In the headlines just this past week: “Indigenous women coerced into sterilizations across Canada.”
The article from the Canadian Press went on: “New research shows the forced sterilization of Indigenous women is not just a shameful part of Canadian history. Reports from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and the territories suggest it is still happening.” Journalist Tanya Talaga explores the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere in her 2018 CBC Massey Lectures, All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward. In Canada, on this issue as so many others, the past is not dead. It isn’t even past, as William Faulkner famously wrote.
The weight of history is felt every day by the living, especially those who have borne the heaviest burden of injustice. Indigenous peoples, in particular, live with that every day. As the new revelations about forced sterilizations show, past wrongs are too frequently continued into the present, with terrible effect.
Tanya Talaga’s series of Massey Lectures , collected under the title All Our Relations and aired across Canada this past week on CBC Radio’s Ideas program, form a powerful reflection on this reality, one that should renew our collective determination to confront and overcome the legacy of these injustices.
Talaga, a writer for the Toronto Star , drew on her heritage as an Indigenous woman; her mother is Anishinaabe, her great grandparents were residential school survivors, and her family has been deeply affected by that legacy.
So it’s no surprise that she chose to focus on the effects that generations of injustice and inequality, of separation from land, tradition and family, have had on Indigenous children. Most tragically, it has led to a rate of suicide among Indigenous youth many times higher than that in the general population.
This hardly qualifies as breaking news. For years, decades even, Canadians have been reading about young people in remote Indigenous communities taking their own lives at a frightening pace. In one small community that Talaga cites, 10 committed suicide — the equivalent of 16,000 dying in a city the size of Toronto. If young people were killing themselves at that rate in our big cities, we would declare a national emergency.
No such emergency is sounded when children die by their own hand in far-away, fly-in places that few people visit. In fact, the reaction even from those who are paid to pay attention can be outright callous.
Talaga tells the story of Wapekeka First Nation in northern Ontario , whose chief wrote to Ottawa in the summer of 2016 requesting emergency funding to hire mental health workers because some children had been talking about committing suicide. The request was denied, as she recounts, because the Health Canada bureaucrat who answered the letter said it was “an awkward time in the budget cycle.”
Not long after, three 12-year-old girls in the community of only 400 people did indeed die by suicide.
The shock in all this is that it isn’t particularly shocking: children die, stories flit briefly through the news cycle, and everyone waits until the next time. Talaga worries that this has become utterly unremarkable in many places crippled by the weight of colonial policies working themselves out across generations. “What is it like to live in a community where suicide is almost normal?” she asks. “For too many Indigenous communities world-wide, life is lived in the normalcy of death.”
She goes on: “You have to have safe housing, you have to have a family that loves you, someone who tucks you in at night, to say to you, ‘You belong.’ You need nutritious food, you need access to an education, you need […]
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