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First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders after meeting Justin Trudeau earlier this year: The prime minister has said that “reconciliation is not an Aboriginal issue; it is a Canadian issue” (©Don MacKinnon/AFP/Getty Images)

The Keewaywin community carried the lifeless body of a ten-year-old boy into Cathy Wright’s small clinic early one evening in April.  The boy had hanged himself, the first suicide in that community, but an all-too-common occurrence across Canada’s First Nations. Despite working as a nurse in north-west Ontario among the First Nation and Inuit people for 16 years during her 38-year career, Wright had never experienced anything like this. The tragic nature of the boy’s death galvanised the horrified Cree community, and everyone came together to support the family. Neighbouring communities sent crisis teams. Wright said that when they brought in the boy’s body, it seemed that the entire community was there to bid him farewell.

Across the First Nation communities, the authorities are on suicide alert. That same month, in the nearby Attawapiskat First Nation, the federal government declared a state of emergency after 11 teenagers attempted suicide. In the previous month, there had been 28 attempts: almost one a day.

This spate of attempted suicides has reignited the festering debate about the problems stalking the First Nations and Canada, the crux of which is whether it is time to call time on the Native lands. This is as contentious an issue as you can find — akin, said Dr Matyas Hervieux, to asking everyone in Greece to leave because there are no jobs.

People who live and work on First Nation lands emphasise the very many positive aspects of life there, especially in the face of enormous hardships. “These people are resilient, kind, warm, and caring,” says Hervieux, who has had ten years of experience working with First-Nation people in urban and northern-reserve settings. In north-western Ontario, many communities don’t have drinkable water.  In some areas the water is so bad it can’t even be used for showers. There is also an enormous housing crisis with acute overcrowding: as many as 15 people live in one room. Many First Nation people experience racism, and there has been an epidemic over the past two decades of women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered. Corruption, lack of transparency, child abuse, violence, drug and alcohol dependency, unemployment, isolation and lack of purpose are also significant problems, as is the haunting legacy of residential schools.

Residential schooling began in the 19th century. Funded by Canada’s federal government and administered by Christian churches, they took aboriginal children away from their parents to educate and “civilise” them in substandard conditions. A majority suffered sexual, mental and physical abuse. More than 3,200 children died in the care of the schools and the toll may be much higher. The last one closed in 1996.

While it is a polarising debate in Canada, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t blame the victim. But how do you find a solution? For Jonathan Kay, one of Canada’s most prominent (right-wing) political commentators and editor of the Walrus, a sort of Canadian New Yorker, “There is little hope for places like Attawapiskat, and the solution for this isolated community, and others like it, is to move south.”

At the heart of Canada’s official policy toward the First Nations, believes Kay, “sits a great institutionalised lie that we can put in place some bright, shiny plan of action that will transform all our Attawapiskats into healthy, vibrant productive communities”. Last month, Jean Chretien, Canada’s former prime minister, said to great opprobrium: “There is no economic base there for having jobs and so on, and sometimes they have to move, like anybody else.”

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Jim Whyte
May 17th, 2017
2:05 AM
I read this article a couple of days after seeing a local FN gentleman in our grocery store selling T-shirts with a picture of armed Lakotas, circa 1870, and the caption, "Homeland Security -- Fighting Terrorists Since 1492". I have heard that kind of talk about my people more than once from a kind, warm, caring First Nations person. You note correctly that they experience racism. Some help others to experience it. I think it may be premature to talk about "reigniting" a "festering debate" simply because Jonathan Kay (whom I sometimes admire, but would have a hard time characterizing as "right wing") fires off a half-loaded rocket that everybody needs to move south. That's really not in the mainstream of the debate about First Nations at all - the larger questions are how to lift the troubled communities out of despair, and how to make it possible for all FN communities to function at the level of bands like Sumas, Osoyoos, or Wahnapitae. What kind of jurisdiction should they have - and where - over economic development in the rest of Canada, what are the right ways to share the wealth, what kind of band government will really work (because in so many communities, it doesn't) and - the eternal question - how much public money? Suicide, like addiction, violence, and (not coincidentally) vanished Aboriginal women, is tragic. But it's also complex, and apparently a little too complex for Matyas Hervieux, despite his ability to see into the minds of despairing human beings. What he should see - and doesn't - is that if leaving is an easy solution, some people will be right to take it. I know several who have built good lives off-reserve. If Mr. Hervieux wants to deliver Delphic orders to the rest of Canada about what we must do, decry our "attitude of imperialism" (wow, just wow) and present no evidence or logic for his proposition, that's up to him. But quoting him, without rebuttal, was up to you. That's half a story, not a whole one. Should I watch for Part II with a counterpoint? Last of all, talking of Susan Bardy "moving south" from Tyendinaga, there ain't a lot of "south" left once you're on the Bay of Quinte; and having got myself lost in the bush just northwest of Keewaywin (damned iron formations) I can tell you it's a very, very long way from Attawapiskat. I feel certain you have access to a map, which you should look at, possibly before rather than after filing a story.

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