By Peter Andre Globensky
Out of sight, out of mind! Four more tragic suicides have struck in northern Ontario remote First Nations communities – the youngest one, but an 11-year old youth! The hand-wringing will begin again, all will lament this recurring tragedy, politicians will voice regrets and offer condolences, bureaucratic promises will be made anew, the media will move on and then all the “will” will disappear until the next young person dies in despair. All the paper used to print reports addressing the issue of youth suicide have clear-cut small forests. Recommendations for remediating this national embarrassment have filled file cabinets. What is it going to take before we stop sacrificing the lives of our children on the altars of indifference, ineptitude and inaction? Why has this national calamity become intractable?
Reconciliation means that both parties – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, need to begin thinking and acting outside the box on issues which affect our nation-to-nation relationship: from transfer payments to housing, to education, to resource sharing – the list goes on and on. Near the top of that neglected list is the epidemic of youth suicides in remote First Nations communities.
Without question, immediate and effective stop-gap measures are required. However, for durable solutions, throwing money at a porous wall hoping that it will stick – a common habit of whack-a-mole governments, is rarely the answer. Vital to resolving this heart-rending problem and so many others that plague our Indigenous brothers and sisters is to begin considering the viability of remote northern First Nation reserves. The pervasive lack of social and economic opportunity, little or no infrastructure and mold-riddle housing exacerbated by the “band office will fix it” dependency and the persistence of legacy issues oozing from soul-killing residential schools will continue to be generational. For too many Indigenous youth, that toxic combination offers only death to dreams.
Providing solutions which take root and flourish under Indigenous leadership will require building a new relationship where governing and management capacity is enhanced and access to social and economic opportunities become as commonplace as they are to most other Canadians. Our history has demonstrated that hospitals, quality health care, first-class high-schools and high-tech industries are simply not going to happen in remote First Nations communities, but who among us would deny the right of our Indigenous neighbours to access these services and opportunities.
When we wrote a series of articles last year on the viability of remote First Nation communities, we underscored the vital importance of relevant education to the future of First Nations in Canada. We celebrated the fact that First Nation youth are graduating in ever-increasing numbers. But a troubling paradox has emerged: the newly educated, “the brightest and best,” rarely return to their communities of origin as there are few employment prospects for them. The article further suggested that First Nation communities located within an urban ambit or adjacent to major transportation arteries are more likely to provide a future for its members when compared to remote communities accessible only by air or winter roads. More often than not, the electronic media available to Indigenous youth who chose to remain in remote reserve communities is but a constant reminder of that which they will never possess.
The elephant in the room is a dawning reality which has become difficult for most remote First Nation communities to accept. A reality that their traditional subsistence and trade economies have migrated from foundational livelihood to distant memory. While central to the Indigenous worldview and sense of self, traditional activities have been supplanted by an ad hoc, scantly available and impermanent wage-based economy and/or social assistance and the necessity of dependency.
Nevertheless, to First Nation peoples, these homelands serve to connect “the extremities to the heart,” and home and culture is where the heart is. But what are the prospects for these communities? What are the chances that remote First Nations will be able to support a vibrant, culturally rich homeland while providing sustainable opportunities for economic growth and social development? Development consistent with the Indigenous respect for the intrinsic value of the land upon which their ancestors thrived and their spirits flourished?
Perhaps one possibility for Indigenous leaders to consider is the creation or expansion of “service communities”, urban centres-of-excellence closest to remote communities (think Sioux Lookout, Thompson, Timmins, Fort Mac, etc.) where most of the billions of dollars in transfer payments can be more adequately focused on developing state-of-the-art hospitals, first-class high schools and skills college and university campuses, housing and boarding facilities and all manner of services to create culturally appropriate supports for communities of Indigenous families. All the while, and this is critical, continuing to provide access to their traditional territory and their original reserves which would remain under the control of local Indigenous leadership but sustained with rudimentary supports for those who choose to remain.
Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous politicians and the myriad levels of bureaucracy which support them must challenge their own self-serving resistance to change and begin to move forcefully away from the status-quo. Proposing and discussing alternatives to remote First Nation reserves can be imagined without the prospect of killing these vibrant cultures. Those Indigenous youth who ended their lives in despair and hopelessness deserve nothing less.
Peter Andre Globensky is a former senior policy advisor on Aboriginal Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister and retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. He invites your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org