by Kevin Annett
I don’t want your condolences for my brother. I want you to help us stop these killings.
- Frank Thompson at the memorial rally for Johnny Bingo Dawson, January 2010, Vancouver
I would insult the truth of who Billie Combes is if I reduced what has happened to him to a series of words. I have no desire to comfort or explain anything anymore, for none of that stopped his murder.
When I received the horrible but not unexpected news of his death, I responded by shutting the door and sobbing for a long time, as an outrage kindled in me that will never go out.
Eulogies are possible only for strangers, and Billie was not just another dead Indian. For I came to know and love him as we struggled from the same lonely place to do the necessary impossibility. William Combes was one of the very, very few survivors of our home grown genocide who spoke out, clearly and persistently, about the crimes: and who never let his own fear or threats from others still his voice or his actions.
Many kind words have been sent to me since he died, but it isn’t words that we need. What is required from all the consolers is the kind of raw courage that Billie showed the day he joined fifty of us as we occupied Holy Rosary Cathedral during a Sunday mass, despite his crippling memories of being stretched and tortured on a rack by Brother Murphy at the Kamloops Indian residential school.
It’s precisely such bravery that is lacking in our ranks these days, and each new killing seems to wilt our numbers and our resolve even more, as it is meant to.
I understand better than most people the despair that descends when we face immovable injustice, and authorities. So did Billie. But something that he and I share is a capacity to respond to our own hopeless predicament and lost cause by doing something more than simply despair.
Billie saw that quality in the group of us the day we first met some five years ago, outside Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Vancouver, as mounted cops tried scaring us away from the scurrying church goers and scowling priests. Billie was a small and unlikely warrior, but he beamed with encouragement as he came to me and said,
“I saw some kids get killed and buried up at the Kamloops school.”
Later, as we got to know each other, Billie said that it was only when he saw our protest about the murdered residential school children that he found the nerve to finally speak about what he knew, and suffered.
He and I taught each other the ultimate supremacy of a single act. When it comes to crimes of state and church, only acts matter, for the official discourse and language is held captive to these powers.
“Talk is just shit” Bingo Dawson said to a reporter, at the last church protest he attended before he was beaten to death by three Vancouver cops.
“All these churches care about is losing face and their money. They’re scared their shit will all come out and they’ll do the time for the crime. That’s why I’m here with this sign and I’ll stay here until they do the time.”
The reporter never quoted Bingo, naturally. But it didn’t matter to him, or to Billie, for being there that day, in the face of their rapists and torturers, was enough: for that was their victory.
Something of the dead passes into the souls of those who have known them, my Gaelic people teach, for in the best among us we see our actual nature as people born without fear or shame: and we are meant to carry these fallen ones on with us. That is the final gift of our warriors to us, and we denigrate the offering and their sacrifice by not continuing all that they fought for and embodied.
And so this April 15, on the seventh anniversary of our inaugural Aboriginal Holocaust Memorial Day, we will be carrying a simple sign outside many church and government offices around the world, declaring,
“Who Killed Bingo Dawson, William Combes, and thousands of others?”
Join us on that day, and share our outrage and purpose. Bingo and Billie will be standing beside you, and me.