Friday, March 11, 2016

Maybe some native communities are just not sustainable

Indigenous suicides are in the Canadian news again, after reports from Pimicikamak Cree Nation (also known as Cross Lake) in northern Manitoba. In this isolated community of about 6,000 souls, some 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, there have been six suicide deaths in the last three months, and another 140 have either attempted or threatened to kill themselves in just the last two weeks. 170 high school students are currently on suicide watch. It seems like a case of mass hysteria almost worthy of 17th century Salem.
It is an unconscionable situation for any developed country, and one that apparently plays out (on a less dramatic scale) in many northern indigenous communities throughout Canada. As usual, the blame has been laid on poor conditions and poorer prospects. Unemployment in the community is at 80% and, as in many northern settlements, the housing stock is poor, educational and medical facilities are substandard, there are large numbers of children in state care, and there is a perceived lack of youth recreational facilities.
Setting aside the issue of youth recreational facilities (I didn't have access to any "facilities" growing up, and millions of other kids in small communities further south seem to manage to amuse themselves, although I probably won't make myself any friends by pointing that out), these are serious issues that need speedy resolution, and the current government has committed itself do doing just that.
But, as has been repeatedly shown in the past, just throwing money at the problem is not going to solve it. Millions of dollars have been spent on these small northern communities in recent decades. Some of them have managed to use this money to pull themselves up; some have frittered and embezzled the money away (not a very politically correct observation either, but well-attested); some have just continued to molder away regardless.
So, it occurs to me to wonder - and here I am definitely courting outrage - should there even be an isolated community 500km north of Winnipeg if it appears to be completely unsustainable? Yes, I'm sure some elders will say that it is their ancestral homeland and "sacred", but has anyone even asked the majority of the population? Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt that a great deal of hunting and trapping gets done there these days, and some towns that may have been viable historically may not be now.
I'm not suggesting that the whole community be razed or anything like that, just that it could be maintained as a "sacred" homeland for the band members to visit whenever they like. They could go off and do the hunting and trapping thing for a while, organize a sweat lodge, or whatever. But they would not be stuck there for the rest of the year. In between times, they could live in Winnipeg or Portage La Prairie or wherever, earn a living like anyone else, and benefit from modern conveniences and facilities, and really not be any the less "native" for it, it seems to me.
Now, maybe all that is incredibly culturally insensitive of me, I don't know. As a transplanted European with no religion and no racial hang-ups of my own, it is perhaps too easy for me to make such sweeping suggestions. But it just seems that an awful lot of things are just verboten and not mentioned when these matters are discussed, mired as we are in the white man's guilt.
Frankly, though, the system as it stands is just not working for many native people, and I think we need to be exploring some more radical solutions. As I see it, these people are human first and native second (and probably Canadian third), and their basic human rights should take priority.

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