Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Are native suicides really linked to a weak sense of identity?

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The editorial, Root causes of suicide by children (May 21), posits that greater cultural identity is the answer to preventing aboriginal suicides. Prof. Michael Chandler is presented as a titular authority on the subject and has evidently conducted research of B.C. reserves. There is generally a troubling sureness in the editorial, a degree of certainty that verges on dismissiveness.

Contrary to intuition, Chandler found that "levels of poverty, location of reserve, number of children in care, unemployment rate and family structure -- are not reliable predictors of a community's suicide rate." A lot of us, I would assume, think reserves are inherently depressing and dysfunctional enough to prompt suicidal ideation. Noticeably absent from Chandler's list are the chronic social pathologies associated with remote reserves like Shamattawa. Incredibly, Chandler believes that the rate of child suicides is "closely tied to the degree to which a community was involved in self-government, land claims, education, health services, cultural programs, language preservation." Children on reserves are committing suicides because the community lacks the self-government and political autonomy to preserve and propagate aboriginal culture. Perhaps Chandler has read enough suicide notes to believe that aboriginal kids have so internalized their band's political issues. The editorial focuses entirely on the idea that "a sense of identity is intrinsic to a sense that life has value and purpose." Are kids really killing themselves because they don't know who they are? And if some are motivated by that lack of identity, is that the only reason kids commit suicides?

"A healthy future hinges on the reconciliation of old wounds through cultural reclamation and self-government," writes the editorialist. Never mind the obvious paradox of trying to derive individual identity from internalizing a collective identity, consider the other implications of the editorialist's prescription. For the young status Indian, their future depends on the rectification of the past; there is no clean break from the past that is possible, no 'New World' is open to them, so to speak. The wounds of their ancestors are their wounds. The problems with cultural reclamation are even more profound for that young person. Cultural reclamation implies an existing loss of original culture; the starting point is a negative. The further implication is that a young person today is leading an inauthentic life because of that missing original culture. Can culture be reclaimed anyway? Can it not only be re-created and therefore never truly authentic? Worse is the implication that a young aboriginal person will be valued more the more they approximate the ideal of their people's culture.

The editorial argues for aboriginal self-government in the abstract: "A community with an economic base to generate jobs and income is more likely to have strong governance and leadership." What about communities like the small, remote reserve of Shamattawa, Pukatawagan or Pauingassi? What economic base will ever be there?

And consider the time scale to achieve what the editorial suggests: First, there has to be an economic base, then strong governance and leadership, and then those band councils will be in a position to fully reclaim their culture and begin to show their children who they are supposed to be.

It's easy to advocate for utopia when you don't actually have to live there; so much for those who can't standing living there in the meantime.

Michael Melanson


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2009 A11

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