Uncle Jean’s suicide solution

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Many people think of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien fondly, as the slightly embarrassing aging uncle who means well, but from time to time gleefully puts his foot in his mouth.

Asked once about the liberal use of pepper spray on peaceful protesters, he responded, “Me, da pepper, I put it on my plate!”

Not so funny are his recent comments about the suicide epidemic in Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities across Canada. Asked recently whether Attawapiskat’s location and isolation from social services means the community should be moved, Chrétien responded, “People have to move sometimes. Sometimes it’s desirable to stay if they want to stay, but it’s not always possible.”

He shied away from saying whole communities should be uprooted from their ancestral lands, but the implication was clear. Even if Canada spends far less per capita on education, health and other social services in First Nations communities than for non-Natives, it’s not worth bothering trying to do more.

The former Indian Affairs minister clearly wasn’t being malicious. But his comments reflect a lot of mainstream thinking in this country.

National Post columnist John Robson pompously ridiculed the emergency effort to send social workers to Attawapiskat.

“Sending counsellors is not an isolated fatuity,” he wrote. “It is part and parcel of a denial of reality here, spending real money and investing real hope in the idea that the problem in Attawapiskat is people’s irrational negativity about their circumstances, rather than their actual circumstances.”

Talk about failing to see the forest because of all those trees. Why waste more money trying to stop Native kids from killing themselves? Northern Aboriginal communities are hellholes, the thinking goes, so let them move south and, dammit, get a job!

It’s the same colonialist mindset that created the “Indian reserve,” often in awful locations. The intention was that they would whither away, and Native people would assimilate into the mainstream – the goal of the Indian Act in the first place.

What Robson and others fail, or refuse, to see is that this assimilationist ideology is at the root of the crisis we see today. Trying to “kill the Indian” in the Indian in residential schools. Ensuring First Nations would not benefit from the resources of their traditional territories. Clearcutting their lands, poisoning rivers with mine waste, abducting children through racist adoption and foster parent programs – it’s like cutting off a person’s leg and them blaming them for not running fast enough.

In 1969, when Jean Chrétien was Minister of Indian Affairs, his Liberal government produced a white paper on the Indian Act suggesting it be abolished and First Nations people integrated with the rest of Canadian society. During the same time, Chrétien received warnings about the abuses at St. Anne’s Residential School in Ontario, where many children from Attawapiskat were sent, and which featured the notorious electric chair used to torture them. The warnings were ignored.

How soon we forget. Nonetheless, Chrétien is essentially suggesting the same solution for First Nations people as his government did back in the day.

Pack up, forego the meagre benefits of living on the reserve, and move south. Where, of course, there are high-paying jobs available with affordable housing in nice neighbourhoods. Right? It’s not like Canada’s inner cities offer drug abuse, grinding poverty and high suicide rates… do they?

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