The Urbane Indian
northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat is only too familiar with
tragedy—flooding, chronic housing shortages, government disregard, flagrant
misspelling of its name. And now a frighteningly high rate of suicide and
suicide attempts amongst the youth there.
would be enough to break their hearts, if their hearts weren’t so strong. Next
to follow, was a barrage of
unsympathetic questions that usually follow any of these calamities, usually
asked by puzzled southern non-Native individuals or, as we like to call them in
this politically correct age, people of pallor. Why don’t you just move?
people get questions like this all the time. During the time of the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those
people who’ve had childhoods unencumbered by a steady diet of Manifest Destiny
ask in serious baffled frustration, “Why don’t you people just get over
over it, huh? It’s not a wall, people!
before those questions there was the always popular, “What do you people really
want?” I would always answer with “Well, stop killing our women, and
stealing our children and that would be a good beginning!”
to that, it all started with “Would you mind signing here?”
it: You’ve likely wondered it yourself why the Attawapiskatians (or
Attawapiskatites) don’t just roll up their blankets, hop a bus and fry their
bannock somewhere else up river.
it’s not that easy. It’s a complex issue that’s not so easily solved by just a
simple change in geography. There’s a certain connection to land and
environment. A community like this has a little more heart and soul than an
sure you’ll remember the famous story of Randall Truman, the man who lived at
the foot of Mount St. Helens when he was told the mountain might just possibly
blow up. Told this repeatedly, the man refused to move, regardless of the
threat. This was his home and he died with it.
maybe not the best example, but never underestimate a person’s, or people’s,
connection to their home, regardless of the dangers, especially with Native
people. Keep in mind that the Cree of Attawapiskat used to be nomadic,
following the caribou and other game, as the need arose.
is until they met other nomadic, but non-Native people, who found it their
mission to travel the world telling people like the Cree they could no longer
be nomadic, under penalty of law.
these same formerly nomadic people from across the ocean would later relocate
the children of these formerly nomadic Native people to other faraway places.
past experience has taught Indigenous people that once they have been
relocated, these same non-Native people usually find whacks and whacks of fur,
gas, diamonds or Aeroplan miles buried somewhere in the territory. So, 500
years of colonization has given First Nation people a learned aversion to
as for finding some place better to live... Where is it better? I suppose they
could go to Calgary—no wait, that place also has a history of flooding. What
about Vancouver? No, I’ve heard the housing situation there is almost as bad as
the point. The grass may always be greener on the other side, but it could come
with crab grass and poison ivy too. With ticks.
need to understand that the problems in Attawapiskat and other northern communities
run deeper than simply location. Many of the issues plaguing that community
would simply move with the people. What needs to be dealt with first are
the matters infecting these people’s lives that spring from hundreds of years
of colonization and the paternalistic attitudes held by government.
malaise doesn’t come from the house and street address. It comes from history.
don’t they move? Here’s a counter question: Why don’t you move? In case you
weren’t aware, there were quite probably suicides, drug issues, environmental
problems and general matters of social unrest where you currently fry your eggs
and practice your yoga.
communities are not R.V parks, ready to uproot at a moment’s notice.
that yellow brick road just exchanges one set of problems for another. Unlike
most people who ask these unfortunate questions, I’ve been to Attawapiskat and
it’s actually a beautiful community. I’ve talked to their children. I’ve toured
the village. I have also been around the world and seen far worse places. I
can’t blame them for not necessarily wanting to move.