Suicides on Native Reserves Require Closer Scrutiny – and Action

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Suicides on northern reserves have baffled many, and solutions and programs to date have done little to alleviate the problem. Tragically, our young people are still killing themselves. Why? And what are tribal council leaders doing to help? Not much that can be seen; they continue with programs that have obviously not worked in the past. There is a humanitarian crisis on our reserves, yet our tribal leaders talk about building a Governance House in Winnipeg to house the offices of these very reserves where the young take their own lives. So because most of these northern leaders are always in Winnipeg, except for a few reserves where the leaders know their people need them at home, the leaders prefer a governance house in Winnipeg. For this reason, these travelling chiefs are called “Sasquatches”, i.e., “You often hear about them but never see them.”

This must change. Qualified leadership on the reserve when problems arise must be a priority. Currently, on many reserves, the lights are on but nobody is home! At one time, the placement of Indian reserves in remote areas of the province was a good idea, a well-intentioned gesture, and a nod to trapping and commercial fishing which were once an economically-viable source of income. That time, however, is gone. It was a well-intentioned gesture to do the right thing for the natives of the day, but things have changed, including the fact that game and fish for sustenance are not what they used to be.

Northern stores are now the source of sustenance for residents of northern reserves, a diet dramatically different than their forefathers’. Obesity and diabetes run rampant, with the lack of both employment and physical labour once enjoyed from trap lines contributory factors. Band offices and stores have limited job openings for those residents; welfare is the only other option and that’s not much of an option. Once-proud parents who nourished their families from the land now find they are very limited; their feelings of helplessness are very real.

Alcohol and, lately, the abundance of drugs have fuelled another epidemic. Addictions to these vices are on the rise and create other industries that should not be there – bootlegging and drug dealing. A mixture of boredom and poverty are the right mix for those who ply these trades. Control for the lucrative industry has sparked gang wars in Indian country, brought on by those who ventured into the city, learned the gang life and then relocated back to the reserve to establish their own little kingdoms — armed with connections in the cities for their supply of narcotics. The real cost? Our young, who see no future trapped in a cycle of poverty. Crowded homes, nowhere to sleep when the party is in full swing, lack of funding to further their education, helplessness, despair and pressures to join the gangs are the daily battles the young face.

The live-in-the-past Indians, who believe we lost our culture and that we must return to our past in order to heal, are to blame for all that is now happening. They must wake up and smell the sweetgrass. Like many cultures, we aboriginal people know where we came from, who we were and the proud past we once enjoyed before European contact. We will never lose that part of our past, but we also don’t need its loss shoved down our collective throats every time a crisis hits our communities. If we are to heal our people and succeed as a people, we must move on and take advantage of economic opportunities that are out there today. Nobody owes us a living. We must take advantage of our resources and become players to create healthy communities. In other words, it is time to get off our collective “butts” and learn from other successful bands who have grasped these abundant opportunities.

Manitoba’s Aboriginal leaders should forget their latest ode to empire-building, Governance House. Instead, the hopes and ambitions of today’s youth should be encouraged. Our young need institutions of higher learning with residences for those wanting to relocate, which can become institutions of hope. Many also need to overcome the isolation and learn not only to survive outside the reserve system, but also to become valuable contributors to their people and society in general. Instead of the Governance House, we desperately need fully-staffed residences in large cities that include security staff, social workers and crisis intervention workers for the young still in grade school who may find life on their reserve unbearable. They need a place to which they can escape when life at home becomes unbearable. This is not a fix-all to the suicide crisis, but it is a start.

This story may upset many. Instead let us turn that anger into helping our young.