Written by Jonathan Stewart
He is a familiar face around the Mount Royal University, but there is more behind the easy-going demeanour of the Student’s Association of MRU’s Native Student Centre’s Cory Cardinal.
A life of experiences ranging from ranching and riding bulls to gangs fights in downtown Calgary, to finding his own place at the University, gives Cory a unique perspective while working to encourage young Aboriginal youth in their pursuits of a post-secondary education.
The sun is belting down on a hot summer day in High Level, Alberta, as a then 19-year-old Cory Cardinal waits for his name to be called at the IRCA’s (Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association) summer Rodeo. The bull that he is riding in the competition has been separated from the rest and put into his own pen. Apparently, the animal keeps killing other bulls he is caged with. The announcer’s voice crackles over the megaphone notifying the excited crowd that the next bull to ride – Hurricane – has killed his last rider the previous weekend. Cory sweats as he realises he is next up to ride the beast.
Bull-riding is nothing new to Cory Cardinal who grew up in Tsuu Tina Nations Reserve in southwest Calgary with its long history of ranching culture. Cardinal has been able to conquer many beasts in his life and Hurricane is not going to be anything he can’t face. He’s sustained his fill of injuries – in the ring and out – and made it this far in life without showing too much worse for wear.
“At the time it was one of those things that it was all I wanted to be and do (bull riding),” says Cardinal. “I hadn’t thought so much about the future other than that.”
Little did Cardinal know that today, Hurricane would end his successful bull-riding career and alter his life forever in ways that would drastically change his direction. It would put him on a new path of helping young aboriginal men and women – like himself – in accomplishing their goals whether in school or in the outside world.
Cardinal was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1972, to Willard and Ethel Cardinal. His father was Plains Cree and his mother was Tsuu Tina. He was the baby of the family, being the fourth child with three older siblings. At one year of age, Cory moved with his mom and dad and older brother, Earl, and older sisters, Tania and Glena to Tsuu Tina to live with his aging and ill grandmother. Growing up in the untouched wilderness of Tsuu Tina gave Cardinal a love of nature and animals. Horses in particular would be a favourite of Cardinals and he still works with them today.
“My father did bareback riding and all his friends and in-laws did rodeo too,” recalls Cardinal, “so I grew up with it around me.”
From about the time Cardinal could walk, he was on a horse.
“We used to have ponies, and as soon as they could get on, they got on,” remembers Willard Cardinal (Cory’s father) of his children’s love of horses.
On summers he would break-in wild horses and then sell them to interested local ranchers and riders when not at rodeos. He would spend days riding through the woodlands of Tsuu Tina on horseback avoiding land mines (never fully cleared from the old Canadian forces base that once operated on a large chunk of the reserve), as well as wild bears and cougars. Cardinal attended elementary through high school at schools not on but close by the reserve, where programs directed to the large Aboriginal population offered Native crafts, culture and history classes.
While on a wild horse race with his cousin at a junior rodeo, Cardinal first got on the back of a steer at the age of 10.
“He never got on a steer before,” recalls Willard Cardinal. “So I told him, when you get back I don’t want you crying if you get stepped on. He did okay, but he got stepped on when he was getting off, and he’s looking at me like he was ready to cry, and you could see the tear, but he wouldn’t let it go.”
The first time Cory Cardinal got on a bull he was 13-years-old. He was steer-riding and at a junior rodeo event where he got the opportunity to ride a bull named Jazz, when there happened to be more bulls than riders. He was able to ride the full eight seconds but was quickly thrown off and winded, which resulted his a few minor stitches. He didn’t ride a bull again until he was 15, when he started to focus on bull-riding more seriously.
At the height of his career as a semi-pro bull-rider Cardinal was making about 10,000 dollars a season on winnings and endorsements. Some of the top riders were pulling in about $30,000. A season typically runs for a year with the nationals in November. With the gaining popularity of the sport, currently an average bull-rider is making about $100,000 a year with some of the top riders even making a six-figure salary.
“One time when we were young, I saw him bull ride and I almost lost my cookies,” recalls Naomi Saulteaux EagleSpeaker who met Cardinal over 20 years ago when they were both in high school.
“Cory was in the shoots, getting his rig ready, and the bull would not cooperate. It kept jumping up in the shoot and almost crushing Cory's legs. He would have to get off the bull and get back on. I was sitting in the stands with his Mom and sisters, and we were all almost screaming and fainting. After his ride, he made jokes about the bull and laughed the situation off. It was quite the ordeal, and made all our hearts race.”
When Cardinal turned 16, however, bull-riding and the wild carnivores in the forests of Tsuu Tina weren’t exciting enough and with a less-than-desirable income from odd ranch jobs and horse breaking, he turned his attention on quicker and easier ways to make money.
"It was me trying to look at creating a little army... like militant people, I thought I could do something, and on the weekends I would hang out with these guys that were like that and they all sold drugs and weed and hash to people, and I was always broke, so I ended up selling too,” Cardinal explains his entrance into gang life. “They were getting harassed by other little gangs on the street, and every now and then some Indians would get beat up over here and over there so instead of getting picked on in little groups everyone got together and made one big group called the ‘Scalps’.”
The Scalps centered most of their activity on 7th Ave southwest downtown, where after school kids from the suburbs would come downtown in pursuit of weed, hash, or harder drugs. The group even created a 20-page manifesto which Cardinal wrote himself. A code of ethics for the gang, members would be loosely governed by its rules and at meetings a copy of the manifesto would always be present.
“A long time ago there was money for each Indian scalp. So you were a walking scalp – just money to somebody,” states Cardinal, “and what they do is every now and then somebody would get the crap beat out of them by a Scalp, so the boys would cut a chunk of their hair off and put it onto their jacket. You would see Indians walking around with little scalps hanging off of their jackets.”
The biker gangs: the Grim Reapers and King’s Crew controlled all the narcotics distribution in the city, especially in the downtown, and all the smaller gangs had to go through them to buy large quantities of marijuana and hash. Cocaine was still in its infancy in Calgary at the time and mostly only purchased by the upper class or biker population. The majority of the time, the Scalps were able to operate in a manner that avoided large scale violence, because they were organized, they could keep under the radar of the local authorities. For instance, the higher the rank of a member the less chance of that member getting caught with possession of an illegal substance. Look-outs would be positioned all over the downtown core, and these informers would call up the drug dealers and tell them when and where the police were headed. The low ranking, new members or hangers-on to the gang would serve as a donkey (a drug carrier), and if anyone would be caught, it would be them.
That all changed on a summer night in 1989. On 7th Ave, five or six Aboriginal youth were assaulted by a group of Red Dragons (an Asian gang which has since disbanded), and as soon as the news gets out, 20 Scalps run out to confront the then smaller group of Dragons. As the Dragons run to their vehicles for a quick get-a-way the Scalps take revenge by smashing out all the windows of their cars.
A then 16-year-old Cory Cardinal was sitting at O’Brien’s Pub on 7th Ave when he hears the news. Everyone knows what is going to happen next. The Dragons will be back, and in greater numbers. Frantically, the Scalps and those siding with them, called everyone they know to get downtown for the inevitable brawl. “Everyone in that pub was up to something shady,” remembers Cardinal. “Everybody phoned and got as many guys as they could, until there were about a hundred of us.”
Within a few hours, the Dragons also had their reinforcements (now roughly 200)which came like a horde from a parking lot across the street, as well as filing out of their hang-out, the nearby two-story pool hall down the street from O’Brien’s.
Looking like something out of Gangs of New York, a flood of Asian guys pour out of the pool hall, yielding knives, bats, brass knuckles and pool cues. The Scalps now flow out, all armed to the teeth with anything that would constitute as a weapon.
The bikers want nothing to do with it; after repeated requests from the Scalps they refuse to get involved as they stay seated – beers in hand – inside O’Brien’s, content to watch the carnage unfold from their front row seats of 7th Ave.
It’s around midnight and the two groups are now rushing on foot within a block of one another.
“There were just droves of them with their pool cues, and then they had their five or six giant black thug guys that you know they hired, because you know those guys don’t hang out together,” supposed Cardinal.
The two gangs clash right in front of O’Brien’s bar and the Dragons quickly surround the Scalps which they have now doubled in size. Cardinal stands back-to-back with a trusted ally as he fights off attacks with a small knife he is holding. Cardinal is struck a few times with a pool cue but is able to avoid any serious injury. The brutality carries on for a few dramatic minutes but ceases only when law enforcement arrives.
“There were just bodies laying everywhere, Asian guys, and pool cues, everything lying all over the ground. The trains and buses couldn’t go and the police had to block off the whole street. I counted about 5 or 6 ambulances I think. I know people got stabbed but not like ‘dead stabbed.’ People probably went home and sowed themselves up,” Cardinal remembers.
When the police finally make it to the scene of the mayhem, most of the participants flee the scene leaving four Scalps out cold lying on the street. There is so much debris on 7th Ave that the C-Train cannot even pass until police and emergency crews managed to clean it up.
“I don’t know if anybody won but, everybody got beat up good,” Cardinal chuckles as he remembers the pure insanity of the whole incident.
After that a lot of the gang disbanded when the police started to focus more on gang activity in the city. Many of the old members went on to join other gangs in different cities, such as Winnipeg, Edmonton or Vancouver, some made their way to the Hell’s Angels and others ended up in jail or dead – murdered, overdosed on drugs or committed suicide. Others became social workers, teachers or even artists. “I found a list while cleaning up piles of old paperwork of 47 names that used to belong to that organization,” Cardinal declares.
In 1990, Cardinal realized gang life wasn’t going anywhere, so he enrolled at Mount Royal College in a Poly Sci/Sociology University transfer. At MRC, Cardinal and EagleSpeaker were a part of Four Directions Lodge (now the Native Students Centre at Student’s Association at Mount Royal University) and planned and hosted events that engaged and supported Aboriginal people with many things including; political issues, cultural activities, as well as Native Awareness Month/Week.
Cardinal was still riding in the summers and now had sponsors and was riding bulls semi-pro. It was the summer of 1991, at the IRCA rodeo in High Level, Alberta, when Cardinal faced Hurricane.
“When I went over to his pen, he was off by himself,” remembers Cardinal, “he kept killing other bulls.”
At first glance the bull seemed calm, but by now Cardinal was one of the top ranked riders at the competition; so if anyone could handle Hurricane, it was him. After the announcer calls Cardinal’s name, he jumps into the pen and mounts the bull. The pen doors swing open and the bell rings, propelling Cardinal and Hurricane both out into the ring.
“At first, the ride was smooth and I was able to stay on top,” says Cardinal, “but I got too cocky and I was spurring too much, and lost control.”
As the beast jumps and kicks his back legs into the air, Cardinal got thrown off the brute and unto the floor of the stadium and beneath Hurricane’s sharp hooves. He is now at the mercy of a nearly 1,000- pound animal that seems hell-bent on extracting revenge on Cardinal. He gets trampled by the bull’s heavy feet as he is knocked unconscious and kicked around the floor of the ring. As he is booted repeatedly by Hurricane, Cardinal’s ribs on his left side are cracked and the skin is torn off his flesh.
In what seems like hours, the vicious assault is over and rodeo cowboys are able to get to Cardinal and put Hurricane back in his pen. The only problem is the medical crew that were assigned to work at the rodeo event have just taken the last injured rider to the hospital and there is no other ambulance crew present to attend to him.
“There was a lady that was a trained nurse there and she came to check me out,” Cardinal remembers of the violent event. “She laid me out and kept poking my ribs, and each time she touched one I would pass out.”
When Cardinal got to the nearest hospital all they could do was stitch up his open wounds and give him an assortment of painkillers. His father put him in the back of his truck and him drove the six hours south back to Calgary. Cardinal didn’t like the idea of being given highly addictive pain killers so he bought a quart of whiskey to ease his suffering. Lying on his back on a makeshift bed and covered in blankets in the back of the truck, he would drink until he passed out, and when he would regain consciousness he would drink himself back to unconsciousness again. He made it back to Tsuu Tina that night and recovered after weeks at his mother’s horse ranch.
Cardinal didn’t take long to get back to the ring; even if he wasn’t fully recovered he wouldn’t let his injuries stop him from doing what he loved. Once he even painted an arm cast the color of his skin and hid it under his shirt to enable him to enter a bull-riding completion.
But after Hurricane, everything changed. When he went to events he started to suffer from extreme bouts of anxiety before his rides and could not longer stay on the bull. He couldn’t fight the urge to jump off and couldn’t stay on to compete with other riders. After losing the support of his sponsors, Cardinal could no longer afford to compete in province and nation-wide competitions. For a long time, even watching bull-riding events would provoke a panic-attack from Cardinal.
“I knew it was my time to retire,” says Cardinal. “It tells you by how it treats you and my body was busted up, I couldn’t stay on and make money and that’s when you know.”
It was a huge loss for Cardinal who had put so much time and effort into his career as a bull-rider. He had to turn his back on bull-riding and affected everything around him. He continued living in Tsuu Tina at his mother’s ranch breaking horses, and still rode but his focus was no longer on bull-riding. He had completed two years at Mount Royal College and was applying to further his study at University of Alberta when things started to fall apart.
“The big change in my life came after a few years in college when I was disillusioned with academia and the future as an Aboriginal man,” recalls Cardinal. “I wanted to be a bureaucrat but I didn’t see it going anywhere, the whole (idea of) buying into the system. So I never really finished my degree.” He quickly gave up his plans to study at U of A, and got a job in construction. It was around this time that Cardinal met Michelle Thrush.
“When I was 25, that’s when I realized school was going to shit and my applications to U of A got all messed up, after I toured the U of A campus and thought about moving up there and even looked at places and then I met Michelle at an Indian night at a bar named The Highlander in northwest Calgary. I should have been starting school around then but I ended up living with her.”
“I knew Cory for awhile before we got together but not well,” remembers Thrush. “I knew his sisters and would see him around. We actually got to know each other when we starting dating in 98. He brought me out to meet his horses and I just never really left. When we first started hanging out it was his humour that I fell in love with.”
The two hit it off immediately and had two girls together; Imajyn who is now 10, and Indica who is 7.
“He is one of the funniest guys I have ever met,” claims Thrush. “We went through a lot together and did a lot of growing up with each other. Both our girls simply adore him. He is a loving funny and playful daddy. There is no other man I would want to have children with.”
After Cardinal’s second child with Thrush, he decided to go back to school, so he enrolled in an administration program at SAIT. He was still working construction full-time to support his family, but knew he wanted more for his and his family’s future.
“My views on life and all my relations is to want a better future for them so they don’t have to suffer as so many generations have under colonialism,” states Cardinal (now 37). “I want the best chances for my children and where I work allows me to help the future leaders, academics, care givers and people in general that will make things good for my children and their children. Now I believe my health is the most important thing for me. I want to be around for my children and I can’t help anyone if I am weak.”
Cardinal and Thrush are no longer together but they still maintain a close relationship. Thrush lives in Vancouver and with her busy acting career she travels quite a bit so Imajyn and Indica are able to see their father quite regularly.
“Both our girls simply adore him,” chuckles Thrush. “He is a loving, funny and playful daddy. They are little images of him and we often joke that maybe I am not their mother and I should do a maternity test. They really look just like him and his family.”
Around the age of 23, Cardinal found out that he was the father of a young girl that he had six years earlier named Cheyyene.
“I wasn’t really shocked, but I wanted to get to know her better because she was already six,” says Cardinal. “My girlfriend at the time had to get used to the idea that I already had a kid.”
Cheyyen is now 19 and living on Tsuu Tina Reserve, and has plans to attend university in the fall.
After he graduated from the program at SAIT, Cardinal got a job as program coordinator of the Native Centre at Student’s Association of Mount Royal University (then still a college). It is a program he helped to set up almost 10 years earlier when attending the college as a student. In his role at the SAMRU, he is able to really make an impact to those young people in the community that need his guidance and experience to help them on their own path. He holds many events such as film festivals, author meetings, art shows, concerts, fashion shows, and even a sweat lodge in Tsuu Tina which always boasts a high turnout of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants.
“I’ve seen students from the street and I’ve seen students from the country go on from here and we can relate on certain subjects and they can understand that you could go one way or another or you could change paths half way through,” says Cardinal.
Mount Royal has approximately 500 self-identified Aboriginal students. That means they check a box when they register at the school, however many do not self-identify so an exact number is unclear.
“I like to come here to do some work compared to the library, that place gets pretty congested,” says Shay Yellowbird, a second-year marketing student at MRU. “When I come here I always meet somebody else that’s Native that I know, or if I don’t know them, I’ll meet them. Cory’s a pretty good guy, good guy to get along with.”
Since he has been employed at SAMRC (now Mount Royal University) Cardinal has been involved with many separate Aboriginal organizations that combat issues such as employment, housing, post-secondary, tax rights, politics, lands claims just to name a few. Currently he is involved in three associations outside of his duties at MRU; Calgary Urban Aboriginal Initiative Educational Domain and the First Nations, Inuit, Métis Alumni Chapter; both of which he is the acting Chair Person as well as sitting on the Iniskim Centre Advisory Board of Mount Royal University.
“We have an advisory board (which Cory sits on) that is quite extensive, our board includes community members from the neighbouring reserves in the treaty seven area and from different agencies in the city and of course the Iniskim Centre,” says Valerie Sipos. “So Cory comes and represents from the Student Centre of Mount Royal.”
Sipos and Cardinal actually started working at MRU within a couple of months of each other and both quite regularly collaborate on events at the University. For example with the month of March being Native Awareness month, the Iniskim Centre annually hosts a speaker series of lecturers, authors and elders from different groups.
“I think Cory sort of busts the stereotype of ‘us against them’,” states Sipos.
“When I was a young street punk, I realized that wasn’t going anywhere, what I really wanted to do with that was join an army or create a resistance or be involved with something that wasn’t so accepting,” recalls Cardinal.
“But these guys weren’t really changing much. It came down to creating an organization called the Calgary Aboriginal Alliance; a youth activist organization that focused on treaty rights, and educational rights, and that became a social club, just kids hanging out not doing much more than sitting around bitching about the government. So I looked at education. If you look at social movements around the world, that’s where they always happen, on post-secondary campuses. Then I came to school specifically for that, and took a few courses because I wanted to see what they were about.”
“Cory is devoted to his family, to his students, and to his community,” says EagleSpeaker. “He is a true soul and loyal to those he loves. I most admire his humour and ability to support others through whatever they are going through.”
Whether he was wrestling killer bulls at packed rodeos, breaking wild horses in the wilderness of Tsuu Tina, or hanging with fellow Scalps in downtown Calgary, the one thing that never changed was Cory’s love and respect for his community. After you’ve met Cory for the first time, it would be hard to imagine that he had even one enemy. He is a personable and friendly guy that could make anyone feel right at home, as soon as you stepped into his office at Mount Royal University’s Student Association.
“In my position, I have met thousands of students who have their minds open to learn new things,” states Cory. “And it’s this that allows them the chance to supplement their education with more than just books.”