Thomas, though he went by Thoma or Duma, Prince volunteered to fight in World War Two for a country that did not allow him to vote. Like the other 4300 people of First Nations descent that enlisted he joined the army, as it was the official policy of the navy and air force to only recruit people ‘of pure European descent and of the white race’, serving as a Gunner in a Canadian Army artillery unit. He did not get to share in the benefits and programs that were offered to non-First Nations veterans. Access to land programs or low interest loans to help start a new career was controlled by the local Indian agent. Nor could he march in the parades or have a beer in the local legion with the other veterans as the Indian Act banned the consumption of alcohol.
The decorated veteran returned home. Married. And had a family. As he had got older, alcohol had progressed from pastime to purpose. On the morning of August 20th in 1977 he started drinking at 10: 30 at Fort Hotel’s beer parlor and kept going until they cut him off at four in the afternoon for being way too drunk and way too broke. Drinking and driving wasn’t going to be an issue as he didn’t own a car. He was too drunk to even walk home so he spent the next six hours sitting on the sidewalk beside the bar before he could stagger off towards home.
He managed the ten minutes it took to the nearby National Historic Park, a preserved monument to the British Columbia’s original liquor dispensary- the Hudson Bay Company outpost – where a passerby on his way home saw Thomas lying on the ground tucked inside the fence. The Samaritan went to alert Park security. Four of the guards met where Thomas lay. Two paired off and pulled him to his feet and started walking him to the adjacent Necoslie Reserve. They made it about ten feet. During a discussion about who was to work the midnight to 8am shift one of the guards let go of Thomas Prince and he fell backwards, striking his head on the hard gravel path.
One of the guards raced back to the Fort Hotel to call for help. It was the police, not an ambulance, that was to respond to a call about an elderly man suffering a blow to his head. The Fort St. James RCMP detachment was empty that night so the call was relayed to the Prince George unit.
At the end of the two-hour drive from Prince George, the RCMP Constable found an obviously drunk Thomas still lying on the ground. Morris noticed a cut on the back of Thomas Prince’s head so he took him directly to the nearest hospital where a nurse diagnosed his injuries as minor, releasing him to the custody of the RCMP who booked Thomas for the offence of “Intoxicated in a Public Place.”
In police stations throughout Canada the morning’s ritual act is the emptying of the drunk tank. The constable who had just come on duty couldn’t wake Thomas so he went next door to get the detachment senior commander who immediately called for an ambulance.
Thomas was transferred to the Prince George hospital. He never regained consciousness. Thomas Prince had died from the lack of medical attention to his injury.
The autopsy found:
— Hairline fracture, 5” to 6” in length, beginning at base of skull and traveling up and over skull.
— blood vessels at front of brain ruptured.
— Massive hemorrhaging of brain.
Despite the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s recommendation that “an Inquest would be in order” the Coroners Office, relying on Royal Canadian Mounted Police reports and a conversation with a pathologist, issued a Report of INQUIRY as to Cause of Death of Thomas PRINCE:
The same senior commander who found Thomas unconscious in the morning was tasked with the investigation. None of the other prisoners in Thomas Prince’s cell were questioned.
The Coroner concluded that:
“This is another unfortunate case of a fairly elderly Native Indian, after becoming intoxicated, falling and striking his head. Investigation, in my opinion, and treatment was adequate under the circumstances. This borne out by pathologist who advised me that any signs or his internal head injury would accentuate intoxication and would be very difficult to diagnose. Death is unnatural and is accidental. In my opinion no blame is to be attached to anyone in connection with this death. Subject is the author of his own death.”
Thus begins, for us, the story of how First Nations people are portrayed as authors of their own misfortune. In 1977 for the Coroners Office and RCMP Thomas Prince, a decorated veteran of World Two, was neither a husband, father nor decorated veteran who volunteered to fight overseas in World War Two. For them he was just another drunk Native. No discussion nor recognition is given to the duty of care owed to those in medical distress.Though the happy husband and father had fallen and struck his head it was the police and not an ambulance sent to deal with his obvious medical distress. And though the RCMP took him to the hospital – after their two hour drive – there was no investigation about how he was treated there.
Ten years after the death of Thomas Prince the health care system in British Columbia was forced to confront how their prejudice and ignorance denied First Nations equal access to health care when Katie Ross died writhing in agony, strapped to a gurney in the hospital from an ignored gunshot wound to her abdomen. Shot in the stomach Katie Ross spent almost four hours dragging herself out the dense brush backcountry of Williams Lake to seek medical attention. Like Thomas Prince it was the RCMP and not an ambulance that was dispatched. In all, Katie spent more than 15 hours in the hospital where several different health professionals had opportunity to assess, diagnose, and treat her injuries. During her ordeal, she spoke to and interacted with health and emergency professionals, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, outpost nurse, and numerous hospital staff.