Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Indifference, helplessness, and two little girls.

Last week, the entire country looked on with an awful sadness as a tragic story unfolded on the Yellow Quill First Nations reservation in Saskatchewan.

The story took two days to become clear through media reports, but in a nutshell, two toddlers froze to death in near -50C temperatures (with wind chill) when their father, who was extremely inebriated, became concerned about one of them around midnight last Monday/Tuesday, and in a panic, took both of them - dressed in t-shirts and diapers and wrapped in his coat and a blanket - and tried to run to his sister's house, a few dozen metres away, for help. In a snowstorm, and navigating snowdrifts, and in his state of intoxication, he somehow became disoriented and dropped first one, then the other, of the girls; and he didn't turn up at the doorstep of a neighbour's house until 5:30 a.m Tuesday. Even then, he was incapable of letting anyone know the girls were missing until 1:30 pm, which is when the police began searching for, and found, first one, then on Wednesday the other, small frozen body. (The girls' mother had apparently argued with the father earlier Monday evening and left the family home, leaving them in their father's care.)

An appalling, almost unthinkable tragedy, yet there was an awful air of resignation among everyone I've discussed it with or heard discussing it, the nauseating understandabilty of how it could happen, the horrible credibility of the narrative, "things on Native reserves being what they are". Whether you were someone who had the casually racist opinion that that's all you can expect from Aboriginals, or whether you were someone who wept and wrung your hands at a group of people coping with a systemic problem with drugs and alcohol so bad and so entrenched that you found it all too believable that a young Aboriginal father who loved his children could be so drunk he accidentally abandoned them in a snowstorm, it was the sheer predictability that something awful could happen to Aboriginal children because of addiction in their families that was most disturbing.

Today in the Globe and Mail, Gabor Maté has a compelling article titled "Our strange indifference to aboriginal addiction". In it, she makes the point that:

"The devastation wreaked by addiction among our first nations peoples is a national scandal — or it would be, were it to strike virtually any other segment of our population. Our country is strangely indifferent to its depredations among this marginalized group. We seem content to accept the high death toll that afflicts our native citizens, the low life expectancy, the high incarceration rate and the grinding poverty that both gives rise to substance abuse and results from it."

She is right; but I believe she is only half-right when she says that our lack of response to Aboriginal addiction is entirely attributable to indifference. I believe she is underestimating the effects of feelings of helplessness and despair at how to make things better. Personally, I am anything but indifferent to the problems of Aboriginal people, and I am not alone. I've always had an affinity with Aboriginal people and have connected easily and warmly with most I've met my entire life. I cried over what happened on the Yellow Quill Reserve. But after the terrible sense of fatalism, of thinking, "Oh, yes, this is all too possible, given what has passed between us and them and where they are left", comes the thought: what is to be done?

We have broken, horribly broken, an entire culture and race, which, it turns out, has a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and addiction; and having done so, most efficiently, for several hundred years, what on earth will work in fixing things?

We've thrown money at it, God knows. We've had commitees and Commissions and Royal Commissions and Round Tables and Talking Circles and Healing Circles and consultations. We've tried Colonial government, Federal government, Self-government, and Tri-party government. We've had education program after employment program after tuition program after training program after pilot project after funding program. We've - no, they've, various Reserves have, of their own accord - tried banning alcohol from reserves, a bold and laudable move that doesn't work, as the first thing that happens after prohibition is smuggling.

The large extended family of Santana and Kaydance Pauchay and their father, Chris - who will have to live with this for the rest of his life - have been overwhelmingly open and gracious and giving to media in the wake of this. They have allowed this intrusion, giving interviews at the most awful moment of their lives, in the hope - they repeatedly say - that the little girls' deaths will not be completely in vain, that this will be the wake-up call that moves this entire country to start addressing the problems of addiction and its effects on Aboriginal reserves.

Gabor Maté has the same hope.

So do I. And I bet so do a lot of other Canadians.

The only question is -



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Blogger Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

God, this is horrible.

I'd say you nailed the reactions as being helplessness-based. As big a 12-step fan as I am, there's no way to deny that addiction is a dismal problem with rotten recurrence levels even in the best of programs.

I'm not sure what the failure rates of the programs you mention were - did any of them help the problem by some tiny, politically unacceptable amount? Or literally no impact at all?

11:13 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Varying programs have had, as you deduce, varying degrees of success. You hit the nail on the head when you said "tiny, politically unacceptable" amounts of success. Most seem to run aground - usually somewhere in the process of trying to fit round pegs - Aboriginal people with Aboriginal culture, values and worldviews - into the square holes of mainstream society, workplaces and culture. That is one big barrier that has never yet been overcome. From that comes the marginalization; which greatly aids the slide into alcoholism and addiction.

Nothing seems to make a permanent difference, or even have much impact beyond small local pockets of success. That's part of what's so frustrating...

6:35 p.m.  
Blogger Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

It's nearly impossible to discuss addiction without using very negative terms - i could sound like i'm saying that we need to hold anti-addiction efforts to a lower standard.

But in a way, kind of, we do. Because any program is up against the near-total freedom that an individual has, to substance-abuse. With the native population, it's up against 3 leviathans: genetic predisposition; and the holes in the psyche that occur over generations of a crushed population; AND economic factors.

It's also hard to describe how little power a support or treatment prgram has, while still emphasizing how vital they are. ONLY the addict can change his own life, but it's vital that the support system be there.

Those lousy success rates make people feel despair, but any success at all is a tiny spark that needs to be gently fanned, because the best help for aboriginal people will come from others like them who've adapted the program, or created their own, for their culture, spirituality, etc., and made it work for themselves.

So we need to "accept" the low success rates without settling for them, which seems to make no sense either! "Understand" and "be ready for" may be better terms than "accept." But any new ideas and treatment that show promise need to be given a shot.

Meanwhile, we talk about stats and programs, like i'm doing now so i won't have to think about the individual gut-wrenchers like this one, that will still happen sometimes. "Accepting reality" is supposedly good but this is reality and it's UNacceptable, and the despair that causes can stall us all. But it needs not to.

6:53 p.m.  
Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

We don't do much better or different here in Baja Canada for aboriginal alcohol poisoning.

Diane is, for a variety of odd and coincidental reasons, plugged in to Indian culture hereabouts. For a couple of decades she was the vendors' coodinator for a big annual pow-wow in this area. She may also be 1/8 Apache, but she doesn't say much about that. She also has a connection (see asterisk below) to the current conflict in Ontario concerning uranium prospecting.

I printed out this article and its responses for her (since she doesn't read blogs). Her response was...

"Yes. That's what happens."

And that's it.

I think that's kind of what Ronnie and Ruth are saying, too. Alcohol dependency is beyond an "issue" or a "problem" for the native population. It's ingrained thoroughly in the poisonous legacy we've laid on our aboriginals, our predecessors. We can't think in simple, one-step "solutions" to a curse that is drilled so deep into them as to be marrow-bound.

[* This is the "asterisk below":
Diane's high school classmate, Bob Lovelace, is a central figure in a current firestorm about uranium prospecting in Canada. She keeps in contact with Bob regularly; a good synopsis of the current problems can be found in, of all places, the student newspaper of Loyalist College in Belleville: http://pioneerplus.ejournalism.ca/?q=node/1975 ]

2:22 a.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Very astute comments, as always.

I heard an interview on CBC Radio last week with a researcher who is studying a tiny handful of Aboriginal communities - as in, 3 or 4 in the entire country - where seemingly miraculous spontaneous 'small revolutions' have occurred when, gradually, the entire town stopped drinking. In these cases, there was no outside intervention; in one town, the abuse rate was 100% of the population over 12. Then, a single person or couple stops drinking, of their own accord; and, seeing the result, another person or two voluntarily goes dry; and the recovery spreads organically, with the 'dry' adults forming a support group that continues to grow as people quit. As I said, in a few of these communities, the entire town is now sober and attending these big support meetings. How to account for such a phenomenon? I have no idea, but lord, if we could figure out how to duplicate it...

8:23 p.m.  

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