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Teaching Indigenous culture a passion for George Couchie

"I didn’t want to do anything that I didn’t enjoy, and for me when I teach about my culture it’s more of a passion now than a job."

This is one of a series of articles, as part of the feature called "Helpers", which focuses on people and organizations that help make our community better.

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“When I was in Thunder Bay, I was doing a talk about residential schools and when I finished an older woman stood up and said her name was, and she gave out a number, and that was the number that she had at a residential school. She said I married my husband who was at a residential school and she said she had five children who were all taken to residential schools. She said my last son, they came and got him when he was just a young boy, and our house was just 500 yards away from the school through a trail in the back of the house. She said two men in suits came in and took him away and he was crying, and he cried all the way to the school. I’m 76 years old and I when I sit in my backyard, I can still hear him crying.”

These are the stories George Couchie hears over and over again. These are the stories George Couchie needs everyone else to hear over and over again.

Couchie is a member of the Red-tailed Hawk Clan and has served this community and those in the surrounding areas for over 30 years as a police officer, and in retirement he’s continued his passion for helping people by creating a company called Redtail Hawk Training and Consulting, with the focus of teaching a cultural awareness about Indigenous people.

“After I retired from policing for 33 years, the last few years I was teaching what is now called Indigenous training and even after I had retired I had people calling and asking if I could come speak about the culture, the traditions and the effects of the residential schools and Indian hospitals and it just took off from there. I now do work with teachers, police officers, hospital staff and a lot of those front-line workers,” says Couchie 

The program is in Nipissing First Nation and it is a retreat and workshop for adults and youth. Couchie says he realized he had a passion for this through his work as a police officer.

“When I retired, I didn’t want to do anything that I didn’t enjoy, and for me when I teach about my culture it’s more of a passion now than a job. So I enjoy going to speak and meeting people and hopefully, when they come out of the training, they come out with a better understanding of the Indigenous people of Canada and the culture and the effects the residential schools had, and the effects of racism in our country.”

It’s a story with details that still aren’t being shared enough. Couchie says that a woman in Thunder Bay took him to a place that at first glance just looked like an empty field.

“She took me to a gravesite that was the size of a football field, but it was just a fence surrounding grass. There were no tombstones or markings and she said, ‘We used to bury kids here. I was hired by the residential school to put kids into coffins. We had so many deaths at this school that the nuns told us not every kid could have a coffin, so we had to double them up.’”

“I think it is sad that in 2020 we still have to go out and teach about Indigenous people,” says Couchie  “When I talk to kids, I always say that we are first in line when no one wants to be first, and last in line when no one wants to be last. We have the highest rates of obesity, AIDS, homelessness. When we look at suicides, we are the highest in the world. So again, it’s looking at how do we change those. I don’t want these kids to become statistics so how do we change that and look at ourselves.”

Couchie's life story can be a teaching tool as he found his way through many ups and downs while growing up.

"My father died when I was about 15 years old and my life was starting to spiral out of control. Then a guy who just moved to North Bay was named Larry Sheppard, and he got me into powerlifting and things just started to change,” says Couchie who became a national powerlifting champion.

“I did that, I boxed, I was on the track team at school and the football team. When I got into grade 12, I met Norm Shillington who was an officer with the North Bay Police Service and I was playing baseball and he said to me that I should think about becoming a police officer. I went to college and did that and as soon as I graduated at 21 years old, North Bay Police hired me. I think it was a fortune of meeting these good people that inspired me to make a difference in my own community.”

Couchie was proud of his role but he also noticed a trend.

“When I was a young officer with the North Bay Police Service in the 1980s and ’90s, and we would arrest Indigenous people, they were coming from the west coast of James Bay and a lot of them were coming right out of the residential schools and we had no idea how bad it affected them.”

That set Couchie on a path of trying to understand his own history.

“I left North Bay police to work for my own community of Nipissing First Nation and that’s when I started realizing that I really didn’t know anything about my own culture or my own history. They sent me down to Ipperwash for the trial and I was down there for the 11 weeks and that really made me realize that I needed to learn about my own culture and teach people about it also.”

The Ipperwash crisis was a dispute over Indigenous land in Ipperwash Provincial Park in 1995. Dudley George, an Ojibwa protestor, was killed during a confrontation with OPP.

Later on, the Ontario Provincial Police recruited Couchie and he says that was something he was very grateful for.

“They were sending me all over Ontario and I was meeting other Indigenous officers who had the same questions that I had about my own history. You see yourself one way, but everyone else sees you another way. So, I wanted to teach people a little bit about the history that I know. Even when I talked at the hospital a few weeks ago, I said ‘If you think I have all the answers for 500 years of oppression, I don’t. I just have a little bit about what I have learned by speaking to people all over the north.’”

“I never knew how fortunate I was until I was going around and speaking to the different officers,” continues Couchie. “One of the officers told me that I had a lot of stories to share and so much experience to give back. One of the Indigenous officers that came to the training course when I started doing this with the OPP said that they wanted this course because they didn’t know anything about themselves, but every time they applied to do the course they were told by their superior officers that there’s no point in sending an Indian to an Indian course. So they never had that opportunity until I got there. Sometimes, just because they are Indigenous we think that they know everything about their culture but a lot of the time they are coming from backgrounds like me where there were a lot of alcohol issues in the family and domestic violence.”

Couchie says his time as an officer was memorable and rewarding personally as it opened his own eyes and his own mind to the culture of his own people.

“People always ask why you get into that line of work and it's usually because you want to help change your community. One thing I wish, and I tell this to young officers, is that I wish I had a little more compassion when I first started. Listening to peoples stories because now I realize everyone has a story and once you sit down and just listen to their stories you’ll realize why they are where they are.”

The teachings and the talks continue to this day and Couchie says there are always people who are taken aback by the information.

"About three weeks ago I was teaching some folks at the North Bay Regional Hospital and a lot of them were surprised at the history. We talk about Christopher Columbus and the residential schools and the Indian Act and how treaties were set and a lot of them had never heard about some of this stuff. For some of them it was quite a heavy day,” says Couchie 

“I think all this needs to become mainstream. The teachers in school I find are more accepting of it. Last year I was up in Thunder Bay and the teachers were just phenomenal to work with. They said there is so much racism in our city here and they were the ones pushing to learn more about the culture and the history. I think there needs to be more of that history in our everyday lives, but in a good way. A way that’s not confrontational. I think what makes my lectures work is that it's not about telling people “look what you did,” it's about understanding the behaviours of people and never looking down at anyone.”

If you have a story suggestion for the “helpers” series, send Matt an email at m.sookram@outlook.com.