A life of hope and hopelessness [for Aboriginal communities] – (Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal Editorial – May 13, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This editorial was originally published on May 13, 2011. 

BLARING headlines suggested then confirmed what many people in this city and this region had feared — that 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse had indeed died under the water of the Kam River.

Body Recovered, read the bold headline Wednesday, accompanied by a grim photo of the scene at shore. Body ID’d, read Thursday’s headline, an abbreviation for an abbreviated life.
News is harsh as often as it is good, and it is our responsibility to convey all of it to our readers. But in pressing to present details, we can be seen to override the sanctity that a moment like this deserves. Not intentionally, but by striving to write all of the chapters of an important story.

The tale of the disappearance of this aboriginal boy has been covered here extensively because it needed telling in all its tragic detail. Jordan came to Thunder Bay from remote Webequie, one in a parade of aboriginal youth seeking education, opportunity and adventure in the big city far away. Webequie is one of scores of dots on the northern map connected to the rest of Canada by planes, winter roads and TV and computer screens that beckon curious minds.

The other end of the journey, though, is dented by the cultural collision that has produced not one, but seven teenage deaths here over a decade. The number might have been higher, given the shock that such a move can induce, the perils of gang recruitment and the easy availability of drugs and alcohol that can seem like ways of coping.

Young Jordan sought not just an education, but an opportunity to play hockey in a city renowned for its hockey prowess. For some reason, he found his way to the river where others like him have perished. Searchers found his Toronto Maple Leafs hat near a hole in the ice and since then there has been a sense of inevitability in the efforts of many to find him.

Family and friends came from Webequie and were joined by supporters in Thunder Bay over the months of anguished searching. The larger community has been aware of the unfolding events and for a time joined in collective hope. That began to change to resignation once Jordan’s hat and a shoe were located.

The difficulty faced by northern aboriginal youth trying to adjust to a new life in busy and unfamiliar surroundings has been the subject of much discussion and effort. Webequie and the many other far northern First Nations are connected to Thunder Bay by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political umbrella organization with many resources. Other, smaller support organizations exist to try to ease the transition to life in the city. But a young man billeted at a Thunder Bay family home can always find time to be lonely.

Regional NDP MPP Howard Hampton sought more government intervention in this scenario Thursday, asking why a coroner’s inquest into a similar case is two years late in starting.
Attorney General Chris Bentley cited jurisdictional issues between Ottawa and Queen’s Park and the recent matter of too few aboriginal residents in the jury pool.

These are legitimate answers (though a two-year delay seems excessive) but there are far more questions that never get addressed. They involve cultural differences, historical and lasting inequality and the fact that remote reserves can never hope to provide the level of service enabled by larger population bases in the south.

Will sharing in rich resource development provide the economic ability to stabilize First Nations? Or will it perpetuate all of the difficulties that now divide people within aboriginal communities and between those communities and the rest of Canada?

The youth of all First Nations are waiting for their leaders, here and there, to make good on longstanding promises to end the complex issues that Jordan Wabasse could not hope to comprehend, but whose life deserved so much better than he got.