The Wilderness Ghetto; the Dream of Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Nightmare of Remote Reserves

On Oct. 20th, the remote reserve of Red Sucker Lake in Northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency “after a teenage boy died by suicide earlier in the week, a […]

On Oct. 20th, the remote reserve of Red Sucker Lake in Northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency “after a teenage boy died by suicide earlier in the week, a man killed himself last month and several other people in the community have attempted to take their own lives.”

According to Chief Samuel Knott there have been at least 17 recent suicide attempts that community leadership is aware of. Only 1,100 people live in Red Sucker Lake.

In recent years, suicide epidemics on remote reserves have compelled band councils to declare states of emergency. Chief Knott told the CBC that his community “hit its tipping point on Tuesday, when a 16-year-old killed himself on the school playground.” The highly visible way in which the poor boy took his life suggests he wanted to send a final message. Details about the boy’s suicide were not disclosed.

“We had this young person that was very quiet,” an A-student who “never missed a school date,” lamented Knott. As is typical with youth suicide cases on reserves, there was no mention of any suicide note being left behind to offer some explanation of why the boy chose this fatal path. Knott explained this tragedy as a consequence of “the fact that there are very few activities to keep young people in the First Nation occupied and help them realize their potential.”

In a stunning understatement, “Knott says there are other long-standing issues that need to be addressed.”

While Knott didn’t recite the usual root causes of residential schools, intergenerational trauma and colonization, he did mention the desperate condition common to all remote reserves (accessibly only by air or winter road): chronic unemployment ranging above 80 percent with no relief in sight. Knott acknowledged some of the social pathologies that comes with such hopelessness: alcoholism and drug abuse. He didn’t speak about the sexual abuse and violence that often follows substance abuse in isolated, close quarters.

“We’re struggling big time in all areas of the community. We’re in need of a huge support,” pleaded Knott. He called for a crisis team and mental health counselors to be immediately deployed to help prevent any further suicides. Changing people’s reaction to a wilderness ghetto doesn’t change the realization that they are living in a wilderness ghetto.

Those of us living anywhere else would get nervous when unemployment rates near 8 percent. Imagine living some place where unemployment never dips below 80 percent and hasn’t for as long as anyone can remember? Think of your parents and how different they might have been if they never had a job. Think of the thousands of people trying to escape poverty in Central America; they can at least resort to the desperate measure of walking away from a hopeless place. People on remote reserves don’t have that option. The common escape is drugs and booze and now, increasingly, suicide.

In all the years that I have been paying attention to Aboriginal issues, the wilderness ghettos are the most irresolute. There is no amount of human tragedy, no number of youth suicides that will ever convince anyone in government or anyone in any of the myriad of Aboriginal lobby groups or anyone teaching Native Studies anywhere that the remote reserves need to be closed. At best there will be calls for more funding and the increasingly frequent call for emergency mental health professionals to be parachuted in. But it’s like throwing teacups of water at a forest fire from a helicopter.

To the extent that Aboriginal advocates acknowledge the sheer despair of the remote reserves, their public response is to directly promote all reserves as remaining strongholds of traditional culture. Their indirect strategy is to preserve the reserve system in its entirety regardless of how hopeless the most remote reserves are because the Aboriginal leadership’s objective is Aboriginal sovereignty. Without a land base, sovereignty is meaningless. If the leaders allow the Canadian government to close a single reserve even for humane reasons, it will not only set a precedent for shutting down reserves, it will demonstrate the vanity of Aboriginal sovereignty. The Devil would sooner relent.

To achieve the dream of Aboriginal sovereignty, lately energized by the ‘Land Back’ movement, suffering the nightmare of the wilderness ghettos is a necessary price and Canada’s shame. Theirs is not the sacrifice. If we truly wanted to help Aboriginal youths on hopeless remote reserves, we would begin talking about dismantling the quasi-segregationist reserve system. A child’s hope can’t blossom in a hopeless wilderness ghetto.


Michael Melanson is a writer living in Winnipeg.

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