Darkness Bringing Us Down

If you dare enter the door of Tanya Talaga’s Massey Lectures of 2018, All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, be prepared to face some dark truths. These terrible truths explode in our faces like mines buried on a battlefield as we traverse the disconsolate pages. An accomplished and honoured journalist (author of Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City [2017]), Talaga writes with acid dripping from her pen.

Talaga tells the truth through emotionally powerful stories. Her central, and very disturbing, focus for All Our Relations is on the staggeringly high rates of suicide amongst Indigenous youth around the world. The expansive focus gives this lecture series special interest because we are forced to see all of the youth suicides world-wide as part of one history of European white settler colonization.

We are used to thinking in national compartments. We are also adept at isolating Indigenous suicides from the Canadian government’s systematic assault on Aboriginal peoples’ culture, language, land, sacred practices and spirituality and refusal to provide resources to alleviate suffering. As well, we tend to shy away from linking suicides as inextricably bound to genocidal practices.

Talaga’s stories are hard to take. On every page one finds stories about women like Sandra Fox from Wapekeka who came home after doing an errand to find that her daughter, Chantell Fox, twelve years old, had hanged herself. In all, seven girls between the ages of 12 and 15 living away from their First Nations communities took their lives. The people of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political organization comprising forty-nine First Nations spread out over the northern two-thirds of the province of Ontario, want their children to stop dying. The native leaders discovered that some of their kids had made “suicide pacts.” They sought help from the Federal government for a grant of $376,706 to create a mental health team of four workers able to deliver prevention and intervention programs. This cry for help went unanswered.

If ever Canadians doubted that First Nations’ suicides are shockingly out of control, reading Talaga will scrape that idea from your mind. Across the NAN territory, Talaga tells us, from 1986 through December 2017, 558 suicides occurred. Eighty-eight of these deaths were children between the ages of ten and fourteen. Similar statistics can be found for the Sami population in Scandinavia and indigenous people of Brazil and Australia. Drs. Ernest Hunter and Helen Milroy (the first Aboriginal psychiatrist in Australia) exclaim: “We have come from a history of genocide, and genocide is about the deliberate annihilation of a race; it is about wanting to remove us from the Earth permanently, which is a very different concept from transgenerational trauma. It is trauma on a more massive scale – psychologically, physically, spiritually, culturally. It is another level of trauma again.”

One cannot, Hunter and Milroy contend, grasp the high rate of Indigenous suicides round the world within restricted psychological terms. Talaga urges her listeners and readers to sit a while with the disquieting truth that: “Indigenous children and youth are born under the staggering weight of history: the historical injustices of colonization; the forced removal off the land by extermination or segregation; the cultural genocide effected by government policy and religious indoctrination; the intergenerational trauma stemming from years of poverty, abuse, and identity oppression.”

What do we think? The fog is clearing. If we sever “tethers to the past” – spiritual, emotional and physical – we become unmoored, desolate and disconsolate. Untethered and abused Indigenous youth want to fly away from their internal wretchedness. We must know where we come from, where we are going, what our purpose is and who we are. For Indigenous peoples of the earth, the spirituality that the churches sought to destroy and malign teaches that they are part of a “greater life story, part of a continuum of all life on Earth, and that each individual being plays their own role as a custodian, safeguarding the land for the next generation. Every person born has a purpose, every person belongs.”

A spiritual awakening is underway throughout Indigenous communities scanning the globe. Through hell and highwater, pride in being a native person is being recovered and affirmed day after day in the face of considerable government resistance.

Talaga provides many searing examples of cultural annihilation. I can only touch on a few. These days Canadians love Inuit carvings and artwork on display in our galleries. But they may not realize that between 1950 and the 1970s, Canada extended its “systematic segregation and racial discrimination” to the Far North. Inuit were removed from their lands and placed in western-styled homes. During this period, Inuit sled dogs were culled and became targets of mass killings. Talaga comments acerbically: “Just as the massacre of the bison in 19th century America helped usher in the demise of the Plains Indians’ traditional way of life, so too was the killing of the dogs a powerful act of subjugation.” “Both acts symbolically severed the Indigenous peoples’ spiritual connection to the land by eliminating a major sources of their sustenance and economy.”

With Inuit land appropriated, the Canadian state and churches could descend like hawks upon the Inuit. Take their kids and put them in residential schools. Plant churches. Coerce parents to live in permanent communities. It didn’t take long for Inuit youth to start taking their own lives and travel to the land where the roses never fade. The National Inuit Suicide Prevention report of July 27, 2016 provides the shameful evidence.

Nor did it take long for Inuit to face medical facility shortages and shortage of good housing in towns like Iqaluit. The basic determinants of good health are not yet in place in our Indigenous communities. That’s the ugly pattern in white settler colonialism: severance from land, language, culture and spirituality and watch the people fall to pieces. Then, turn a blind eye to those who are sick and suffering mentally.

Many horrific things happen in remote places off the beaten path. Talaga cites an obscure essay, “Genocide,” written by Norman Lewis and published in the Sunday Times in 1969, that provided a “shocking in-depth report called ‘Genocide’, which chronicled the near extinction of many of the Indigenous nations in Brazil during the 1950s and 1960s.” The renowned ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, wrote of “that monstrous and incomprehensible cataclysm which the development of western civilization was for so large and innocent a part of humanity.” This cataclysmic rupture, beginning in the 1500s, wiped out millions of South American Indigenous peoples (TB, measles, VD, eye ailments, wholesale torture, mass burnings, flayings, disembowelling).

In the 1950s and 1960s, a “boom in rubber” unleashed like a pent-up dam land grabs and extermination. Viewed as mere pests, the Guarani Kaiowa Indigenous peoples had their villages dynamited (from above) and many were hacked to death. Talaga observes that corrupt officials and businessmen poisoned hundreds with sugar laced with arsenic, torture using brutal methods, such as slowly and repeatedly crushing victims’ ankles with an instrument known as ‘the log.’ In November 2011, to cite but one further example, Indigenous leader Nisio Gomez was murdered by 40 hooded men. Whenever the Indigenous people or militant leadership resists corporate intrusion and destruction of their land, they are assaulted and smashed-up.

And, they too commit suicide in their desolation. Today there are only 59 Indigenous Nations left; the remaining population, 734,000, is down from five million at point of contact. Talaga informs us that to this day, “Indigenous people face continued attacks, marginalization, and neglect in Brazilian society.” Lost and disconnected from the land, incessant fighting to stay alive, forsaken by the government and hooked on drugs, no wonder the suicide rates at high.

Talaga adds another dimension to our understanding of Indigenous suicide. Have we had enough yet? She provides a disturbing illustration of how a trusted priest sexually abused many children from ages 8-14. Her central argument is that: “Sexual abuse is a main driver of high suicide rates in Indigenous communities across Canada, but it is not often talked about openly and confronted,” notes the University of Saskatchewan’s specialist in suicide studies, Dr. Jack Hicks. Nor is the significant extent of 40,000 Indigenous children who are in state care (the “scooped kids”).

Native people are fighting hard against the destruction of their cultures and children. A few examples: “We Matter,” a national Indigenous-led non-profit organization started by a sister-and-brother team from Hay River, NW Territories, created the space for creative artist expression for the youth. They are taught “positiveness” and presented with uplifting role models. Everywhere across Canada we can observe, as well, the recovery and power of indigenous holistic healing that attempts to restore that which has been fragmented.

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa is a brilliant illustration of how aesthetically pleasing a healing centre can be. If you walked up to the second floor, the Fire Floor, you’ll see a “giant doomed ceiling featuring a beautiful medicine wheel illuminated by a skylight.” There are gathering spaces and prenatal and primary care clinics and a Lodge used for sweats. And lots more.

The Wabano Centre moves us into a new world of healthcare, far removed from the awful Indian hospitals of the 1950s and 60s. Too many horror stories. Too much racial segregation. Too much neglect. But Talaga tells us that First Nations peoples are here to stay. Their most far-seeing leaders can imagine a world beyond the Indian Act (which legalizes colonial patterns) and a world where Indian rights will be recognized as human rights.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.