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Heartache in the north

Author: john loeppkey | sports editor

North
Credit: Brett Nielsen

 

As a white Canadian, I have been lied to. I have been told, by society at large, by members of my local community, by the old and the young, and the powerful that I have no role to play in the problems affecting this country’s Northern communities.

The discussions surrounding the tragedies that have struck places like Attawapiskat and La Loche seem to lean on one horrifying extreme. There is a section of the public that seems to want to wash the white guilt off its hands once and for all. These people strive to chalk up the decisions made in the respective situations as actions that are contained within a very specific space and time. Plainly, they would rather we forget about colonialism, its negative consequences, and the horrors that resulted from residential schools. In this alternate history, they have devised a world in which systemic oppression does not exist. In every sense of the word, this ideology is a problem. To address these two tragedies without even acknowledging the issues that currently affect these isolated and discriminated against communities is plainly ignorant.

I have been to La Loche. I have heard it described as Saskatchewan’s version of the third world and that point is very hard to argue. I have seen the intersection that has been nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle because of its proximity to the town’s bar. This is not a place that should be sugar coated, nor made to seem like the all-Canadian innocent town struck by a teenager with issues, which is the kind of narrative that fits nicely into national broadcasts and local media exposés.

That does not mean we have the right to dismiss these issues, however, to see the suicides or shootings as a problem affecting individual people in isolated cases rather than as a product of systemic abuse, misinformation, and outright public ignorance. We have actively resisted these communities for a long time. The fact that Attawapiskat has had to declare a state of emergency, the kind of maneuver usually associated with floods and fires, says plenty about our country’s approach to Northern issues. How can we act surprised when the majority of the people we are talking about here have lived their entire lives expecting (and not in an unwarranted way) for the system to conspire against them, to blame them, to ridicule them, to shame them, to expect the worst and then shrug and move on?

Which is why these issues affect all of us. This is not some “All Lives Matter” junk, but there are ways you can make change. Inform yourself about the issues of people who do not look or sound like you, give space for the voices of the marginalized to be heard. Realize that, even if you are the most understanding and well-travelled person west of Manitoba, you still have things to learn. If many choose to do this, then we are fundamentally changing how society views these kinds of events. That is, we are shifting the burden of blame to better represent how our society has failed those on the outer edge. The first step to any change is acknowledgement, after all.

One comment

  1. Scott Pettigrew

    Very well written piece John, and I agree with everything you had to say, with the exception of your implied claim that the plight of northern Aboriginals is related to race.

    Rather, I would strongly argue that it is not the “white race” (a hilarious and fallacious concept in and of itself)
    that has ruined the lives and livelihoods of so many Aboriginal peoples in this country, but the consolidated institutional power of government (whether enforced directly or by proxy through the Catholic Church or any other private authority group).

    The idea that we as human beings should be concerned and ultimately accountable for the well-being of our neighbors and fellow humans out of free will and empathy? I 100% support and encourage that. The idea that we should feel in any way guilty for the colour of skin we were born with? Archaic, racist, and ridiculous; which is why terms like “white guilt” are racist, ignorant, backwards, and frankly unproductive.

    Once again though, massive props on covering an often swept under the rug issue in an intelligent and academic way.