The forest and the trees [Aboriginal social issues] – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (September 22, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

IN MATTERS of public policy, it’s sometimes difficult getting to the heart of the matter. Large bureaucracies formed to address major issues often are unable to tackle them on a community level, let alone among individuals who “fall through the cracks” in the all-too-familiar phrase.

A variety of northern lifestyle issues currently challenges regional authorities: rampant drunkenness in Thunder Bay; painkiller addiction in Marten Falls and other First Nations; violence and abuse across the Far North; the unexplained deaths of seven aboriginal youth who came to Thunder Bay for schooling.

It would be difficult to catalogue the number of services, agencies and departments that are set up to address these very things. Federal, provincial and municipal governments and First Nation organizations spend billions of tax dollars to operate programs aimed at pressing social issues. Yet many of the issues are getting worse.

The disparities between those Northern Ontarians who are gainfully employed and those who have lost their jobs or never had one are growing. With enormous attention to “economic development,” the economy is holding its own while the population is not. Many see little or no hope of ever sharing in the dream of normalcy.

While governments seek to be seen to be “doing something” about crime and trouble, a huge social network is increasingly unable to respond to its mandates, many of them set by government.

In Thunder Bay, police pick up 10 times more drunks and other substance abusers per capita compared with Toronto, although Torontonians may be less likely to report them.

Thunder Bay police officers waste a lot of time looking after drunks and drug abusers that aren’t their responsibility. Chief J.P Levesque reiterated that these people are the responsibility of the many social and assistance agencies, not the police.

Ironically, he said, there are about 40 or 50 repeat offenders among the 3,000 annual liquor and drug abuse arrests. And yet, all the mighty resources of government and First Nation departments have been unable to help them. Shelter House has a proposal for a 15-bed treatment centre but had to ask city council for money when other sources didn’t come through. So a relatively tiny, overworked shelter has stepped up to do what senior bureaucracy does not.

Half the adults in tiny Marten Falls are hooked on pain pills that police have been unable to keep out, though they’ve since stepped up enforcement. In an initiative that will be applauded across the North, the band council has set up a treatment program, but it’s expensive. So Cliffs Natural Resources, which is negotiating with Marten Falls over a big chromite mining initiative, has offered to pay for the first round of treatments. If they work, government can and should fall in line to continue the program.

Red Cross services are at hand for residents of many Ontario communities. But it took a grant from Thunder Bay’s Paterson Foundation to help the agency spread its services to remote First Nations. Humanitarian assistance and improvements in the lives of vulnerable people will be achieved not by public means, but by the Red Cross with help from a generous benefactor.

Nishnawbi Aski Nation wants a public inquiry into the deaths of seven students from remote First Nations who died after moving to Thunder Bay for school. With all due respect to the families seeking answers and closure, do we really need a full-blown public inquiry that will pay millions of dollars to lawyers and take an inordinate length of time to parse the facts? Between them, surely, the First Nations that sent the young people here and the multitude of aboriginal agencies in Thunder Bay, together with host families, police and Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School that dealt with them here, know what’s happened. The shock of moving from a tiny, remote community to a major city with its multitude of harmful diversions and troublemakers anxious to prey on these naive and impressionable youth is surely at the heart of these tragic deaths.

The question is plain: do we as a society provide full elementary and secondary education on every First Nation across the North — again, there are large organizations in place to provide distance education — or do we instead ensure the proper resources are in place in communities with high schools to ease the culture shock while nurturing these young people in the ways of living and learning?