Indigenous People of the Plains


On the northern plains of North America populations were sparse, as they are relatively today as well. According to Dickason and Newbigging “the population averaged less than 1 person per 10 sq. miles (26 sq. kilometres). Of course some places had much greater density than others. There were also significant seasonal influxes of population. Sort of like Arizona and Southern California today. In the north however it was not the great weather that attracted people, but the seasonal hunt. The bison hunt was the basis of the plains culture.

Everything depended on the food provided by bison. The calories provided by bison were astonishing. Some have considered it the miracle food. It was one of the greatest food resources on the planet, and the Indigenous people were the beneficiaries. Its ultimate loss was one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters ever!

As James Daschuk described it, in his remarkable book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, which everyone should read who believes Canada is a fair country,  “Studies of skeletons have shown that, in the mid-nineteenth century, peoples on the plains were perhaps the tallest and best-nourished population in the world. As a result of the bison, the Plains were lands of great civilization.

There was another factor that pointed to a great civilization on the Plains. Bison Hunters used both drives and jumps depending on how the land was configured. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging, in their book  A Concise History of Canada’s First Nationsthe earliest site was 5,000 years old!  Many jump sites are found near the Rocky Mountains the most famous of which is Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta. I was very surprised when I visited it a number of years ago with our family. It was a very large site. It was so large tribes had to co-operate to use it. A group had to hunt cooperatively.  Archaeologists have discovered 30 mazeways along which bison (not really buffalo) were driven with up to 20,000 cairns that guided the bison to their doom.  When Europeans arrived the use of jumps was actually increasing.  Buffalo pounds were more common on the plains because, of course, the land was flatter.

The real significance of these sites however in my view was pointed out in a comment by Dickason and Newbigging: “These forms of hunting called for co-operation and organization within bands but also between bands and tribes. Impounding, or corralling, was the more complex method, a form of food production rather than hunting.”

And this required civilization.

Anishinabe/Ojibwa Spirituality


My daughter-in-law Debbi is part Anishinabe. I have learned a lot from her and her sister Kelsey. Kelsey is a teacher of Ojibwa culture and history. I have learned a lot from them , though not nearly enough.

Kelsey taught me that like so many Indigenous Peoples, Anishinabe (Ojibwa) people pay particular attention to directions.  This reminded me a lot of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Central America. Paying attention to the 4 directions helps orient them to the world around them and ground them in a place—a sacred place. This too is a recurring theme among many Indigenous nations. They often believe that their beliefs and spirituality arise naturally from their home place. I really like that idea. Wallace Stegner, a fantastic writer believed the same thing.

Kelsey taught me that the number 4 is sacred in their culture.  I also learned from my friend Carl Smith of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation that the Ojibway people have 4 fundamental interrelated concepts—Respect, purpose, balance and interconnection.

Kelsey also explained to me the importance of the Sweat Lodge. As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains it, “Sweat lodges are heated, dome-shaped structures used by Indigenous peoples during certain purification rites and as a way to promote healthy living.”

Inside the structures intense heat is generated usually from pouring water onto heated rock. That is done specifically to promote sweating because Anishinabe believe this will help to expel toxins and negative energy that creates imbalance and disorder in life. They believe it can help to cleanse the soul, mind, and body. This process may take several hours, but there is no set procedure that must be followed.

The Sweat Lodge is considered a sacred place compared often to a Mother’s womb. In fact that is what it is shaped like. The entrance to the Sweat Lodge usually faces east to symbolize a new day. In order to enter one must bend low to encourage humility. More religious people should practice humility. No let me correct that. More people should practice humility, including, me. Then one can exit the Sweat Lodge  reborn. Many people can gain deep spiritual experiences from the engagement with the lodge. It is hoped that one exits reborn. A new person. this is sort of like the Christian concept of being born again.

The person who operates the sweat lodge is often called the keeper. Often that person is an elder or healer. Usually no charges are incurred for the experience, though people are encouraged, but not required, to offer a gift of something like cloth or tobacco. Gift giving itself is often an important spiritual experience for people. This too is a recurring theme among Indigenous people. Sometimes tobacco is exchanged for advice.

The purpose of the sweat lodge is not to generate revenue, but to heal and cleanse body and soul. Non-trained operators are discouraged because it can be dangerous. In 2009 three  sweat lodge participants in a New Age “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Arizona died.

Sweat Lodges were strongly discouraged by European settlers of Canada as part of their efforts to suppress Indigenous spirituality in favor of their own Christian belief system. It was part of that wholly unjustified sense of superiority again.

One of the things I liked best about the Sweat Lodge ceremony was that anyone could participate. No particular beliefs are required. No particular beliefs about whom or what one is worshipping is a pre-requisite either. Anyone who is respectful can participate.  I believe that is how all religions should operate.

I hope to learn much more about Anishinabe culture from my new family.

Manitoba’s Cactuses



In June 2016 I went on one of my most spectacular botany trips ever. That is saying a lot since I have on some outstanding trips. This was truly one of the best.

Normally I am a bog guy. I love bogs. I love the orchids and other plants that inhabit our wetlands. Most of my flower hunting has been in these wetlands.  Today I felt a bit like a faithless lover because I wandered a near desert in search of cacti. I have come to love cacti as much as orchids. Both are pretty close to divine.


I love deserts. I just never thought I would experience one in Manitoba. Actually, I did not experience one that day. It is not really a desert but it is as close as we get in Manitoba. Spruce Woods gets about twice the amount that is the limit for what is considered a desert. The annual moisture received there is 300-500 millimetres per year-nearly twice the amount received in a true desert region. This rainfall enables plants to colonize the sand dunes, hiding most of the sand. In fact as I walked along the trail I was struck by the great variety of vegetation. For a plant guy like me that was fantastic.


Of the original 6,500 square kilometres of delta sand, only four square kilometres remain open today. The balance is now covered with vegetation that is gradually covering the sands. Most of the sands are now covered with a rich variety of plants and wildlife. The Spirit Sands had their origin more than 15,000 years ago when the ancestral Assiniboine River, was much larger than it is today and it created a huge delta as it carried glacial meltwaters into ancient Lake Agassiz.

The origins of the Spruce Woods require one to consider the massive continental ice sheets that covered Manitoba and much of the northern part of North America.  About 20,000 years ago, all of Manitoba was covered by an enormous ice sheet that in many places was up to 2 km. deep.  There was an awful lot of water locked up in that  ice.

When that fantastic ice sheet started to melt, a wide melt stream flowed into the recently created Lake Agassiz.  It was the largest lake the world has ever seen! As the water flowed in it dropped silt, sand, and gravel into many parts of Manitoba including a pathway that was centred roughly on what is now the Assinboine River.  This created a huge river valley.

The sand deposits thus created were vast and deep. In places they were up to 200 feet deep and covered approximately 6,500 square km. These deposits spread out in a fan shape that reached as far as Portage la Prairie. Winds created heaps of sand that we call dunes. Large dunes were built up in this area. Those dunes are still active today.

When the great continental ice sheets finally melted away, about 12,000 years ago, the Assinboine River was a mighty river, about 1.5 km wide. The modern descendant is a puny shadow of that.  The river drained into huge Lake Agassiz just south of present day Brandon Manitoba. As the glacier continued to retreat northwards Lake Agassiz drained south—opposite of today. The massive ice sheets blocked northward flow. This south flow of the river exposed massive sand from the river delta.


To the aboriginal people the Spirit Sands were a spiritual place close to the Great Spirit or Kiche Manitou. The present name—Spirit Sands acknowledges the religious importance of the dunes to indigenous people.

Today Spirit Sands is a fragile sand dune about 4 km2.  The rest of what is left is covered with vegetation. The dunes are moved along the prevailing northwesterly winds and like so many dunes, cover anything that stands in their way.


Cactuses or cacti  are magnificent. I have spent  a few winters now in Arizona looking at cacti and have come to love them nearly as much as orchids, as heretical as that might sound.  Our Manitoba cacti are small low plants but the flowers are extraordinary and can hold their heads up high to any Arizona cacti.  And they love sandy conditions.

Many people are surprised to learn that cacti can be found in Canada. After all, are cacti not a plant of the southwestern deserts? Yes and no. Certainly they can be found in the southwest of the US and are in fact famous for that. Yet they can survive in the north as well.

There are actually 4 species of cacti native to Canada. These are Escobaria vivipara, Opuntia fragilis, O. polyacanthaand O. humifusa. None of these species are found farther north than their locations in Canada.

There is another species of cactus in Manitoba that I have not seen yet. That is prickly pear and it can be found from BC to Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. There are as well a few sites in northwestern Ontario. I have seen this cactus in Manitoba but not when it was in bloom. A nature group of which I am a part, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. went to see it but I had to miss that field trip. Sometimes life sucks.  Next year for sure!


Anishinabe (Ojibwa or Ojibway) are the Indigenous People with whom I have had the most contact.

To begin with, my son Nicholas married Debbi a woman who is the daughter of an Anishinabe woman and one of the most wonderful women I have ever met. Her daughter is cut from the same cloth and we are very proud to have her part of our life. Not only that they have produced 2 wonderful children who are now our grand children.

I also have a significant connection with the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation because I was part of a group that partnered with them to establish an ecological reserve near their reserve and we would never have got it established if it were not for their co-operation.

I have also got to know Anishinabe people at Buffalo Point where we have a cottage on land leased from them in their reserve. As a result I have got to know a number of Anishinabe people personally.

All of this is to show that I am not entirely unbiased when it comes to the Anishinabe people.

According to John L. Steckley and Bryan Cummins in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations, “Anishinabe” is the name that the people of all groups of Ojibwa (or Ojibway) usually use to call themselves. “Ojibwa” is the name given to them by Europeans, though some groups have adopted the European names. For example, the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba uses the name “Ojibway”. As far as I am concerned each group can use whatever name they choose, and the rest of us should usually respect that choice. In the United States they are often called Chippewa.

Like so many other First Nations or Indigenous People, the name of Anishinabe for themselves is the word for “human beings” or “people.” Scholars believe that the original Anishinabe came south from the Eastern Subarctic. They may have moved to the Atlantic coast and then to the north shores of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. Later many moved to the prairies when European traders arrived there.

Three of the bands survived: Mississauga, Saulteaux, and Ojibwa. Did you know that the following words are all based on Ojibwe words: “chipmunk” (referring to squirrels), “totem” (referring to clan), and “pecan” (meaning nut.)

In the area of the Great Lakes the Anishinabe/Ojibwa people occupied the region of the boreal forest north of the lakes . I love that country.   We drove through it last year and I  had to stop many times to take photographs. There they hunted moose beaver, and other animals and collected berries, tubers, and birch bark. As far as I know, there they were mainly hunter/gatherers.

These people were traders long before Europeans arrived to teach them how. Groups farther north were generally not as active traders because trading partners were spread out more. It is difficult to trade with someone 1,000 kilometers away. The Ojibwa traded beaver pelts of the area they occupied to the Odawa and Huron peoples farther to south and east in exchange for horticultural products like corn and tobacco.

Like the Cree farther west, the Ojibwa lived mainly in small family hunting groups and were constantly in search of game and fish. It was a pretty good life.

Gradually the Anishinabe moved further west into the territory of the Cree for reasons that are not entirely clear, but probably to trade with the Europeans who had arrived there by then. In the prairies in particular, they also farmed, particularly wild rice.  I will have more to say about this later. Anthony Hall, in his wonderful book, The American Empire and the Fourth World,  called there manner of farming “Among the most vital living expressions of Aboriginal agriculture in North America.” I will discuss this in greater detail later.

Ancient People of Canada


The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more we are forced to realize we did not know very much. Recent discoveries are leading scientists to believe that people have lived in what we now call Canada for much longer than people have previously believed.

Recently, scientists have discovered an ancient village on the west coast of Canada. The arrival of Europeans on the west coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are more well known.

The recent discovery is  of a 14,000-year-old ancient village and this might change our perception of early civilization in North America. Researches have said these remains are much older than the the Giza pyramids of Egypt. They have found artefacts that reach right back to the Ice Age. Interestingly this aligns with oral traditional history of some First Nations which history was previously discounted. Scholars may have to rethink their customary disparagement of traditional knowledge.

According to J. V. Wright, Curator Emeritus of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and author of A History of the Native People of Canada: Volume I (10,000 -1,000 B.C.) the earlier and orthodox archaeological view of native history the first period which occurred from 12,000 to 10,000 B.P the material cultures that were called the Palaeo-Indian and Northwest Palaeo-Arctic stretched across sites in what we now call the Yukon, the Prairies, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. These cultures have similarities with the Dyuktai culture in Siberia dating back as far as 18,000 B.P. This is understandable since it is generally now believed that the first Indigenous People arrived in the western hemisphere after travelling from Asia across the land bridge that was exposed at that time on account of lower sea levels.

The shared features include wedge-shaped tools made out of rock, not flakes that are broken off, microblades (which are flakes from a core sample of rock), bifacial knives (knives with a blade on both sides), and burins (stone tools for working with antler and bone).

The second period was set by Wright as the period from 10,000 to 6000 B.P. During this time, weapons technology developed substantially. For example, the atlatl or spear thrower was so effective that megafauna (Huge animals found in North America) started to disappear as a result of hunting from Indigenous people. We have to remember that Indigenous people were responsible for some extinctions too. They were not environmental saints.

It is difficult for scientists today to agree with certainty how these ancient people were related to current Indigenous peoples for as they often say, “the stone tools don’t talk.” They have to proceed on the basis of inferences, rather than firm science. This job is made more difficult by the fact that these people migrated widely.  For example, according to their own traditions, the Anishinabe people moved from the Atlantic coast to Quebec and Ontario. Later they even moved into Manitoba, where many of their descendants now reside.

The third period occurred from 6000 to 3000 B.P. The people of this period are the likely ancestors of the Algonquin nation and perhaps Hodenosaunee (Iroquois).

I think what is most important about his history is the necessary recognition if you want to know the history of Canada, the history since the contact of Indigenous people with Europeans is a very brief period of time. This is not a Christian country, or a country founded by the English and the French. This country was founded by the Indigenous Peoples. For example, the first Europeans came to Manitoba less than 400 years ago. That means that more than 95% of the history of the people of this province is not European. As John L. Steckley and Bryan Cummins said in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations, “If you want to learn your history, you need to learn about Natives first.”





Lady’s-slippers (Genus Cypripedium) This genus of orchids, for good reason, is named after Kypris the Greek goddess of love and beauty. The other part of the Latin name refers to the “foot” or better, “slipper.”  There are about 45 species in the world and 6 or 7 in Manitoba, depending on how you count. I have been lucky enough to see all of them in Manitoba. The flowers in this genus are all famous for having a pouch that looks like a slipper that has led to its name.  The slipper is really an inflated lip.

Insects crawl into the lip through an opening at the top of the lip but then usually are unable to get back out the same way. This forces the insect to to crawl inside the lip where there is an escape hatch. Orchids can be liars and cheats, but are not mean. The pathway in the Lady’s-slipper is pinched so that the hapless insect contacts the stigma (female organ) first where pollen on its back is deposited to start the process of fertilization.  Then it is forced to pass the anther (male organ) where it gathers pollen hopefully to deposit it in another Lady’s-slipper which will also be pollinated. Because the process is usually repeated in the next flower that ensures cross pollination.

At some of my favorite locations for Lady’s-slippers I have noticed holes where people dig them out. No other orchid is dug out more frequently than Lady’s-slippers and this has contributed greatly to their decline. The World Wildlife Fund in 1995 rated lady’s-slippers as among the 10 most wanted plants
or animals threatened by illegal and unsustainable trade. Transplanting them is rarely successful. We should all learn to appreciate them in the wild rather than horrid them at our homes.



The largest and flashiest of the Manitoba Lady’s-slippers is properly called Showy lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium reginae). The name is derived from the Latin word reginae which means queen.  It is the queen of every bog, swamp and fen in which it is found.



Moccasin- Flower or Pink lady’s-slipper(Cypripedium acaule) is not usually found in bogs and swamps though I have seen them there. They prefer pine forests.


Ram’s-head lady’s-slipper(Cypripedium arietinum) is the smallest of Manitoba’s Lady’s-slippers. The entire flower can be hidden by a dime. Here is one with a mosquito on it that shows the size well.

Small white lady’s-slipper(Cypripedium candidum) is the rarest of Manitoba’s Lady’s-slipper and is the only one on the endangered species list. Though all of them are rare and should be protected.


We have 2 species of yellow Lady’s-slipper in Manitoba, though some argue that there are actually 3 while others say all should be considered one species. Northern small yellow lady’s-slipper(Cypripedium parviflorum). Besides size, the most reliable way to tell them apart, though not without its complications, it has a smaller lip and usually darker petals and sepals that are often more twisted.


Large yellow lady’s-slipper(Cypripedium parviflorum Salisbury var. pubescens)is larger than the smaller cousin.


Then we have hybrids between the white and yellow Lady’s-slippers.


Sparrow’s-egg lady’s-slipper, Franklin’s lady’s-slipper(Cypripedium passerinum)is found in northern Manitoba. I have not included a photograph.   I have seen it as far south as Grand Rapids.


I found this very interesting when I found the small Ram’s Head Lady’s-slipper and Large Yellow Lady’s-sllipper side by side. Naturally I could not resist photographing them.

Unfortunately there is one very said fact I have to mention, though it gives me great pain. I have to report that there is a monstrous conspiracy among some scientists to have Lady’-slippers removed from the family of orchids. This is worse—far worse—than the movement to have Pluto ousted from the class of planets in our solar system. This conspiracy is so heinous I fear that armed rebellion may be needed to put it down. Keep your powder dry.






Hodenosaunee (People of the Longhouse)



The Five Nations (Iroquois) that straddled what eventually became the border between Canada and United States liked to call themselves the Hodenosaunee or People of the Longhouse. Iroquois is the name the French gave to them. Their territory was much larger than that of the Huron, but their population was much smaller. They made up for their smaller numbers with political savvy and a reputation for fierceness. That and their location gave them a critical advantage that came strongly into play when the Indigenous Nations started to form alliances with European powers, for that location gave them control of the major trading routes from the east coast to the interior of North America.

As a result of their larger territory the Iroquois villages were much more spread out than those of their rivals, the Huron. As a result their languages became more distinct as well. Interestingly, while the men cleared the fields for agriculture the women did the farming. Each village had its own cornfield surrounding it. The Hodenosaunee and the tribes of the west coast had the most substantial agricultural systems. Some had some farming however. For example, the Ojibwa or Anishinabe relied on an uncultivated crop—wild rice. They were not as dependent on farming however as ordinary crop farmers. According to Dickason and Newbigging, in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, “Iroquoians grew 80% of their food requirements.”

Each village had its own fledgling democracy as a result of establishing their own councils. These democracies were very influential later on the Founding Fathers of the United States who borrowed from ideas of the Hodenosaunee.  Each nation also had its won council and nation’s council would meet in one of the villages.

I was startled to learn that the leaders were chosen by women! Isn’t that heresy? It was heresy to the Europeans, but not to the Hodenosaunee. Women chose and disbarred the leaders.

Hodenosaunee (Iroquois) society was divided into clans or families similar to nations n the west coast. I wonder how that happened.

The Iroquois formed a Confederacy known as “The Great League of Peace.” A Council of 50 chiefs representing participating tribes governed the League. The League also managed the problem of giving authority to the various tribes. As a result centralization was not perfect. Member tribes often had a significant amount of autonomy. Their aim was to maintain peace and one of the main ways of doing this was through the exchange of condolences and gifts. I am constantly amazed at how often in Indigenous cultures gift giving was important.  The one who gave the most often had the most prestige. Very different from European culture where prestige went to the person who acquired the most. Again this was similar to civilization on the west coast of Canada. I use that word “civilization” advisedly.

Once more this leads me to ask who was more civilized The European invaders or Indigenous People? My point is not that Indigenous people were always better. It simply that it is far from obvious as Europeans believed, that Indigenous People were always inferior.

Not an Immigration Crisis


Because it is well known that border stations are so filthy and unsanitary, children are not supposed to stay in them for more than 72 hours.  That is official American government policy. Yet, despite that, many children are staying there for a month or more.

Many of those crossing the border without permission do so with accompanying relatives  and then report to the border officials. They are then turned over to family detention centres. After that they are often separate from their kin, merely to put pressure on them to leave.  Many of these facilities are now run by private companies who do so, of course, to make a profit. Many of them are making huge profits. In some cases even non-profits companies are making huge profits. That is what happens wherever privatization happens.

It must also be remembered that 86% of these family claimants seeking asylum have families in the US that could take care of them. Yet many young children are nonetheless detained in these detention centres that some lawyers have called “worse than prisons.”        Many of the families cross the border with relatives and then promptly report to border officials as they are supposed to do.  Many of those border officials respond by separating the children from their relatives. Then they are effectively abandoned in border facilities that are not designed for children in the first place. Border patrol people know they are not set up to take these children.

All of this is the direct result of Trump administration policies designed to separate children from their families in order to put pressure on them to go back “home.’–a home that is often overrun by dangerous gangs encouraged by American policies of the past and present.

Customs and Border Patrol (‘CBP’) recently made a statement: “We completely agree with some of the reporting that has gone out in that unaccompanied young children should not be held in our custody. Our facilities are not designed for that.”

Things are so bad that local people have become embarrassed. Some of the locals have dropped off diapers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, toys, and other things to help out the asylum seekers and restore a little of the reputation of America. These people are acting in the best spirit of America. They are the generous Americans that Marilynne Robinson believed were out there. Sadly, that generous spirit is not displayed by the President. For some reason some of the local people who wanted to help were turned away by CBP.

All of this is really mad. Many of the children of asylum seekers have homes to go to, but CBP does not let them go there. Instead they are poorly housed at the expense of American taxpayers many of whom seem to think this makes sense because they mistakenly believe they are keeping out illegal immigrants. People are wrongly conflating children in care with immigration. These people are seeking refuge/asylum. Many want to go home when it is safe to do so. Many will never seek to immigrate. They are not eligible to immigrate when they come. One would have thought Democrats and Republicans would get over the bickering and just help these desperate people out. These children should not be the responsibility of the government and the American taxpayers at all! Warren Binford an American civil rights lawyer and Professor of Law put it succinctly: “All we need to do is for the people to stop politicizing the children.” This is a child welfare issue and should not be part of the immigration debate at all. This is folly on steroids.

Really it is worse than that.  I think this points to the moral bankruptcy of the United States and the sterile polarization of American politics. And I don’t just mean the President. Everyone knows he is morally empty. But what about the American people? Millions of people continue to support him. Often these policies are fuelled by unacknowledged  racism.

Most of the very young children in family detention centres were with child mothers. Such mothers need support to care for their children. They don’t need harassment.  Yet sometimes those child mothers get sick and were quarantined and then given to other children as young as 7 or 8 years old. The BCP is unable to take care of all the infants in their custody so they asked 7 and 8 year old children to do it! Of course very few 7 or 8 year old children know much about taking care of infants. These children should be with their parents, not arbitrarily and irrationally separated from them in order to pressure their parents.

People around the world are seeing that moral emptiness in American and they are amazed and disgusted. This is not the America they admired.

Here are some comments from journalists who have been held as political prisoners around the world:

David Rhode of the New York Timeswho was held prisoner by the Taliban: “The Taliban gave me toothpaste and soap!”

James Regalan “I was given toothpaste and allowed to shower every couple of days.”

On the Christian Amanpour show,  Warren Binford reminded that “currently 1,000 children are in the these facilities in the US” This is a crisis she said and “its not an immigration crisis!”

Is America a generous Country?

Is the US as generous as it thinks it is?


By now it is an old saw, but a country must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people, not by how it treats its real estate tycoons. The powerful always do just fine looking out for themselves.

Marilynne Robinson one of America’s best and most thoughtful novelists one said she always thought America was generous country. Is it? Now she has her doubts. So do I.

Recently there have been deeply disquieting reports of the treatment of young children in American detention facilities at the US border. Few people are more vulnerable than they are. These were asylum seekers, not immigrants. That is an important distinction that many people fail to make.

The reports are about mistreatment of these young children arising out of reports of deficient clothing and hygiene, and inadequate food for them while their parents make claims for refugee status.

One child claimed she had not been able to shower for 3 weeks. Another had no toothpaste or tooth brush. Are these trivial?

American and international law requires that asylum seekers be housed in “safe and sanitary conditions.” That seems fairly simple and fair.

A recent videotape of a judicial proceeding in the US 9th District Court in which the Judge was asking a very uncomfortable government lawyer,” If you don’t have a tooth brush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, its not safe or sanitary. Wouldn’t every one agree with that?” The government lawyer could only stammer futilely in reply. She looked completely bamboozled. After that video went viral, the US Detention Commissioner resigned in embarrassment.

Christiane Amanpour interviewed Warren Binford a private lawyer and a Professor of Law at Willamette University in the US,  on the issue. Binford had recently visited the facility where this occurred in Clint Texas near El Paso where we were driving a few months ago. Officials had removed 250 children from the facility because of the bad publicity. Later they moved most of them back.

To put the issue in perspective for us, Professor Binford pointed out “most of these children have family in the US. 86% of the children in such facilities in the US had parents or other family members or sponsors in the US. These children don’t even need to be in government care. For those 14% of children we need to have standards set for what “safe and sanitary” means. For the other 86% they need to be returned to their families, so that their families can care for them and make sure that they are fed, clean, and treated with the appropriate level of loving kindness that all children deserve.” Echoing the judge, wouldn’t we all agree with that?

Surely this is clearly true for detained children in the richest country in the world. Countries like Uganda and Turkey that have far more refugees than the US does can do it and they are much poorer countries. Why can’t the US do it? Or is it not as generous as it thinks it is?

Lawyers like Binford were given access to such facilities as a result of an earlier lawsuit brought in the 1980s. For the last 20 years teams of experts have been visiting such facilities and reporting back to the court about what they saw. They have also been directly from the children as well. The team went public (whistle blowers again) after visiting a facility only intended for 104 adults in facilities that, according to Professor Binford, are “notoriously squalid and inappropriate for children at all and they handed us a roster of children who were on site that day and there were over 350 children in this border control station. We were horrified!  We immediately scanned the list and learned that over 100 of these children were young children, infants,, toddlers, preschoolers, and school age children.”

InWillamette Weekshe was quoted as saying “They are worse than actual prison conditions…It is inhumane. It’s nothing that I ever imagined seeing in the United States of America.” According to the Willamette Week, “They found a 10-year-old tasked by guards with taking care of a 2-year-old, children sleeping on cold concrete floors with inadequate bedding, inadequately treated flu and lice outbreaks, and children who hadn’t bathed in weeks, despite the fact the government had been warned weeks before of a scheduled visit.”

Binford also reported that they saw children “begging for food” because they were hungry. Her group identified a “child mother” who was there with her infant children. Many of the children were dirty and had matted hair and were crying. “They had not been given any fruit, or vegetables, or milk for the entire time they had been there. They were given instant soup, instant oatmeal, frozen burritos, and it was the same food every day, day after day. They described sleeping on cold floors, which was why they said they were so tired. They were sleeping on cement blocks. Some were sleeping on mats provided but the mats were too few so they were describing 6 children sleeping on a mat in order to protect as many children in the cells as possible from the cold floor.”

Even though Officials refused to give the team of inspectors a tour of the facility,  later they found out children were being kept in a warehouse without windows. There  they discovered 15 children quarantined for an influenza outbreak, but no one was actually caring for them. They also found children subject to a lice outbreak who were given 2 combs to share among them, something that should never be done. When one of those combs disappeared, the children were punished by officials taking away their bedding! One entire cell of children was forced to sleep without bedding as punishment.

According to Professor Binford, “There were just horrific circumstances everywhere we looked.” Things like that make conditions in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist look good in comparison.

I ask: is America a generous country? I know large numbers of refugee claimants have been showing up at the American border and they are having a difficult time. Why then don’t they allow the children to stay with their families and sponsors? Why pay significant sums to keep them in clearly inadequate government facilities? It makes no sense at all, unless there is something much deeper and sicker at stake here—like racism!


Concentration Camps for Kids


Recently the US Inspector General issued a report on the crisis on the border.  That report found “dilapidated, dirty and unsafe conditions” in some American family detention centres where asylum claimants are being housed. There have been 6 recent deaths of children at these facilities in less than a year. Now it is a fact that children die. It is also a difficult task to house the children and keep them safe. But this shouldn’t happen.

Taking care of migrating children is now a billion dollar industry in the United States. Interestingly, it is dominated by 1 Non-governmental Organization that conducts the Southwest Key program.

The US government holds tens of thousands of immigrants in detention under the control of Customs and Border Protection (‘CBP’) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (‘ICE’).

According to Nicholas Kulish, an investigative journalist with the New York Times“This Non-profit” is actually a money making machine.”  He reported that their CEO was paid a salary of $1.5 million per year while their CFO earned $1million per year.

Unfortunately, at the same time as these executives were earning handsome sums, children at the border in detention centres served by Southwest Key Programs were getting sub-par food, clothing and shelter. The L.A. Times called these facilities “concentration camps.” That is rather inflammatory language.

Dr. Scott Allan of the Department of Homeland Security in the United States was more measured in his language, but his words were still chilling. He became a whistle blower. It was his job to inspect family residential centres run by the Department of Homeland Security. Many of these are operated by private contractors. Typically in those facilities minors were not alone but were accompanied by an adult, often a parent or sometimes 2 parents.  The facilities he inspected were different from centres without parental accompaniment.

According to Dr. Allan, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour on PBS, “The medical community is united in opposition to housing minor children this way. Decades of research have shown that such detention is harmful to both their mental and physical health.”

Nicholas Kulish also interviewed by Amanpour,  added that the Trump administration, led by Sessions, was a government running from crisis to crisis without a comprehensive plan. The Trump administration was quick to back off when the public cried out.

Dr. Allan and his fellow inspectors of these detention centers were concerned since the first of such facilities was established by President Obama. Not Trump!

According to Dr. Allan, “We noticed systemic problems meeting their complex needs.” He noted that they had problems in getting adequate health care professionals, and problems interpreting the languages of the indigenous detainees. Not all of them spoke Spanish. This helped to make their medical problems “fraught and risky,” he said. “The facilities were not well planned to keep children safe,” he said. For example, his team found a lack of pediatricians.  The team of inspectors found that the facilities did not meet their own guidelines. As a result of their first report, President Obama shut down the facility that his team complained about.

Things got worse again under the Trump administration particularly as a result of their policy of child separation. It is well recognized that this policy was devised by Trump’s man—Attorney General Jeff Sessions—in order to put pressure on unwelcome asylum seekers. That basically meant all asylum seekers.

When the consequences of that policy became well known, the public revolted. After that  Dr. Scott Allan and his team inspected an increasing number of family detention centers. That policy, Dr. Allan pointed out, “would knowingly put children at risk of significant mental and physical harm and as physicians we had an obligation to raise the alarm We initially did so internally as we normally do, but when there was no timely response we were ultimately obliged to notify Congress with the whistle blower protection laws in the U.S.” They became whistle blowers against their own bosses! That takes a lot of courage.

This got for profit companies involved. They saw an opportunity for vast profits. As Nicholas Kulish said, “We’ve gone from non-profits that make profit to actual for-profit money making businesses.” Now “profit” is not a four-letter word. But sometimes it can lead to the gulag. 6 children have died this year in family detention centers in the richest country in the world.

Dr. Allan and his inspector team noticed that some young children were being give anti-depressants without medical assessments. They noticed children trying to commit suicide. Amidst all of this they noticed poor record keeping and poor attention to allergies of children. The health care was sub-par.  Dr. Allan summed up the problems this way,

“The central mistake we have made is to prioritize confinement over what we would have traditionally done at any time in our history, which was to prioritize care, health, and safety of children. We should be mounting a massive relief operation and a humanitarian operation which prioritizes early triage, assessment by qualified health professionals, and placement of children in community settings which has been done safely historically and that would result in safe conditions for the children. None of that would preclude an orderly process of adjudicating asylum claims, but we have made a critically careless mistake not consistent with our history in prioritizing confinement over care.”

Dr. Scott Allan and his colleague Dr. Panela McPherson reported to Congress as follows (in bare scientific language):

“The expansion of detention has resulted in increased reports of harm to children…The practice of detaining children and families is no longer an issue of policy dispute. It is willful policy that knowingly inflicted serious harm to children, including risk of death.”

We must also remember that Trump and Sessions would have made things even worseif they had their way and the public had not resisted. They wanted to detain children aloneto maximize pressure on the parents of the children to leave and abandon their asylum claims! This is what both of them wantedto do before the public outcry.

Dr. Scott has worked in immigration detention settings for nearly 40 years, but he was shocked when looked into the eyes of vulnerable children and women often vulnerable from a medical health perspective, and “it stuns me to have to report these findings,” he said.

The damning report by Dr. Allan’s team was produced internally for the government in 2018 and notwithstanding that report, in 2019 the program expanded. As Kulish said, “Not only is it continuing it actually is getting worse.” ]More and more people are crossing the southern border with Mexico, and though most of the asylum seekers are not Mexican, they are now crossing in remote pars of the country like Arizona where conditions are most dangerous. When they arrive to get care with Border Patrol the asylum seekers often are already de-hydrated and suffering from before they come to increasingly inadequate US facilities in the richest country in the world.

Even Border Patrol acknowledges that it is not equipped to handle these claimants, particularly the young women with infants. As Kulish said, “Many of the people in Border Patrol are not trained or equipped to deal with people in this sort of peril.” The big problem, according to Kulish, is that Border Patrol, and the entire Trump administration, is treating the problem as a law enforcement issue, rather than care needed by desperate people.

Comparing the America family detention centers along the southern border “concentration camps” is not actually helpful. What counts is that they are shameful and show a startling lack of empathy for desperate people. To treat the most vulnerable people the way Border Patrol has done is disgraceful.

Trump keeps saying things like they won’t fund soccer balls, or education, or legal representation for children and is convinced that his base will approve.  Millions of Americans approve of what he is doing. There is of course a huge divide in the United States today. Trump’s base loves what he is doing. Progressives are appalled. The issue is not Trump. He is hopeless. I really don’t care what all of this says about Donald Trump. Trump is not important. I do care about what all of this says about Americans. Many of them are my friends. Not all Americans support Trump, but millions do. What kind of a country is that now?