Action needed to foster hope in First Nations

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Suicide has always been an issue in First Nations across Canada. The problem recently exploded with reports of a suicide pact between 11 teenagers in my home community of Attawapiskat.

There are many reasons young people in remote First Nations communities give up hope for the future. As a teen back home I often felt caught between two cultures. On one hand, I was brought up and lived a more or less traditional life. On the other hand, I was educated in a non-Native way and exposed to another world that I did not really understand. From the time I was a child I witnessed so much tragedy. There were suicides, violence, and death always seemed just around the corner. Housing was poor; there was no running water, meaning outdoor toilets and drawing drinking water from the river. That was only 25 years ago.

I was one of the more fortunate children in my community as I had a more functional family setting. My dad was a contractor and provided well for the family. My siblings and I worked for him in the family business so we were always busy. We had money and life was not so difficult. Other families had tough times with no employment, poor housing and terrible addictions. We also had our share of these issues, but not to the point where we were destitute and hopeless. My mom always provided for us. She made sure we went to school and we were fed properly.

Still, as teenagers my friends and I saw how wonderful life looked on TV for the non-Native world. People had nice cars, cool clothes, lived in beautiful houses and ate all kinds of amazing food. We all wanted some of this for ourselves. When most of us left the community to attend secondary school, we were shocked to find that we did not understand how things worked in the new world. We felt awkward, intimidated, off balance and many of us who had vowed never to drink or do drugs suddenly found ourselves on that path.

Things have improved as the community now has a secondary school. But there has never been adequate housing in Attawapiskat or many other First Nations across Canada. A population boom in recent years has resulted in cases where up to 20 people live in one house. In terms of education, First Nations have never received school funding comparable to non-Native communities, and that has resulted in a lack of resources and programming.

On the job front, the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine employs and trains many Attawapiskat residents, but many more are just not ready for the process or demands of regular work. After generations of dysfunction, abuse, neglect, addictions and hopelessness it is unrealistic to expect people to be able to immediately take advantage of opportunities. Following a healthy diet is very expensive in remote First Nations. All produce, dairy and most meat have to be either flown in by airplane or transported on the winter road and summer barge. Most people consume too much sugar, salt and processed foods. Many in the community have health problems but there is only a small hospital and no full-time doctors. The nurses and medical staff do what they can, but they are overworked and underfunded.

Things have to change. Over the past decade things took a turn for the worst as Conservative government policies led to conflict with First Nations. Now is the time for the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to provide real solutions. We need funding for decent housing, education, healthcare resources and meaningful programming for the youth. They need traditional teachings to connect with their past and get a sense of who they are and where they come from. They also need education on drugs and alcohol.

We have to be careful also not to allow them to do hurtful and tragic things to themselves to get attention. To use the threat of suicide to get attention is a very dangerous path. It is important to take the youth who feel hopeless seriously and intervene to make things better for them and provide hope. However, we must all take great care to make sure that our governments and leaders back up their promises of care, understanding and commitments with real action. With this kind of positive attention in their First Nation, education, lifestyle, diet and health care, the youth won’t need to cry out for help in such a tragic and dangerous way.

This kind of commitment and care has been missing for a very long time. Making these efforts would give our Attawapiskat youth a reason to hope for the future.

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