Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Attawapiskat's Eternal Crisis


Before the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, there was the housing crisis in Attawapiskat. Yestere’en, I watched an NFB documentary reporting the then shockingly shabby state of housing on the reserve. You can view it here. A recent story in the Toronto Star reports that the housing crisis is still with us. It says some 80 local homes are currently in need of a bulldozer’s attentions. That’s one quarter of the housing stock.

By the film, the houses certainly did seem to be in seedy shape. Holes in the floor; no water; burn marks from electrical fires.

Although the homes looked rather new.

The chief laments to the camera lens that some of the homes were even built way back in the 1970s, and so must be replaced.

The ‘70s? I’ve never lived in a house that new. How did these homes fall so quickly into critical disrepair?

For that matter, why can’t you fix a hole in the floor, or the damage from an electrical fire, or even graffiti on the living room walls?


The film suggests two reasons: firstly, the harsh winter temperatures that far north are rough on any mortal construction.

But that by itself cannot explain it. One could still do repairs.

Secondly, the film explains, building materials are extremely expensive, since they must be shipped great distances from the remote South.

Let us accept that this is true. On wonders, then, immediately, why everyone does not move. If you are poor, why live in a place where both housing and food is far more expensive than the norm? Not to mention, why live where there is no work? And in a climate that obliges you to stay indoors most of the year? There is a reason why the North is not densely populated.

But then again, this issue of impossibly expensive upkeep does not seem really to hold. Attawapiskat is not the only nor the most remote community in the world. The northernmost town of any size anywhere is Longyearbyen, Norway—above 78 degrees North latitude. Attawapiskat is only 52 degrees North. The weather is more severe in Longyearbyen. The problems with getting supplies are no less serious: it all has to be shipped in. Yet in Longyearbyen buildings and homes look in generally good repair.


Granted that residents of Longyearbyun must have more money to put into upkeep: they have jobs. Still, especially if you are poor, it is surely more economical to keep your house in repair than to bulldoze it and buy another one every forty years or so. If there is no ready cash, it would make more sense for the band office to offer early small loans than late new homes.

The problem, then, cannot be the local climate, nor the remoteness of the community, nor ultimately the lack of money. And even if it were, the answer would be simple: move. All of these must be symptoms of some deeper problem. Given some deeper problem, simply sending more money north is no solution. Build them all new houses, and in a few years they will simply be back where they are now.

Nor is this unhappy situation the result of their being historically oppressed by whites, or their land stolen, or their grandparents attending residential schools, or their traditional way of life taken from them. There are few whites anywhere to be seen. Eighty-five percent of Ontario is still crown land. This includes almost all the land around Attawapiskat for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. If there ever were sufficient fish and game to support the Cree by hunting and gathering, here there still is. All the money they are being sent by the federal and provincial government, and the nearby diamond mine, is on top of anything they would have had historically.

Nor is it laziness. If it were, the idle Cree ought to be fairly happy with their lot. They clearly are not: there is, after all, that second crisis at Attawapiskat of which we have all heard. That epidemic of attempted suicides. And there is the matter of alcoholism and substance abuse, endemic to native communities. Not a sign of contentment with life as it is.

Location of Longyearbyen

Lazy people to not want to kill themselves in their idleness; nor is is logical on that basis to live more poorly on welfare here than they might live elsewhere.

Instead, the Cree who have remained in Attawapiskat simply seem incapable of doing anything about their lot. Not incapable physically, certainly. And not incapable mentally. They are incapable spiritually. They obviously have, jointly, that awful experience of paralysis of the will we call clinical depression. If you are truly depressed, you simply do not have the energy or the faith or the hope, you do not have the spirit, to do any thing, even to help yourself.

Severe depression can be caused by culture shock. To encounter another culture, even one that is not obviously broadly superior, can shake all the certainties in your being. Hence a lack of direction, hence of will, hence what we call depression. The present situation seems unsatisfactory, but one no longer knows which way to jump. Every direction seems a cliff edge. If nothing any more makes sense, why make the meaningless effort to paint your living room walls or to stay sober? What is the point of that? Might it just as easily turn out to be exactly the wrong thing to do?

If culture shock is the cause of this endemic depression, the cure is painful, but obvious. If Canadian Indians are still, at least on reserves, suffering from culture shock, centuries after first contact, our basic approach has clearly been wrong. You do not conquer culture shock by locking yourself in your room; that fossilizes it. Nor can you pickle it in alcohol. That is what the reserve system has done. You must instead get out and engage the surrounding culture. Do so, and eventually all begins again to make sense.


The residential schools, then, were not at fault for taking Indian children out of their culture. They were at fault for keeping them in that culture. They were, in the end, Indian schools, that segregated Indians, cemented that self-identity, and left them in contact only with other Indians.

Since the first treaties were signed, the government has also been in the business of artificially preserving traditional Indian social structures. Dealings have always been with tribes or bands as corporate entities, not with Indians as individuals.

Yet if Indian cultures have lagged behind other cultures for the past few thousand years, these traditional social structures are almost surely the reason. Because Indians are not, at all, lazy or stupid or incapable. All the European witnesses at first contact attest to this.

I think we can freely see why the traditional Indian culture has failed. It is communistic and totalitarian. There are no laws nor mechanisms, firstly, protecting private property. As a result, there is no incentive to strive, to try hard, nor to do or think anything new. Do better than your comrades in any way, other perhaps than defending the tribe, and you are only likely to stir up envy and the urge to steal. For the state of nature, as we have seen, is truly war of all against all. Accordingly, no individual as an individual can build up the reserves to stand against the social consensus, to safely dissent from the tribe or its demands. Traditionally, Indian family bonds were also clearly weak: marriages were easily and often dissolved, paternity was never certain. Children belonged not to the family, but the tribe. No family traditions could arise in dissent from the tribal consensus. And above the tribe, there was no settled structure of laws or government to check the tribal regime. Everything was within the tribe, nothing was outside the tribe, nothing was against the tribe. Totalitarianism.

What you had, and continue to have, on a reserve, is the situation outlined in the novel Lord of the Flies. A happy hunting ground for any faction of bullies. Without checks or balances, once such a faction can seize power, their power is absolute.

If there is one thing likely to produce cllinical depression, even more so than culture shock, it is being exposed to constant bullying.


Nor does introducing democracy, in itself, solve this problem. Hitler, after all, was democratically elected. Without checks and balances and separate centres of power, a majority can just as easily become a mob.

We have seen some of the results in conventional Indian culture; endemic torture being the obvious example.

No wonder, then, that one of the young people of Attawapiskat, asked about why they attempted suicide, identified bullying as the problem. And, specifically, bullying by adults, not other kids.

Never and nowhere has totalitarian, communist government worked. Always and everywhere it has produced poverty and oppression. Why should we expect it to be different for Canadian Indians? Why condemn them to the Third World in the midst of great prosperity and freedom?

Tribalism also promotes, rewards, and demands dependency. Each individual belongs to the group, as a child belongs to a parent. Individual initiative is not on. No wonder, then, if reserve Indians become dependent on government cheques. Moreover, the profound dissonance between the values furthered by the reserves and those of the larger culture again helps paralyse the will: two voices are calling urgently in opposite directions. Tribalism, determined to own the individual, will call that much more strongly.

The last thing we ought to do if we care about Indians is double down on what we have been doing: keep shovelling more money and so authority into the band structure. And simply requiring at last some financial accountability from the band leadership is still not enough.

We should stop the money flow to bands, and instead send it to each individual Indian. This would be easy: of necessity, the government already keeps lists of every single treaty Indian by name. We should divide all reserve lands, and give full title to an equal portion to each band member individually, allowing them then to mortgage, buy, and sell. The Indian band as an organization need not be acknowledged.

If Indians wanted to preserve their traditional tribal structures, they would be foolish, but they would be free to do so. They would have the same freedom of association as any other Canadians. They could form, among themselves, a social contract, and tax themselves to finance it as a local government.

Gee. We could call it a town or municipality.

Of course, membership could no longer be based on race. That is reprehensible. Anyone who bought land within the municipality limits, anyone living there, must have an equal say.

Good luck to them.


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