The hurting

Award-winning novelist Joseph Boyden on the link between residential schools and the devastation of native suicide

JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP

A Cree woman I’ve known for many years up in Moosonee, Ont., has been in such anguish for months that I fear for her life. This anguish, this word, can’t begin to describe her tortured suffering. She lives every day walking through what most of us would consider our worst nightmare. A year ago, her 17-year-old son, while at a house party full of friends, walked from the kitchen, where he’d found a short indoor extension cord, through the crowded living room, to the bedroom, and eventually into a closet. There, he wrapped the end of the cord around his neck, and, leaving a foot or two, he tied the other around the clothes rod. This thin young man, pimples on his chin and black hair he wore short and spiky, knelt so that his full weight took up all slack. In this way, he slowly strangled himself to death.

If you have the fortitude, think about that for a minute. He could have stopped at any time; he could have simply stood up to take the pressure off. Possibly he did once or twice or three times when the fear of what awaited overcame him, when the happy noise of his friends in the rooms next door drifted in, muffled. But eventually, with unbelievable will, with a drive he’d never exhibited in his young life before, he managed this gruesome act of self-destruction.

Last week I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first annual gathering at the Forks in Winnipeg. Residential school survivors along with their families came together from all across Canada. The first day alone an estimated 20,000 people gathered to speak about their experiences or to see old friends or to soak up the evening concert that included Buffy Sainte-Marie and Blue Rodeo. Despite the rather festive feel of the first day, the pain, the same anguish that my Cree friend feels, was palpable just below the surface. The sunny skies turned to rain the next couple of days as if in mimicry.

An Anishnabe medicine man I know, when he speaks of the creation of residential schools, says that a door was opened that should never have been unlocked. For Westerners, his rather poetic view might be comparable to letting a sinister genie out of a bottle. One of the many evils that escaped out that door, the medicine man believes, is the tremendously high Aboriginal youth suicide rate in our country. He believes, as do many, that this suicide epidemic is a direct effect of residential schools where generation after generation of families were torn apart by the system. What’s certainly fact is that suicide among Aboriginal groups before residential schools was almost unheard of.

As I’ve mentioned, this Cree woman in Moosonee, my friend, has lived in anguish since the suicide of her son. Her 15-year-old daughter did, as well. She was close to her brother and went through most all of the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, a stabbing sadness. But she wasn’t able to make it to the last stage: acceptance. Five months after her brother was found hanged at the party, my Cree friend found her daughter hanged, this time in her own closet at home, and this time actually kneeling, leaning slightly forward as if in deep prayer.

How does a mother go on after that? This Cree woman, my friend, she’s from a tiny, isolated James Bay reserve named Kashechewan, 160 km as the bush plane flies north of Moosonee. Kashechewan is like a hundred other northern Canadian reserves. But unlike most, Kashechewan made the papers a handful of years ago when more than 20 youth attempted suicide in a single month. I remember reading about it on page five of the Globe and Mail and not being surprised. I’d lived and taught up there. The reserve’s reputation preceded it.

People in Moosonee warned me each time when I was to travel to Kash and spend a few days, a week, teaching adult community members reading and writing skills. These people said, “Be careful. It’s a dangerous place. It’s a rough reserve. A lot of people up there are crazy.” No warnings ever—and strangely, I might add—more specific than that. What I found were a lot of amazing people who became dear friends.

And I found a sadness difficult to define, lingering just below the surface of day-to-day living. My Cree friend, now the mother of two dead children, she’d left Kashechewan to live in Moosonee years ago, which to her mind was moving to a big town, in part to escape that insidious sadness of her reserve.

It’s the same sadness I can feel seeping from residential school survivors as I wander through this first annual gathering at the Forks. Groups huddle in large tents, rain popping on the roofs. They sit in circles and take turns speaking about their experiences. Some are resigned and speak matter-of-factly, others in hiccups and sobs. There are very few dry eyes and my initial feeling that I’m eavesdropping on something I shouldn’t be dissipates when someone invariably cracks a joke and smiles light up the circle.

My Cree friend didn’t know then what she knows now, that this sadness I speak of, this hurting, isn’t only isolated in Kash. This hurting has spread across the northern reserves and heavily Indian communities of Canada. It spreads more easily than H1N1, and it’s been infecting northern communities for many years. It’s deadlier than any epidemic since the smallpox and tuberculosis eras.

The oldest son of one of my dearest friends in the world, he’s made something of himself. He’s a young Moose Cree man with a brand-new wife and a brand-new career as an OPP officer. On my last visit to Moosonee, he told me something that continues to devastate me, that sounds unbelievable it is so brutal. Over a six-month period recently, there were at least 100 suicide attempts among teens in Moosonee, and many others in the neighbouring reserve of Moose Factory. At last count, eight youths in Moosonee have been “successful.” They’ve hanged themselves in closets, sometimes in trees behind the high school. It appears a death cult is taking root. More than 100 attempts. Eight suicides. In a community of 2,500. Yes, it appears to be a death cult.

If this statistic darkened non-Indian towns across, say, British Columbia or Manitoba or Prince Edward Island, if this epidemic struck one of our communities, it would be national news, the media frenzy so saturated that Canadians would suffer empathy burnout within months. My quick Google search—suicide rates on Canadian reserves—pulls 36,000 results in 0.28 seconds. Within minutes, I can learn that since at least the year 2000, many experts have declared that the northern reserves of our country are the suicide capitals of the world. Statistics on these pages, I think, quickly stun then numb us. And the reasons why our Aboriginal youth are strangling themselves in closets, are shooting themselves in the head, are drowning themselves in icy rivers? A few more minutes of keyboard tapping on Google and it becomes so obvious: miserable socio-economic conditions, psycho-biological tendencies, the post-traumatic stress of a culture’s destruction.

And what can even begin to stem the tide of brutal loss? The one and only family services centre in Moosonee, Payukotayno, which serves all of the 14,000 Cree of the Ontario side of James Bay, almost had to close its doors in December 2009, not long after my good friend’s children’s suicides. That was due to a severe lack of government funding. It’s expensive to try and furnish these services in such remote areas. The experts agree, though, that it’s vital. I’ve been told of 14 youth suicides on the west coast of James Bay in 2009. One in 1,000 committed suicide last year. The Canadian average, I’m told, is one in 100,000. Suicide rates on the west coast of James Bay are 100 times higher than the Canadian average in 2009. And the only family services facility for the west coast of James Bay came within inches of closing its doors last year for a lack of funding.

Before I paint such a painfully bleak picture, let me be clear that for each story of loss there is a story of accomplishment, of perseverance. Here’s one: while wandering around the Forks last week, I ran into a young man, Patrick Etherington Jr. from Moosonee, a young man I’ve known since he was a boy. In fact, for much of one year I home-schooled him. After a brief catching-up, he told me something startling. Over a month ago, he and his father, Patrick Sr., along with a few friends, took a train from Moosonee to Cochrane and then began walking. They walked over 1,600 km in just over 30 days in order to get here for this first annual gathering.

Along the way they talked to strangers, explaining that they were walking for the people, that this was their own little way of helping to begin shutting that door that was opened when the first doors of the residential schools in Canada began opening 150 years ago.

Patrick Sr. is a man I’ve held in great regard for 15 years. When I lived in Moosonee so long ago and became close with the Etherington family, Patrick Sr. shared with me some very tough and yes, shocking stories of his years at St. Anne’s in Fort Albany, one of Ontario’s most infamous residential schools. And now, here he is walking with four young people across a substantial part of Canada because he understands that the epidemic I speak of is contagious, and one way to protect your children is to engage with them in as direct a way as you can. What better way than to spend more than a month walking and talking and laughing and sharing the joys and pain of such an adventure?

Six more Truth and Reconciliation events are planned across Canada over the next five years, six more chances for people to come together and share stories and discuss remedies and keep straining to push that door shut.

What I’m convinced of is this: the simple act of taking that first step on the highway with your father and best friends beside you, the tension of the fast-moving river through your paddle, the radiant heat in the moose’s rib cage as you reach your arm to cut out its heart, the sound of Canada geese honking as they stretch their necks for the south, the tug of the pickerel as it takes your hook, the sickening grind of the outboard’s prop as it touches submerged river rock—it’s these simple experiences that contain medicine strong enough to start some healing, to start closing that door.

Sometimes I catch myself dreaming about my Cree friend’s two dead children. In my dream they’re still alive, and they’re out in the bush, paddling the Moose River together, sun on their shoulders and good power in their stroke. They’re paddling north, I think, home to Moosonee. And although I can’t see her, I know that their mother stands on the shore by town, waiting patiently for them to come into sight.




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The hurting

  1. nowhere in your article do you actually link suicide on reserves to residential schools. yes, at some point you mention that suicide on reserves was unheard of before residential school, but this could trend could be caused by any of the many many issues on northern reserves. correlation does not prove causation.
    this is a sad subject, one that needs to be addressed first and foremost by native leaders. if you actually had proof linking residential schools and suicide on northern reserves, you failed to provide it.
    in no way am I defending residential schools here or making light of the issues faced by northern reserves, I just find this was poor poor journalism and not up to the standard I usually expect from Macleans.

    • I seen the suicides…lived the effects and seen the after affects of residential schools. So you shouldn't comment on something you know nothing about. I am sorry about the tone of this comment but I feel very strongly on this issue. I heard from survivors……what really went on there. why they don't love there children. They had to become remorseless. robots. to show no emotions or they were pounced on. they passed it on. to us. It is now showing its ugly face with the suicides.So B.S it is connected. It doesn't need to be mentioned in this article. Its the truth and you sound like an intelligent person. to be able to figure this out.

    • This was a fantastically written article. It was moving. It certainly gets the message across, that our country has completly and utterly devastated its First Nations through the residential school system.
      I think you lack the insight required to assess the impact that residential schools had on these communities. What you need is an aboriginal culture awareness class, perhaps a history class, but certainly not the first year undergrad stats class which taught you that correlation does not prove causation.

  2. A clear point of view from the writer and right on the mark. My point is that Canadians are so absolutely, appalling ignorant and indifferent to the plight of the Aboriginal people in Canada and their elected governments clearly support and represent them in exactly that manner. I wonder if the time will ever come when a critical mass of caring empathetic concerned Canadian citizens will come together and demand their government ensure adequate funding for education, children care, housing etc.
    As a citizen of Canada it makes me sick to my stomach to see the horrific tragedies unfold every day with federal government shrugging their shoulders in a state of mind and spirit paralysis.

  3. whoa whoa whoa…….. it doesn't take a genius to see what joseph is trying to say….its easy to write and to critisize here on the internet.. but I don't agree with BSchweinsteiger one bit……I walked for Residential school survivors and the ones who didn't survive, either during or the sickness that followed. I lived these stories…….not the residential schools but the affects……..seen the SHIT that goes on……………. seen my relatives and friends attempt to kill themselves…. and have two of my friends do it

  4. ……..I heard stories of what went on in residential schools. I want to acknowledge the survivors. The stuff they seen and went through is unimaginable. Even for me, a Survivor of a survivor. Why i say that is I myself contemplated suicide; They were taught to hate themselves and there skin color. That even to say hello in the language was the devil speaking. To not only learn to hate but not be able to love………………I went through this. I see it in this generation…….I see it being passed on to the next generation. I……..WE need to break this cycle. It will be the youth, who will challenge the survivors. it should be the youth………who will lead them…..and I honestly think that if we lead them…………they will follow……… For the ones that were able to deal with the stuff that went on..I acknowledge you….I thank you. even thoo i recognize the hypocrysy I am doin……I am critisizing his/her comment. At first i was, but I thank you too BSchweinsteiger. If you didn't, then I wouldn't have had to do this walk that I did. I walked to bring more awareness about the issue……..to show the survivors that there is still at least one person, one youth, who believes there is still hope….for them and for us

  5. ………I don't mean i did it for B.S I'll call him/her. (lol pardon for my comment) But for people like him/her. I suffered on this walk…..I took it one step at a time……………….i took it one km at a time……one day at a time……All the pain and all the blisters i went through is nothing compared to the journey these people went through……These young kids…children really…went through. For that I acknowledge them.and I pray for them. One day this will be history….done with… we are making it right now…….living it right now…….doing it right now….but i know it will be done.

  6. you are so right Pat, we need to spark change!! and it begins with our youth. and it starts with the polls, if we could get together all of the aboriginal peoples to realize that if they stand up and vote we can get these conservative assholes out parliament and maybe get the new govt. to recognize and see that there is a desperate need for govt. funding to help all of our aboriginal peoples. i am so sick of hearing people (even friends of mine) talk about how they haven't personally done anything to these aboriginals and that they just need to get over it already. but what they dont' understand is that it takes years and years to recover from the types of abuse that our aboriginal ancestors and now their children have been put through. We need to organize ourselves and give ourselves a voice and it begins by voting and getting elected officials that realize the problems and want to do something to try and help.

  7. sorry i could ramble on forever about this, but we need to get organized and elect leaders that will stand up and defend us from the same old crap that has been going since christopher columbus "discovered" america. haha what a joke that is, reminds me of an amazing quote i read. i can't remember who wrote it but it reads, "how can you discover a land that is already inhabited?" how true is that? in history classes growing up we were taught that columbus discovered america, but how can this be true when aboriginals had lived here for hundreds of years before he ever arrived? it's time to start teaching our youth out there that just because you read something in a text book it doesn't necessarily mean that it's true. also we need to rewrite history and tell the truth about how the europeans tried and almost succeeded in the largest mass genocide in the history of civilization when they killed more than 800 milliion aboriginals through germ warfare tactics as well as assimilation techniques such as residential schools!

    • WHAT do you think should be done? Get over the past, it can't and won't be changed. How will we move forward from what the Catholic Church did? We all face challenges, all of us. We are all responsible for our own evolution from these hardships though. Do you think we should continue to blithly throw money at this problem? Historically, has that worked? Should we continue to enable a dependent society within our own society? Has that historically, worked? No. Perhaps integration would work, BUT maintain your own culture as other cultures do…such as Sikhs, Scottish, Irish, English and so on. AND they are able to do this without public funding. At some point it needs to stop. I don't know the answer but don't you think this may work? I know that our (white) society isn't what your culture originally was but neither was suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, incest etc. I'm sorry to be so blunt but it's true. I think that maintaining and educating others about the aboroginal culture would be fabulous. All we see is the negative and I know this is not what constitutes what is in your blood. Many, many people struggle w/ addiction, regardless of colour, addiction has no preference.

  8. again sorry to get carried away but i'm so sick of the ignorance that many good kind hearted people show to this particular subject, as they believe, "well i never personally did anything to these people so why should i worry about it?" man i would love to see what they would think if the shoe was on the other foot and the aboriginals had put them through what they have gone through. i'm sure there would be a lot more eyes open. okay i have to stop now but it was pretty good to vent.

  9. Some comments on this story mention that he didn't like residential schools and suicide. I urge all readers to do your own research…. beyond reading this story…. to learn about residential schools and I believe that you will see the link yourself. Joseph was making this story personal and touching.. I cried, personally because it touched me… and it's something in Canada that is often unrecognized. I believe in years to come, hopefully with the proper education, and Native youth, that this can be reclaimed and turned into a positive. I urge those who believe in the stereotypes to dig further and find their own truths… because what I have learned… is that we as Canadians have a lot to learn from our First Nations

  10. To the people who haved lived this and are living it now, I would like to ask you: What do you think will start the healing? Throwing money at Aboriginals has been said to not be helpful, so that is not the answer. What will help? Would massive counselling on letting go, learning to love again, learning (or re-learning) to be productive, proud members of society etc….would that help? Would victims and their families attend? As a white person who has not had this kind of trauma I want to know what do the generations who are now living with the effects of residential schools want? At what point do people affected by the symptoms of residential schools move forward and take responsibility for the happiness of their own lives and being better than what you were dealt to their own children? What will it take to encourage the youth to leave the reserves? To go to school, isn't post secondary fairly affordable for a person of aboriginal descent? What will it take for these kids to stop killing themselves, to break the cycles and become proud people again? Stop perpetuating the cycle.

    • lol……i am sorry, but i just realized i was being ignorant in my first few comments. I was thinking only from one view. the one i know, and always will know. my own and i would like to think my peoples. how can we take responsibility of our own happiness when only a few of us actually really attain it. I am talkin in general. all peoples. all skin colors. All people really know is how to bring sommeone down. we know how to do good things too but seldomly do we do it. I am tryin to think from another point of view. I am tryin to think like someone who has just heard bout this for the first time.they must feel guilt, remorse, pity. this is not what we need. we need understanding. understand why we are the way we are. I think that is the first thing we need. Take it one step at a time. not these quick fixes you see on tv like dr phil or oprah. once thius is achieved then we can take the next step. whatever that is. one thing i can tell you. almost garuntee is that when we get there. it will be both of us, all of us, who take that step TOGETHER

  11. For anyone who reads these comments, please ignore the ones by ShannonD and BSchweinsteiger above, or any others that put forth a similar cynicism. They are focusing on details without acknowledging the larger issue, which is this: Any community in Canada that has a problem as severe as the ones depicted in this article should have whatever support they need from the rest of Canada to help them deal with it. We are all Canadians: you have my support whether you live on the next block or on the other side of the continent.

  12. I am wrinting from south of the border, where we have simliar issues as tribal nations with no formal apology forth coming. Truth and Reconcilation is a process and that process is messy and requires being wiling to stand in a place of witnessing, truth telling and rebuilding. I do believe that reclaimation of language, traditional values and practices can and does provide a kind of shield against the enourous risk factors that we face.

  13. I have no clear answer for the problem that Boyden illustrates so well. Is it money? Yes but probably it is a lot more than that. I wish I knew what I could do sitting here comfortably in Southern Ontario. I wish I had faith that different politicians would yield different results – but I don't. I wish I could know of something that one person like me could do.

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