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 -
Labels: justice, politics