What do you do when times get really bad where you are, and when your loved ones are at risk?
Well, you either stay where you are, and hope that things finally get better. Or you move.
Around here, that question isn’t an abstraction. Around here, a majority of Calgary’s residents came from somewhere else, to get a piece of Alberta’s (formerly) limitless promise – better jobs, better services, better opportunities.
That’s why my own family came here, in fact: to escape Quebec’s cultural and language wars. We stayed three decades. This is home, still.
Now many Calgarians are agonizing about moving. The bottom has fallen out of the energy industry, and things aren’t going to get better anytime soon. For the first time in three decades, many Calgarians are pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere. Nova Scotia, Ontario, B.C.
Anywhere they can get a job. Anywhere they can give their families a semblance of a future.
That dilemma – should we stay or should we go – is arguably a bit easier for Calgarians to resolve. They came here to get away from tough times, and they’re now readying to leave here to escape tough times. They know what families have to do sometimes.
But what if your culture is wholly different? What if you were brought up to believe that you were, quite literally, part of the land beneath your feet? That you and the Earth are interchangeable?
In Astawapiskat, that’s what some folks may be feeling. They know people are saying they should leave. That they should get away from the grinding, bottomless misery of the place.
But, but, but: to leave the reserve is to leave behind a part of who they are. Because the reserve isn’t a place. It’s them.
The issue came up in the House of Commons last week. My former boss, Jean Chretien, was on the Hill and the media caught up with him. They wanted to ask him about the state of emergency at Attawapiskat – about a youthful suicide pact that had been overheard involving 13 kids. One of the kids was just nine years old.
They wanted to ask Canada’s best prime minister about the 39 recorded suicide attempts since the start of March. In a place with only 2,000 people.
“People have to move sometimes,” my former boss said. “Sometimes it’s desirable to stay if they want to stay, but it’s not always possible.”
That doesn’t mean the reserve should be shut down or relocated, he said. “. . . It’s one case at a time.”
Chretien is father to an aboriginal boy. Some consider him the best Indian Affairs minister Canada has ever had. He has spent a lot time – during and after politics – in remote places like Attawapiskat. And he taught his staff to strive to improve the lives of the people who were here first.
But that didn’t stop the NDP from implying Chretien is a colonial antediluvian monster. An “assimilationist.”
Fresh from stabbing their leader in the back in Edmonton – fresh from immolating themselves by embracing a document that would economically emasculate Alberta and not a few other places – the NDP tried to change the channel on their problems. Theirs is the party that represents Attawapiskat in the House of Commons, you see, and they would prefer you not remember that.
So they went after Jean Chretien.
Said NDP MP Niki Aston: “A former prime minister of Canada, when asked about the suicide epidemic in Attawapiskat, perpetuated such assimilationist views in suggesting that First Nations people should just leave their communities.”
She went on: “These views are unacceptable.”
Hearing this sort of thing from the NDP – from the party whose founder favoured eugenics, and the sterilization of some of the selfsame people Ashton claimed to be defending – was almost enough to make one throw up. But piety is standard operating procedure for the NDP. They’ve represented Attawapiskat for years in the House of Commons, and it’s difficult to think of single thing they have done to improve lives there.
They would prefer, instead, that the people of Attawapiskat stay where they are, and wait for things to get better.
The time for waiting is over. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, per the cliché, is the definition of insanity.
The people of Attawapiskat were here first. We – the ones who took away their culture, their language, their religion, their land – owe them. And if that means paying for them to move to a better place, then so be it. In places like Calgary, they know what that is.
It’s not assimilation. It’s protecting the ones you love.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.