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Fireworks and Folly: How We Killed Minnie Sutherland

by John Nihmey

Minnie Sutherland was a Cree from Kashechewan, a reserve on the Ontario side of James Bay. She died in an Ottawa hospital on Jan. 11, 1989, at age 40, after being hit by a car and suffering a skull fracture 10 days earlier outside a bar in Hull, Quebec. (Sutherland had been en route to the New Year’s Eve fireworks display on Parliament Hill – she never made it.) The facts are simple, but the story is complicated. Her death was the result not only of physical injury but also of police racism (the officers at the scene referred to Sutherland as a “squaw,” dragged her from the middle of the road by her coat and left her on a snowbank), stereotyping (when an ambulance was finally called, the drivers refused to take her to hospital because they assumed she was merely drunk, not injured), the bumbling of a major hospital (which lost her purse and couldn’t identify her), and the behaviour of Sutherland’s companions (who abandoned her). A litany of happenstance compounded the tragedy.

John Nihmey, co-author of Time of Their Lives: The Dionne Tragedy, does a thorough job of laying out the facts, but fails to suggest how Sutherland’s death might lead to changes in police or hospital policy – something the eventual inquest into her death also failed to do. Nevertheless, the book is an engaging read, important in that it documents the final days of someone who was failed by the very systems that were supposed to save her, and whose tragic death could have been forgotten, like so many aboriginal people before her.

The last chapter, in which Nihmey visits Sutherland’s community, is poignant and affecting. His experience there conveys the obvious distrust aboriginal people feel toward Canadians. Fireworks and Folly makes clear the reasons why.