Attawapiskat

Suicide attempts by young people highlight the problems faced by indigenous communities not only in Canada’s north but across the country. Sadly, suicide is the leading cause of death for Native peoples under the age of 44, the rate for young men is 10 times higher than that of the rest of the population, while the rate for Native women is 21 times higher than the national average. 

On April 10, 2016, the Cree community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario declared a state of emergency because 11 teens had tried to commit suicide over the weekend. Since last autumn there have been more than 100 suicide attempts in this small community of 2,000. Attawapiskat is not the only community to experience these problems another Cree community the Pimicikamak in Northern Manitoba also called for assistance in March of this year.

Suicide attempts by young people highlight the problems faced by indigenous communities not only in Canada’s north but across the country. Sadly, suicide is the leading cause of death for Native peoples under the age of 44, the rate for young men is 10 times higher than that of the rest of the population, while the rate for Native women is 21 times higher than the national average. 

Statistics like this are appalling. Combined with standards of living that are akin to third-world conditions, we should all feel ashamed to live in a country that allows this to continue. First Nation communities face physical isolation, substandard housing, dirty water and poor sewage and higher prices for food and much needed resources. Canada’s history with First Nation peoples is awash with the problems of racism and colonialism and how we continue to address issues of poverty. Leaders from First Nation communities argue that the suicides among their young are tied to a history of trauma that has crossed generations. The Truth and Reconciliation commission which heard the traumatic stories inflicted by the residential schools, which sought to “kill the Indian in the child,” are only one part of a larger cultural program which wanted to assimilate through incorporation.

We need to address the problems of 150 years of colonialism to stem the loss of life. In the short term First Nation communities need resources to help them address the problems of isolation, hopelessness, loss and pain. This means money and access to appropriate healthcare. If the Federal government can pony up $15 billion dollars in aid for Afghanistan than surely we can do the same for First Nation peoples. Federal and provincial governments need to bring in crisis teams to work with the communities to help them address the immediate problems. In the long term we need to address the history of Canada’s colonial relationship with First Nation peoples.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a planned inquiry into missing Native women are beginnings but they cannot be the end. In response to the problems of Attawapiskat, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stated that the Liberals wanted to “complete the unfinished business of Confederation” replacing the Indian Act, the chief product of Canadian colonialism with a new approach to First Nation peoples. According to Wilson-Raybould, the solution lies in section 35 of the Constitution which guarantees the rights to First Nations. Instead of mandating how First Nation peoples need to live, including living on or off reserves and who deserves status, section 35 returns to the idea that First Nation peoples negotiated with the Crown as sovereign groups. Allowing section 35 to dictate the relationship between the federal government and First Nation peoples would begin the process of healing the wounds inflicted by colonialism.

We also need to give First Nation communities access to clean water, clean power, healthy food, good healthcare and alternative forms of justice. Everything must be developed with First Nations communities at the table in order to address past issues of paternalism and colonialism. At the same time First Nation communities must reap the rewards of their environment and the resources in their communities. It is appalling that the diamond company De Beer’s which has a mine close to the community of Attawapiskat gives them $ 2 million dollars in royalties while the federal government receives over $ 40 million dollars in taxes.

Imagine what First Nation communities could do if they actually controlled the rights for the lands they occupied. At the same time we need to make sure that First Nation peoples are recognized for their roles in the history of Canada. We need to question our role as a colonial power and ask ourselves about how we created an environment where young people see no alternative but suicide. While we need to look back to redress the problems of the past, most importantly we need to look forward for a new relationship between Canada and First Nation peoples that fosters hope rather than hopelessness.