In 2016, a spate of teenage suicides on the remote native reserve of Attawapiskat shocked the nation and, as the news spread widely, the world. This newsworthy spate of suicides must be set within what the Suicide among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit (2011-2016): Findings from the 2011 Canadian Census Health and Environment Cohort (CanCHEC) describes as the “historical and ongoing impacts of colonization.” This report highlights the following act of colonization – “forced placement of Indigenous children in residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities during the “Sixties scoop” and the forced relocation of communities” and links them causally to the resulting “breakdown of families, communities, political and economic structures; loss of language, culture and traditions; exposure to abuse; intergenerational transmission of trauma; and marginalization,” suggesting that these might indeed be linked to “the high rates of suicide.”
At the height of the crisis in 2016, a state of emergency was declared (the 6th since 2006) and this tragic phenomenon occupied news headlines next to an equally visible celebration Canada’s generosity to Syrian immigrants as exemplified in Kareem El-Assal’s article in The Conference Board of Canada website titled 2016: A Record-Setting Year for Refugee Resettlement in Canada? As an immigrant myself, I can vouch for this nation’s generosity to and inclusion of newcomers regardless of race, religion or any other aspect of difference, still, this juxtaposition of images – the picture of indigenous damnation, on the one hand, and that of immigrant salvation, on the other, strikes me like a freight train. It brings to the surface a deep sense of unease – the sense that I have made my Canadian home by displacing someone else form theirs. This deep awareness in me rises up to the surface, along with a vivid replay an impression from my youth – the opening of the Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun where, Johnny Rotten slurs out “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery!”
I wonder if this is ultimately what it means to be a Canadian, on this here Turtle Island. Are we all building our good lives “in other people’s misery.” In seeking mitigation for this horrific remembrance, I reflect on the fact that the supplanting of some people by others is the the very stuff of nation, the historical reality of all nations. There is, however, a difference, an uncomfortably contemporaneous quality to this displacive aspect of nationhood, here, in Canada (as, I imagine, there is in all other settler states). As I contemplate this presence, a deep malaise comes over me, with respect to my own life and livelihood on this land. Returning to the aforementioned tragedy of teenage indigenous suicide in my new home, I cannot but conclude that it is a continuation of a founding genocide. The contemporary nation’s failure to mitigate this endemic and often epidemic condition seems, to me, to be a recurring trope of the original genocide. All Canadians are complicit in the travesty of disproportionate indigenous teenage suicide and we are all responsible for ensuring its abatement.
Updated from a post made in April 2016