The northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat is only too familiar with its own unique brands of tragedy: flooding, chronic housing shortages, government disregard, flagrant misspelling of its name, and now a frighteningly high rate of suicide and suicide attempts amongst its youth. It would be enough to break their hearts, if their hearts weren’t so strong. Next to follow: the barrage of unsympathetic questions that often attend these types of calamities, usually by puzzled southern non-native individuals — or as we like to call them in this politically correct age, people of pallor. Why don’t you just move?
Native people get questions like this all the time. During the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I can’t tell you how often I heard people who’ve lived childhoods unencumbered by a steady diet of Manifest Destiny ask, in serious baffled frustration, “Why don’t you people just get over it?” Get over it? It’s not a wall, people!
Before those questions was the always-popular “What do you people really want?” I would answer with “Well, stop killing our women, and stealing our children and that would be a good beginning!”
Prior to that, it all started with “Would you mind signing here?”
Admit it: you yourself have likely wondered why the Attawapiskatians (or the Attawapiskatites) don't just roll up their blankets, hop a bus and fry their bannock somewhere else upriver. Scott Gilmore of Maclean’s has thought about it. Walrus Magazine editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay has considered it. Even former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has suggested it.
Well, it’s not that easy. It’s a complex issue not solved by a simple change in geography. There’s a certain connection to land and environment. A community like this has a little more heart and soul than an apartment.
Unlike most people who ask these unfortunate questions, I’ve been to Attawapiskat and it’s actually a beautiful community. I’ve talked to their children. I’ve toured the neighbourhood. I have also been around the world and seen far worse places. I can’t blame them for not necessarily wanting to move.
I’m sure you’ll remember the famous story of Randall Truman, the man who lived at the foot of Mount St. Helens when he was told the mountain might just possibly blow up. Told this repeatedly, Truman refused to move, regardless of the threat. This was his home, and he died with it. Okay: maybe not the best example, but never underestimate a person’s or people’s connection to their home, regardless of the dangers. Consider that the Cree of Attawapiskat historically used to be nomadic, following caribou and other game, as the need arose.
That is, until they met other nomadic, non-native people who felt it their mission to travel the world telling people like the Cree they can no longer be nomadic, under penalty of law. These same formerly nomadic people from across the ocean would later relocate the children of these Canadian people to other faraway places. Past experience has also taught Canada’s Indigenous people that once they have been relocated, these same non-native people (we call them colour-challenged) usually find whacks of fur, gas, diamonds or Aeroplan miles buried somewhere in the vicinities they once called home. Five hundred years of colonization has given First Nations people a learned aversion to forced relocation.
As to the question of finding some place better: where is it better? I suppose they could go to Calgary — but that place has a history of flooding. What about Vancouver? No, I’ve heard the housing situation there is almost as bad as in Attawapiskat. The grass may always be greener but it could be crabgrass and poison ivy, too. With ticks.
People need to understand that the problems in Attawapiskat and other northern communities run deeper than simply location. What needs to be dealt with first are the issues infecting these people’s lives that spring from hundreds of years of colonization and the paternalistic treatment they’ve received from government. Social malaise doesn’t come with a street address. It comes with history.
Why don’t they move? Here’s a counter question. Why don’t you move? In case you weren’t aware, there were quite probably suicides, drug issues, environmental problems and general matters of social unrest where you currently fry your eggs and practise your yoga. Cree communities are not RV parks, ready to uproot at a moment’s notice.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and novelist from the Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough, Ont.
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