Like many First Nation reserves, Attawapiskat is an isolated community; this one has just slightly more than 2,000 souls. As a rule, reserves in Canada lack essential services and suffer disproportionate unemployment, mental illness, and drug and alcohol addiction. The catastrophe that triggered the present emergency in Attawapiskat was 11 suicide attempts in one night.
Suicide is an act of desperation and hopelessness.
And at the same time that we’re attempting to prevent youth suicides in Attawapiskat, we are legalizing assisted suicides in special cases.
An assisted suicide is one thing – almost understandable – if the individual is at the end of their life and in extreme, untreatable pain.
But when the entire youth population of a community conspires to end their lives in a death pact, it’s an indictment of everyone – their families, their community and Canada as a whole.
The chief in Attawapiskat, with other First Nations leaders around the country, immediately went to work asking for more federal funds to help deal with the problem. And, no doubt, more financial resources will eventually be made available.
But, regrettably, this is about more than money. It’s about creating a meaningful future for these youth. Robert Louis Stevenson once described the meaning of life as “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming.”
The challenge is to build (or renew) First Nations’ social capital assets so that an indigenous youth’s human capital can be recognized and fully developed. Isn’t that what gives meaning to life?
The most telling signs of difficulty in Attawapiskat were the continuous refrain that drugs are too plentiful in the community and that there’s nothing for the youth to do; “there’s a few people organizing little activities for the young people in Attawapiskat but we need more help.”
Theses ‘little’ activities, however, are more than they seem. They are the social capital of a culture, providing many young people with purpose and the spark of ambition to realize a better future.
What is social capital?
To explain this, consider the case of a 12-year-old Wayne Gretzky. Even at that young age, he demonstrated tremendous potential as a hockey player. This potential represented his human capital. When Gretzky had grown to adulthood and become an accomplished star, he had converted his human capital into a valuable human capital asset. In other words, his extraordinary hockey skills became an asset that he could leverage to sign playing contracts and endorsement deals that provided both the meaning and financial support for his life.
None of Gretzky’s human capital potential would have been realized, however, without access to society’s social capital. Social capital is a people’s willingness and ability to work together for common purpose. The social capital assets that emerged in Gretzky’s case were the volunteer minor hockey associations in Ontario that provided the ice time, experience, training and support necessary for the Great One to realize his full potential.
Social capital assets – like minor hockey leagues, music programs, fashion design and other mentorship programs, cultural achievement programs for youth, etc. – are the means by which individuals identify and develop their human capital and realize their full potential. They help support youth, in particular, and are vital to the advancement of communities.
Regrettably, it’s not possible to build these kinds of assets by simply constructing a new youth centre. These assets require much more energy and expertise than is present on many reserves; they need the active endeavours of skilled individuals willing to donate their time, patience and support.
Government funding can provide the physical infrastructure, the tangible assets that will support youth, but they cannot provide the intangible assets, the skills, talent and willingness to support indigenous youth in becoming whole.
Although we tend to think of suicide as an individual act of desperation, it’s really a social deficit. Successful cultures encourage the development of their social capital as the foundations of civil society. The community assets and volunteer associations that emerge provide meaning and purpose to life.
Canadians carry a lot of guilt over our past treatment of indigenous peoples. Perhaps now is the time to share something we have in abundance with those who need it most.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.