mien, but without a hint of remorse. Her demeanor was grave but her eyes were laughing. My lecture had not impressed her, nor had it offended her; it had amused her. Not only did she not believe me, but in her own unassertive way she was mocking me.