The It Gets Better campaign has helped reduce bullying and suicide in the settler world, but in the Indigenous world it comes off as a hollow platitude. We have never been afforded the luxury of assuming it gets better, and when it does it is because we make it so. As Indigenous people we don’t need someone telling us it gets better; we need someone to reach out a hand as equals and say, let’s make it better together.
With Attawapiskat, Indigenous suicide is once again in the news. For me this is an issue that has been running in the background of my entire life, and the current news cycle examining Attawapiskat is its latest incarnation.
I grew up in Labrador in the 1990s, which at the time had the highest suicide rate per capita on Earth. I cannot count the number of people I know who have been lost to suicide. Thinking back over the years I try to count, and I begin to feel like I am forgetting someone, and with that comes a sudden thought that adding up the number of people who have taken their own lives is not right. No one can quantify this hurt, or sum up the void left in the lives of so many people. One suicide is too many.
Sometimes it was a friend, or a classmate, or someone I used to catch the bus with to school, or a relative, a family friend, a friend of my parents, or a friend’s parent. Sometimes it was a surprise, and sometimes we saw it coming. At times suicide has claimed our strongest and our best. I come from a small town with extensive families, and family friendships that are built up over the generations. Each suicide is felt by us all.
For me, suicide feels similar to cancer; it’s just one of those terrible inevitable realities that take too many good people from us. I hate it. If someone told me they had never lost anyone to suicide, it would be like hearing they don’t know of anyone who succumbed to cancer. It just doesn’t happen — not in my life anyway.
A familiar tragedy
I visited Attawapiskat for the first time in 2011 with APTN National News. Reporting on the housing crisis that had garnered national attention, I had never heard of the community before the news broke, and I was not prepared for what I was about to experience.
While many of the other reporters there in Attawapiskat saw a scandal about “Canada’s shame,” I saw my childhood. It knocked the wind out of me. It was all too familiar. It looked like Sheshatshiu in the ’80s and ’90s. I almost cried. I grew up in the Inuit community North West River, which is across a small river to Sheshatshiu. With so many Innu friends and cousins, my family and I felt their pain. When our friends hurt, we hurt with them.
Like Attawapiskat, Sheshatshiu and all of Indigenous Labrador have struggled with suicide. At times a wave of suicides would roll in like a plague, infecting whole families with immeasurable sadness as their loved ones took their lives.
Now it’s Attawapiskat’s turn again to be dissected in the national spotlight. The people will be scrutinized, dismissed, used as tokens in political games, and humiliated by others who know nothing about their lives or what they have to go through. Somehow, these observers cannot understand the strength and solidarity the community has had to possess in order to survive this long. These same observers will then make suggestions to “fix” the community.
What gives me solace in all of this is that I have witnessed firsthand that healing is possible. I have seen Indigenous communities come together to help and heal.
In my lifetime both the Innu and Inuit of Labrador have gained considerable autonomy and taken on their own healing as they forge their path forward. As houses go up and roads are built, they take pride in the space around them. I’ve seen beautiful new schools become the focal point of communities, and kids start to graduate high school in their own communities. People receive counselling, addictions services, parenting workshops; they get the support they need. Each person who receives healing makes the lives of the next generation a little better. People’s lives are changing, and it’s not perfect (what community is?) but things are getting so much better here.
I believe in the people of Attawapiskat. They have what they need to make their community better for their own people. Now it's the job of Canada, and the rest of us, to make sure they have the support and respect they need.
We need to hear the youth and listen to the community, asking what they need and how we can help them. Any healing has to be led by Attawapiskat.
So come on; let’s make it better, together.