The true tragedy of Attawapiskat – by Joseph Boyden (MACLEAN’S Magazine – April 13, 2016)

Award-winning author Joseph Boyden reflects on his love for places like Attawapiskat, and the desperate need for investment and education

Attawapiskat is a microcosm of intergenerational trauma. If you don’t know what Attawapiskat is or if you’re not quite sure what intergenerational trauma means—or how they are married to each other—please allow me to explain.

Attawapiskat is an isolated northern Ontario Cree reserve on the west coast of James Bay. According to the last census taken in 2011, the on-reserve population is just over 1,500 souls. According to that census, more than a third of those souls are under age 19, and three-quarters are under the age of 35. That’s a very young population. It’s representative of a national trend: Canada’s fastest-growing population by far is its First Nations youth.

Attawapiskat has made a disproportionate amount of national news in the last decade, most often because of the deplorable living conditions as well as the suicide epidemics that sweep through and devastate the community. Perhaps Attawapiskat’s most famous daughter is Shannen Koostachin, a youth from the community turned national activist for Indigenous children’s rights to education in her fight to have an elementary school built on her reserve.

Shannen tragically died in a car accident in 2010 while forced to attend high school off-reserve because hers doesn’t have one. Another well-known daughter of Attawapiskat is former Chief Theresa Spence, who helped propel the Idle No More movement when she embarked on a hunger strike to bring attention to First Nations’ grievances, and especially to deplorable living conditions in her community.

This week, Attawapiskat is back in the news after its chief and council were forced to declare a state of emergency. Eleven people in this community reportedly attempted suicide in a single night; 28 are reported to have tried in the month of March, and 100 attempts have been made in the last seven months.

I first flew into Attawapiskat 21 years ago, in the winter of 1995, as a professor of Aboriginal programmes with Northern College. I still remember vividly an older woman named Agnes who served as an officer in the tiny airport sheepishly rummaging through my luggage to make sure I wasn’t smuggling any alcohol into the community. It’s a dry reserve, where alcohol is banned.

I’ll be honest: I’d considered sneaking a bottle of booze up to keep me warm at night during my first week-long stint there. But I was glad I hadn’t tried, as there’s no doubt this woman would have found it, this woman who turned out to be one of my students. Now that would have been embarrassing.

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