Joseph Boyden: Attawapiskat, and the fallout of intergenerational trauma

The true tragedy of Attawapiskat

Award-winning author Joseph Boyden reflects on his love for places like Attawapiskat, and the desperate need for investment and education

A man walks down the street in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

A man walks down the street in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Attawapiskat is a microcosm of intergenerational trauma.

If you don’t know what Attawapiskat is or if you’re not quite sure what intergenerational trauma means—or how they are married to each other—please allow me to explain.

Attawapiskat is an isolated northern Ontario Cree reserve on the west coast of James Bay. According to the last census taken in 2011, the on-reserve population is just over 1,500 souls. According to that census, more than a third of those souls are under age 19, and three-quarters are under the age of 35. That’s a very young population. It’s representative of a national trend: Canada’s fastest-growing population by far is its First Nations youth.

Attawapiskat has made a disproportionate amount of national news in the last decade, most often because of the deplorable living conditions as well as the suicide epidemics that sweep through and devastate the community. Perhaps Attawapiskat’s most famous daughter is Shannen Koostachin, a youth from the community turned national activist for Indigenous children’s rights to education in her fight to have an elementary school built on her reserve. Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010 while forced to attend high school off-reserve because hers doesn’t have one. Another well-known daughter of Attawapiskat is former Chief Theresa Spence, who helped propel the Idle No More movement when she embarked on a hunger strike to bring attention to First Nations’ grievances, and especially to deplorable living conditions in her community.

This week, Attawapiskat is back in the news after its chief and council were forced to declare a state of emergency. Eleven people in this community reportedly attempted suicide in a single night; 28 are reported to have tried in the month of March, and 100 attempts have been made in the last seven months.

I first flew into Attawapiskat 21 years ago, in the winter of 1995, as a professor of Aboriginal programmes with Northern College. I still remember vividly an older woman named Agnes who served as an officer in the tiny airport sheepishly rummaging through my luggage to make sure I wasn’t smuggling any alcohol into the community. It’s a dry reserve, where alcohol is banned. I’ll be honest: I’d considered sneaking a bottle of booze up to keep me warm at night during my first week-long stint there. But I was glad I hadn’t tried, as there’s no doubt this woman would have found it, this woman who turned out to be one of my students. Now that would have been embarrassing.

Since that first visit, I’ve returned both professionally and personally many times. I love the people of Attawapiskat and the relatively nearby and isolated reserves of Fort Albany and Kashechewan, and the less isolated Moose Factory. I don’t use that word lightly. I love them enough that a number of years ago I begged my dear friends in the Tragically Hip to play a free concert in Fort Albany in support of the Cree of James Bay during another crisis in Attawapiskat. I’ve helped build a camp, with the Cree couple William and Pamela Tozer, called Onakawana; it gets James Bay youth back on the land in order to connect them with their birthright. I financially support the camp, as well as a number of young people from the communities when they need help.

From the archives: Read Boyden’s chronicle of that Tragically Hip show

I don’t do any of this because I am a saint. I do this because the Cree people of the west coast of James Bay, including the community of Attawapiskat, have served as my muses for most of my writing life and are the ones most responsible for giving me my career. Now some of the people I so love and respect are in crisis again.

Author Joseph Boyden is shown in a handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Penguin Canada)

Author Joseph Boyden is shown in a handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Penguin Canada)

I first tried to take my own life on my 16th birthday. It was a serious attempt. I lay down in front of a car speeding toward me. I believe I understand what it is like for an Indigenous youth, albeit a mixed-blood one in an urban setting, to feel despair so crushing you don’t want to live anymore. The difference is, I was immediately swarmed with the best medical attention. When I was able to walk again, I was made to see a psychiatrist for the next number of years. I was given medications and all form of support and counselling and help. Why are the people I love up north not getting this same help in times of deep crisis?

Yes, these are rural places and the costs of physical and mental health care rise in these areas. But remote areas like the Cree homeland of Mushkegowuk lie atop some of the richest diamond and chromite deposits in the world, and companies like diamond giant DeBeers have huge extraction operations like Victor Mine, not far from Attawapiskat. I have no doubt that the Victor Mine site has top-notch physical and mental health care facilities. The mine couldn’t operate without them. DeBeers has the obligation to keep its employees, who toil 90 km from Attawapiskat, in top physical and mental health. They would be shut down if they didn’t. DeBeers certainly wouldn’t let that happen. Yet the people who have the most right to profit from what is being taken out of their homeland live in Third World conditions amidst another wave of attempted suicides with no accredited mental health workers living in the community. This past Monday, after the state of emergency was declared, 13 youth were taken to hospital who’d made a pact to kill themselves. Something is deeply broken, not only in the community, but in how we allow business to operate as usual.

It’s certainly not so simple as to suggest we relocate our northern populations to the south. First off, the vast majority don’t want that at all and consider the idea a nightmare. Think of Tina Fontaine. Tina was the 15-year-old Cree girl found murdered and wrapped in plastic at the bottom of the Red River, and whose death forced the issue of our MMIW into the national headlines. Just ask her family if they thought her relocation from her reserve to the city of Winnipeg down south was the proper solution. Just as important, you don’t sever a people with thousands of years’ connection to their land from that very land. In another article I wrote for this magazine a number of years ago called “The hurting,” during another suicide crisis on James Bay, I argued that not only is suicide the direct fallout of the devastatingly destructive residential school system but that it is the land and connecting with it that offers some of the most potent medicine to combat these recurring crises.

Related: Remarkable Indigenous women share stories of resilience

There is no single solution for what has become one of the most pressing tragedies this nation of Canada faces. Attawapiskat is not alone in its suffering. Last month, the people of Pimicikamac (Cross Lake) also had to declare a state of emergency with their own string of suicides and attempts.

So why the insanely high suicide rates among our Indigenous youth, especially in northern communities? Why are our Indigenous women four times more likely than any other female population in this country to be murdered? Why such high addiction and physical and mental health issues in so many of our communities? Is it because our Indigenous peoples are somehow lesser? Somehow not well enough equipped for contemporary life? Are our Indigenous people somehow less smart, less motivated, less well-equipped genetically or socially? Do we really need to move south to cities from our remote communities? Of course not.

Intergenerational trauma is real and alive in communities deeply affected by residential schools. You can’t attempt cultural genocide for 140 years, for seven generations—the last of these schools closing their doors in 1996—and not expect some very real fallout from that. Attawapiskat is a brutal example.

Stella Wheesk and her husband Harold Wesley hold one month old Rain Wesley in their one room home in a dorm styled temporary housing trailer in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Stella Wheesk and her husband Harold Wesley hold one month old Rain Wesley in their one room home in a dorm styled temporary housing trailer in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

For 140 years in this country, residential schools operated with the intention of “getting rid of the Indian problem,” a phrase uttered repeatedly by Duncan Campbell Scott, one of residential schools’ central architects. Over 150,000 children were forcefully removed from their parents, including so many from Attawapiskat who were shipped down to St. Anne’s in Fort Albany, one of the country’s most infamous institutions and the scene of a lot of horrific abuse, as outlined in Ed Metatawabin’s brilliant memoir, Up Ghost River. These residential schools were the only schools in Canada to literally have cemeteries built beside them. Officials understood that the death rates for Native children due to rampant spread of diseases—as well as other factors, including death from abuse in its many forms—were many times higher than for any other children in the nation. Thousands and thousands of children died while attending these institutions and many hundreds if not more remain buried in unmarked graves.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a committee from South Africa visited Canada to study our reserve and residential school systems. They returned home to create apartheid. The phrase, the final solution, was proudly and publicly uttered by Duncan Campbell Scott decades before Hitler, when Scott referred to these schools. One of the worst memories that my dear friend Patrick, who attended Saint Anne’s, still can’t forget is the sound of the teacher’s footsteps in the middle of the night approaching Patrick’s bed in order to drag him to the teacher’s room where Patrick was repeatedly raped. When I asked another dear friend who attended residential school what was most tough about it, she thought about this for a while and then replied, “I grew up never being given proper physical contact, never getting to be kissed goodnight by my parents. I grew up never even getting a hug.” These are just a couple of stories.

There has never been a level playing field for our First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. For years, the brilliant Cindy Blackstock argued that children on reserve in this country are severely underfunded compared to the rest of the country. This past January, in a groundbreaking decision, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal unequivocally agreed. As well, schools on reserves are grotesquely underfunded compared to their non-reserve counterparts. But the answers to the continuing tragedies in communities like Attawapiskat lie in exactly these two things: our children, and their education.

What will allow places like Attawapiskat to get better? The equal ability to receive a proper education in your own community in all its forms. Curricula that teach children about their culture and their language and their land. When children learn the importance of where they come from, and who they are, and that others in the world care for them, they begin to internalize that vital ingredient of self-esteem: a sense of pride in self and in community.

The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. on November 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The remains of a Canadian flag can be seen flying over a building in Attawapiskat, Ont. on November 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Education outside the classroom is just as important. That camp I helped build, Onakawana, teaches young Cree of Mushkegowuk to connect with the land again, whether that is how to build a fire or a winter shelter, how to make a hand drum and sing a song in your own language, how to catch a fish and paddle a canoe or sew moccasins or simply play volleyball together and laugh with one another. William and Pamela Tozer, who run the camp, see the difference the camp can and does make. I do, too. We see how youth come hesitantly but almost always can’t wait to return. We see how they go home to their communities with a growing awareness of who they are and where they come from. William and Pamela raised their four children with a deep knowledge of their land, and their children are all such solid and grounded people, from the oldest, an OPP officer who serves in his home community of Moosonee, to the middle boys who have their own outfitting companies, to the youngest, happy and excited to begin her high school career and who was just gifted her first powwow regalia.

Of course education costs money. It is also the greatest single investment we can make in this country, especially in regard to our fastest-growing population. Let’s first agree to begin with actually investing just as much in our First Nations, Inuit and Metis youth as we do in every other group of youth across this country. It is simple logic. If there’s one thing I know as deeply in me as I know anything, I too would have been one of these brutal suicide statistics we hear about far too often, if it hadn’t been for the resources available to me to continue my own education in its different forms. This is a right for all youth in our country, not just those who happen to live in more urban places.

Attawapiskat is a lightning rod for the debate in regard to the plight of Canada and its original peoples. Attawapiskat is a microcosm of intergenerational trauma. And Attawapiskat, the home of those people I love, is the spear’s tip in the battle over how we will move forward as a nation.

As my dear friend Gord Downie said when he and the rest of the Tragically Hip came to James Bay to perform their first high school gym show in 25 years, our nation is only as good as how we treat our most vulnerable, as how we respond to those most in pain.


The true tragedy of Attawapiskat

  1. Throwing billions of dollars at this problem will solve nothing. Reserves like this isolated one need to be shut down and the people brought to civilization. There is absolutely nothing there except bush and black flies. How do you except people to lead healthy and vibrant lifestyles in these conditions. Don’t except doctors and health care providers to move there to provide care they simply won’t do it. They may be caring but they’re not stupid. But like most governments, they are all talk and no action. AFN leaders needs to be proactive and demand that these reserves be shut down so these people can start new lifes and be prosperous in Canada.

    • I have to agree.

      All the money in the world will do no good in the middle of nowhere, where there is no real economy to speak of. Meanwhile, if the only thing the youth have to do over there, is suicide pacts, because the living conditions are really that horrendous…..but what’s the use? Governments will talk, and then throw money at the problem, when what the kids really need, are hope, and opportunity.

      Five years from now, there will probably be another crisis. Mostly over the same issues.

      • Why do you assume there will never be opportunity in the far north. A concerted effort by all involved can make it happen – if there is the will.

        • Such as what? One diamond mine that will be done in about 20 to 25 years (that is the history of all mine based communities which is why new mines fly in workers rather than build communities that are dead once the mine closes). It is not just this community – that are hundreds of Attawapiskats in Canada – some in the north, some in the south but the common thread is that they are run by third world dictators that government just continues to send more and more and more money to in the vain hope that something will stick.

        • Kay,

          Simply WISHING something to be so…will not make it so.

          Why condemn people to an existence that most of us would do our utmost to avoid? THERE ARE NO JOBS THERE!!!…..

          And unless a whack of non-natives move up there and start their own community, there never will be.

          You are asking for a “make work project” in a place where there is no work. Do you suggest we build a car plant in the area? What about a furniture manufacturing facility…high tech industry? What…what do you suggest.

          Because frankly, what it sounds like you are asking for is to simply keep shovelling money to them in the hopes that they stay there and not bother the rest of us.

        • Simply put, because there is nothing there.

          There are no economic prospects, very limited infrastructure, and it’s geographically isolated. The economic opportunities are simply not going to come to them.

          Maybe these communities would be more self supporting if the people there at least lived off the land. However, they don’t even do that, anymore. Instead, a constant sense of despair has taken hold, along with a learned helplessness that comes with government dependence.

          Meanwhile, what about the kids? Why should they suffer in that environment of third world isolation? Sending mental health workers up that way will not fix the chronic, yet obvious problems, that people seem to be trying to avoid discussing. I’m not saying that they should give up their culture, but sitting around, looking for handouts, out in the middle of nowhere, while not even practising their own culture, is not the solution.

          • There is a Billion dollar mine less than 100km from the town. Those have a lot of jobs – good ones, too.

            If the “intergenerational trauma” prevents gainful employment that is thrown in their laps, then all the social workers in the world aren’t going to fix it.

    • The worse comments I’ve heard is along the lines of “relocate them to high population density areas” i.e. assimilate them – a continuation of the Residential School system – assimilate and wipe out their culture – their culture has no worth. No – we should be funding their education and promoting their culture across Canada so we recognize their cultural worth and take enormous pride in it. By extension this will increase their self worth (the mental healthcare improvement follows as a consequence of this). Of course, provide these communities with healthcare services and sports and other amenities as well – we can afford it. These are first and foremost Cree but given the opportunity – especially with all the modern means of communication – they can also contribute to 21st century Canada. PS Even in high population density their problems still exist, so that’s not the solution.

      • tony wrote:

        “No – we should be funding their education and promoting their culture across Canada so we recognize their cultural worth and take enormous pride in it.”

        Ok, tony. After we have all of these super-educated native kids recognizing their cultural worth to the rest of us…… are they going to pay their bills. What good is this education, if they can’t use it to support themselves? It doesn’t matter how smart or educated you are if you can’t find a job and pay your way in this world. You are a typical “progressive” Ignore reality, and just go with what feels good. (or in your case, write it on a public blog so people can see how good you are).

        Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, a lot of NON-native kids are also facing troubles paying for their education. And you are asking their parents to pay for someone else’s kid now.

        Tony goes on with:
        “By extension this will increase their self worth ”

        Yes, because we all know that increasing your self-worth is just as important as increasing our NET WORTH. Except of course, self-worth doesn’t feed your belly….just your ego.

        Tony’s Progressive-ness continues with this gem:

        “Of course, provide these communities with healthcare services and sports and other amenities as well – we can afford it.”

        Tony, I assume you missed the part of the article that mentioned that first nations are the fastest growing segment of Canadian society, and has been for a while. The question of course, is what happens when you reach the point that half the population is supporting the other half, simply so they can increase their self-worth. (tony, you may not have guessed this point, but some non-native folks don’t really want to keep paying in perpetuity to maintain the self-worth of the other half of society. At some point, folks have to look after themselves.

        Tony, if you want to actually work towards fixing the problems faced by remote native communities, you have to actually ask the tough questions. Simply doing what you have done in the past…only more of it, won’t solve anything. No one is going all BORG on the Natives and demand they be assimilated, but if you want to produce a society that can support itself, have pride in itself, and give its kids something besides suicide to look forward to, you need to give them hope.

        Right now, they are stuck in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a majority of adults who don’t work, don’t support themselves, and don’t really have an answer as to why their kids want to off themselves.

        If that means picking up and moving…….then that is what has to be done. Otherwise, we’re stuck with the status quo.

        But don’t worry Tony….you just keep being all “progressive” and stuff if it makes you feel better. Obviously, your feelings of of self-worth are well entrenched, but it is just unfortunate that your progressive-ness doesn’t help the kid who tried to swallow a bottle of pills last week.

      • The worst comments are saying to maintain the status quo. Provide enough money to stave off this catastrophe so they can live to see the next one. Which is what we are doing.

        If by ‘assimilate’ you mean live in adequate housing, with jobs and productive lives, then yes. We should assimilate them. You can celebrate your heritage without living where your father did.

    • Did you even read the article? Your arguments were addressed and refuted.

      There is money to provide education and healthcare on northern reserves. As Boyden noted, there are huge diamond and chromite reserves in many parts of northern Canada. Companies “like DeBeers have huge extraction operations like Victor Mine, not far from Attawapiskat” – actually only 90 km away. They are able to provide services to their workers. In the meantime, mining companies in Canada pay a pittance in royalties for the right to mine diamonds. From 2013-2014, De Beers paid only $224 *total* to the Ontario government in diamond royalties ( . Maybe if De Beers paid it’s fair share for extracting this precious resource, we’d have a good source of revenue to begin with.

      It’s a question of priorities, not resources. Canada has a duty to Aboriginal peoples, because of hundreds of years of trauma, land theft, and abuse that Boyden talks about. For generations, Canadians allowed Aboriginal children to be forcibly removed from their families and taken to schools, where they were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused while the country looked the other way. The objective as to “get rid of the Indian problem” – a kind of cultural genocide. We need to repair those wrongs. So we need to MAKE healthcare and education on reserves a priority.

      Most people on reserves don’t want the community to move. As Boyden writes, their connection to the land is important to them and one of the only things that is helping at least some youth stay emotionally healthy and grounded. So what do you propose to do? Go back to the bad old days, and close Attawapiskat forcibly? Force people to leave their homes? Sorry, but that’s not a just solution, especially given the historical responsibilities we have towards native peoples.

      So we have three options: force people to leave, the status quo, or actually do something to help. Clearly, the first two are not good options. So that leaves the third.

      • Your third option subsumes the first. If the reason they remain in perpetual squalor is “their connection to the land is important to them”, then nothing will change. That this connection “is helping at least some youth” doesn’t do much for those it clearly isn’t helping, does it? How about they relocate to a place that actually provides some opportunity and return to the “land that is important to them” on weekends and holidays, like other Canadians with a psychic connection to some ancestral place that, regrettably, no longer sustains an acceptable standard of living?

        • The reason that they are in squalor is not because the land is important to them. It is because the Canadian state, which has the responsibility to do so, is not providing adequate healthcare, housing, and education. I already explained why the Canadian state and the Canadian people have this special obligations to indigenous peoples – read my comment. So their situation is not the same as that of the average Canadian who has a psychic connection to some ancestral place. In the first place, we have treaty obligations. Secondly, we stole indigenous land before and after making those treaties. Thirdly, for generations, we put indigenous children forcibly into residential schools where they were abused. And did you know that it was not until the ’60s that Native Canadians were allowed to vote?

          We have special responsibilities here. And this means that if these people want to stay, then we have a duty to make it the case that they can stay and not be living in squalor – that they can be living well.

          • Native Canadians truly have alot to be proud of in regards to there heritage. I believe I do as well about my Scottish heritage. Pride in ones heritage is a different thing than pride in yourself. To be proud in yourself you have to earn it. I don’t think that for the most part, the people of these villages that are experiencing these serious depression issues, feel alot of pride in themselves. And I think it’s been a persistant problem for a very long time. Untill we find a way help them to gain pride in themselves as individuals, it won’t matter how much health care, education or money we give them, they will still not feel they earned it themselves. They may feel their ancestors got it for them, but they won’t feel like they earned it themselves, and will still be depressed. I mean those of you that are depressed, not the ones who are happy and doing great….to you, awesome, to your many neighbours who aren’t doing so well….I wouldn’t feel proud to take anything I hadn’t earned just cause my ancestors got it for me and I doubt you would either.

    • Did you read the article or just the headline? And there is more than “bush and black flies” there. How about educating yourself before commenting. The depth of your ignorance (and those who think like you do) is a major part of the problem.

      • Kay53

        What about the kids who want to do something besides live off the land, or work in the mines? What about the kids who want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers? What about the kids who don’t want to be condemned to live in a remote region far from the rest of society?

        I hardly think you are anyone to be lecturing on the depth of anyone’s ignorance; because clearly, you are in a glass house.

        • Well, their reserves/communities need Doctors, Engineers and lawyers… they would be well employed right at home! So it’s a matter of providing them with opportunities of education. Plus they would have the opportunity to continue living with their families, practicing their traditions, and generally providing positive support for the youth of the community.

          They can leave their reserve whenever they choose … they are not forced to stay.

          • Brightside….

            That’s the point entirely. What successful person would WANT to stay in that remote region? Some will, but most will probably want to get the hell away from such an obvious cesspool of despair.

            If you were a highly educated person from Attawapiskat, would you want to stay in a tiny community in the middle of nowhere, or would you want to get out of Dodge?

    • DId you even read this article? DeBeers is talking millions out of mine less than 100 k from the town. Closing down the northern communities is exactly what industry and big business would like to see – then the true plundering and raping of the North could happen with no witnesses at all.

  2. My heart is breaking for the mothers of Attawapiskat. I would like to know what an individual like myself can do. I walked with the TRC, I am interested in learning Cree, I would like to help our country heal from our colonial past and present but I am just not sure where to start. I entertain the idea of offering financial support (in addition to pressing our federal government), but I worry that ‘money=solution’ is a very colonial attitude and as a white woman this makes me face an uncomfortable reality about my own power and agency (which is entirely undeserved). I will continue to seek ways that I can use this agency for positive, inclusive change. I want to learn Cree so that I can begin to listen.

    • And the above comments by Lisa Jayde, ladies and gentlemen, is why it is so hard to solve the problems the native community is faced with today.

      Learning CREE will not help solve the problem Lisa Jayde. A lot of of the folks we are discussing speak cree fluently; and that doesn’t stop them from killing themselves.

      I could go on and dissect the meandering diatribe she wrote above, but I think Lisa’s frame of mind is pretty clear.

      Lisa…it is folks like you who are the problem.

      You are more concerned with looking good to the other readers of the site, as opposed to actually seeing a solution. Frankly, if there was no tragedy, heartache, or tears for you to publicly pine over – how would you ever feel good about yourself?


      • She began he comments with her heart is breaking over the desperate issue and you tear her down….THAT…as why the problem persists and I must say that your attitude is borderline racist.

        • In Decent Seas wrote:

          “She began he comments with her heart is breaking over the desperate issue and you tear her down….THAT…as why the problem persists and I must say that your attitude is borderline racist.”

          Utter Bullshit. If you think her screed was anything more than a public display of how GOOD SHE IS….then you are deluded. She wasn’t writing it to say how BADLY she felt about the situation, her sole goal was to show YOU how GOODLY she is.

          And again, it doesn’t mean squat what she FEELS……feelings do nothing if there is no action. Learning to speak Cree…..won’t fix anything.

          She was trying to earn her “street cred” as a true progressive.

          And as for your opion of me…I’ll file it with the other opions folks have of me under the file, “like I give a shit what you think of me”

          And for the record, if I were a true racist, I wouldn’t WANT to see the problem fixed.

          • Lisa Jayde, as a daughter of an indigenous family – Thank You.

            Thank you, thank you, thank you.

            To fix this situation, we need many things. Among them: resources, political will, and a massive shift in ingrained attitudes towards First Nations peoples.

            Thank you for caring. Thank you for questioning what you can do. Thank you for walking. Thank you for your will to learn languages that my grandparents lost and forgot before they could pass them to my mother and me. Thank you for thinking critically about these issues. Most of all thank you for listening.

            Your comment truly touched my heart. Thank you.

          • Emma,

            So nice to see that you value the opinion of someone, more than you value an actual solution to the problem.

            It reminds me of someone crying as they watch their neighbours’ house burn down as the occupants of the burning house watch from the roadside. Instead of thanking the firefighters who are taking the risks to save what they can, the victims of the fire instead thank the observer wiping their tears.

            And again, this is a big part of the problem. Empathy is fine, but JUST empathy, does nothing to solve the problems.

    • @ Lisa Jade. Your comment echos my own thoughts exactly. I commend you for your support of the TRC! I have also wondered (for many years) how to help the Indigenous communities, but “solutions” from the colonial white society are what got them into this situation. We have to find a way to help them without imposing our values, and listen without forcing them to conform to our language.

    • I know you .. you are the lady who gets her boyfriend bit in a zombie apocalypse, while he is saving you… because you just didn’t have a clue.
      How about you just stay home and “help” from there… mmmk?

  3. There are no easy answers. There is no infrastructure to administer the funds, as I believe the funds are readily available. But we have the Chief Spence legacy who apparently lived well while her people did anything but. With 1500 souls why isn’t there focus for a local school? Why aren’t these children given choices – to learn the way of the land – or to migrate elsewhere without insult. But our farmers today are selling out to large conglomerates and few can make a living on the land. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the economics. These children aren’t doomed because of the residential schools, but of their legacy and the inability of the aboriginal, Inuit and Metis to move them selves forward, for their children’s sake. I admit, it’s a difficult struggle and one not easily let go. But we need hope, not despair. We need to come together and forge an affordable solution for the sake of the children. The Tozers have done it…what makes them so different? Perhaps we need more light shined on their solution.

    • “the inability of the aboriginal, Inuit and Metis to move them selves forward” … the Mississauga of the credit had better schools than the average European in Toronto … the government shut it down because 1) ‘education was wasted on savages’ 2) ‘we have to save these Indians from the jaws of those vipers’ according to an Anglican bishop, the vipers being Methodists. Aboriginal immigrants to Saskatchewan took up farming and began to have higher yields than European immigrants so the government made it illegal for them to own modern farm equipment. The only reason to ignore history is that it makes us look bad.
      ‘ aren’t doomed because of the residential schools’ it’s not like residential schools have gone away: now we just have mark 2 where many have to leave home at age 13 or 14 in order to attend secondary school, even a disturbing number of primary school students have to do the same. This has nothing to do with location otherwise how can a remote podunk like Atikokan with little economy have 3 secondary schools? Even when remote native communities have schools, they lake the infrastructure and support that regular schools get from district boards and provincial education departments; in the few exceptions where that is not the case, they actually have higher graduation rates.

      • Get a job. You may have to go where there are some.

      • The problem is that so many of these reserves are too small to justify the expense. Do you really want to build a modern hospital, fire hall, primary and secondary school, water treatment plant, and other large infrastructure projects for a reserve that only has a few hundred, or couple of thousand people?

        When you consider there are about 600 such reserves around the country, and many of them are very small, it is pretty clear the expenses aren’t justified.

        Of course, you will always have folks saying they it is their “RIGHT” to have these things, but they of course, are not the folks on the hook for paying for them all.

        There really is no answer. Spend bilions on new buildings, or spend billions on flying people around for health care, or education. both untenable.

        Destroy the Indian Act, eliminate the reserve system….no special rights for anyone. If we are about equality….then let’s actually practice it.

  4. It is time that we admit that the reserve system is probably even worse that the residential school system – both attempted to address problems of the time. Residential schools to address the lack of education in remote/rural areas (which by the way was the case for non-natives as well – for my mother to complete her high school in the 1930s she had live her tiny town and board during the week in another town and then to complete Grade 12 she needed to go all the way into Regina – in addition to paying school fees she had to pay board and room which she did by trading housekeeping/meal prep services to the family that she was staying with).

    Reserves were an attempt to provide a land base – it sounded like at good idea until about the 1970s when it became apparent that reserves were nothing more than third world dictatorships run by specific families – if you didn’t have good connections you were done. The band chief and council took the money and maybe would provide services. Add to that the intro of satellite TV and the internet and you have a generation that sees the outside world and ask why am I suffering in this hell hole where my life is controlled by the band council – from getting housing to getting money to get an education beyond the poorly managed school. NONE of that will be solved by giving away more money – but apparently we have learned nothing from giving aid to third world dictators – either in other countries or at home,

    Jean Chretien (and I hate to agree with that thief) had it right – the message to youth is if you want a future you need to leave and our role is to ensure that you have the best education/skills training AND the ability to integrate into non-reserve societies. While it is sad that over time, these reserves may be nothing more than land that is held in trust for various bands, but the alternative is spending more BILLIONS on plan that will not come to anything and in 20, 30 or 40 years, the outcome will be the same.

    • The justice Minister has it right….and she’s a native.

      The Indian act has to go. It has caused more suffering than any other piece of legislation.

  5. What utter nonsense! I grew up in Saskatchewan, my roots are there ( and no I don’t subscribe to the idea that my father’s family spent millenia in China so my roots are really in China) as is much of my family. However for my career I had to move elsewhere. So what? Big deal! I go back to visit family, I go fishing in the summer. Others I know have cabins they go to in the summer with their families. Great! Spend time where you grew up because you have a connection to the land. That doesn’t mean you have to sentence your wife and kids to a life of desperate misery because you don’t get off your ass and find a better life for yourself and your family! Spare me the connection to the land means we never leave excuse.

    • Ah yes but you don’t get “paid” to stay on your ass, if you complain enough.

  6. I agree that Education is the only way to move forward socially and financially. To forcibly people is the wrong way to go. People will leave off their accord if they see better opportunities elsewhere which could be to the next town (eg Moose Factory ). As a small c conservative, my first query would be what is the tribal counsel doing to rectify the situation. Have the area councils together met with he Ontario medical assoc, e.g, we’ll pay tuition for a med student and or nurse to come and practice family/rural medicine for a period of 5 years.Forget the government. do it yourself. The small communities in northern Alberta had do just that and have fair results.
    I hear reports of obscene amount of money being spent on salaries with no budgetary outline where this years money is being spent in enhancing the reserve. I do not know if this is the correct situation in Attawapiskat. You would know first hand. I hear of the reserve near Chilliwak that’s fully employed. I believe the on e in Fort Chip is similar. I believe the reserves in NWT with regards to the mining operations ,have contracts in place that
    mandate a minimum number of native workers
    I’d look forward to your feedback and how the council is addressing these issues. Asking the government to do something is waiting to long. Could they get speakers and consultants for other successful reserves that understand what’s going on (ie; been there and now we’re moving on succesfully?

    • ” we’ll pay tuition for a med student and or nurse to come and practice family/rural medicine for a period of 5″ The Ontario government already pays healthy bonuses for physicians to work in under-serviced areas … oh wait, that’s just for non-natives. BTW, rural medicine is a specialty with at least 3 years residency plus at least two or three more for specialties such as emergency medicine or psych – there’s only so many of those and it would have to be a doctor not a ‘med student’ since many of those don’t intern concurrently and even a resident still has academic requirements and needs access to an attending physician. Also, no physician can do 24/7 on call so you’d need more than one and several specialties. Currently, the Attawapiskat hospital (just like many other remote hospitals) depends on RNs to do the heavy lifting but, what the heck, Timmins is only 500 km away. But doctors don’t much remedy social problems, they mainly deal with the fall out. In your glorious view, one GP could handle the population of Attiwapiskat assuming that the average patient needs no more than 45 minutes per year of attention – that obviously doesn’t leave much room for much treatment.

    • No reserves in the NWT except a small one near Hay River.

  7. If they want to live as their ancestors did, it is time they did, Cut off electricity, internet, tv, Etc. Then they will not know what the outside world is like and how miserable an existence they have living in this isolated place. Time to move.


    One of the challenges facing these Northern Communities is education, but not K-12 education but professional education. Finding and education nurses, doctors and teachers that are willing to move to these communities is not easy. I know Lakehead University has a Native Nursing Program that works hard at tackling this problem by providing educational opportunities to people from these communities. As for K-12 Education, the cost for driving an effective program in these communities would be much higher then more densely populated areas so the funding for these programs would need to be more as well. Many communities in the south are still shutting down schools as the provincial government in Ontario continues to put more and more pressure on school districts to fill there schools and classrooms full to the brim to reduce operating costs.

  9. There are many comments here with people that have all the solutions….i am not one of them. I do not know how to fix this at all. I do know that i want to help. Are there any sites or links to help send necessities them???

    • Chris,

      If you want to help, about the only thing you could do is go there and open a large business and provide some jobs. that’s the problem.

      No jobs….no money, no economy…no hope.

  10. I saw a National Film Board of Canada documentary on the housing crisis at Attawapiskat. While I believe that the bleakness of the situation up there and the inter-generational shame from residential school experiences are very real contributors to the suicide trend, I think there are physiological contributors, too. In the film, I saw a typical grocery bill. Outrageously expensive. Could it be that people are subsisting on free government surplus food like white flour, cheese, sugar and other staples that contain virtually no nutrients and are potentially highly allergenic–especially since they are so foreign to their ancestral food? Brains need even blood sugar, oxygen, good nutrition and they need to be free from inflammation that comes from immune triggers–like the wrong foods, toxic exposures like molds or heavy metals or unrelenting stress. I don’t believe putting these at-risk youth on psych meds is the answer. These medications cause effects that can be very damaging long term and they would cause yet another stigma for these kids to deal with. The camp is a great idea! Kudos to William and Pamela Tozer! Anything that helps the kids feel proud of and connected to their heritage is great. Something that helps them find purpose for their lives would help a lot, too. I wonder if Habitat for Humanity might choose to start a project in Attawapiskat. There is a great sense of accomplishment and empowerment that comes from being involved in the building of your own house. I also thought that perhaps a different form of construction that uses local resources, i.e. rammed earth, cob or stone, might be a way around the logistical challenges of getting supplies there. Just some ideas…

  11. There is no question that a sound education is the key for our First Nation Youth (as for all our youth), but there there is a fundamental problem in remote communities with a sparse population. Low population, as in any community anywhere, can’t support higher order services and activities. In economics it’s known as “demand threshold” and that’s the minimum population needed to support an type of service. For lower order services (convenience goods for example), only lower populations are needed (perhaps 1,000) but for higher order goods/services (a cement factory for example) a much larger population of perhaps 50,000 is required. This is inescapable.
    Without larger populations, there are no opportunities for young people even with excellent educations. Smaller and remote communities will never be able to offer their youth meaningful opportunities. It has nothing to do with being a “native” or a “non native”.

  12. The best way to address the problems is to encourage the residents to live somewhere else – for a little while.

    Once they’ve seen what’s beyond the horizon, and lived in a different world, they can make an informed decision about where they want to live. If their ties to the land are so important they feel compelled to return – great. They’ve made an informed decision and I bet their perspective will help their community. If they decide that somewhere else provides a better life for them – so be it.

    But not encouraging a look outside is just asking for problems.

  13. I raised many of these issues before the Ontario College of Teachers, at one point a senior member of the College admin offerred to shot me with a rifle. That was only one of many threats and degrading comments about me and my family. The head of the Ontario College of Teachers has claimed in his porn that children should service school admin. Don’t believe me…Google Jacque Tremblay Toronto Star. He was the same person et al who kicked me out of teaching for portesting sex offenders being allowed to teach their first Nation Student victims. The Ministry of Education was and is fully aware of this abuse. Blame all you want but ask the Ontario Liberal party why they allowed these conductions. The people responsible for the abuse of children should be charged under the criminal code not covered up by school admin. Speak up Canada. You are going to be flushed in the same toliet as the molesters and mutiple criminals.

    • James,

      Being a teacher in Ontario is like having a bulletproof vest. They are protected by their union, and unless you get something on tape… is impossible to hold them to account. Especially since Teachers are not just protected by their Unions, but that is a profession of the correct political leanings for the most part. They are progressives……courts, media, Big labour……won’t help bring them down.

  14. I am really truly appalled by those that offer solutions that are really an extension of the original “final solution” and in large part disingenuous by their attempt to sound empathetic. For those who believe these reserves need to be shut down to those that believe assimilation by urbanization is a solution …. is exactly what the residential school system was trying to do. So your solutions no matter how it is disguised is nothing short of colonialism in a revised context. These reserves were as a result of our ancestors (The Interlopers) taking the land from the indigenous people (The First Nations) and forcing them into reserves to maintain their indigenous cultures and beliefs while allowing other indigenous people to choose assimilation and relinquishing their heritage. Don’t want no “Injun” beliefs in my backyard was and seems to still be the mantra of many Interlopers.

    If those who offer the insights and come up with outsider solutions had comprehended the article completely may have missed some of the observations such as: “There has never been a level playing field for our First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. For years, the brilliant Cindy Blackstock argued that children on reserve in this country are severely underfunded compared to the rest of the country. This past January, in a groundbreaking decision, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal unequivocally agreed. As well, schools on reserves are grotesquely underfunded compared to their non-reserve counterparts.” and “Of course education costs money. It is also the greatest single investment we can make in this country, especially in regard to our fastest-growing population. Let’s first agree to begin with actually investing just as much in our First Nations, Inuit and Metis youth as we do in every other group of youth across this country” For those who call it throwing more money at the problem are seriously overlooking the fact that there has been no equity between what is thrown at The Interlopers’ youth and peoples versus The First Nations youth and peoples.

    Interesting enough many people failed to acknowledge the role that corporations should play in the crisis given that they have benefited from the land once owned by The First Nations and by virtue of the fact that they employ many of the people from The First Nation peoples whether it be from Attawapiskat or other parts of the country where corporations have benefited greatly on the backs of The First Nations.

    Debeers’ Victor mines have only paid $226 dollars in royalties to the Ontario government (which translates into $00.75 for every $1,000,000.00 they extract and it is estimated they extract $300,000,000.00 annually from their enterprise located only 90km from (Attawapiskat) the home of many of their employees.

    Perhaps the best solution is to send The Interlopers who think assimilation is the answer perhaps they should move to Attawapiskat and be assimilated to original peoples culture and heritage and if they are reluctant to give up their heritage perhaps they should go back to where their ancestors first lived.

    The last paragraph just mirrors what you expect of The First Nations people.

  15. There is an answer. An answer I have seen work effectively. The results are indisputable. It will probably be roundly condemned by many. The problem previously was that the white man tried to make our First Nations people into little white people. Obviously disastrous. First Nations people should be proud of their culture, their history, their language, and should fight to preserve them. I’m not sure there are any today who would dispute that. But check out “”
    As I say, I might be criticized, but results speak for themselves. The question is do we want to keep trying the same old things or use a resource that is truly effective.

  16. First: When our aboriginal and European ancestors signed agreements, whereby this great land was peacefully divided and we were to live beside each other as nations, aboriginals were segregated mostly to marginal lands. The European invaders took away what are now the valuable lands in urban Canada. Our country, as it was set up, promised to provide aboriginal Canadians in all the generations to come, with health services, education, housing and economic support on their First Nations, in addition to their land based rights to continue their culture. Members of First Nations live a communal existence on these First Nations, and the resources they have been given have diminished and are dismal, in comparison to what other Canadians enjoy. So, remember these contractual promises, upon which all the lands in this country were granted title, that particularly urban Canadians enjoy today. Too bad if you don’t like the current price tag.
    Second: Note that the health crisis in the James Bay region of Ontario still stems from widespread sexual and physical abuse of children at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, that operated from 1902 until 1976. In Attawapiskat, virtually every adult member who is age 48 or older was forced to attend St. Anne’s IRS. After the trauma and horrors of St. Anne’s, many declined any further education. Dysfunction and despair come from the evils things that were done to children at St. Anne’s for decades. The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the IAP process have bought people forward to tell their stories. However, the quest for justice for St. Anne’s Survivors has been ongoing for over 2 decades. Starting in 1992, the leaders in the region organized the Keykaywin conference to talk about why there was such a level of dysfunction and mental health issues. The invited Health Canada to participate, and it did help fund the conference. That is when the stories of the horrific abuse started to come out to a panel hearing stories privately. Then Chief Edmund Metatawabin was asked to contact the police, and the Cochrane OPP investigation under Detective Constable Delguidice ran from 1992 to 1997. Over 700 brave former students went forward to give their oral evidence to the police and were required to sign written statements, detailing the abuse that happened to him/her or witnessed to other students. The investigation took years. Search warrants were obtained for Catholic Church records based upon the signed witness statements. Many of the former supervisors were already dead. Some criminal charges were laid by the Attorney General of Ontario, and trials were held from 1997 to 1999 leading to some convictions of former supervisors for sexual and physical abuse. One supervisor was convicted for forcing sick children to eat their own vomit in front of all the other children in the dining room at the school, an all too common event at St. Anne’s IRS. Then, the federal government and Catholic Church defended civil actions and ADR pilot claims from 2000 to about 2005. In 2003, Department of Justice lawyers brought a motion to obtain all the OPP investigation documents, which was granted by Mr. Justice Trainor of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on August 1/2003. Those civil actions settled. Then, the national class actions settled in May 2006 with the Indian Residential School Settlement. The Department of Justice lawyers then hid all the documentation arising from the operations of the police, criminal proceedings and the civil courts. The lawyers in the Department of Justice did not bring any of that evidence forward to the IAP process, and they never sought a decision of the Court until forced to do so; Justice Perell ruled on January 14, 2014 that all that evidence should have been disclosed. In the meantime, from May 2006 when the IRSSA was signed until 2014, the report about St. Anne’s falsely stated there was no documentation about sexual abuse at that school. Another promise under the settlement agreement was for mental health support for all former IRS students, but the ability to get mental health support help in the James Bay region was extremely difficult and shrunk under the IRSSA. Health Canada was operating under the false report about St. Anne’s IRS, because Department of Justice lawyers hid all the documents and were pretending there had not been widespread abuse of these people when they were children. Hundreds of claims of former students were heard, under false reports from the federal government about the school. Some claims were denied. Some people have been re-victimized by the IAP process and tried to kill themselves because they are so despondent. So even today, federal officials are trying to hide the evils of St. Anne’s IRS. In 2015, Mr. Justice Perell found for instance, on the additional evidence that Father Lavoie, one of the Priests at St. Anne’s from 1938 to 1976, was a serial sexual abuser of the children at St. Anne’s IRS. Despite apologies and promises of truth and reconciliation, federal officials today are still fighting in these private and confidential IAP hearings against payment in IAP claims for children who were beaten and forced to eat their own vomit, for children who were electrocuted in an electric chair built by the deranged supervisors or children who were whipped on bare skin with a cat of nine tails whip by another Priest. There is a hopelessness in the region that no one cares, no one in authority will do the right thing, nothing will change and they will never be believed. The intergenerational issues from the legacy of widespread and prolonged sexual and physical abuse at St. Anne’s are known and understandable. Federal lawyers today have worked with the Catholic Church to hide all the evidence of abuse at the school. People have suffered inside themselves with the terrible stories of what happened to each one of them. The truth about St. Anne’s should have been revealed by federal officials, and given to doctors, mental health workers and aboriginal/non-aboriginal leaders in the region, to understand the cause/depth of the problems, train individuals in the region, fund programs that heal. But Health Canada did not want to admit liability. The goal of the Keykaywin conference in 1992, was to get help into the region and undo the effects of widespread institutional abuse. Until 1976, every aboriginal child was forced to attend the IRS, starting at age 6 and each one was removed from their parents for about 8 years. Parents were not allowed to raise their own children and children were not raised by their own parents, for generations, due to federal law. Aboriginals Canadians in this region do not have the resources to take on the federal government, which holds the funding power, so the cycle goes on. Where are the good members of the Catholic Church of Canada and their decisions over church activities today in Canada—why doesn’t the Church accept that there was widespread abuse at schools like St. Anne’s and why does the Church not pour its resources into the aboriginal Canadians abused by church officials, rather than sending money outside Canada, pretending there is no problem still being experienced today from the sexual abuse?
    Non-aboriginal Canadians were largely unaware this federal policy of forced assimilation and mandatory attendance at IRS’ was happening in our own country. We hold onto racist assumptions. Our excuses and accusations are wrong. Aboriginal Canadians know the truth, whereas non-aboriginal Canadians must learn it. The sufferings of so many individuals in Attawapiskat and the declaration of a state of emergency by the leaders in that community, is real. It takes people being in the depths of despair, to educate the rest of us that we have to do something concrete to erase the effects of IRS and fulfill the health, education, housing and economic development promises made under Treaty. Forced urbanization of all aboriginals would bring another, next round of disaster and death to aboriginals. Try to think critically for yourself on these issues.
    All Canadians should demand accountability for the current violations by federal officials of rights of aboriginal Canadians, such as the former students of St. Anne’s IRS. The hopelessness in Attawapiskat is a nation tragedy, owned by all of us. It is certainly a known consequence of the IRS system and the current IAP process, that was supposed to allow the truth to come out and to bring healing.
    We each need to figure out how each one of us can change our attitudes and our lives, towards aboriginal Canadians and their needs. Aboriginal Canadians are the ones who developed multiculturalism–accepting foreign languages, foreign religions and foreign ways and to try to co-exist peacefully. This country will flourish again if aboriginal Canadians are properly supported and allowed to co-exist in their own culture, as they should.
    Fay Brunning, IAP claimant counsel.