Since the beginning of this year, in which Canada celebrates 150 years as a nation, three 12 year old girls from the Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario have ended their own lives as part of a suicide pact. The third child, Jenara Roundsky, was taken out of the community to receive mental health treatment after the two other girls, Chantel Fox and Jolynn Winter, committed suicide in January. Sadly, Jenara killed herself a few months after her return to the reservation.
To its credit, Canada’s federal Health Ministry promised almost $400,000 in emergency funding for the Wapekeka First Nation that the girls called home, but so far only a quarter of this money has been released. These funds have already been spent to bring new mental health workers into the isolated Oji-Cree community of 400 people.
Rather than being a unique occurrence, these suicides came less than a year after 11 girls in a different aboriginal community, the Attawapiskat First Nation, also located in Ontario’s far north, attempted suicide in a single night. Out of a population estimated at about 2000 souls, as many as 100 attempted or committed suicide in the winter of 2016.
A little more than a year later, the remote nation, which can only be accessed by plane, is still struggling to fill positions for mental health professionals to cope with the ongoing crisis.
As a former Chief, Bruce Shisheesh, recently explained to Canada’s Global News, “My people are still suffering from poor conditions, poor housing, poor water supply, poor employment. I was told by the prime minister and the leaders, the ministers, there would be something – two mental health workers – still today there is no mental health workers.”
While the Attawapiskat First Nation, like similar communities throughout the country suffers from lack of housing and many residents do without basics like clean water, heat and electricity, governments at all levels and extractive industries have long profited from the exploitation of resources that should be benefiting the people who have the greatest claim to them.
The UK Guardian pointed to one relevant example in its reporting in the wake of the epidemic of suicides in the community last year, explaining, “the De Beers mining company pulled $392m worth of diamonds out of their Victor Lake mine on lands taken from the Attawapiskat First Nation through an extension of Treaty 9 in 1930.”
This epidemic of indigenous suicide is not unique to Canada, where native people are five to six times more likely to take their own lives than the general population. Numbers in the United States are similar.and show the same tendency to skew toward the young. According to a report in the Huffington Post in late 2015, 40% of native people in the U.S. who die by their own hand are between the ages of 15 and 24.
A legacy of cruelty and neglect
Although the problems of isolation and addiction are among the most serious drivers of mental health problems among aboriginal people in Canada, the history of horrific abuse in the name of ‘Canadianizing’ the country’s indigenous people is arguably much more important, most certainly playing into the alcoholism and drug addiction that plague so many of these communities.
In the modern era, much of this abuse took place in the country’s religiously motivated residential school system from 1874 to 1996, a history that still remains in the living memory of the grandparents and many of the parents of the current generation, with all that this entails.
Many Canadians had hoped that the election of a Liberal government led by the charismatic Justin Trudeau would address the serious problems facing aboriginal people in the country. While Trudeau and his ministers made many promises in this regard, it increasingly appears that this was mostly empty rhetoric as the twin policies of resource extraction and neglect continue much as they have since the country came into existence a century and a half ago.
As Jessica Bolduc of the Bawating Water Protectors, who organized a demonstration in the country’s capital on the eve of Canada Day celebrations on July 1st, told the BBC, “We talk about this smart and caring nation, but don’t acknowledge that those privileges aren’t afforded to indigenous peoples in the same way that they are to folks who have settled here, whether that was 200 years ago or to people who we are welcoming here today in a ceremony of becoming Canadian.”
Although Canadian officials (and many citizens) refuse to admit let alone address it, the systemic cultural genocide of indigenous people continues to the present day and the suicides of so many young people is a tragic symptom it. At the same time, the country’s ‘feminist’ Prime Minister says very little about the ongoing injustices faced by aboriginal women in Canada, including the denial of their very identity under the law.
Indigenous rights are women’s rights
To cite one troubling example, under the 1876 Indian Act, the federal government only recognized males as fully indigenous, meaning that women who married outside of their communities lost their status and rights. Rather than redressing this historic wrong, Canada’s parliament amended the act in 1985 and, “they codified it, placing the males and their descendants who had status prior to April 17, 1985 in the 6 (I) (a) category – or “full status”: – and bringing back the Indian women who had been denied status or lost it by marrying out, into a second-class category called 6(I)(c), with a lesser ability to transmit their status than the men and their descendants.” They also left the previous rules intact for those born before 1985.
Canada’s un-elected Senate has already passed a unanimous resolution to guarantee equal status to indigenous women and children under the law but so far the elected Parliament has yet to take up the challenge of righting this historic wrong.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Canada has sacrificed 159 soldiers in what citizens were told was a humanitarian mission embarked upon in part to secure the rights of women in Afghanistan while a simple change of law to make indigenous women equal in status to men has eluded the government for generations.
Will this be the way that North America’s indigenous people, already the victims of attempted genocide, apartheid-style polices and neglect disappear into memory, their cultures only existing in abbreviated form in museums mainly patronized by the rich?
As Canadians celebrate 150 years of nationhood it seems that the ongoing suffering of the country’s original inhabitants is once again mostly absent from the stories we tell about ourselves.