Ken Coates is a distinguished fellow and director of the Indigenous affairs program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Melissa Mbarki is a policy analyst and outreach co-ordinator at the MLI. Chris Sankey is a senior fellow at the MLI and a member of the Coast Tsimshian community near Prince Rupert, B.C.
When serious social challenges strike at the heart of Indigenous communities, certain things need to be said – not with finger-pointing or anger, but in deep sadness, bordering on despair.
If the sufferings vary in their expression – extreme violence, aggressive gang activity, deaths from drinking and driving, thefts from elders, violence against Indigenous women and girls, the opioid epidemic, disproportionate difficulties with the Canadian health care system, the AIDS crisis – the effects have been much the same: overwhelming sorrow and pain in Indigenous communities across Canada. Underlying them are endemic mental-health issues, many of them undiagnosed and untreated, that only make matters worse.
In many Indigenous communities, the sorrow and the pain are overwhelming. As a result, good, compassionate police officers struggle to contain the violence among the people with whom they live. Nurses (and, when they visit, doctors) are left to cope with the health fallouts in remote communities. Teachers try to reach students who, far too often, were raised in deep trauma. Indigenous leaders, burdened with dozens of complex files, are forced to shift between negotiating transformative legal settlements and helping their communities respond to crises, whether the death of a beloved elder or the suicide of a promising teenager.
The COVID-19 pandemic only deepened the anguish. Crammed into overcrowded houses for weeks or months, Indigenous peoples struggled with restrictions and boredom as social events, community dinners and other life-affirming activities were cancelled. While most people survived lockdowns and restrictions on travel and socializing, many suffered from the imposed isolation, and some took out their frustrations on themselves and those nearby.
In some communities, the opioid crisis is only reinforcing the problem. Far too many young Indigenous people, including preteens, are dying from the poisons. The overwhelming tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls lives on in the communities, too, leaving their families shattered. Gang activity, once rooted in cities, is now reaching into Indigenous homes and settlements. And so often now, it is Indigenous people hurting Indigenous people.
The expansion of gang activity is particularly devastating. Young people, often from remote communities, feel that they need to move to cities to seek a better life, and in the process become at risk of aligning with identity-affirming criminal gangs. These manipulative groups provide isolated and vulnerable youth with a sense of belonging, status and money.
Options for Indigenous youth, after all, remain few: Many have not completed high school, and postsecondary education is beyond their reach, both financially and academically. The only jobs on offer tend to be low-paying entry-level positions. In sharp contrast, participating in drug sales, robberies and shakedowns can put thousands of dollars in their pockets – but it also brings arrests and prison terms, which only help to entrench a bleak cycle.
Gang criminality is bad enough in the cities, but when members bring it back to their home communities – stealing from their families, recruiting more young people, threatening violent retribution for anyone who stands up to them – the settlements suffer grievously. Elders and parents fear their own children and former neighbours. The spectre of a crisis such as the one we saw in September at James Smith Cree Nation – where Myles Sanderson, who had previously been connected with a gang, turned on his own community and left many dead – looms large, and with terrifying effect.
And health care requires urgent attention, with professional medical support in decline in many regions. Diabetes, for example, disproportionately affects Indigenous populations; they are diagnosed at a younger age, suffer worse symptoms, face a higher risk of complications and often experience worse outcomes in the system. But testing facilities and dialysis treatment tend to be located far away from First Nations communities, greatly increasing the cost and difficulty of securing care.
The system also has a lot of work to do to recognize the connections between mental-health issues, especially in childhood; broader health care shortcomings; and troubling rates of Indigenous incarceration. Mental and physical health, and social stability, at an early age can correlate to personal, family and community well-being.
It helps to know that the country increasingly understands how societal paternalism, racism and discrimination created many of the current problems in Indigenous communities – and to know that the Canadian government is providing more funds and recognizing (albeit reluctantly) the importance of Indigenous autonomy and self-government. And in terms of public awareness, Canadians are aware of horror stories such as the James Smith First Nation stabbings and the 2016 school shooting at La Loche, Sask., and are more and more conscious of the origins of contemporary despair – with residential schools being only the most obvious example of systemic racism.
But mere gestures such as land acknowledgments, public apologies and vague promises cannot heal wounds that were generations in the making. Awareness is the beginning, not the destination. The hundreds, if not thousands, of individual and family crises that routinely plague Indigenous communities are actually of greater importance, but attract little national concern. As a result, the crises have become so deep and dangerous that politics must stand aside.
What is needed is a real willingness to share power with Indigenous governments. Indigenous leaders themselves often tell us what is required: better policing, major improvements in health care and education, a Canadian standard of housing and infrastructure in Indigenous communities, cultural and linguistic revitalization, improved autonomy, greater professional development for First Nation administrators, fire protection, economic renewal, help adjusting to the transitions demanded by rapid climate change, among other action items. The list is daunting, but funding is limited – and federal-provincial political bickering continues to prevent real progress from being made.
So the prospect for immediate, meaningful responses to the collective crises of Indigenous communities is not promising. Program announcements, short-term funding commitments and patchwork investments aren’t real solutions. When money does come – and yes, there is a lot more of it now than a decade ago – it arrives slowly, typically over multiple years, and with conditions that force Indigenous governments to follow the agendas of Canadian governments, rather than community priorities.
No set of initiatives from any government, nor any grand philanthropic gesture, will provide for a quick and sustainable revitalization of families and communities at a local level. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may contribute to improvements over the course of many generations, but in the shorter term, expensive legal proceedings under UNDRIP will likely only provide small and incremental changes at best. While economic-development initiatives provide hope and, increasingly, revenue, changes there are also incremental and uncertain.
Moving forward requires clear and frank discussion among all parties. Thankfully, many Indigenous communities, typically in southern Canada and near urban areas, are doing better. Their achievements are inspirational. But even though there have been clear victories – major legal decisions, resource-development agreements, achievements in Indigenous self-governance and the striking of modern treaties – the personal and family trauma burdens still loom large.
The fact is that this country stacks the odds against Indigenous peoples, and draws and disproportionately reallocates resources from their territories to non-Indigenous peoples and communities. First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are still being forced to fight for their lives – to share in the prosperity and comforts that so many other Canadians enjoy. While progress is being made, including strong financial support from Ottawa, the incrementalism only serves the dominant society.
The challenges that communities face will ultimately not be addressed through court actions, negotiations, protests, accusations or new government policies or spending promises. Collective, Canada-wide action is required to ensure the long-term well-being of Indigenous communities. All of us must urgently engage as the country demonstrates, really for the first time, that it is ready to stand together with them as they make the transition from colonial domination and discrimination to equality and autonomy.
A better world awaits. Canadians just need to step up, in more meaningful ways.