The following is an excerpt from Chief Del Riley’s book the Last President. Click here to order the paperback or a digital download.
In the Summer of 1967, I was living in Detroit. I had a great job, I was hanging out with my pals daily, life was good for all of us. Most First Nations people living in Detroit all had one thing in common with me, they were all Indian Residential School survivors seeking freedom and prosperity.
During this time, African Americans were fighting against the racial oppression that long plagued America. The Civil Rights movement was an enlightening moment for me, like the battle of David against Goliath. In this instance, it was African Americans rising up against every aspect of what white dominated America represented.
In 1967, when race riots broke out in Detroit, it was more than just about race. I witnessed with my own eyes that African Americans wanted equality in the judicial system, and the same opportunities that white America had. African Americans were fighting for what I was enjoying at that time while I lived in Detroit – a fair and just opportunity in white America. My eyes started to open to the issues my own people faced in Canada as a result of this movement. Years ago, my friend Ben had mentioned it. I had talked a little bit about my past, and it was Ben who said: “White slavers owned kids in the south to work the cotton fields like those in Indian residential schools.”
It had never dawned on me prior talking to Ben that yes, I was in fact a child slave who had worked the fields without pay like those forced into American slavery 120 years earlier. Canada imposed child slavery at Indian residential schools. Canadians are now just starting to wake up to this reality, as our history is not taught in schools. Our history is actively hidden, as Canada does not want to tarnish its “sterling” human rights record. Thousands of First Nations children and generations of them across Canada, just like me, slaves! In 1783, United Empire Loyalists were welcomed into Canada from the United States and brought 2000 slaves with them. There were nine Indian Residential Schools operating in Canada before slavery officially ended in the United States.
“Were you whipped?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, they named the whip the Redhead, and you got it if you didn’t work hard.”
“Golly, I thought we were the only one’s forced to work the fields without pay” he replied.
Speaking with Ben I realized what white Canada was doing to the First Nations people, like I had just woken up and come to the realization of what I was forced into. I must have been off in a daze, having horrifying flashbacks, and Ben decided to try and lighten up the mood and get me smiling.
“You know Riley, I was wondering what happened to all of our white slavers, sounds like they moved to Canada and run the government there.”
The old stock Canadian values of slavery were imprinted on me. When I talked to Ben and others like him I had my mind opened. Ben was helping me to see the big picture. I couldn’t bury the past, I couldn’t forget who I was, what the government and church were doing to my people. The new cars, the great job, and anything I wanted at that time could not make me forget the Mush Hole, or how Canada treated “their” First Nations people.
I had escaped Canada and got back on my feet for the exact same reasons African Americans were rising up in the streets to protest across America. The civil rights movement was the first time I saw anyone stand up to the white man in that way, and the ferocious response by the police was shocking. I had never seen attack dogs being used on protesters before. Police officers openly using water cannons on people. The brutality in the streets against peaceful demonstrations was the response from white America.
The message from the civil rights movement I most remember from Detroit was, “We fought for democracy in World War II and Korea, why can’t we fight for democracy in at home too?”
I understood what Black people were fighting for. But I stayed out of the Whiteman’s way in Detroit. I wasn’t deeply political, but the Civil Rights movement affected everybody. It was like a Jackie Robinson moment for the entire country. African Americans wanted equality like Robinson touching the MLB field as a Black man against all odds. This was their moment, looking ahead to equality.
I was a nobody in 1967, I just worked in an auto shop making car parts. The best thing to do was stay out of it, and not mention it to my white bosses at work. I lived the best life I could live for myself and family.
The race riots caused a curfew in Detroit from 6pm until 6am. I noticed big bullet holes in the sides of buildings on my way to work. The National Guard had now been called in. Ben said, ”A tank drove over a car because it wouldn’t stop for a checkpoint.”
I don’t know why whites treated me good in Detroit, maybe it was because they thought we were all dead, and I was the last “Indian” standing. But now Detroit became a dangerous town overnight, and I was witnessing society breaking down in front of my eyes.
One day, I was at my favourite watering hole in Detroit having a cold beer after a hard day’s work. The race riots were raging, but this place was still open to preferred customers only. Because of the riots, the sale of alcohol was prohibited and bars were forced to shut down at 6:00 pm. The owner of a favourite bar of mine would keep his location open for special customers to frequent the bar after work. Throughout the curfew, a few places like this one remained open, but the door was always locked. Charlie, the bar owner would remind the customers every so often:
“The curfew doesn’t pay the bills, and it doesn’t send my kids to school.”
If you mentioned the word curfew to Charlie, he would go off on tangent:
“If the government doesn’t pay my bills, they should have no reason to tell me how to pay mine. Government wants to shut down my business at 6:00pm, they better shut down all of the businesses like Ford and GM at 6:00pm too.”
I could really understand where Charlie was coming from. The government played a huge role in creating the racism, and now they were punishing people for trying to earn a living. Anyone who spoke to Charlie, would instantly know how he felt about making his living.
It was around midnight, and the owner Charlie yelled out:
“Everybody hide your drinks, put them in the cases, a uniform is at the door.”
Patrons scrambled around the bar to grab their bottles of beer. Like a big chugging contest, beer bottles tipped to the ceiling in synchronization as the pool tables fell silent. The bar owner said: “Never mind, it’s just the mayor’s driver, he wants a few cases of beer, I need some help loading up the beer.”
A few of us went into the beer cooler laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
I did what any good Samaritan would do. With an army tank parked at the back door of the bar, we loaded up four cases of beer into the tank and waved the good mayor of Detroit on his way. Afterwards it was playtime for the big boys, so we fired up the jukebox, pulled out our beers and played some pool. Even though I wasn’t old enough to live through the Depression Era of America in the 1930’s and prohibition, I did get a little taste of prohibition in Detroit during those race riots.
At the back of my mind I was thinking, maybe one day I could go back home to Canada and change things there. My first thoughts of activism and fighting the Canadian system came to me like a giant wave in Detroit. First Nations children shouldn’t have to grow up the way I grew up, and I’d like my people to stand up for themselves. Get themselves equality. If African Americans can demand civil rights, I’d like Canada to just try and treat Indigenous people civilly. We could work on the rights part afterwards.
How could I change anything in Canada in 1967? I didn’t know about our treaties and rights. I had no concept of what a Treaty was and it had not crossed my mind. Nobody talked about Treaties when I grew up. We were just trying to survive and stay out of Canadian jails and residential schools. I was just a machinist working in Detroit. I had no idea that 15 years later I’d be the last President of a National Organization that represented First Nations across Canada, let alone that I’d be involved in creating Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution that “Affirmed Aboriginal Rights and Treaties.” I had no idea I’d be dealing with Prime Ministers, and eating dinner with Kings and Queens and other heads of State.
In 1967, I was worried about matching up the colour of my shirt and pants to my car, and looking good for the ladies. The biggest crisis I had was when I ran out of Brylcream for my hair! I had to look good for work; heck, I had to look good all the time. I wasn’t worried about politics, or national policy; those concepts were foreign to me. In fact, the only foreign policy I knew at the time was ordering Mexican food.
However, the Civil Rights movement opened my eyes to possibilities back home in Canada. I was talking to my friend Ben during the race riots of 1967, and asked him, “Ben? Why aren’t your protests peaceful? Why are your people ripping up Detroit?”
Ben said, “Those rioters don’t represent the Civil Rights movement. They represent themselves in a greedy manner. Dr. Martin Luther King has only promoted peaceful, non-violent protests. Dr. Martin Luther King is a great man and preacher who promotes peace and equality in America. He wants a better America for everybody.”
The Civil Rights movement was a real eye-opener and moment of self-realization. It was because of it that I became interested in civil rights. The same types of racial problems that affected Black people in America were endured by First Nations people in Canada. It was all in plain sight for the world to see – residential schools, over-representation in prisons, racial legislation called the Indian Act that ran every aspect of our lives – the list goes on and on.
We were being persecuted by white Canada, and the justice system was just as racist as the national policies under the Indian Act they enforced against us. I had a friend who went to Indian Residential School for twelve years until he finally got out one day and enjoyed two days of freedom – before spending five years in prison for defending himself against an attack from a police officer.
What was my friend to learn from society after being locked up his whole life from a child to manhood? I can tell you. He learned that violence and abuse was normal (especially from church officials), and that society was a whole lot different than we were raised to believe growing up in Indian Residential Schools. I could easily have taken the same path a lot of my friends and foes did and ended up in and out of jail my whole life. Detroit saved me from that.
So here I was, living free in America, and Dr. Martin Luther King threw a question into the back of my mind with the Civil Rights Movement in full force. In reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s articles, and catching parts of his “I have a dream speech,” I too was starting to have a dream of my own – that the possibility of equality could happen for my own people suffering from the racial oppression by the Canadian Government.
One hobby I always had from the time of being a child in Indian Residential School, was my love for reading. I read anything and everything. I read Dr. Martin Luther King’s writings and it was a new found hobby I took up to read about the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was another great activist who inspired me. I started to learn a new subject that I knew little about, and began to understand the racism I was a victim of myself back in Canada. Dr. King taught me about strength, unity, and self-identity. He had charisma, he could captivate a crowd with his speeches, and you knew he was real and meant what he said.
The Civil Rights movement opened my eyes. I wanted the power to captivate a crowd with a powerful speech about equality. I wanted to help my people. Dr. King’s passion and love for his people gave me inspiration. His courage to speak out on racial equality changed my way of approaching life. I wanted the courage to speak out, I wanted to show my passion for my people to attain equality. I was embarking upon a life-long journey and I was now awake.
Dr. King not only taught me about courage, he taught me how to stand up for myself. Not that I couldn’t stand up for myself physically: I was as tough as they came, as a former High School Wrestling champ who once took a Pan Am Games wrestler to a draw. Dr. King represented a different kind of courage, a different kind of strength, and standing up for yourself was central to that belief. It didn’t come in the form of standing up for yourself in a bar room brawl. Dr. King’s courage was a different kind of courage, the courage to stand up for racial equality and speak out with force and eloquence. It was sincere and right.
After the riots in Detroit I had to make a choice. The city was changing and just wasn’t the same anymore. Shops were closing up, the streets looked horrible, and it just didn’t boom anymore. I worked in four different machine shops in Detroit all together, each time, getting my pay raised until eventually I ran the smaller shop of a bigger operation. My bosses begged me not to go, but I decided it was time for a change. So I packed up my things into my 1965 Chevy Impala Convertible and moved to Chicago, a few hours from Detroit. I wanted to see something new in America, and Chicago seemed to be a hotbed of change.
I didn’t mind Chicago for the six weeks I stayed there. It seemed to work out okay. I had a sister living in Detroit, and I had a sister living in Chicago. What was important at the time was that at last I was around my family. When I was growing up at the Mush Hole, even though my four sisters were in the same building, I never got to see or talk to any of them because that was prohibited by Anglican church officials like Reverend Zimmerman. Break the family and you break the child. It was an ideal time to be closer with my sisters and visit with them. We would always enjoy a night of teasing each other, playing pranks, and playing cards like crib or euchre.
While in Chicago, I had a lot of money saved up from working in Detroit and was also looking to do more things. It wasn’t long before I found a job in Chicago at a machine shop. I was hired on the spot, just like my other jobs. No resumé, no cover letter, no references, just hired on the spot. I liked those days of being hired immediately. My resumé was my ability to show my boss how to fix one of his downed machines. Over the next month, I fixed all of the machines, recalibrated them, and had them working in pristine condition. I was good at what I did.
However, within my first few weeks in Chicago, the race riots kicked up in Chicago. I swear the riots followed me to Chicago and it was all part of my learning to observe them. I went to work and watched the damage pile up in the streets of Chicago. The fight for equality became a civil war, but for the most part, a non-violent civil war. Police brutality was all around me, and I could see it aimed at Black people, from traffic stops, to how they treated protesters causing situations to escalate. It reminded me of a whole lot of what I left back home in Canada.
I witnessed the civil rights movement and power of Dr. Martin Luther King. Little did I know in the future, his methods would also become my methods.