Tanya Talaga's Massey Lectures are an urgent call to save lives
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.”
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.
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.
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 access to health care. When you’re growing up in a community that’s missing all these things… suicide is there, suicide becomes normal.”
Amid all this, one fact stands out: Canada is the only G8 nation without a national strategy on suicide prevention. Indigenous leaders called for such a strategy, backed by dedicated funding, when a rash of youth suicides briefly shocked the country in 2016-17. But the Trudeau government’s view is that such a policy isn’t needed. More important, it has said, is to restore hope in Indigenous communities with proper health services, better education and economic opportunities.
That’s all fine, but it will take a long time to reverse the damage done by policies that tore apart communities and families for decades, even centuries. In the meantime, a strategy focused on preventing suicides could save many young people in communities that cannot afford to lose any more.
Such a strategy must be informed by Indigenous people’s own traditions, and take into account as well widespread mistrust of the existing health system. There is still a memory of dedicated “Indian hospitals” that provided sub-standard care and at times even practised what Talaga describes as “harmful medical experimentation and questionable therapies.”
In contrast, she describes a model for treatment that might offer real hope. During a visit to the territory of the Sami people in northern Norway she visited a suicide prevention centre that treats entire families. Instead of flying troubled youths hundreds of kilometres away from all they know to be seen alone in a mental health clinic, their entire family moves into the centre for a month and is treated together. It is, she reports, a success.
Developing a strategy that includes such innovative methods would take imagination and a great deal of consultation. It would also take real money, at a time when the federal government has budgeted billions in additional spending to start making up for the short-falls in basic services that have plagued Indigenous communities.
The alternative, though, is to stand by and in effect condone the ongoing but preventable destruction of so many lives. Anyone who reads Tanya Talaga’s powerful lectures will come away determined not to let that continue.