Thursday, April 21, 2016

Canada's North and the Relocation Fallacy

Since January, when the school shootings in La Loche, Saskatchewan occurred, there has been a great deal of back and forth on the notion of relocating northern communities to the south.  The case has been built and the data cited to show that indigenous Canadians who live closer to urban centres have lower rates of suicide, depression, mental illness and other harbingers of the hardships that occur with greater frequency in more remote communities where individuals lack the easy access to the professional help.  Beyond the obvious professional help there would be other amenities and possibilities that would offer indigenous youth, in particular, opportunities for self-discovery that they are denied in remote isolated communities.

The strategy of packing-'em-up-and-shipping-'em-south has its appeal.  There is an undeniable feasibility which would be built in and economists would be able to cite a breakeven point some number of years down the line.  It would be cheaper to reestablish these communities elsewhere and forego the expenses of fly-ins, road maintenance, isolation pay, northern allowances, and all of the other things that make supporting the communities of the north to a standard that would not embarrass us in the eyes of the United Nations.  The measures might even be softened or hidden by their inclusion in a larger population pool and more facile-minded statisticians could say that the occurrences of certain social problems has declined.

The entire strategy of relocation overlooks two basic things: 1) the indigenous people in these communities need to be intimately connected to the land they live on in order for their culture and consequently themselves to survive and 2) they have already be relocated and disconnected from the land that they were once connected to.  It may be right outside their window, but they are not connected to it anymore, at least not as intimately as their ancestors were.

When I was a young teacher cutting my teeth in an Inuit community in Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), I had mused about the convenience of moving the community south.  I also weighed the alternative at the other end of the continuum: restoring their lifestyles to the way they were prior to contact with southerners.  There is in that notion of having them go all-in to renew their relationship with the land and there is some peril in doing this when the traditional skills that ensured their survival are dormant, if not lost.  It would be quite easy to resort to the language of cutting them off and a lot of post-lapsarian language about indigenous people being cast out of the "gardens" that southerners would claim to have built for them, all replete with electricity, heat, cable TV and cell phones.  (My refrain from adding running water to that list is a deliberate one.)  The reality is that the settlements that were built for northern Canadians over the past decades have taken the people in those settlements out of the nomadic lifestyle that they once survived by.  If post-lapsarian terms are to be used accurately, they would need to be used for the move from the land to the settlement, not for the return trip.

When I taught in the Arctic I asked my students about their willingness to go back out on the land and live there despite all the risks that they would face.  Everyone of the students said that they would have preferred to live on the land rather than in the village.  There may have been the softening thought that they would be able to use the village as a safety net and return there whenever things got a little too difficult, but they had a palpable despair about the lives that they were living.  In the 23 years that have passed since I left their community, one of the eight committed suicide just as he turned 21.  Other students from that class have, barely into their 30s, lost their own children to that plague of the north as well.  The math when dealing that that class of eight, that had been decimated by the tragedy of suicide before I arrived there, is stark and painful.

Apart from the relocation that occurred with the establishment of the settlements, which palpably altered the economics and the notions of survival in the community, was the further separation that occurred with the commitment to schooling.  A key part of orientation for north-bound teachers is the history of strategies and current realities that pertain to school attendance.  For decades and decades teachers have made the utmost effort to break indigenous students of the roles they played in their families contributing to the family's or community's survival by contributing to the hunt or the home. These roles, which were deeply laden with meaning, value, learning and self-worth had been disregarded and cast aside in favour of the institutional classroom, which further distanced the removal of indigenous people from a vibrant ecosystem that they were once indelibly linked to. What was once a well-known home has been rendered distant landscape by these separations and variations on relocation.

The proposal of entirely uprooting indigenous communities from the north and moving those people would be a mistake of significant proportions and an invitation for the actuaries or other bean-counters to eke as much efficiency out of such a process as possible.  There would be questions about how much of a community really has to be together and then at the same time opposing questions about the autonomy indigenous Canadians ought to have about where they live and how.  The proposal of relocating them denies them the basic rights to be masters of their destiny.  There is, instead, a need to deeply examine the problems that exist in each community and school and find ways to reconnect them to their environments and homes in manners that will address their needs and goals.  Broad programs, whether or relocation or some other "solution" will only exacerbate the current problems that persist in the Canadian North.