Attawapiskat and the importance of community

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I've never visited Attawapiskat to "cover" its crises, past or present, as many journalists have. Despite that, I want to say something about it. The late Edward Said encouraged non-Muslims to deploy their common humanity to try to understand events in the Muslim world. You don't always need expertise or direct experience, you can go some distance without them.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a sympathetic observer, says people in Attawapiskat will have to move; there's not enough economic support. Jonathan Kay in the National Post -- who has visited Attawapiskat -- is astute and compassionate on ways that the former hunter-gatherer community has been shattered. But he, too, thinks they must leave. What I don't get is why people who are reeling from the near obliteration of their community would be better off going somewhere that lacks even the shards of community left them.

Why does community matter? Because it's about culture, the relationship is intimate. A community has a physical location, but it's riddled with emotional and historical, i.e., cultural, associations. You can't easily relocate -- think of the failed attempts by early Zionists to place a Jewish homeland in Uganda or Argentina. They never resonated. For a while politicians here tried to move the Toronto island community elsewhere. They'd say, "Community? We've got lots of housing for them in North York."

I used to think they were just dolts but really, those politicians felt at home in North York because it was their community: they were comfortable with the people, the lingo, the culture! They didn't even realize they had their own culture there. Mel Lastman would have been as disoriented on Toronto island as islanders in North York.

But what's crucial in this case is that culture isn't only about space, it's also about time -- not just some glorious past but the future. If things are going smoothly in life, you can focus on the past, like the guy who went on and, based on his findings, "traded in" his lederhosen for kilts. Good for him. However if life is harsh and your prospects unsettled, what you want from your culture isn't just assurance about where you came from; it's that you have a future. Elders and leaders can play a crucial part -- or not.

A culture includes this sense that the world you inhabit has a place for you in its schema as you grow up. Even a rickety community can make you feel that you have a useful role in fixing it, if you're strong enough and survive. Anger, too, can offer a sense of purpose, as in Black Lives Matter. But the young are susceptible to despair if there's no sense of a future, even a rotten one. If emptiness feels like it's all that binds people into a community, they might bet everything on that, as some perhaps did in Attawapiskat. When a kid at a Toronto high school committed suicide this year, all the students at that vast institution grieved him, even those who didn't know him. They shared a sense of being on the cusp of an uncertain, not particularly reassuring future.

The head of an Aboriginal youth legal service said, "We find we get most bang for our buck by reconnecting youth with their culture." I don't find that crass. Your culture should be what helps you cope with brutal realities while staying anchored, so you don't fall apart. In this sense, culture matters to everyone. If it's effective, you might take it for granted. If it's been smashed, you may panic.

Another expert said youth in Attawapiskat "have almost no hope of getting a job and earning a livelihood and having a meaningful life." The part about meaningful isn't just tagged on; the more desperate your life is, the more you need the meaning; it'll keep you going and maybe get you through.

As for Said's notion of what can bridge differences: everyone has noticed Bernie Sanders' appeal to the young. What's with that? He's like an elder, offering a sense of a past that links to their future. Feeling the Bern is as much cultural as political. He retains past ideals and together "we" can make them the future. Hillary always says "I," there's no community or culture in her diction. She'll do it for you, at best. As for Trump and youth: are you kiddin' me?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: David Coombs/

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