Confronting Attawapiskat's PTSD: The Painful Trauma of Spiritual Disconnection

The tragic events that unfolded this month in the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario are prompting soul-searching as well as sorrow; introspection through our tears. How can it be that in a country known for its beauty, wealth, and humanitarianism, eleven Indigenous youth in a single community attempted suicide one Saturday night, and more than a hundred have tried to take their own lives since last September--28 in March alone?

Some have suggested that isolation is at the root of this suicide epidemic. I agree. But it's wrong to attribute Attawapiskat's despair to geographical remoteness. Indigenous peoples, youth included, speak eloquently of their connection to their land, to the forests, to the sea--expressing their identity as inseparable from their environment. The isolation afflicting Indigenous youth is far deeper and more profound.

Their isolation speaks to a lack of recognition and respect--what writer Joseph Boyden has called "the post-traumatic stress of a culture's destruction." It is an isolation of the soul, created over generations of oppression, racism, and disastrous social policies that undermined the basic human rights of individuals, families, and entire nations. For well over a century, Canadian policies included forced relocation, residential schools, and other efforts to eradicate, constrain, and outlaw Indigenous cultural practices and traditions--from language to spiritual rituals. The result? Too many Indigenous youth have lost a sense of who they are. Their history, place, and value in the world have been severed from their selves.

This is the history of colonialism in Canada. A history that has for too long been ignored--along with the real story of Canada and the proud heritage of the Indigenous peoples who have long called this land home.

As the Canadian Parliament and the country as a whole grapple with the challenge of youth suicide, we must commit to listen and learn and work toward long-term solutions. Because we're not simply dealing with a one-time catastrophe; we're living in a state of prolonged crisis. And it can only be reversed and resolved if we replace isolation with belonging.

Fortunately, that process has already begun through the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Over the course of six years, the Commission visited more than 300 communities and heard testimony from thousands of witnesses, who detailed the mistreatment of more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children forcibly placed in Canada's residential schools. Their final report, issued in December 2015, included comprehensive recommendations for promoting truth, justice, and healing--and turned over the work of reconciliation to Canada and all Canadians.

The epidemic of Indigenous youth suicide is the clarion call for us all to engage.

First, we must accept that what is needed is perspective, not prescription. Indigenous voices and strategies themselves must set our pathway forward. The current Parliament contains a record number of Indigenous parliamentarians. Their experience is key to understanding and to building effective solutions.

Second, we must resist the temptation to either localize or generalize the problem--whether by focusing all our scrutiny on Attawapiskat, or by assuming that Attawapiskat's tragedy is universal. In fact, as University of Victoria psychologist Christopher Lalonde has shown, the overwhelming majority of suicides--9 out of 10--among First Nations in British Columbia take place in roughly 10 percent of communities. We can learn from the examples of resilience and self-reliance that so many Indigenous communities have to offer and build on their strengths, rather than perpetuating narratives of weakness and deficiency.

Third, we must support the capacity-building on which lasting progress depends. As Natan Obed, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has argued, too many Indigenous communities "lack access to resilience-supporting resources that many Canadians take for granted, such as mental-health services and supports, access to early-childhood education, community-led education, housing, and culturally relevant community-development programs." These resources are essential, not just in their own right, but to foster the social connectedness and strength that enable individuals, families, and communities to shelter, nurture, and support one another.

Finally, we must remember that there is no "other"--there is and will only ever be "us." The aphorism is true: It takes a village to raise a child. And we are all in this village together.