The Canada brand has been trending everywhere since the election of a Liberal government led by photogenic Justin Trudeau on Oct 19, 2015. This resurgence has featured Trudeau’s ‘bromance’ with US President Barack Obama and the prime minister’s declaration to the Paris climate summit in November that, “Canada is back” to assume its historical role as a nation that punches above its weight in engaging in global issues.
Those of us living in Canada were exposed to — and many enchanted by — the positive Liberal credo even sooner, thanks to Trudeau’s upbeat electioneering: “Sunny ways my friends, sunny ways.” So how to explain the dark clouds weighing down the nation at the news that 11 young people in the northern community of Attawapiskat tried to kill themselves on one night earlier this month?
Actually, life here has never been as clear and bright as Trudeau’s election victory seemed to promise — at least not for indigenous people (who are made up of three groups: First Nations, Inuit and Métis). Huge chunks of their populations were wiped out by smallpox after first contact with European settlers; those who survived were forced to send their children to residential schools, which played a key, dark role in the government’s plan to assimilate indigenous peoples.
Many First Nations signed treaties with government officials, and have been fighting ever since to see those promises honoured. Decades ago, international observers labelled living conditions in some remote communities as ‘Third World’; in 2014 a United Nations report found: “The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the past several years; treaty and aboriginal claims remain persistently unresolved; indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse…”
Shockingly high suicide rates among Canada’s young indigenous people have been a public issue at least since 1993, when video of children in remote David Inlet sniffing gas and shouting that they wanted to die were broadcast in Canada. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, in the last decade the northern Ontario community of Pikangikum was said to have the highest suicide rate in the world.
And now, there’s Attawapiskat. The community, 800 km east of Pikangikum, near James Bay, has made the news for the wrong reasons numerous times in recent years, including for deplorable, and dangerous, housing conditions. Ironically, 90 kilometres from Attawapiskat is a diamond mine operated by international mining giant De Beers. It is acknowledged to be on the First Nation’s traditional territory, but royalties paid go to the Province of Ontario.
On April 9, Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh declared another state of emergency, this time to sound the alarm about the recent suicide attempts: 11 on that day alone, 10 of them young people. On April 15, five other young people in the community of about 2,000 people tried to kill themselves, reported media.
Trudeau’s government has responded, as did the government of Ontario. At least 18 additional mental health worker have been airlifted into the community, and other youth taken away for treatment, according to reports. The community’s only full-time mental health worker is scheduled to take up residence today.
Media coverage of the ‘indigenous suicide issue’ has been widespread in recent weeks but it could disappear again in the relentless cycle of news, despite a pledge Trudeau made in December, when accepting the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools: “We know what is needed is a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. We have a plan to move towards a nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition, rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.”
I fear that the issue will recede again, until Canadians’ attitudes change. This is not merely a health issue or a political one: it’s a much larger cultural question. It’s about the dominant culture of those who settled here in recent centuries accepting that indigenous Canadians have different ways of living than they do; that those ways are rich and unique, and deserve the same respect, protection and investment as so-called mainstream Canada.