An Epidemic of Suicide and Violence on a Small Canadian Reservation

Dustin Twin
September 06, 2013

The voice on the other end had an ominous sense of urgency. He opened with, “We're running. I can't take this shit anymore.” As per our last conversation I knew that he was talking about running for council, but “this shit” could mean any number of things these days. Unfortunately in that instance it meant another suicide on our little reserve. Another young girl takes her life in the early hours of the morning, the third in the last year or so. And before those, a father shot to death (father to one of the suicide victims), a promising youth dies in a drunk driving accident, and before that another suicide. Gradually, incessantly, our former sanctuary has become an extremely depressing place for disillusioned young people who can't see beyond the jagged borders that define their existence.

For the last few years I've worked and gone to school off the reserve and it might seem to the casual observer that I am on some valiant variation of a path that's supposed to lead to a twisted red version of the North American dream. Leaving the reserve to better ourselves financially is not a sellout we tell ourselves. It's just the way of things. The truth is that my reserve has become, for me, a familiar horror movie. The plot is twisted and is tightening, but in this picture the victims are people that I've known all my life. For someone with a weak lingering moral compass it's a welcome reprieve to be away for school. But that's bullshit. Because to grow and aim for any meaningful morality means doing what's right even when it's absolutely daunting. One flirts with the idea of taking a last minute flight into some jungle-filled South American country and just blending in with the natives. Que pa sa, amigos.

Considering being on council is a mixed proposition for me. People back home were split somewhere on the wrong side of the middle during my previous forays into reserve politics. There was the fact that I was in my early 20s which doesn't sit well with many of the older people who herd the younger vote in the same old stale direction that has led to the current state of affairs. Then there are my own divides, being half-white, growing up half my life on/off the reserve, being half a communist/radical/traditionalist. In other words, I'm not a sure bet to just allow myself to be harnessed to that old worn-out wagon and continue to take the easy route downhill. I'm not a sure bet to go in any specific direction. No, the only real guarantee is that I would attempt to change things and change never comes with outcomes being certain.

But my direct involvement wouldn't assure my reserve of anything. Hell, it could lead to some violent militia-style civil war in an attempted cleansing of our arbitrarily-classified version of the bad element. Or it could just turn into another of the people's hopes for a better community gone wrong; led astray down the path of easy paychecks and a lot of travel. The truth is, the situation back home doesn't look to be easily overcome. These young people that are harming themselves and each other are carrying the pain of at least four or five generations. That kind of psychological weight would make the idea of the quick way out appealing to most. I've heard my own voice say those condemning words in my head a time or two. Why struggle? Why feel hate and anger and fear everyday to the point where only smoke through a hollowed out pen to your lips is the only thing to quiet the mind? That or some unnatural mix of liquor, pills, and whatever else one can acquire with minimal investment. Sometimes it even feels good; you can find moments of suspended euphoria amidst the agony of everyday life. Sometimes you're just blacked out and get to skip a few hours, a few days.

Living away from the reserve for different periods of time is like visiting family periodically and seeing how much the kids have grown. For the outsider the changes seem drastic and sudden. For those living there the changes seem gradual and before you know it fist fights have become stabbings and shootings, and drinking and smoking weed has become crack and death. How did it come to this we ask ourselves in the quiet of night when aggressive voices and the screeching of tires interrupts the promise of peace outside our windows. Why are our kids dying? Drugs and alcohol have been a factor in all the unnatural deaths. But what desperate set of circumstances leads a person there?

The absence of any meaningful effort from those in positions of power and influence is even more troubling than the violence. The phone call from my confidant is a sliver of hope, though with recent history in mind one doesn't take too firm a grip on hope since it tends to amplify the despair when it fades. Chief and council are not only inefficient in dealing with real problems, many rumors spread from home that some of them might actually be complicit in the harmful activities. Rumors aside it can be said that council hasn't significantly varied from what has come before them in some time and things have consequently gotten progressively worse. That's not to say that the leaders of old didn't stand out as men of conviction and stature, but somewhere along the way it's turned into vicious infighting and unabashed money grabbing. It is without a doubt the easiest money you can make on my reserve. You can show up once or twice a week, the personnel policy doesn't apply to you, and you can influence elections and membership in any way that gives you some advantage in keeping your ultra-easy paycheck for the next term. It's a popularity contest where no one is popular, just less hated than the rest.

As for the police, there are two forces that patrol the area (I use patrol loosely). One is a First Nations unit and the other is the infamous RCMP. Somehow with more cops than drug dealers the drug trade is never snagged up or slowed in any meaningful way. Admittedly their job is always harder in communities of people who have been discriminated against and forgotten. No one back home trusts the police. The RCMP isn't trusted because they are more likely to bust down the door and stand on your throat then to get the actual facts and put in real legwork. In Saskatchewan they drive the troublesome natives out of town and dump them off to freeze to death in the snow. Back home the cold reminds us to keep our mouths shut lest the same fate befall us. The First Nations police force isn't trusted either, maybe because they are too lenient or they just don't have the track record or staff that allows the people to think that they will be the protectors of the community. Whatever the case, the cops have made no difference in recent memory.

While this is immediately disappointing when young people die, it's not really the goal of many on the reserve to send all the drug dealers and people who commit violence to jail. After all, we are a small community and there isn't one young thief or drug dealer or knife carrying youth that doesn't have family who cares about them. Just because they have been troubled thus far in their short lives doesn't mean we want to see them doomed for good. The ideal solution would include some form of resurrection of the spirit. A rebirth that could provide whole generations of steel-eyed kids with a softening and security that would allow them to grow up at an even pace rather than just be thrust into the mix of blood and anxiety.

It will take more than reasoning. Their reality is consuming and ultra-real. The guns and drugs are real, the consequences are final. If you could convince one to leave it all behind then another one who isn't fed well at home will fill the void. When you have an abundance of drug users, the demand will attract suppliers. It's more the collective vibe than anything. Morale is low. Spirituality is non-existent. If no one steps up and decides to try and affect things then no one else will be inspired to do so, and there we sit. Which might not be the worst thing in the world if we could just live our lives privately and let those living the fast lives have the night. But because they die that's not an option. It doesn't matter what the young people do, we will always hope that they don't die.

It's sure evidence of the coldest parts of life when you discover someone who has strung themselves up. Blue and bloated faces that seem to be trying to force the eyes and tongue to evacuate for better circumstances. I've seen a man hanging like a foregone puppet performing a motionless story. The moral? Life can be extremely heavy. It is because of these recent victims that we shouldn't be able to just barricade the doors and stoke the fire and passively allow the night to become increasingly dark. We shouldn't even consider that an option. Most all animals have that basest of instincts to protect their young even at the expense of their own lives. Maybe then, our reluctance means that we're finally becoming civilized and less like our ancestors who considered animals like family. I don't believe that, but the alternative -that we are just afraid- isn't a thought that many will admit to themselves. Either way, standing still is the surest way to see more young people die. The youth are our future we always say, the future isn’t promised is another saying. We won’t know what the future holds until it’s upon us, and we can only act in the present.

Dustin Twin is a Cree writer/photographer from Northern Alberta. He writes for a number of First Nation newspapers. He is currently studying for a degree in anthropology.