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Amnesty International Work Supported in Canada by Physician Educator

June 6, 2017

RE: My Story

I am a farm boy from Saskatchewan, Canada. I grew up in a safe community in a stable family unit with my parents and four siblings. I don’t ever remember being without food, but I do recall being without indoor plumbing, electricity, TV, and the Internet. There were no bombs, civil wars, political strife or revolutions that affected my life or my education. It was peaceful. Life was good.

I recall one wintry day on our small Saskatchewan farm I heard a knock at the door and my mother greeting someone. When I went to the kitchen, it was the Wienee boys approximately 6 or 7 years old, about my age. They wanted to play. There was never a problem with our family opening our home to our friends and neighbors, or me in sharing my toys. My father raised grain and livestock feed on his land and during the late fall the work was hard and the labor requirements intensive, as the cold winters approached. The Wienee family was part of the itinerant labor force that moved around the community in families to provide much-needed seasonal labor during the harvest season. They were what the community referred to as “Indians” – I think they were the descendants of the Cree tribe – but to me the Wienee boys were just my playmates, and my friends. I don’t recall them being “different”. I do remember initially being self-conscious because I was different. I was a “tow-head” - an affectionate term used by our Scandinavian ancestors who were accustomed to having blond-haired, blue-eyed offspring. In an instant, the Wienee boys smiles and friendly demeanor dissolved that visible difference between us. The Wienees all had outdoor tanned skin, dark eyes, shiny black hair, and I was a tow-head! It didn’t matter to them, and I had no problem sharing my toys. Life went on, we had fun.

The Wienee family usually moved on after the fall harvest work was done, but this year was different. After the fall work was done, with my father’s permission, the Wienee family stayed on living in their big tents down by our water reservoir. Winter comes early in Saskatchewan. By the end of November any snow that falls to the ground is there to stay until April the following year before it thaws. Any standing water turns to ice. During December, my friends and I would clear snow off a patch of ice on the reservoir in eager anticipation of skating. However, to my surprise, they didn’t have skates. That was no problem. I had skates. I would skate first and then would take off my skates and wait for each of them in turn to lace up my skates and try them out. They had a blast and it was comical watching each other slipping, sliding, and falling on the ice. The only problem came when it was time to go home. They each wore one pair of regular shoes, which were always wet, especially in the winter. While skating, their shoes would freeze stiff and, on more than one occasion, they couldn’t get them back on. I remember being so surprised to see them strike out for their tent home in the trees, frozen shoes in hand, and walking through the deep crusty snow in their sock feet. It was cold in Saskatchewan - bitter cold, but to us that was “normal”. And, they were my friends, after all.

One day in late December something happened. I had gone to my mother’s hen house in our yard to gather eggs for her. I saw a large van in the yard. I think it was yellow. I could hear screams and yelling coming from the Wienee tent home. In the distance, I could see people chasing each other through the aspen tree bluffs near the Wienee camp. Returning to the house with my bucket of fresh eggs, I asked my mother what was happening. She explained to me that the Wienee children had to go to school up north, so the bus was here to take them. It seemed reasonable. Mother was distressed too, but not alarmed, so it was “just life” in Saskatchewan…something unusual, but not threatening to my family unit or anything that I had any control over at all, so it was okay. After an hour or two, I saw the yellow van leaving the yard and my family and school life returned to normal. After the van left, the Wienee children never returned to skate or play. Within weeks, the Wienee encampment packed up and left. It would be decades later that I learned what really happened that cold December day in Saskatchewan. The Catholic Church, with boarding schools scattered throughout Northern Saskatchewan, came to round up the aboriginal children, extract them from their families by force and take them to their “boarding schools” in the North. My friends and playmates, the Wienee boys, were very capable of running and hiding in the bushes and the snow banks. I know now that that round-up was no easy feat. Now we know the extent of the trauma, neglect and abuse those aboriginal families suffered in those Catholic boarding schools in Northern Saskatchewan and other provinces. I have often wondered, later in years, what became of the Wienee children. I never saw them again.

The only thing that separated me from the same fate as the Wienee children was luck and circumstance. I was a “tow-head” and they were “Indians” destined to be "saved" from their nomadic, heathenistic ways by the Church, with the full blessing and cooperation of the Canadian Government. I can imagine what a terrifying experience that would have been!

So here I am today, separated by luck and circumstance from the Wienee family fate, destined to leave Saskatchewan in pursuit of more education, now in possession of four advanced University degrees, countless certificates, accolades, and a ton of advanced medical skills I have earned, sitting in my comfortable home, a proud citizen of both the U.S.A. and Canada, the beneficiary of my Scandinavian immigrant ancestors' hard work and struggles. Alicia Keys today caused a change in my life. Her Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award made me realize that my advanced medical knowledge and experience is not enough, and my role here on earth is not over. Twenty years in private medical practice is not good enough. I can never see enough patients in my lifetime to make a real difference in the world. But I can make a difference in the world if I teach others the skills and knowledge that I have acquired and motivate them to return to their communities, their tribes, wherever, and to teach others – particularly the young, open-minded, and forgiving generations.

I am going to launch a post-secondary educational facility of international scope that is not afraid to break down the cultural barriers to education for aboriginal people from anywhere in the world. What better place than Canada? What better time than now?

Dr. Dale Alsager

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