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First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders after meeting Justin Trudeau earlier this year: The prime minister has said that “reconciliation is not an Aboriginal issue; it is a Canadian issue” (©Don MacKinnon/AFP/Getty Images)


The Keewaywin community carried the lifeless body of a ten-year-old boy into Cathy Wright’s small clinic early one evening in April.  The boy had hanged himself, the first suicide in that community, but an all-too-common occurrence across Canada’s First Nations. Despite working as a nurse in north-west Ontario among the First Nation and Inuit people for 16 years during her 38-year career, Wright had never experienced anything like this. The tragic nature of the boy’s death galvanised the horrified Cree community, and everyone came together to support the family. Neighbouring communities sent crisis teams. Wright said that when they brought in the boy’s body, it seemed that the entire community was there to bid him farewell.

Across the First Nation communities, the authorities are on suicide alert. That same month, in the nearby Attawapiskat First Nation, the federal government declared a state of emergency after 11 teenagers attempted suicide. In the previous month, there had been 28 attempts: almost one a day.

This spate of attempted suicides has reignited the festering debate about the problems stalking the First Nations and Canada, the crux of which is whether it is time to call time on the Native lands. This is as contentious an issue as you can find — akin, said Dr Matyas Hervieux, to asking everyone in Greece to leave because there are no jobs.

People who live and work on First Nation lands emphasise the very many positive aspects of life there, especially in the face of enormous hardships. “These people are resilient, kind, warm, and caring,” says Hervieux, who has had ten years of experience working with First-Nation people in urban and northern-reserve settings. In north-western Ontario, many communities don’t have drinkable water.  In some areas the water is so bad it can’t even be used for showers. There is also an enormous housing crisis with acute overcrowding: as many as 15 people live in one room. Many First Nation people experience racism, and there has been an epidemic over the past two decades of women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered. Corruption, lack of transparency, child abuse, violence, drug and alcohol dependency, unemployment, isolation and lack of purpose are also significant problems, as is the haunting legacy of residential schools.

Residential schooling began in the 19th century. Funded by Canada’s federal government and administered by Christian churches, they took aboriginal children away from their parents to educate and “civilise” them in substandard conditions. A majority suffered sexual, mental and physical abuse. More than 3,200 children died in the care of the schools and the toll may be much higher. The last one closed in 1996.

While it is a polarising debate in Canada, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t blame the victim. But how do you find a solution? For Jonathan Kay, one of Canada’s most prominent (right-wing) political commentators and editor of the Walrus, a sort of Canadian New Yorker, “There is little hope for places like Attawapiskat, and the solution for this isolated community, and others like it, is to move south.”

At the heart of Canada’s official policy toward the First Nations, believes Kay, “sits a great institutionalised lie that we can put in place some bright, shiny plan of action that will transform all our Attawapiskats into healthy, vibrant productive communities”. Last month, Jean Chretien, Canada’s former prime minister, said to great opprobrium: “There is no economic base there for having jobs and so on, and sometimes they have to move, like anybody else.”

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