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Managing the misery

Author: 
Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer, OTTAWA
Volume: 
18
Issue: 
9
Year: 
2001

Page 2

The millions of dollars expended by government sources for social programs in First Nations will only continue to be ineffective, wasteful Band-Aid solutions unless the political issue of sovereignty is sorted out, but both sides are unwilling to budge.

So say most Indigenous leaders and many academic observers who have studied and, in many cases agonized over, the persistent social problems that haunt First Nation communities.

As is the case with so many colonized Indigenous peoples around the globe, Indigenous people within the borders of Canada have survived repeated attempts to forcibly remove them from the land and absorb them into the larger society. Those attempts were made so their legitimate legal claims to the land wouldn?t be a political problem for the descendants of the colonizers.

Indigenous people are proud of the fact they survived the colonial era and they are determined to flourish, continue their traditions and assert their rights. This presents a problem to colonial governments that originally claimed the land occupied by the Indigenous peoples under false, and now discredited, concepts such as terra nullius (an empty land theory). The battle continues to the present day, and though there has been no recent ?Trail of Tears,? and though modern governments talk in enlightened terms about their respect for the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to govern themselves on their traditional home territories, the fight for ultimate political control persists and has caused serious social problems in First Nations communities.

In early December, Jean Chretien, the newly re-elected prime minister of Canada, pledged to work to solve the social horrors that besiege Aboriginal communities. Native leaders and thinkers familiar with the dynamics of Native communities know the prime minister is destined to fail if he doesn?t address the issue of sovereignty, because research has shown that a sense of powerlessness is a major contributing factor to all the social problems.

Canada?s response to recent TV news footage showing young Innu people in the Labrador village of Sheshatshiu sniffing gasoline, and the reports from Pikangikum, a remote western Ontario First Nation, revealing astonishingly high rates of suicide among young people, was outrage.

But this was not a new response. A similar sense of outrage erupted in 1994 when in Davis Inlet, another Labrador community near Sheshatshiu, images of gas sniffing youth tugged at the heart-strings of the nation.

In a 1997 paper submitted to the eighth Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention Conference, a University of British Columbia graduate student named Darryl H. Quantz compiled most of the pertinent academic information related to First Nations suicides. Quantz now works for the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary.

In Cultural and Self Disruption: Suicide Among First Nations Adolescents, Quantz?s research made him feel safe in stating that suicide is a relatively new problem for Indigenous peoples and was not a problem before European contact.

(see Powerlessness page 6.)

This wrong doing is . . . I can?t point the finger at individuals. The system is designed that way. If you want to change, you have to change the system, because the system will automatically change the people. People will follow the system and that?s what?s happened here. So to lay blame on a whole bunch of people, I don?t think is necessarily right, or fair.?

Asked if the individuals within the system shouldn?t shoulder most of the blame, he suggested that it was the federal government that imposed the system on First Nations and it?s the federal government that?s going to have to clean it up.

?It could be me in there. It could be my brother in there. We?d be given the same guidelines that these guys are given and we?d have to follow them or we wouldn?t have a job,? he said. ?So they?re not even selling their souls by doing tht. They?ve got to follow those rules. They?ve got to follow those policies and those rules breed corruption because the system is corrupt. They?re just going out and doing the job they were hired to do and the job they were hired to do is designed to keep the system the way it is and not to allow for self government.

?The chiefs and people know that if you go against the system, they?re going to cut back the funding somewhere and the people within your community are going to suffer. The chiefs know that. So the chiefs are hostages to the system as much as the people that are living on the reserves are.?

But isn?t it the individual?s responsibility to take a stand and force an end to a practice he sees as corrupt, he was asked.

?Everybody suffers because he stands up. Everything in the community, every dollar are survival issues. The chiefs are stuck behind the eight-ball. They are not given the authority to do what they want to do. The authority that they?re given is dictated by the programs and the policies of Indian Affairs,? he replied. ?Do you think the chiefs want to see their people in poverty? Do you think the chiefs want to see their youth suffering? Do you think they want to see the suicides? Absolutely not!?

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