The unasked question about Attawapiskat

Attawapiskat isn’t a hopeless slum because we haven’t been paying enough attention, says Scott Gilmore. It’s because of its location and its infrastructure.


Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine there is a neighbourhood in Toronto that isn’t doing very well. In fact, it is a slum. Unemployment rates are around 28 per cent, and have been for decades. Many houses don’t have indoor plumbing or electricity. Most lack any fire protection, and people die in house fires at a rate 10 times the rest of the city. It has the highest property crime rate. You are 10 times more likely to be murdered there than anywhere else in the city. Diseases like tuberculosis are 30 times the national average. It is not only the worst place to live in the city, it is the worst place to live in Canada by a very wide margin.

But the real losers in this hypothetical neighbourhood are the children. They are more than twice as likely to die at birth than other kids. A child is more likely to end up in jail than graduate from high school. Up to half the children have been sexually assaulted. Their existence is so unbearably grim the youth suicide rate in this neighbourhood is 50 times the national average. Children as young as 10 years old hang themselves.

This all sounds wildly improbable, doesn’t it? Yet this neighbourhood exists. It is our remote northern reserves, places like La Loche, Pikangikum and Kashechewan. And it is no secret. Every year, news pages are filled with stories of neglect, despair, violence, racism and mismanagement. You would need to be remarkably cloistered to still be unaware that hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Canadians live in Third World conditions. That excuse became even less plausible this week, after Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency following 39 recorded suicide attempts in the last six weeks.

In response, the Speaker of the House of Commons agreed to an emergency debate after a request by Charlie Angus, the NDP member of Parliament whose riding includes the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. I confess, I am cynical about this. In calling for the special session, Angus wrote it will “allow parliamentarians to address this crisis and show . . . we are willing to work together because the days of shrugging off the tragedies or tinkering with Band-Aid solutions are over.” The five health care workers dispatched to Attawapiskat will do far more to “address” the problem than the act of adding a few more pages to the Hansard about how we should all work together.

Related: Joseph Boyden on the true tragedy of Attawapiskat

Nonetheless, the debate was worth listening to, if only to hear the Indigenous parliamentarians talk about their own experiences and expectations. But there are two problems. First, most of this has been said and done before. Government after government has sworn this must end. For decades, prime ministers have promised policies that will stop the suffering. Every minister of Indigenous and northern affairs has charged forward with the same mandate to make “real progress.” And yet, one, two, three generations later, here we are. Second, the only thing that was not debated in Parliament is the one thing that has the greatest likelihood of actually bringing this national nightmare to a close: ending the hellish and anachronistic reserve system.

Places like Attawapiskat are not utterly hopeless slums because we haven’t been paying sufficient attention. It’s not because we haven’t consulted enough or because there have not been enough royal commissions. Attawapiskat is a sinkhole of despair because it is located on a flood plain, 1,000 km from the closest sustainable economic activity, with no permanent roads, no hospital and no college. As one resident has explained, “Attawapiskat hasn’t changed in decades. I don’t think it ever will. It can’t.”

Over half of Indigenous Canadians have already moved from the reserves to cities, where every measurable indicator of their health and well-being doubles. Those who remain believe passionately that this is their land; that this is where they belong. They’re right. It is their land, and they should own it and have access to it in perpetuity.

But here is the question the elders and adults of Attawapiskat have to ask themselves: Does their right to live on a remote reserve supersede their children’s right to grow up in a healthy and viable community? Or even to just grow up? Under no circumstance would we want to return to the forced relocations of the past. This is a question of choice, not compulsion. But at some point the residents and leadership of communities like Attawapiskat need to consider other options, and provincial and federal governments would be morally obliged to help those who choose to leave. Otherwise we will be right back here a year from now, 10 years from now, or a generation from now.

Sadly, this question was not asked in Parliament Tuesday night. But a few hours earlier, one retired politician dared to offer an answer. Jean Chrétien, the former prime minister and long-time advocate for Indigenous Canadians, was asked about Attawapiskat. He replied: “There is no economic base there for having jobs and so on, and sometimes they have to move, like anybody else.”

But no one else is willing to say this out loud, which is why we keep running in circles, and why the fatal despair will go on.

Scott Gilmore writes on international affairs and public policy. He is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and is married to Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment.


The unasked question about Attawapiskat

  1. It is unimaginable to anyone I know to raise their children in these types of circumstances when there are relatively easy and better alternatives. The reason Canada and the US exist as they do today is because people packed up their families in search of a better life. And I’m not talking about taking a few hour drive down the road with all kinds of government assistance to ease the transition.
    Until the native community makes the effort to find a better way for their children how can they expect anyone else to help them out? We have all kinds of people bending over backwards to help Syrian refugees. Why? Because they want a better life for their families. Until we see the same effort from the native community (and no using the excuse that its your land and just give us more money and it will be all better doesn’t do it anymore unless of course your name is Justin) then it will never change.

  2. Just think about how much better Attawapiskat could be if the funds were re-purposed to create and run something like a summer camp. A place where the kids could learn their heritage in their traditional setting from elders.

    Or we could apply another band-aid.

    • A summer camp. Seriously, that is insane. They need to move these people out. The reserve doesn’t stand a chance. Integrate, get these kids in schools with people who WANT to succeed. This is so simple. Now, let’s talk about the MILLIONS that have been pumped into the money pit and that is doing no one any good. These people are fifth or sixth generation welfare recipients and it is obvious to anyone who understands that without goals and a vision for the future people lose hope. Shut the reserve down and move them into a small town and let them start over.

    • Actually Partridge,

      That is exactly the kind of situation I was thinking of. Move the people away from that region so they can find work and be closer to civilize amenities, but hold the actual land as a type of “Native Nationl Park” for the following generations.


      Scrap the indian act, and all Canadians should pay taxes and have the same rights and benefits. If you get rid of the laws/policies that divide us, that is the first step. It would certainly get rid of some of the resentment.

  3. I sit back and await the comments calling Scott Gilmore a racist (again) for having the temerity to suggest those who want to leave remote communities with no economic base should be able to access government assistance to do so.

  4. Two Hundred And Fifty Years Ago A Group Of Wealthy Colonists Decided That Reservations Were A Good Place For Aboriginals. The Idea Has Been Perpetuated Ever Since. There Are Still Members Of Parliament, Supposedly Educated Members , Using Words Like Assimilation but Ignoring Words Like Segregation.( Niki Ashton NDP) . Others, Like Attawapiskat Local Riding NDP MP Charlie Angus, Have The Audacity To Tell Us We Don’t Understand The Connection Aboriginals Have To The Land, As If No Other Human Being On This Planet Has A Connection To His Or Her Home Land Or Property. NONSENSE. Another Genius, AKA Senator Murray Sinclair Has Determined It Should Be Up To The People Of The Reserve Whether Or Not To Stay. Is He Not Seeing Option Number Two Playing Out Here ? When You Start Seeing Suicide As The Only Other Way Out , The Situation Has Become Grave Enough To Warrant Action Without Choice. The Leaders Are No Longer Leading , They Are Become Complicit In The Death Of These Poor People Who Could Not Say No Two Hundred And Fifty Years Ago.

    • Ummm….you sure like that caps button don’t you?

  5. The reality is this: The way of life their ancestors lived is not compatible with that of modern, North American society. They have to make a choice: Either return wholeheartedly to living off the land and eschew the modern way of life (a choice that will inevitably lead to all kinds of hardships, but at least will be true to their culture), or make a move – both figuratively and literally – to embrace modern society and form a positive community within the larger nation that remembers and honours its past but works to build a future.

    If they choose the latter, the government needs to help them resettle to an area where they can lead productive lives as part of a larger community. Will they lose some of their old ways? Very likely. But they can preserve their language, beliefs and those portions of their culture they truly cherish. We see it all the time in our various immigrant communities. We see it even in places like NL, where small isolated communities whose livelihoods died with the closure of the fishery are making the hard choice to close down and relocate.

    Yes, it will be hard. But not as hard as living in a land cut off from both past and future with no work and living a life of despair. I’ve had a small taste of that; it truly is soul-crushing. And there is no amount of money you can pour into a place like that that will do anything, long term, until hope – genuine, self-determined hope – is rekindled.

    We can hold out our hands; we can offer them help when they are ready. We can suggest alternatives, and listen to – and act on – theirs. But the choice has to be theirs. And they need to make it sooner, rather than later, before those with enough self determination all scatter and the rest spiral to oblivion.

    • Just move somewhere else. Move to the cities like anybody else. They aren’t anybody else. They are an indigenous people that have been brutalized for generations. Their political and economic structures that enabled them to thrive have been largely destroyed by Euro-Canadian society. And now we turn to them and say, “Hey, what is the matter with you. Just move. Come live with us in the city.” Do we extend the same invitation to many more villages across northern Canada or do we face up to our obligation to work to rebuild what has been so badly damaged. There is today a large encampment on the court house property in downtown Victoria. There is no water, no sanitation. The shelter is worse than the slums of Nairobi, yet they wish to stay rather than be scattered to homeless shelters. Walk by and you know why. They have community. And that is vital to us all. It is particularly so to a distinct culture that has very good reason to stay away from our cities and those who suggest it will solve their problems to come there.

    • Of course, Keith, they are trying to have it both ways.

      Natives want full hunting and fishing rights as part of their “Sacred heritage”

      Fine. Do what you used to do before got here. But you will be restricted to harvesting game the same way your ancestors did.

      No steel, no guns, no vehicles.

      You get wooden arrows, stone arrowheads, and no modern fishing gear or boats.

      Natives didn’t look after the land and animals because they were “sacred”. They just didn’t have the technologoy to make the land barren in the first place.

      In fact, in BC, they were granted to the right to hunt whales in the traditional manner of their relatives….so what did they do? Well, they grabbed a “Sacred” .50 Calibre rifle and shot one in the head.

      Pretty sure they didn’t have those when we arrived.

  6. “Does their right to live on a remote reserve supersede their children’s right to grow up in a healthy and viable community?”

    This kind of unasked question is more specifically of the non-verbalized variety. As verbalized in this article, the double-whammy, catch-22 injustice of the situation as it stands is displayed in all its gory.

    Do reserves not go hand in hand with treaty history? Does it not seem unjust that aboriginal peoples who honour their part of treaty history by staying on reserve should leave, if the government of Canada is not honouring their part of the treaty when they took possession of more habitable lands? Is this not simply the issue of human rights? To be treated as equally human in terms of treaty history?

    What a burden for children of such families and communities to bear, to cope with this kind of catch-22 injustice, whether they stay on reserve, or leave reserves, all the while doing their growing up.

  7. I can understand where the knee jerk reaction to Scott Gilmore’s article can easily come from, but I do agree with him. I think one of the biggest and most glaring results of colonization still at play is still one that I don’t think anyone ever talks/thinks about; when confronted by European cultures, lots of Native American societies seem to have retreated in on themselves.
    When Europeans societies first made contact with Native American societies, the Europeans brought fundamental technologies with them (not the obvious ones like guns, but things as mundane as wheat and wide spread agriculture) that were the products of thousands of years of Eurasian societal advancements. Native American societies were making their own advancements too, but at a much slower rate (go read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” for a concise explanation). These advancements weren’t progressing slowly because of some cultural inferiority, but it is rather because of a number of factors in Eurasia (a surplus of high turnaround agricultural staples, a surplus of large animals that could be domesticated, and even geographical layouts) that made Eurasia advance at an accelerated rate when compared with North America. It is also important to point out that the advancements I’m talking about are not superficial advancements that are easily used to distinguish one society from another, but the fundamental from which societies grow. The advances that Native American societies were discovering on their own prior to European contact were the same ones that Eurasians had discovered thousands of years before. Both societies (at large) were on similar trajectories, just at different rates of acceleration. However, when Europeans and Native American societies came into significant contact with each other, a lot of potential advancements that Native Americans could theoretically have organically discovered on their own were rendered null and void. This is just my personal opinion, but I believe that when that happened, Native American societies retreated into themselves. They may not have done it immediately, but I feel like that has become the case today. We seem to have this fantasy in our collective minds that Native American societies had been living the way they always had up to the point at which Europe imposed itself on North America, but this is a lie. Native American groups were advancing on their own. Now, traditions they may have organically shed down the road are held onto with seemingly every last fibre of their being, and I am really forced to wonder about just how much theoretical potential for Native American societal advancement is redirected towards holding onto it’s past and traditions.
    I am not arguing against traditions. I have my own set of cultural traditions which I hold onto, but there has got to be point at which that tenacity to connect with your ancestors becomes problematic, and even catastrophic.
    If members of the Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, Pikagikhum, La Loche, etc. communities feel that they want to leave, they should be supported. If they want to stay, they have to seriously consider that living in such a remote, and isolated community with no immediate economical opportunities is going make any progress (regardless of financial aid or good intentions) incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
    Holding on tooth and nail to your traditions is not the answer. It hasn’t been the answer for Native Americans, just as it hasn’t been the answer for Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, or Jewish communities. Beliefs and traditions can reinforce a communities strength, but societies have to be willing to push forward if they stand any chance of surviving.

    • Them and us especially when we are superior to them in our own humble opinion is discrimination plain and simple. If you wan’t to throw stones – how about the tenacious segment of our society clinging to colonialism including that nice German lady and her Greek husband. The sad thing about your attitude is that it discounts a vibrant and diverse heritage that is rightfully part of Canadian heritage; alternatively, why not come to Kitchener Octoberfest and tell people to stop wearing those ridiculous leather shorts?

      • I’m not talking about the differences between German and Greek cultures. I’m talking about the backbones on which those societies are built. The necessary requirements that need to exist of any society to be self sustaining. A basic example would be the shift from a hunter gatherer society to an agricultural society. Please bear in mind that I am not saying that Native American societies are still existing as hunter gatherers, nor am I saying that the trajectory that Native American societies were on prior to European contact would have naturally resulted in the music of Mozart and Beethoven. Those are superficial traits when compared to the building blocks of societies that I’m talking about. My point was that Native American communities need to be willing to compartmentalize their cultural traditions, and progress as a community at large. It’s the same thing that’s happening to communities on the East coast that were traditionally reliant on the fishing industry. Infrastructure needs to be built and developed in order to maintain and support the things that places like Attawapiskat are asking for, things like education and health care, but they need to support that very infrastructure to ensure that education and health care are capable of continuing. They have to be willing to play a role and embrace these backbones of society which are unjustly associated with Western cultures. I’m not saying they need to learn how to speak the one true language, or abandon their own heritage, but if they ever want Native American societies to be capable of standing on their own two legs without the need for anyone else’s support, then they’re going to have to find a way to use the tools of the West to their own advantage.
        For instance, when I go to the doctor for a serious injury, I could be treated by a doctor who is German, Hindi, Somalian or Mohawk. The procedures I’ll undergo won’t be procedures that are informed by that doctors background. Meanwhile, while I’m off recuperating, that German doctor might go out drinking in silly leather shorts, or that Hindi doctor might go home to read the Vedas, or that Mohawk doctor might take the weekend off to go fishing with her family.
        Yeah, Native American’s have a vibrant and diverse heritage that is rightfully part of Canadian heritage, but any group of individuals that is going to survive has to be willing to recognize that it’s time to adapt. I’m not calling for anything radical like the residential school systems to be forced on them, but I am saying that they cannot expect to exist as their ancestors did 200 years ago. They have to find ways to appropriate from other societies while simultaneously exploring new and organic ways for their own societies to evolve uniquely.

        • I disagree with your read of Jare Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” You speak of trajectory — the book spoke of population densities facilitated by the wheat innovation, and it was these densities that tipped the balance toward health epidemics. You speak of trajectory — the book spoke of the import of chicken as an available source of dietary protein throughout the pacific.

          The lack of road and distribution infrastructure is the problem in the north that makes “groceries” prohibitively costly. Yet, the boreal forest “infrastructure” and the “distribution” of caribou is a heritage that needs to be part of these considerations of sustenance. Your concepts of modernization and progress seem limited to a steely violence to conquer nature, without the same steely resolve to remain human, and find that human value in all cultures.

          • The first half of the book was definitely about population densities, wheat innovation, chickens and epidemics, but the crux of the book is the question of why some societies are more technologically advanced than others. The things you listed were foot steps on the road societal advancements.
            And I have not once said that Native American culture holds no value. But can you agree that a society and a culture are not the same thing? A culture is language, art, stories and histories. A society pertains to population densities, agricultural sustainability, etc.
            Now, holding onto a culture is not something I have a problem with, but when a culture trumps a societies willingness to continue evolving (both organically, and through appropriation of other technological advancements) then I don’t see how that individual society can sustain itself.
            Again, I’m going to say that if European societies had not made contact with Native American societies, Native American societies would most likely have continued to progress in the same ways that all human societies have done when left to their own devices. Again, I’m not talking about the unique markings that are cultural, I’m talking about what all peoples have done when the circumstances allow. What I am trying to say is that things like a connection to the land aren’t unique to Native American societies. If you go back far enough in every society, people had a very strong connection to the land. However, societies changed and evolved over the years, and given enough time, I have to believe that Native American communities would have done that too. But when Native American societies were confronted with European societies, they appear (at a societal level) to have grabbed on tight to where they were at the time. I can understand why they would do that. I completely get it. I wasn’t born in Canada, and when I moved here as a child, I did everything I could to hold onto my personal understandings of how the world worked, as I saw it from another country. But that is not healthy. There has to be wiggle room to allow new ideas and understandings to be cultivated. But if traditions are going to be steadfastly upheld in order to protect a society from advancing (not as a result of foreign trends, but as a result of organic innovation), then that society won’t need foreign interference to break it. It will tear itself apart. And right now, so many Native American communities are at risk, both figuratively (as a whole) and literally (at an individual level) that they’re going to need loosen their grip.
            In simple terms, if government action can’t help small communities like Attawapiskat (which is entirely possible because it needs a sustainable infrastructure that might very well require more qualified boots on the ground than can be provided in a long-term capacity by any market-driven nation) than those communities are going to have to put the welfare of their children first. If a long term plan fails to take hold, then we need an safety program to facilitate the move that those communities are going to need. If the community can’t be saved, then people are going to have to move or else they’re going to break.

          • I disagree with your read of what is meant by re: connection to the land. In your attempt to elevate one people to equality with another re: a fatal trajectory to eventual technological advancement, you neglect the human component to society. Society consists of life-on-life interactions. Culture that is worth speaking of consists of that which gives life to life. “The things to be forgotten must be freely offered and openly acknowledged. War has to be buried twice, once at the peace table, and again in memory.” is as applicable here as it is to the recent review in Maclean’s on the Vietnam War/American war. The issue of land should be a trigger to be mindful of the issue of war/treaties.

          • *book review, not review

  8. This has little to do with location: consider Engehart, Smooth Rock Falls, Thessalon or Cobalt – all towns with populations the same or a bit less than Attiwapiskat. The difference has nothing to do with population and there’s precious little left to dig up in Cobalt while the ONR, the sole reason for Englehart’s existence has been shut down. Englehart has a secondary school; Smooth rock – ditto; Thessalon – 34 km bus ride; the poor kids from Cobalt have to go to New Liskeard, just like kids from Attiwapiskat only 17 km versus 695 km … but then distances look pretty small from Toronto where everything is hunky dory with less than 70,000 on social assistance and an affordable housing shortage of under 20,000 units.
    I don’t personally think we should tell other people what to do or we should at least ask them. In any case, every forced relocation even of non-native people in Canada has been a huge mess. CPC would likely complain anyway.

  9. If the region is so economically unviable why is there purportedly a giant multi-billion dollar diamond mine a stones throw away? This thesis makes no sense. Also, city centre slums like the kind imagined in the first part of the article are not to far from imagination… call it just south of the border. It is pretty easy for us to recognise that American ghettos are born of racism and the wounds of enslavement. Why is it so hard to see it in our own nation?

    • It’s 100km away isn’t it? And I imagine that distance is probably complicated significantly during winter months. And the diamond mine seems to be importing it’s workers for the most part. As I understand it, the community was pushing for support from the mine when it moved into the area, but surprise, surprise, that didn’t really happen.

      • Reading https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Diamond_Mine#Attawapiskat_First_Nation it seems to me De Beers did about as much as could be expected, including leaving the community with a $13 million dollar trust fund. Their website also says that $167 million of construction spending went to Aboriginal businesses or joint ventures. Building and operating a mine requires skills and experience, you can’t expect to hire everyone locally in such a small community, and people also have to want to work there.

  10. Real problem is no one wants the raw truth. Too busy being politically corrupt, ignoring reality, tossing out rational thought to fix any of this.

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