[Members of the RCMP stand outside the La Loche Community School in La Loche, Sask. Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. / The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward]
The fallout nationally from the shooting rampage at the school in La Loche, Sask., is following a familiar pattern when it comes to tragedies in isolated aboriginal communities.
While the shock has not faded in La Loche, the killing of four people and wounding of seven others, allegedly by a teenage boy who may have been a target of bullying, has moved off the front page. Broader questions are being asked about may have contributed to the deadly outburst.
The answers are probably recognizable to most Canadians. La Loche, like many remote First Nations communities, has been afflicted with social problems: poverty, low rates of employment, lack of services, an alarmingly high suicide rate among the young and that feeling of isolation from living literally at the end of the road.
Responses, too, have been predictable. A lot of official hand-wringing and calls to “do something.” The same sentiment followed other high-profile tragedies, whether it’s the epidemic of gasoline “huffing” in Davis Inlet, N.L., deadly gang violence at Hobbema, Alta., the housing crisis at Attawapiskat in Ontario, or waves of suicides and rampant opioid drug addiction in seemingly countless aboriginal communities.
Things are done, often. The entire village of Davis Inlet was moved to a better location, for instance. But the fundamental problems don’t seem to go away. That’s because of our attitude, say those who’ve studied the problems of such communities.
“I think they do share something in common,” Brenda Macdougall, chair of Metis research at the University of Ottawa told Yahoo Canada.
“We as Canada approach northern communities – the North – as a colonial outpost, as a frontier. We don’t invest a great deal in the kinds of social infrastructure that we take for granted down here in the south, where ever your south is, Vancouver or Ottawa or Saskatoon. But we expect to reap the benefits of those northern places financially.”
A colonial mentality, including a paternalistic view of aboriginal people, persists in Canadian society and is still somewhat reflected in government policies, Manitoba lawyer Yvonne Boyer, a Metis and Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Health and Wellness at Brandon University, said in an interview.
Holdovers of colonial attitudes
Tragedies such as La Loche are symptoms of a cultural sickness, she said. Policies and laws, including the federal Indian Act, still seem predicated on the colonial “guardian and ward” approach governments had towards First Nations, she said.
“That’s the policy that assumes aboriginal people are not capable of making decisions on their own,” said Boyer. “They have to have decisions made for them, and those never work.”
Although there’s been progress towards true aboriginal self government in some places, it’s been piecemeal and band councils are heavily constrained by legislation.
“What we need to have is a collaborative, co-ordinated approach that deals with the issues head-on and involves the people being affected, and listening to their voices, listening to what they have to say, not assuming that you know what’s best for them,” said Boyer.
Local aboriginal governments also often find themselves in a lopsided power relationship with higher levels of government, especially when it comes to resource development, said Bonita Beatty, a Cree Nation member and undergraduate chair of the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Indigenous Studies.
“In aboriginal communities you always have the looming presence of the state and corporate interests in your back yard, all the time,” she told Yahoo Canada.
“Combined, they have a huge political influence in terms of developing our natural resources across the country and usually these are in the back yards of aboriginal people.”
These power imbalances are at the root of the other problems, the three experts agreed.
“We go in there for resources, we take the resources and then we put very little back into the social matrix,” said Macdougall. “Our very presence in those places means that people can certainly have an expectation of a different kind of life, and they should.”
Northern communities short-changed compared with southern counterparts
A resource-oriented southern community would never sit still for the kind of substandard housing, education and medical services or toxic drinking water that First Nations reserves put up with, she said.
“We manage to do quite well when it’s military installations; we do quite well when it’s mining sites,” she said. “How come we’re failing these villages?”
Many communities get services on a fly-in basis. For example, La Loche, which was weathering a rash of suicides before last week’s shooting, has access to a single psychiatrist who is flown in periodically from Ottawa, said Macdougall.
“It’s mind-boggling to me,” she said. “Why shouldn’t they have access to the kinds of health care that we have down here? That’s not happening in La Loche. It’s not happening in the North.”
The current system makes it hard for First Nations to wield much political clout. A lot of gains have been made in the courts when it comes to getting more say over resource development on traditional territories. But Beatty said local aboriginal communities benefit little financially from projects.
Royalties and fees go into general provincial coffers, with little flowing back to to the First Nations to use on infrastructure and services. While some might get jobs in the nearby mine or plant, often the local band office is the main employer.
“The unemployment rates in northern Saskatchewan are astronomical. Why?” asks Macdougall. “Why are we flying people in from southern Canada into the North to work? Why are these people untrainable? Because that’s the perception, that they’re somehow untrainable or incapable of doing the job.”
While federal-provincial jurisdictional wrangling bears some responsibility for the inaction, Macdougall said there seems to be an absence of will to really solve the problems afflicting First Nations communities.
“It’s perfectly easy for us to do things when it’s something that we want, when it’s something that Canada thinks that it’s going to benefit from,” she said. “It’s easier to forget about the human cost of resource extraction.”
Aboriginal communities often split on resource development
Aboriginal communities are sometimes split on the benefits of having resource projects nearby, said Beatty, but there’s little doubt having better access to their economic benefits would make a difference.
Many of these places are trapped between two worlds. The old way of life is disappearing but the benefits of of the mainstream economy enjoyed in the rest of Canada have not arrived. The young especially are adrift, said Beatty, vulnerable to despair, drugs and violence.
Like Boyer, Beatty cautioned against top-down reforms.
“I think the social capital that’s in the community really needs to be listened to, people who are not just elected officials but people who are actually involved in volunteering in the programs that are being offered in different places, that kids are accessing,” she said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations in the wake of the residential-school scandal goes some way to addressing what’s needed, said Macdougall. The new Liberal government has promised to implement them.
Boyer believes Canada should also implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which it helped draft but which the former Conservative government did not sign. Ottawa has, however, declared it supports the document’s principles, she said.
There have also been calls to revise or even abolish the Indian Act, which originally enshrined the “guardian and ward” principle of relations with First Nations. But Beatty said a lot of First Nations are leery because past proposals to amend the legislation threatened existing treaty rights.