Saturday, January 23, 2016

La Loche, January 22, 2016

Twenty-three years ago tonight, almost to the day, I sat in front of my television watching the news when Davis Inlet, Newfoundland became a part of the national consciousness, but less so its conscience. Children, teenaged and younger, appeared on the screen in a carnival of rebellion and self-destruction. Their tragedy was the despair that lead them to gas-sniffing. They extended middle fingers and expressed their wish to die as the adults of their community described the problems that contributed to this despair. As I ponder it now, I try to figure out what it took for the cameras to arrive there, in this case amateur "home" video that captured, generated and transmitted those images to the rest of the country.  As I sat in front of the TV that night, I could not help but look over my shoulder and out my living room window.  The same type of footage could have been captured in the Inuit village where I was teaching at the time.

It was common for the children of the village, some barely starting to toddle, to mill about the streets in the night, steering clear of their parents for the time being in case the jovial mood that the bottle induced soured unexpectedly.  During the time that I lived and taught in that village, sniffing was an issue but it was one part of a much larger complex of issues that did not merely intersect, but meshed together to restrain any pursuit of self-determination.  There were children as young as 11 who were sniffing, older kids were experimenting the the narcotics that made their way to the village, others who had to grow up with the consequences of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and there were suicides that seared the community into palpable uncertainty about what the people of the community were supposed to do, together, to ensure that their children did not die in this manner anymore. The tragedies have continued over the last 23 years just as they continued over the years before I arrived there.

It is extremely easy to regard the tragedy in La Loche, Saskatchewan -- four children shot in their high school earlier this afternoon -- as an echo of the serial gun tragedies that occur in our neighbour to the south, that residual incident to maintain a statistic norm that reflects the difference in population but that would overlook the realities.  I risk losing a few readers by digressing to this brief, soon-to-be-discarded comparison to the United States.

In the days ahead, we will get a clear portrait of La Loche and the social issues that attributed to the shooting that occurred there.  They will likely be similar to the issues that have persisted in indigenous communities throughout Canada for decades, if not centuries.  The social problems, whether the ones I have indicated above or less tangible problems that come with the existential questions about their identity and self-worth as First Nations' peoples, their relationship with the institutions of the south or the defeatism that comes with associating with or relying on "southern" or "white" institutions rather than maintaining or cultivating their own social infrastructures to contribute to their individual and communal survival and well-being.

As the dawn rises on La Loche and the rest of Canada tomorrow, there ought to be questions about what can be done or said.  The dialogue about guns need only be a cursory one, hunting and fishing are significant part of the life and culture of La Loche and it is much more about their connection with their environment and their traditions. The discussion needs to be about the community that we, every last Canadian, live in and contribute to.  The discussion is one that may touch on our history and the relationships that we have with one another via the institutions and infrastructure that we expect are a part of every community.  

However, that is only one part of the discussion. It may be something that occurs over the next 48 hours in barber shops, over coffees or in whatever haunts we congregate in during the idle hours of the weekend ahead.  There would be rehashings of what we all assume one another have or do not have but few of these opinions would be informed by exposure to life on a reserve or in an indigenous community.  Those discussions will be the musings of amateur sociologists and wannabe politicians who want nothing less than a day in office and an amnesty to avoid the consequences.

The most significant discussions among Canadians will occur on Monday morning, in classrooms where many, many teachers in indigenous classrooms are "white" or "southern."  As the students settle reluctantly at their desks, those teachers will have to cobble together a conversation that will assure their students and themselves that what they do everyday in that classroom is indeed a worthwhile, nurturing vocation and not just a hoop to jump through en route to a most uncertain future partially equipped with knowledge and skills that may be suit them for being funnelled into a lifestyle that is not of their liking or culture.  

It will be one of the toughest conversations or lessons those teachers will ever have, but for all the risks it can be revitalize a classroom and give students hope at a time when there is enormous uncertainty.  That Monday morning will be an occasion where they have to express their commitment to their students on the most personal, rather than institutional, level.  To that end, it needs to be a moment where the teacher sheds the comforting structure and carapace of their roles as employees of a school board or of their provincial or territorial government and engage with their students in the most personal, heartful and vulnerable of manners.  If the relationship between "white" or "southern" individuals and their indigenous counterparts are to become something that stems the sequence of tragedies that echo from one indigenous community to another in Canada, those individuals have to put aside the mantle of their role and whatever protection or certainty that comes with it.  When they speak to their students in the aftermath of this or future tragedies, they have to be willing to acknowledge their limitations: they do not know what is best for the students or their community, they are uncertain about their safety going forward, they cannot guarantee that a high school diploma will ensure employment happiness or comfort.  These things have to be communicated to the students in these schools because they, the schools, have been the most significant institutions for undermining self-worth and identity among indigenous people in Canada.  

Teachers' willingness to be frank with their students about their impact on their students' lives will equip them with some of the knowledge that will give students more influence on their destinies and help them work toward establishing a clearer understanding of what is happening in their lives and in their communities where these foreigners come into their communities to equip them with the skills and knowledge that are best used if they abandon their heritage.  Teachers who, at times such as these, step forward to provide an open, human, personal and flawed presence in Canada's classrooms, will make a brave and bold step toward giving their students a clearer picture of where their community has come from and where it can go.  It is that sense of possibility and path that will keep people from taking actions that will suggest despair and an assumption that their lives are at a dead end.