The entire world was shocked earlier this month when the bodies of five homeless boys were found in a garbage disposal bin in the Chinese city of Bijie. Their accidental deaths, by carbon-monoxide poisoning after they lit a fire inside their makeshift shelter, raised serious, heart-rending questions about China’s growing social inequalities, and have led to calls for action. Why, then, hasn’t a suicide pact involving 30 youths, most of them natives, in Vancouver this fall led to the same shock and horror in Canada?
Officials caught wind of the pact on Facebook and were able to swoop in and prevent it from being carried out. This is a testament to the social workers and police who came to the rescue, but it in no way diminishes the tragedy of these forgotten lives in Vancouver’s inner city. For 30 children aged 12 to 15 to feel so marginalized and devoid of hope in one of Canada’s greatest cities that they would contemplate mass suicide is a horror too great to sweep under the rug.
According to Scott Clark, the executive director of a group that helps native families in the city’s core, there have been five attempted suicides by children who live in the same area as those involved with the pact since it was uncovered. As well, children as young as 12 have been binge-drinking, and several have suffered life-threatening alcohol overdoses. Our society may have dodged a bullet, but the gun is still loaded.
Social workers in Vancouver say many of the problems stem from government policies that funnel native youths into native-only programs. Some advocates say even the children who find themselves in these native-only programs have complained about being set apart from the mainstream. This, clearly, is where the B.C. government should begin looking for ways to improve the lives of these children.
But beyond that, it remains shocking that the suicide pact isn’t garnering more attention in Canada. We need to get past the self-flagellation and hand-wringing that dominates our society’s reaction to the ongoing problems facing native Canadians, and stare those problems in the face. We need solutions, not pieties. And we need them before there is a tragedy of unimaginable scale.