Four aboriginal boys, two aged 8 and two aged 9, bolted midday from their school, half-clad, mid-winter, to make the 12 mile trek to their families in Nautley Reserve. When they were found the next day in the slush-ice on Lake Fraser less than a mile from home—arms wrapped around one another in a frozen embrace—few could have guessed the circumstances.
When, 80 years later, the community of Attawapiskat (population 2000) declared a state of emergency on 9 April 2016, reporting 11 attempted suicides in one day (and 100 attempts over the winter), Canadians may have been shocked, yet few would have been surprised. Several pieces of evidence including audio and video clips explain why.
Both events trace back to the federal government’s paradoxical policies of marginalization and assimilation. The most pernicious of the marginalization policies was the forcible removal of aboriginals from their homeland. Recent award winning research details the clearing of the Canadian Plains—one of many land grabs designed to make way for white Europeans through the deliberate starvation and pacification of aboriginals.
The most pernicious of the assimilation policies was the Indian Residential Schools (IRS), a program (1880-1996) that led to the forcible removal of 150 000 children from their families for 10 months of each school year. Its explicit aim was “to kill the Indian in the child.” Associated with pervasive physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children, it led to 40 000 survivors eventually receiving robust compensation. The unearthing of new evidence of medical and then nutritional experiments, torture by use of a makeshift electric chair, and records showing an estimated 6000 on-site deaths has unsettled Canadians.
Horrific as the implementation of these two policies was, it was only the beginning. Once removed (and often confined) to reservations, aboriginals were largely ignored. For example, there were no attempts to secure basic public health amenities for aboriginal populations and they were excluded from Canada’s generous social safety net that emerged after the second world war.
A disquieting 10 minute video (November 2011) of Attawapiskat reveals an environment that may have helped give rise to the suicide epidemic. It shows a community without water, without electricity, and—with no sewage system—buckets for toilets. Many families are seen living in tents and sheds with walls covered in black mould, while 90 families are living in work trailers abandoned by DeBeers from a nearby diamond mine.
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society has successfully sued the federal government for failure to provide adequate healthcare for aboriginal children; in January 2016, in a legally binding decision, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the government to “cease the discriminatory practice” that underfunds child health on reserves.
Several features of the Attawapiskat suicides are revealing: (1) the suicide epidemic is similar to many others in First Nations across Canada in which the idea of suicide is the contagion; (2) it overlays other “epidemics” such as addiction, depression, violence, and fetal alcohol syndrome (and alcohol related birth defects); (3) crises are intergenerational; (4) they are cumulative; and (5) they are steadily worsening. For example, statistics show a steady rise in the percentage of aboriginals in custody, with aboriginals representing 44% of girls in youth custody. While the natural behavior of epidemics is to rise, fall, and stabilize, demographic data show a large pool of young people at risk (the mean age of the aboriginal population being 28 compared with 41 in the general population) and that this epidemic is on an ascending limb with no end in sight.
Ongoing marginalization and assimilation policies are seen by First Nations as a continuing effort by the government to access rich natural resources abundant on traditional lands and territories.
The response to the Attawapiskat suicide crisis by former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien (1993-2003), a lobbyist for resource industries, is revealing. On 13 April 2016, he told a large gathering of Ottawa media that “people have to move sometimes”—articulating the assimilationist view that the solution to these crises is in the hands of First Nations who should consider leaving the North. It would also, of course, relieve the federal government of the burden of providing health and social services while furthering the possibility of accessing valuable land. He was broadly criticized inside and outside of the House of Commons—the grand chief of First Nations said “We are not bison.”
Indeed, as former minister of Indian affairs and northern development (1968-74), Mr Chretien’s department produced the “White Paper” in 1969 on “Indian Policy,” seen by First Nations as “a thinly disguised program of extermination through assimilation.” It would have abolished the special status of indigenous people while failing to deal with aboriginal title and treaty rights. However, it failed to pass into law, and actually prompted the Supreme Court to step in and recognize aboriginal title in Canadian law in 1973. The liberal party apologized for the initiative in 2014.
Audio recordings archived by the CBC capture the twin (and often conflicting) priorities of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the response of the minister (Chretien) to them. For example, when a group of children from Cold Lake Reserve (perhaps not dissimilar to those of Attawapiskat) came to his office in 1971 to ask him to come and look at the terrible conditions on their reserve he refused. In 1974 when he was asked by CBC if he would recognize the land claims of the Inuit and Deny Nations who objected to the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, he said “we cannot stop development because of Indian claims.”
One means to gain an insight into the underlying reasons the four aboriginal boys bolted from their school 80 years ago, or why so many young aboriginal give up in despair, is by considering the term “deracination.” It means to extirpate, remove, or separate from a native environment or culture. It seems applicable to the removal of the individual from community, from family, and, in fact, from self.
It does not suggest the relatively benign term “transplanting” or “uprooting” since both imply “roots and all.” Rather, it evokes just the opposite: the cutting away of the roots through the destruction of language, culture, and ties to family and community—indeed, “the killing of the Indian in the Indian.” The four boys were running from an abusive school and back to home and family; eight decades on, perhaps the Attawapiskat youth felt like running, yet had nowhere to go.
Chris Simms is a professor at Dalhousie University, School of Health Administration, Halifax, Canada; he spent many years living and working in Africa’s health sector.
Competing interests: None declared.