If you are someone who has lived in Canada most of your life, or lived in Canada for the last two decades, I am curious to know when was the first time you heard of Attawapiskat? For those who might have never been to Canada or arrived here more recently, have you heard of a place called Attawapiskat?
I ask because I remember the first time I heard about Attawapiskat. I have lived in Canada all of my life, but it wasn’t until I was taking a coure on Aboriginal Education in University that I heard of the first nation community in Northern Ontario about 1,800 people called Attawapiskat. It was during a group presentation, they showed a short 10 minute youtube video about a community fighting for a new school for their young people. The video began with pictures of children from Attawapiskat whose elementary school had been contaminated since the 70s by a diesel tank spill. In 2000 parents, frustrated by the lack of government action, pulled their children from the school which was a toxic environment and causing many health problems. So began what would become a 14 year long fight to convince the government of Canada to build the community a new school. The video I was shown was not new, it had been on the web for months, but I had never heard of Attawapiskat or their fight for something as simple as an elementary school for their children. The video was really inspiring in terms of seeing a community coming together for a cause as just and important as education. It was also infuriating because of the government of Canada’s attempts to shift the blame onto the shoulders of the community and justify the
government’s continued inaction.
Attawapiskat in the news
But the reason I ask if you have heard of Attawapiskat, is that in the last 10 years, this mall community of around 1,800 people has made the national news for declaring 5 different states of emergency: the water crisis, the sewage crisis, the housing crisis, the flooding crisis, and now, most recently, the youth suicide crisis. Yet with all of this attention, many people in Canada have still never heard of Attawapiskat. While the government of Canada condemns other countries for ‘human rights’ violations,, and we hear about it in the news frequently, many people in Canada remain unaware of the violations of human rights taking place in our own backyard, here in Canada.
This April, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day was featured on CBC news. The host began the interview by asking the chief, “This is a problem across this country, but Attawapiskat really made headlines about a week ago because it declared a state on emergency after 11 people attempted to take their own lives in one night. Twenty-eight people tried in the whole month of March, what do you make of that?”
Chief Isadore Day responded, “Well this is clearly the boiling up of colonialism like never before. What we are dealing with here are two main root causes. One is the Indian residential schools and multi-generational issues, and the
other is the Indian Act.” On April 27, 2016 Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with young aboriginal people in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and took their questions. He had a different perspective on the problems and the solutions.
According to a CBC article on the visit a young woman asked, “How do you, Justin, with all your politicians and representatives plan to right the wrongs of the past 22 elected prime ministers?” Interestingly Trudeau responded with comments such as, “What we have to start doing is recognizing, first and foremost, that the federal government can’t fix this,” and “Yes, the federal government has a lot of work to do but Indigenous Canadians have a lot of work to do as well, and doing it together in the same direction is going to be how we get through it.” According to the CBC article “Trudeau said that actions taken
by successive Canadian governments went “horribly wrong in its consequences,” despite some “very well meaning” intentions.”
This is a departure from the campaigning Justin Trudeau who has said he wanted a “transformational change” in the way the government of Canada works with Aboriginal people and promised to work with Indigenous people on a “nation-to-nation” basis. Now he is telling Indigenous people that “Indigenous
Canadians have a lot of work to do as well” What does that mean? Have they just been sitting on their hands this whole time? Have they been out to lunch while their communities slowly fall apart? These remarks might be more condescending to Indigenous people than the politicians that believed that all Indigenous people were “wards of the state”. Indigenous people have been petitioning, letter writing, protesting, and moving and shaking their communities for their rights since the days of the Europeans’ first arrival, to Tecumseh, Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Chief Poundmaker), Mistahi-maskwa (Chief Big Bear) and Louis Riel. Why does Trudeau say “Indigenous Canadians have a lot of work
to do as well”? Because of the many challenges that have arisen because of the government of Canada’s unjust and criminal policies? Or is Ontario Regional Chief Isadore more correct when he boiled down the surface problems to the roots: the Indian Residential schools and the Indian Act? What were some of the “very well meaning” decisions the government of Canada has made in terms of its policy with Indigenous people? The Residential schools which were designed to “kill the Indian in the child”? Or the Indian Act which made status Indians wards of the state?
We don’t actually have to go decades back into history to find rampant inequality and racial bias by the government of Canada against Indigenous people. In fact this week on April 26, 2016 the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal demanded the Trudeau government’s immediate action on the panel’s landmark child welfare ruling. In January 2016, the tribunal ruled that the government discriminated against First Nations children on racial grounds in its failure to provide the same level of welfare services on reserve, that exist in Canada for other communities. According to a Canadian Press article, “In the scathing order released Tuesday, the ribunal gave the Indigenous Affairs Department two weeks to confirm it
has implemented Jordan’s Principle — a policy designed to ensure First
Nations children can access services without getting caught in red tape.” So maybe Mr. Trudeau should work on fixing the government’s unjust and unequal policies before telling Indigenous people that they need to do their share. If equality doesn’t even exist on paper in Canada’s laws and budgets, how will it ever exist in reality?
Looking for Hope & Solutions
In an article for McLean’s magazine author Joseph Boyden wrote a moving piece dedicated to his friends and loved-ones in Attawapiskat during this current suicide crisis. He took the opportunity to ask many questions and also share his perspective, “So why the insanely high suicide rates among our Indigenous youth, especially in northern communities? Why are our Indigenous women four times more likely than any other female population in this country to be murdered? Why such high addiction and physical and mental health issues in so many of our communities? Is it because our Indigenous peoples are somehow
lesser? Somehow not well enough equipped for contemporary life? Are our Indigenous people somehow less smart, less motivated, less well-equipped genetically or socially? Do we really need to move south to cities from our remote communities? Of course not. Intergenerational trauma is real and alive in
communities deeply affected by residential schools. You can’t attempt cultural genocide for 140 years, for seven generations—the last of these schools closing their doors in1996—and not expect some very real fallout from that. Attawapiskat is a brutal example.” This is an important statement because it reminds everyone that Residential Schools are not an old issue of past generations. This is not something people can just “get over”. This is an ongoing and building crisis that the government of Canada and non-Indigenous people in Canada have been avoiding in a real way. Not only that, but why do non-Indigenous people have unreasonable and unnatural expectations for Indigenous people, without ever trying to understand the core issues?
For example, one of the first things you hear from non-native people is, ‘if things are so bad they should just leave the reserve’. However, a February 2014 article from the Globe and Mail newspaper titled, “Attawapiskat: Four things to help understand the suicide crisis” explains the problem with urban resettlement
schemes, explaining, “Indigenous suicide problems do not disappear in cities, however. A Statistics Canada report released in January found that more than one in five off-reserve First Nations, Métis and Inuit adults reported having suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives. Problems with suicide on reserve
can be more acute, though, due to challenges of distance and availability of mental-health services. Charlie Angus, the MP for the Attawapiskat area and NDP indigenous affairs critic, said northern communities aren’t given the resources to deal with complicated grief. “When a young person tries to commit
suicide in any suburban school, they send in the resources, they send in the emergency team. There’s a standard protocol for response. The northern communities are left on their own,” he said. “We don’t have the mental health service dollars. We don’t have the resources.”” So again I ask Mr. Trudeau
what exactly are you saying when you make statements like, “Indigenous Canadians have a lot of work to do as well”?
In the same CBC interview with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, the host also interviewed CAMH psychiatrist Cornelia Wieman. She was asked about some ways to address the current epidemic of suicides in Indigenous communities, like Attawapiskat. She explains, “There has already been a lot of
work done in this field. The recommendations around First Nations suicide have been laid out in multiple reports. But the major areas are: increasing what we know about First Nations’ suicide, so that’s research and knowledge; but also includes sharing knowledge of what is going well in some communities with the
communities that are in distress. The other ones are developing holistic mental health services, supporting community development initiatives, and most
importantly I think, fostering a strong sense of identity as an Indigenous young person in contemporary times.” The reports are written and the findings
are in. Canada needs to invest more money for health services for Aboriginal communities onand off reserve. Canada needs to invest in properly trained and
culturally understanding medical professionals who are willing to work in a challenging and stressful environment. Doesn’t seem like rocket science does it?
Government of Canada is the problem, the people are the solution
Trudeau has promised to work with Indigenous people in Canada on a nation-to-nation” basis in a spirit of “respect, openness and collaboration.” What does this mean? That the government of Canada will treat First Nations as sovereign entities, and no longer as the children or “wards” of the government of
Canada. But that seems like a bare minimum, not really ‘transformational’. What about the fact that they have not respected the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling to provide equal funding for aboriginal youth living on reserves, doesn’t equal funding for programs for all children in Canada no matter their race or place of birth seem like a bare minimum, not a ‘transformational’ change? It
seems the Trudeau government is headed for more of the same broken promises and same path of asking Indigenous people to do more for themselves, while not only continuing to treat Indigenous people as lesser than non-Indigenous people in Canada, but refusing the recognize their special status as the first peoples of this territory.
Now you know about Attawapiskat. Now you know about some of the deep rooted causes of these problems and the role the government has played until now and continues to play. In some ways Mr. Trudeau is right, “the federal government can’t fix this”, that is why the crisis has only gotten deeper over the years. It is only when Indigenous people have control over their own lands, resources
and communities that they will be able to overcome this quagmire created by the
government’s racist and unjust policies. Now is the time for the people of Canada, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to stand together and demand the government respect the Indigenous people of this land and their right to self-determination.
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