Commentary  Problems facing First Nations need long-term solutions

On October 22, Eabametoong First Nation chief Lewis Nate declared a state of emergency in his community, on the Fort Hope reserve in northern Ontario. Over the last year, there have been three homicides, various cases of animal cruelty, and fifty cases of arson, one damaging the only school on the Fort Hope reserve. Prescription drug abuse has been on the rise and is one of the underlying factors in the current spikes in violence.

Last week, the Eabametoong were “still waiting for Canada’s prime minister to acknowledge [their] state of emergency.” When federal response to crises south of the border – whether in New York or Haiti – has been within hours, there is no excuse for such a delayed national response to a crisis happening on aboriginal Canadian land.

The plight of the Eabametoong echoes that of other northern Canadian communities, which have been plagued by youth gang violence and homicide that attract national media coverage and police resources, but no long-term commitment to address the enduring root problems. Youth in Cape Dorset, an Inuit hamlet of 1,200 on Baffin Island, Nunavut, have been charged with two murders – but as the Globe and Mail notes, “More often… young men in small Northern communities turn guns on themselves.” The suicide rate among 15-to-24-year-old men in Nunavut is 28 times higher than the rest of the country, yet the territory has no suicide prevention strategy.

Closer to home, Native activists and police squared off over the town Oka’s plans to expand a gold course onto traditional Mohawk lands. At least one person died during the dispute. Twenty years have passed since the Oka Crisis, yet members of the Mohawk Community at Kanesatake lament that institutional racism continues. One speaker at “20 Years Since Oka: Kanienkehaka Communities in Resistance,” a panel discussion held in May of this year, testified that drug raids conducted by the RCMP target soft drugs – such as marijuana sold outside of the community – but willfully pass over hard-drug dealers, meaning that heroin, cocaine, and oxycontin remain inside and ultimately harm the community.

Although Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has committed $400,000 to provide private security, equipment, and repairs to Fort Hope, there needs to be more than a purely reactive response. Police can patrol the streets, but they cannot treat mental health or drug addiction.

Speaking at McGill this month, former Prime Minister Paul Martin pointed out that only forty per cent of Aboriginal on-reserve school students graduate from school. The statistics speak to a discriminatory system: on-reserve schools are administered by the federal government and receive twenty to forty per cent less funding per-capita than their off-reserve counterparts, which additionally benefit from the support system of school boards.

First Nations are trying to advance their goals of self-sufficiency and self-determination in an inhospitable climate. Native communities from Oka to the Okanagan Valley in BC have tirelessly resisted unilateral development on their land, investing time and scant legal and financial resources that could be otherwise applied to their long-term problems. The time has come for governments to adopt a policy of genuine cooperation and consultation in addressing these problems, and to realize that short-term security solutions are tantamount to occupation.