By: Beverly Sabourin and Peter Globensky / Winnipeg Free Press
How much grief and misery mixed into the stew of destitution and poverty can a community endure and still survive?
For Cross Lake, Pikangikum and Attawapiskat First Nations a springtime of renewal has become the season of death. The statistics are soul-numbing: scores of youth in these communities and others across Canada dying by their own hand — lifeless bodies hanging at the end of a rope.
Hundreds more adolescents have attempted suicide, and hundreds more than that have been on a “suicide watch.” In many cases, that is all we have been able to do: watch, while this tragic epidemic of death continues.
In 2011, Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner produced enough data to affirm Pikangikum as the “suicide capital of the world.” In Attawapiskat, in our collective headlights only a few years ago due to a housing and water calamity, young people have created suicide pacts in what has astonishingly become a suicide contagion, a disease caused by a present that has no future. Some elders colonized by their Christianity will not permit these children to be buried in a cemetery. Shunned even in death.
The abbreviated lives of these children of hopelessness have run their short course and play out in communities where the legacy of residential schools and colonialism have fragmented the culture and created a mindset of dependency. Where economic opportunities are non-existent, gainful employment but wishful thinking and operating capacity minimal. Where a child’s education and social development are severely truncated by mouldy schools (if any), absent or crumbling infrastructure, substandard housing, boil-water advisories, pit privies, intermittent electricity and woefully inadequate health and social services and, often, a contaminated environment.
Thanks to sporadic Internet and television, the world out there, and its conspicuous consumption and opulent lifestyles — the chi-chi fashion and food channels, the models bespangled with diamonds from De Beers, multimillion-dollar mansions and fast-and-furious cars — is splayed out and serves to remind these children of their crushing poverty.
Against this disintegrating backdrop are the experiences of the children themselves. Drugs and gas-sniffing become recreational outlets because recreational facilities are non-existent. Boredom is interminable, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of loss when one of their friends chooses what they consider an escape. Children are having babies and many parents, hobbled by their own demons, struggle to provide some semblance of guidance and protection. And we wonder why these children succumb to the alternate, numbing reality induced by drugs, alcohol or ultimately, perpetual darkness.
Following the outrage in Attawapiskat, the Ontario government kicked in $2 million and provided additional health-care workers for a 30-day, Band-Aid period in the hope of stemming the tide of children killing themselves. Ministers and MPs visited. Bureaucrats quickly came and went. They all promised better times and solutions. That should moderate things for a while and get this horrible embarrassment off the front pages. The crisis passes, and the news cycle moves on to the next controversy.
These are quickly becoming intractable problems. For the few of us paying attention, we’ve heard it all before — especially when a crisis of this terrible magnitude occurs. Statements such as: “The government needs to establish a national suicide-prevention strategy” or “We need to improve the lives and prospects of aboriginal Canadians living in Third World conditions in one of the richest countries in the world,” followed by even more bafflegab.
Until the powers that be — the innumerable federal and provincial politicians and bureaucrats, departments and agencies, tribal councils, local health and education authorities and networks, First Nations representative organizations, chiefs and their councils… in short, all those silos that have built few to no connecting bridges — are able to establish a centre of control with decision-making authority to enforce a co-ordinated effort to prioritize and implement the scores of expert recommendations and (finally) effectively address the abject poverty in First Nations, the hand-wringing and impotence will continue.
We know we can do better, we just don’t demand it. Until enough of us do, more children are going to die by the hopelessness of their own hand and Canada will continue to remain a contradiction.
Beverly Sabourin recently retired as the vice-provost of aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University and is a member of the Pic Mobert Ojibwe. Peter Globensky is a former senior policy adviser on aboriginal affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office and recently retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.