Attawapiskat or bust: Why we won’t move

500 years of colonization have left First Nations people averse to forced relocation

Scott Gilmore of Maclean’s has thought about it. Walrus Magazine editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay has considered it. Even former prime minister Jean Chrétien has suggested it. 

Admit it: you’ve likely wondered why the Attawapiskatians (or the Attawapiskatites) don’t just roll up their blankets, hop a bus and fry their bannock somewhere else upriver. 

The northern Ontario community is all too familiar with its own unique brand of tragedy: flooding, a chronic housing shortage, government disregard, flagrant misspelling of its name and now a frighteningly high rate of suicides and suicide attempts among its young people. 

It would be enough to break their hearts if their hearts weren’t so strong. 

The barrage of unsympathetic questions that often attend these types of calamities, usually from puzzled southern non-native individuals (or as we like to call them in this politically correct age, people of pallor), rained down recently once again. Why don’t you just move? 

Native people get questions like this all the time. 

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings, I can’t tell you how often I heard people who’ve lived childhoods unencumbered by a steady diet of Manifest Destiny ask, in serious baffled frustration, “Why don’t you people just get over it?”

Before that question was the always popular “What do you people really want?” I would answer with, “Well, stop killing our women and stealing our children. That would be a good beginning!”

It all started with “Would you mind signing here?”

Unlike most people who ask these questions, I’ve been to Attawapiskat, and it’s actually a beautiful community. 

I’ve talked to the children. I’ve toured the neighbourhoods. I’ve also been around the world and seen far worse places. 

I can’t blame them for not necessarily wanting to move. It’s not that easy. There’s a certain connection to the land and environment. A community like this has a little more heart and soul than an apartment.

I’m sure you remember the story of Randall Truman, who lived at the foot of Mount St. Helens. Told repeatedly that the mountain might blow up, Truman refused to move. This was his home, and he died with it. 

Okay, maybe not the best example, but never underestimate people’s connection to their home, regardless of the dangers. 

Consider that the Cree of Attawapiskat historically used to be nomadic, following caribou and other game as the need arose. 

That is, until they met other nomadic, non-native people who felt it was their mission to travel the world telling people like the Cree that they could no longer be nomadic, under penalty of law. 

These same formerly nomadic people from across the ocean would later relocate the children of these people to other faraway places. 

Five hundred years of colonization have given First Nations people a learned aversion to forced relocation. Experience has taught Canada’s indigenous people that once they were relocated, these same non-native people (we call them colour-challenged) usually find whacks of fur, gas and diamonds in the vicinity of the places they once called home. 

As to the question of finding someplace better: where is it better? 

I suppose they could go to Calgary – but that place has a history of flooding. What about Vancouver? I’ve heard the housing situation there is almost as bad as in Attawapiskat. 

People need to understand that the problems in Attawapiskat and other northern communities run deeper than their location. 

What need to be dealt with first are the issues infecting these people’s lives that spring from the paternalistic treatment they’ve received from government for generations. Social malaise doesn’t come with a street address. It comes with a history.

Why don’t they move? 

Here’s a counter-question. Why don’t you move? 

There are probably suicides, drug issues, environmental problems and matters of social unrest where you currently fry your eggs and practise your yoga. Cree communities are not RV parks, ready to uproot at a moment’s notice.

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and novelist from Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough.

A slightly different version of this story appears at | @nowtoronto

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