Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Alarming Article on First Nations Suicide

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 30, 2000

StillHazel wrote,

Link to story (no longer active)

Ontario Native Suicide Rate One of Highest in World, Expert Says

"PIKANGIKUM, Ont. (CP) - A rash of suicides on this remote Ojibwa reserve is 'a disaster' that may earn the community the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in the world, says an international expert on aboriginal suicide."

Things are not much better on the more impoverished U.S. Reservations. Anyone have any theories as to causes; ideas as to solutions?

Suicides among First Nations youth is a problem across Canada. Violent deaths and deaths through dangerous addictions (such as sniffing gas) are also very high.

I've visited a number of these communities, taught their youth (and adults), and lived in some of the towns and villages nearby. It was at once a rewarding and agonizing experience.

There is, of course, no single cause. Alcoholism and substance abuse is a widespread problem on Canadian reserves. There is a lot of violence, a lot of broken homes. Many of the problems are self-replicating - one youth, for example, committed suicide just list his father six years before. One youth wants to die by sniffing gas just like her brother did last year.

First Nations communities have two major strikes against them: first, they are isolated - I mean, really isolated, with no roads or rail, sparodic air service, limited television and radio - and second, they are poor - unemployment can reach fifty percent and there is no prospect of new work (because they are so isolated).

Add to that a dearth of social services. First Nations' education has been historically poor - many of today's adults grew up in abusive residential schools, and today's children learn in dilapidated buildings with out-dated texts and too few teachers. Health services are often minimal. Support services, such as family counselling and treatment centres, do not exist.

Many First Nations youth simply give up. They see what life is like in the outside world (or at least, what life is like in Detroit and Toronto - these are the channels carried on cable in the north) and know that, with so much stacked up against them, they have no hope of taking part.

Others have lost all sense of cultural values and community. Their parents - if they survive - are alcoholics or in jail, their grandparents are in most cases dead, their band chiefs and elders are abusive and corrupt, their knowledge of religion and traditions - both Christian and First Nations Spiritual - is sketchy, incoherent and incomplete. With no hope, and no values or traditions, there is nothing to live for.

In communities where effective change is happening - and I've seen this firsthand - a series of initiatives is required: none works on its own, and even when applied in tandem, change is long and painful:

  • Educational opportunities are essential, both for children and adults. This education must be available locally and in alternative formats (there are many single parents in First Nations communities, for example). Education needs to be supported with educational counselling - people who get to know the students, who encourage them, who wake them up in the morning, if necessary, and who respond appropriately if they show up Monday morning with a black eye. Education must be culturally appropriate and geographically relevant - it should not pander to them, but it should not assume a suburban lifestyle.

  • Community support services are required. First and foremost, this means adequate police and judicial services - both are sorely lacking in remote communities. Local health and counselling services are required and the staff need to be culturally sensitive and trained to deal with substance abuse, violence and family conflicts, and more.

  • A cultural infrastructure is essential. In small American towns this means a church, a library, a baseball diamond and a malt shop (or something like that - you know what I mean). In First Nations communities it means a Friendship Centre, the services of a sweat lodge, elders, pow wows, usually a church, a hockey arena, and staff to maintain these services. People in the community must have something to do, and that something must be releavnt and meaningful.

  • Transportation and communication need to be improved. This means alternative media and broadcasting, both in terms of First Nations culture and language, but also alternative in the sense of counterculture and non-mainstream programming. They need roads, and buses along those roads. Air service must be improved. The idea is to promote mobility - not so that they will leave for good, but so they can travel to other communities and to the cities in the south.

  • Employment opportunities are essential. Because these communities are so remote, they must center on primary industries based on local resources. Because there is little local capital - and few private investors willing to risk their money on such an unstable community - government seed money is usually the only way to launch a resources based industry. Examples of such indistries include sawmills and wood processing, fishing and fish products, tourism and related industries, mineral production and refining, and the like.

  • Self governance. First Nations people have historically been treated like wards of the church or state, unable or unwilling to manage their own affairs. The decisions of these governors have usually been based on European cultural assumptions which have little or no relevance in the north (the myth, for example, of people living in cottage-like farms around a community is unworkable in a boreal forest). The types of industries, education, cultural services and other support have reflected southern Canadians' needs, not First Nations', and have thus often been inappropriate. And may of the resources on First Nations' land have been stripped by outsiders, invited and sanctioned by a remote government with no awareness of the impact this would have on local lives.

These would be a start - and in many communities they have started, though in many communities they exist only as broken promises. Part of the problem is that even if you do all of this, it will be a generation before you see significant change. I can name a half dozen reserves which have all of these services and which have only in the last few years started to turn themselves around. It is a long and painful process, made harder by half-hearted efforts and suspended social programs, and no matter what you do, some of today's people aren't going to make it.

The alternative is to let things continue as they are, but as the original post implies - and as I agree - that is unacceptable.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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