Suicide Prevention. Part Five. First Nation Youth on Reserves

By Dr David Laing Dawson

All that I have written in parts I, II, III and IV apply to this population as well. But the overall rate of suicide on some reserves is tragically high.

There are several factors that lower the threshold for suicide. Some of these, I think, are inherent in the dependent and isolated nature of reserves and the impossible cultural stew that one finds on these reserves.

Many years ago, even before the internet, I was walking through Kenora in Northern Ontario  one evening when I saw three boys practicing break dancing on an empty lot. They were first nations kids with a boom box, possibly from the White Dog reserve. If so, these were boys who lived on a reserve two hours north of Kenora in the wilderness and they had adopted a dance form that originated on the street corners of the South Bronx within the African American and Hispanic community.

In that same time period a shaman invited me to attend an exorcism he was soon going to perform on a woman possessed by an evil spirit. He suggested I bring some holy water with me for protection. When I asked him why he wanted me there, he answered, “You might bring some of those pills of yours.” So here we have native spiritualism, an Ojibway healing ceremony, Catholic holy water to guard against evil, and anti-psychotic medication just in case.

Another man I saw because his son was in jail explained to me that within his culture children were not raised with the kinds of discipline and control that people of European descent expect. They run free within the village.

At the time I suggested that might have worked well a hundred years ago, but now with alcohol, drugs, firearms, television, cell phones, internet….

I thought of the cliché that “It takes a village to raise a child.” And I can well imagine a village of First Nations People raising a successful child one hundred, maybe five hundred years ago, the boys learning skills and being inducted into the hunting and warrior cultures of the men, the coming of age ceremonies, the girls learning skills and being inducted into the world of women, of gathering, sewing and cooking, of childbirth and babies.

I attended a band council meeting on one occasion to discuss the problem of their teens and youth getting in so much trouble. They constituted a high percentage of the population of the Kenora jail. During the meeting one councilor said he almost wished that they could still send their teenagers off to residential school to learn some discipline. He went on to say it is the parents’ fault. The kids roam the village at night, out of control, looking for drugs or alcohol or trouble or excitement.

It is easy to see why the threshold for violence and suicide is low. The structure, rituals and meaning of growing up in a hunting gathering village have been lost, and the structure, meaning, rituals, rules, organization, expectations of an industrial society (or even a post-industrial society) have never quite taken. The first has been lost (or badly damaged by my ancestors, by politicians, the church, the merchants) despite attempts to hold onto language and rituals. The second never quite accepted. An elected band council is superimposed over a traditional tribal politic. Survival now depends on negotiations for food and housing, clean water and medicine with two levels of Government, not on hunting, gathering, planting, building, making, preserving.

Caught in this the teenagers easily become lost. Many now see little future for themselves. Or to put it another way, it is especially hard for a teenager living in a small, isolated northern community to imagine a bright and satisfying future for himself or herself in a larger world, a larger world that is very visible to them on television. The threshold for suicide pacts, for the contagion of suicide, and for a lethal impulsive action is much lower.

We can fly in mental health resources, improve the local school, try a number of different programs to help youth in those communities, but ultimately I think this will continue unless and until we find a way of ending the reserve system. This kind of chronic dependency is not good for anyone, least of all teenagers.

Or we could study the successful reserves, of which there are a few. And by we I mean government, first nation leaders and organizations. Can this be replicated elsewhere? Is it possible to retain and preserve these ancient cultures and languages without creating an artificial existence and a pathological hostile dependency?

A native friend once told me when we were working together that there were no swear words in Anishinabek languages. Then, on an evening when I was having dinner with a chief, I asked him, the chief that is, what he and his people would say when they were angry.

He smiled slyly and answered, “You must remember that the Indian had no reason to be angry before the white man came.”

As I write this a third 12 year old has killed herself on a small isolated Ontario Reserve. The photo of her in the newspaper shows a sweet child standing before a decorated Christmas tree, a large ginger bread man, and an enormous candy cane. She is clearly within puberty at this early age, and she smiles with innocence and charm. There is talk of money, of mental health workers, of safety plans for the tweens and teens of this two thousand person community.

But this is a band aid on a slow hemorrhage. Our system of reserves is a trap. It is a pretense at preserving a way of life, a culture. It works for those on the payroll, and perhaps for those whose jobs entail preserving and teaching the traditions and languages, and representing their people. But the children and teens? Netflix, a ginger bread man, a Christmas tree and a totem, clothes and packaged food from the stores, alcohol and drugs, video games, occasional attendance at school, and long winters with little to do.

I don’t have a solution. But I do know some advice for leadership applies equally well for the parents of children and teens: “Give them purpose. If you can’t give them purpose give them hope. And, above all else, keep them busy.”

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2 thoughts on “Suicide Prevention. Part Five. First Nation Youth on Reserves

  1. A sad commentary on our life, as we continue to gain wisdom and knowledge, the basic essentials of building relationships and strengthening community, seem lost. I do believe the answer lies within the communities, on the reserves if we can build on their strengths and not their deficits. We don’t have the answers but they do.

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  2. Thank you for Part 5 . I was wondering how you would approach this problem. And indeed you have not disappointed. It is not easy to turn this sadness around, but it has to be approached with understanding the points you have raised in the first 4 articles.

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