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Attawapiskat is not alone: Suicide crisis is national problem

Bob Rae teaches at the University of Toronto and is the author of What's Happened to Politics? He is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend, a law firm that acts for First Nations across Canada.

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The news that 11 teenagers in the James Bay community of Attawapiskat were admitted to hospital last weekend because they had either attempted or threatened suicide has prompted yet another parliamentary debate and media flurry about the condition of indigenous people in Canada. Tragically, Attawapiskat is not alone. In every province and territory, there have been studies, reviews, coroner's inquests and agonizing pleas for help, intervention and change.

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Tears are shed, eloquent words are spoken and yet change is, at best, halting and slow. It is not an issue confined to remote reserves – the long inquest now being held in Thunder Bay should stop the muttering about how an abandonment of the Far North reserves might be just the tough love required to deal with the crisis.

It is a time for all of us to take a good, hard look in the mirror. People who have given up hope, young and old, are choosing to die rather than to live. The sense of futility that in some cultures leads to explosions of rage leads instead to self-destruction. Every report that has been written points to the need for coherent action on housing, education, family violence and, yes, self-government.

The trouble with colonialism is that it deprives people of the ability to create their own futures and shape their own destinies. The mending of hearts and treaties that is so desperately needed is not easily matched by deeds. Crisis intervention is necessary, but we also must find a practical strategy that will give all indigenous people a chance to make a livable present and a better future.

When the cameras stop rolling and the rhetoric dies down, we all need to understand the depth of the divides in our country, and then build bridges, not with words but with deeds. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has told us all how badly the relationship between indigenous people and settlers went wrong, and who has paid the price. We have conducted the most disastrous social experiment imaginable in the destruction of a people and a culture over a century and a half, and now this generation is left with Internet dreams and painful realities that in no way match what everyone can now see as "the potential world." The divergence is too much to bear.

Another divergence is the general impression, now deeply ingrained in the general public, that "we've spent too much money and money isn't the answer anyway." The reality is quite different. The Indian Act divides up indigenous people into hundreds of tiny communities, with neither resources, revenues nor much land. Whether it's education, health, housing or child welfare, the amount spent by the federal government is much less than what is spent in neighbouring non-indigenous communities. Premiers such as Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, as a matter of principle, refuse to recognize the need for revenue-sharing. There is a gap in resources, capacity, services, land, power and hope that we cannot allow to take generations to close.

George Bernard Shaw once said that people don't need to find themselves; they need to create themselves. If we are indeed to learn from our past, we need to show a capacity for change. And in that change, to break the dark cycles that send too many of our youth into the deepest despair.

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