Tanya Kappo is Cree from the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Treaty 8 Territory. She is a lawyer in Alberta. Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi'mnissing in Huronia, Ontario. He is an assistant professor of politics at Ryerson University.
Sometimes the absence of death is a month, maybe two. Lately it has been only weeks, and even days. Increasingly, our communities are declaring states of emergency as a response to suicide and suicide attempts. For many of us, the state of emergency simply doesn't end. For communities like Neskantaga, Pimicikamak, Pangnirtung, and Attiwapiskat, this is the reality.
The response from Canadians to these states of emergency has followed a predictable pattern: Suicides (or suicide attempts) lead to calls for help; there are news headlines; sad prime ministerial tweets; the dispatching of crisis teams; and repeat.
This week, there were 11 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat. And while we may never understand individual motivations, we have evidence of the kinds of conditions that lead to that depth of despair.
Generally, suicides and suicide attempts result from factors such as mental health issues, post-traumatic stress, or substance abuse. In our communities, these factors are magnified by nearly two centuries of colonization: assimilation legislation, rapid cultural loss, dispossession of lands and economies, poor housing, and lack of access to clean water.
These conditions result in life always near death. Communities are constantly treading just above the surface of the water, and trying not to drown.
Explaining the source these crises is relatively straightforward. But communities know the solutions, too: authentic opportunities for the full reclamation of our identities – our languages, our cultures, our traditions and our relationship with the land and waters. This would require restored jurisdiction, honoured treaties, health care and education. This would bring an end to being forced to live in conditions of poverty.
We believe, and are supported by the Indigenous academic and policy research on suicide in First Nation and Inuit communities, that colonization is the problem. The obvious solution, then, is to end the colonization.
Twenty years ago, Canada published the findings of The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). It was the most comprehensive study on our collective relationship in all areas of life, and offered progressive and hopeful suggestions for improvement. Included in RCAP was a stand-alone report on suicide called "Choosing Life." Reflecting the problems and solutions we have outlined above, it also charted an implementation plan, costs, timelines, etc. Governments with the power to heed that advice have come and gone. And conditions in our communities have worsened.
How can the inertia be explained? Why, today, with all our knowledge of the dynamics of Indigenous suicide (and especially in the supposed era of truth and reconciliation) are there no authentic efforts being undertaken to address the structural causes of suicide?
First, all those suffering communities are simply not worth helping. The undeniable fact is that to really deal with these challenges, significant resources are required. This is true for any of the inter-related issues: child welfare, food security or mouldy schools. But to date, sharing some of the land and resources that make Canada rich (and which comes from the very people attempting suicide en masse) has not been considered. Indeed this form of restitution would require sacrifice, something Canadians have been unwilling to do from the first settlers through to the latest budget.
Second, and related, the systemic changes required to raise the quality of life for communities is contrary to the preferred policy prescriptions of provincial and federal governments. Despite the so-called nation-to-nation relationship, First Nations increasingly resemble municipalities, with few discernible powers or rights. When an emergency arises, instead of acting, the federal and provincial governments debate who has "responsibility." It seems to us that Canadians would prefer that First Nations disappear altogether.
These are not new conclusions. In his 1969 book The Unjust Society, Harold Cardinal observed that "the Native people of Canada look back on generations of accumulated frustration under conditions which can only be described as colonial, brutal and tyrannical, and look to the future with the gravest of doubts." Nearly 50 years later, those grave doubts remain.
We are tired of this reality. Tired of Canadian politicians offering only sympathy. Tired of uninformed pundits calling for irresponsible relocation experiments. And tired of pointing to incremental progress when the state of emergency is a fact of life for many Indigenous peoples in contemporary Canada.
Our people have already started the work for our next generation. There must be hope for them, and they must be protected from the brutal and tyrannical consequences of colonization.
Listen to us, to our communities: We know the answer, we are the answer.