After 11 people tried to take their own lives on Saturday evening, exhausted leaders declared a state of emergency. On Monday, as officials scrambled to send crisis counsellors to the community, 20 people – including a nine-year-old – were taken to hospital after they were overheard making a suicide pact.
“We’re crying out for help,” said Attawapiskat chief Bruce Shisheesh. “Just about every night there is a suicide attempt.”
There is no single reason for the toll. In Attawapiskat, Shisheesh pointed to overcrowded houses riddled with mould, drug abuse and the lack of a recreation centre that could give youth something to do. But mostly, he said, these children have fallen victim to the deeply rooted systemic issues facing Canada’s First Nations.
Chief among those is the lingering impact of the country’s residential school system, where for decades, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were carted off in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society.
“You can’t attempt cultural genocide for 140 years, for seven generations – the last of these schools closing their doors in 1996 – and not expect some very real fallout from that,” author Joseph Boyden wrote this week in Maclean’s. “Attawapiskat is a brutal example.”
Rife with abuse, the schools aimed to “kill the Indian in the child”, as documented by a recent truth commission. Thousands of children died at these schools – the absence of dietary standards in the schools left many undernourished and vulnerable to diseases such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis – with hundreds of them hastily buried in unmarked graves next to the institutions. In nearly a third of the deaths, the government and schools did not even record the names of the students who had died.
The legacy of these schools sits silently under the surface of much of First Nations life in Canada, often combining with deplorable living conditions to produce deadly results. Last month, after six suicides in some three months and more than 140 attempts in a two-week span, another remote community – the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba – also declared a state of emergency.
Across the country, more than 100 First Nations communities live in what leaders call “third-world conditions”, lacking proper housing, running water or electricity.
In a country that is home to 20% of the world’s freshwater, nearly 90 First Nations are advised to boil their drinking water, including one northern Ontario community that has been waiting for more than 20 years for potable water to flow from faucets.
The recent string of crises has provoked some in Canada to revive the debate as to whether First Nations people in remote communities should be encouraged to move to more urban areas of the country. This week, Jean Chrétien, Canada’s former prime minister, bluntly stated this week that when faced with a lack of economic opportunities, “people have to move sometimes”.
Boyden, who once lived in the area around Attawapiskat and continues to visit regularly, bristled at the idea. “It’s the most absurd, simplistic and colonial attitude,” he said. “You don’t take a person away from the last thing they have in order to make them better somehow.”
In the case of Attawapiskat, the debate’s tone is one of cruel irony, given that the land is home to a diamond mine. “These people in Attawapiskat are watching the resources of their community, of their territory, of their traditional land, being taken away by corporations,” said Boyden. “They watch this happen as they live in third-world conditions.”
There’s much more to this story, which is here. This tears my heart out, to see this brutal, colonial system still going, still making sure that indigenous people everywhere be the best kind of indigenous people: dead ones. Help should not, and does not need to arrive in colonial form. Indigenous people should have the right of their land, of decent homes, the right to resources most people don’t think about, like tap water. People do not need to be torn even farther apart from their roots, their history, their traditions and language, all those things which heal and hold together. Canada, you should be ashamed.