After Johnathan Kay and Jean Chretien’s rather ignorant and demeaning comments about First Nations people needing to move from their communities in order to solve the youth suicide issue I thought I needed to respond.
While these comments arose from the large number of youth suicides in Attapaskiwat, they were far more reaching. For me, it brought up the 1969 White paper that was authored by Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister and Jean Chretien as Minister of Indian Affairs. The crux of the white paper was to assimilate First Nations people into the general public.
I also remembered Duncan Campbell Scott the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs who in 1920 stated to the Special Parliamentary Committee of the House of Commons:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question…”
This was the attitude of the Canadian government even before Scott and continues in some people as the answer to the “Indian problem”. Colonialism and racism is alive and well today in some minds.
In Australia, another colonized country, Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested on March 11, 2015 that they move over 100 remote aboriginal communities because "what we can't do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices".
Interesting the similarities in attitudes in both Canada and Australia, attitudes that are very wrong and shows complete misunderstanding of First Nations peoples connection to their land.
Let’s think this through. If you remove youth from their communities, from the lands of their ancestors, from a way of life, you risk removing them from their identity and the lands where they draw on their strength. You risk them losing their identify as a Nation, their language, and culture. You risk them having an identity crisis as many indigenous children who have been apprehended from their home communities. And this is a good solution? You walk away from a problem?
Granted some First Nations people leave the reserve for education and employment, but many keep their ties to the land and go back to exercise their rights, participate in their government and culture. Or they move back when there is a job or home that comes available for them. The draw to go back home is always there.
Attapaskiwat is a treaty Nation which differs from BC where there are few treaties. First Nations in BC have aboriginal title to their territories. In June 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Tsilhqot’in title exists. What aboriginal title Aboriginal title means is that the First Nation holds an exclusive right to decide how to use and control the land, to benefit from those uses and includes the right to possess, enjoy and occupy the land.
In order to prove aboriginal title you have to have resided and used the lands in the past and currently. You have to have practiced your rights in the past and continue to today. If First Nation people with title chose to leave their land, they risk losing title to their lands. So why would we leave the lands to which we have title and the right to carry out a way of life that includes hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Why leave lands that we have governance over? Lands and resources that provide us with an economic opportunity? Why would we walk away from that which is ours and our ancestors before us? But most importantly why would we walk away from the strong ties and to which we have stewardship role. That doesn’t make sense.
There have been other First Nations that have called a state of emergency in relation to youth suicides in areas where aboriginal title exists. For example, Cowichan First Nation that is surrounded by the city of Duncan is one and another is Ahousaht First Nation that is a remote community located on an island off the west coast of Vancouver Island. These Nations possess aboriginal title to their territories and would never give up that title by moving away. None of these Nations or others in the same predicament would tell you that the solution to preventing youth suicides is to move to the cities where conditions allegedly “would be so much better for them.” Is there a guarantee that if First Nations moved to the city that they would have better living conditions? I think not.
Where is the hope? The hope lies in our youth, our youth that are another generation removed from the negative effects of the residential schools that has caused great dysfunction in our communities. The solutions lie in each of our communities to decolonize, to heal from the traumas of residential schools, and to overcome the poverty that affects us. Resurgence of our Nations through self determination is required. We need to turn our energies from endless negotiations with governments to actual realization of positive changes on the land, in our communities and in our governments.
Solutions have to come from within but help is also needed as defined by those communities.
The hope is our youth, we cannot afford to lose one of their lives and they must work with us to rebuild, revitalize and become empowered in our lives where hopeless is no longer a word we utter.