Screenshot: Emergency Parliament Debate

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Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien thinks he knows the solution to the agony of Attawapiskat and similar remote Indigenous communities.

Move, he counsels them.

Got to where there is work.

Join the mainstream Canadian economy and give up your romantic and impractical attachment to your land and traditions.

Postmedia columnist Christie Blatchford agrees with Chrétien.

She makes the argument that some Indigenous youth are in the situation of women who stay in violent relationships.

As with the abused women, Blatchford says, Indigenous youths’ salvation could lie in breaking the bonds, in getting out.

If Canada can help Syrian refugees resettle, the Postmedia columnist writes, it can help its own Indigenous people start new lives where there is work, community support and opportunities for the future.

Blatchford’s is, however, a lonely voice in publicly echoing Chrétien — and, in fact, expanding on the former PM’s spontaneous musings.

Publicly is the key word here, because many Canadians probably privately agree with Chrétien and Blatchford.

But not a single member of Parliament, for any party, who spoke during this past Tuesday’s emergency debate on Attawapiskat, raised the idea of out-migration, whether forced or voluntary.

A debate of facts, not partisan posturing

Northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus kicked off the emergency debate, and he focused on the fact that, contrary to a widely held view, northern Indigenous people are not spoiled wards of the state, on whom the government has lavished untold millions.

Quite the contrary, said Angus.

“We need healing centres and treatment centres,” Angus told the House. “We actually have lots of them across the country, and they are just sitting empty, because governments built them but never put a dime in to fund the resources so that they could actually staff them. Among the ones that we have sitting empty, there is one in Attawapiskat. Where are the resources, the mental health dollars, to have those local healing and treatment centres for the young people when they need them?”

Then Angus, too, evoked Canada’s response to Syrian refugees. But he drew a rather different conclusion from Blatchford:

“Maybe this is a moment to think outside the box. When the body of little Alan Kurdi was found on the shores, it shocked the world and it shamed Canadians. Canadians stood up and said that they would do whatever. All of civil society came together. Well, this is our moment.”

Georgina Jolibois, another NDP member, from Northern Saskatchewan, echoed Angus’ comments on the lack of resources. The community of La Loche, where there was a traumatic mass shooting in January, is in Jolibois’ riding.

“This past weekend alone, I am very sad to say that there were more suicide attempts in La Loche,” Jolibois told her colleagues. “Since the shooting on January 22, 2016, I have stood before House of Commons parliamentarians requesting additional services from both levels of government. Unfortunately, help has not come from the many government levels. Children and youth in La Loche and surrounding communities are showing signs of PTSD. They have no one to turn to and nowhere to go … Families are left to fend for themselves and to try to take care of their problems, with no help from the health centre and no help from anywhere else.”

The nation-to-nation relationship: What difference would it make?

The Liberal MP for the Northwest Territories, Michael McLeod, also evoked the high suicide rate in his riding, and then raised broader and more systemic issues in a question to Jolibois.

“We need to be able to prevent suicides,” McLeod argued. “We need to have people connect to the families and the culture. We need clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders. There are many other things we can point to, but we have to conclude that people who are committing suicide usually feel overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless, desperate, and alone … I would like to ask the member how a nation-to-nation relationship would help on this issue.”

Jolibois’ answer traced a clear line between the historic, dysfunctional relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada, and the current suicide crisis. Here’s how she explained the meaning of “nation-to-nation” to her fellow MP, and to the House:

“Nation-to-nation first of all means to me language retention. I speak Dene, and I want to be able to have our first nation communities teach Dene to continue our language … Nation-to-nation also means spirituality being acknowledged. These are practices of sweetgrass burning; medicine smudging; having access to an elder, a priest, a pastor of any kind, for the ability to pray … Nation-to-nation means that I feel respected and welcomed. As an Aboriginal woman, it means I do not have to feel scared in Canada … Nation-to-nation means for me, and for all first nations and Métis people across Canada, feeling safe and valued.”

When she spoke, Liberal MP Jane Philpott, the Health Minister, evoked her own experiences and feelings. There was not a trace of self-congratulation or partisanship in her comments.

“I am a family doctor. As I have been sitting here tonight, I have been reflecting upon patients of mine who have either taken their own lives, or more commonly, have had someone in their families have who taken their own lives … When I think that there are communities in our country where young people, as young as my 15-year-old daughter and even younger, in groups are deciding that there is no hope for their future, we must do better … I have been listening to the words of despair out of many of the youth in Attawapiskat. They talk about bullying, low self-esteem, and not thinking their lives are worth anything. They talk about a lack of things to do, overcrowding, and so many other reasons why they and their peers are turning to suicide or other forms of self-harm … Something must be done to stem the tide and reverse these disturbing trends.”

Cathy McLeod, a Conservative MP from the British Columbia interior, was similarly personal and non-partisan. You would not know from her words that the previous Conservative government had too frequently taken a passive-aggressive and sometimes openly hostile approach to Indigenous issues.

Like Philpott, McLeod spoke frankly and powerfully from her own experience. Early in her career as a health professional, McLeod worked in remote Indigenous communities. Here’s how she put it:

“Certainly as we look at the current situation that has prompted the emergency debate, we see it is horrifying, tragic, and to be quite frank, a very sad reflection on what is a shared failure by all levels of government and Canadians. I do appreciate the comment from the member for Timmins-James Bay and also the more recent question of whether this will be an Alan Kurdi moment, when we take what is a very tragic situation and finally start to see what are some significant and important improvements … I reflect back, and as a nurse I had maybe a year or two of experience under my belt when I ended up in an aboriginal community with not a lot of community experience. I was pretty good in a hospital, but I sure was not ready to be thrust into a community as a solo nurse. During that first week there were three suicides. I can just remember thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ The community was reeling and I actually did not have the capacity or the skills to deal with it, nor were the resources there. That was in the 1980s, and it does not sound as if things have changed all that much since that time.”

Most “disastrous social experiment imaginable”

Outside Parliament there has also been lots of ink spilled on Attawapiskat.

One notable intervention came from former Ontario premier and interim federal Liberal leader Bob Rae.

Rae took a clear swipe at Chrétien’s glib comments in a piece for The Globe and Mail.

While he did not mention the former prime minister by name, the one-time interim Liberal leader did say: “The trouble with colonialism is that it deprives people of the ability to create their own futures and shape their own destinies.”

In other words, it is wrong to blame Indigenous people for “stubbornly” refusing to simply move to where there is work.

Indigenous peoples’ situation is the result not of their own lack of ambition and willingness to take part in the economy. It is, Rae forcefully argues, the result of “the most disastrous social experiment imaginable in the destruction of a people …”

And so, once again, we have a massive prise de conscience in Canada over our long history of failure — and, in fact, worse than failure, rather something more closely resembling malevolence — in relations with our first peoples.

These moments of near unanimity, when Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals and most mainstream media commentators all agree that root-and-branch change is required to renew Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples, come from time to time.

They usually fade quickly from the public consciousness, leaving barely a ripple.

What will happen this time?


Screenshot: Emergency Parliament Debate

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...