Aboriginal suicides, A View from the Inside

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Recent news stories in Manitoba’s media described the suicides of four aboriginal youths from South Indian Lake. Far too often, such sad tales emanate from Indian reserves and Inuit communities across Canada. These tragedies are preventable. To stop this waste, we must understand what drives the high levels of despair on reservations, and deal with root causes. For people to handle the rigours of life, we must empower them.

The band council at South Indian Lake requested outside assistance to deal with the rash of suicides and attempted suicides in the community. The residents of South Indian Lake are members of the Nelson House Band located a short distance from Thompson, Manitoba. The people of these two reserves should see a brighter future ahead of them. With the construction of the proposed Wuskwatim dam near the reserve and a partnership agreement that shares ownership of the dam with Manitoba Hydro, plenty of jobs and business opportunities are on the horizon.

Despite these exciting developments, these young people succumbed to the hopelessness that characterizes so many First Nations. Early school years are probably the best times for the young aboriginal. They have not too much to worry about beyond going to school, playing with friends or joining a basketball or soccer team. School offers opportunities for them and, in many cases, a good meal some may not always be lucky enough to get at home.

But drugs have been brought into aboriginal communities in a huge way by native gangs and others. Some bands went head-on against the problem by banishing those that brought in illegal drugs. But on one large First Nation – deemed the most progressive by some – many of those caught dealing them were the leaders’ own children. On another reserve, the band councillor responsible for working out a partnership agreement with Manitoba Hydro checked himself into a drug rehab centre in Alberta. Another Chief had the nickname of “Chief Powder Nose” for his use of habitual use of cocaine.

Even morally upright leaders must shoulder some of the blame; during band elections youth are always promised so much, but in the end they tend to be forgotten and left out. On far too many reserves, the leadership exercises total political control over every aspect of their peoples’ lives. This style of governance breeds hostility and deep divisions; the young sit in homes and listen while their parents and others argue and debate the injustice of these egregious dictatorships. The hopelessness sinks in. Many of the youth at risk of harming themselves come from families seen as critics of the band council. On reservations, council members often go out of their way to make life as hard as possible for dissidents, and the youth of these unfortunate families are automatically lumped in.

Totalitarian power, combined with the unique structure of laws governing property and access to capital that oppress reservations, has severe economic consequences. On many reserves, 85% of the people survive on welfare. With so few jobs and not much in the way of a future, youth have not much to look forward to, and the frustration of unemployed parents grips them as well.

On one reserve, when a construction project is about to begin in the community the local employment office is bypassed. Those seeking jobs must submit their applications to the band’s education manager, always a faithful supporter of the Chief. From the education department, the applications are then sent to the Chief and council for the final selection of who will work. On one job, the outside contractor had agreed to pay band members $13 an hour; instead, they were paid $8, and the other $5 for every hour worked was diverted to the band office. For what reason? The people were never told.

Most of us have fond memories of when we were young and carefree, and went to our parents for our weekly allowance. We would go out on a date or head to a snack shop or a movie with friends. But for many aboriginal youth whose parents scrape by on meager welfare cheques that cannot sustain them for the entire month, they are out of luck. They cannot afford to give a teenage child $20 to take his sweetheart out for an evening. The young are left out of the big picture on many reserves.

They learn early what happens to those who complain. For instance, an aboriginal radio station that broadcasts to the entire province of Manitoba has a show on Sunday night committed to church organizations that is broadcast from different reserves. In early November, 2004, it came from the Moose Lake reserve near the Pas, Manitoba. One of the guest clergy who spoke was Archdeacon Percy Ross of the Anglican Church. His sermon, in the Cree language, spoke of the youth being forgotten and left out by the reserve leaders; he went even further and called the leaders a bunch of thieves. Listeners then heard a loud thumping noise and someone else speaking in the background. Then Ross was unceremoniously cut off the air.

Entrepreneurs who might otherwise offer useful activity and employment are also compromised. Unless they are willing to bow and kiss the ring of the leadership and be faithful supporters, they stand no chance of earning a living and providing much needed employment to others. What if the leadership changes? What if someone starts rumors that you have been criticizing the leadership? Your business could be shut down very quickly. It sounds ridiculous but it happens all the time. Many say it is not worth the risk of losing everything as a result of the current political system, and never make the effort.

Some reserves are noted exceptions. The Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas, for example, has taken great strides in assisting its young. This reserve boasts two youth centers that remain open until late in the evening and offer a variety of programs. This reserve also has been very successful in its business ventures and jobs are readily available regardless of political affiliation.

So what must First Nations do to prevent the suicides that plague their respective communities? First of all, they must get rid of leaders who have become despots and implement changes to their band constitutions to forbid this style of governing from ever being allowed to fester in the community again. The Chief and council must be restricted to managing band affairs only; independent elected boards must deal with any business ventures, health initiatives, social services and employment programs. A policing board must deal with the safety of the community and elected band council members and their families should not be exempt from criminal investigations and charges, should they be warranted.

A board of community members should be nominated and elected to a youth initiative program to assist the younger generation. It has to be a community-driven process and include programs to teach the elders’ ways of fishing and trapping and bush survival, and the nuts and bolts of job training and creation. Young people must know they are a valuable resource and the future of the community. They must have the opportunity to earn some money. Putting a few dollars into their pockets would go a long way.

A new style of leadership would also spend less time hiding away in the cities under the guise of band business. Recreation centres must be open with planned, structured activities; in far too many, security staff chases young people out unless they are on a hockey team.

The widespread recourse to youth suicide is a symptom that a society is failing in its primary mission, that of replacing itself. Stemming this destructive tide means wholesale reforms of organizations that exclude ordinary people from the decision-making process. Participation gives people a reason for optimism.