Remote aboriginal reserves generate tales of tragedy

NationalPost.com – Opinions/Editorial – Remote aboriginal reserves generate tales of tragedy
Published: Friday, January 08, 2010

Aboriginal reserves generate tales of unspeakable childhood tragedy with sickening regularity. Yet this week’s instalment seems more lurid than most — like something plucked out of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. It leads us to ask, once again, why Canadians are spending their billions to subsidize life in such remote, God-forsaken communities.

On Saturday, a home burned down in Shamattawa, Man., an isolated First Nations hamlet of 1,350 people on the banks of the Gods River, in the frigid northeast corner of the province. Only on Tuesday — a full three days later — did officials realize that the house contained a body, presumed to be that of Edward Redhead, an 11-year-old boy reported missing a day earlier.

The adult occupants of the house — grandparents of the boy — were located the next day in another part of the community. Apparently, they’d run out of heating fuel, locked up the house and left. No one has any idea what their 11-year-old grandkid was doing at their house on Saturday, or why he’d been released from foster care into unsupervised limbo by the native-run Awasis Child and Family Services agency.

In fact, the entire case reads like something out of a Third World police file. Because no one bothered to shut off the home’s water supply, the charred ruins are encased in a massive sheet of ice — containing who knows what secrets. (Earlier this week, it was thought that a second child had been found, but it turned out to be a caribou.) In another Poe-esque touch, the blaze was apparently discovered by a local Pentecostal pastor, who received a mysterious phone tip from a woman he can’t, or won’t, identify, leading him to the destroyed structure, whereupon he explored it room by room as it burned … save for one closed chamber.

Canadians are accustomed to hearing much sentimental nonsense about the benefits for aboriginal children of life in an “authentic” native habitat such as Shamattawa: Indeed, it is on this basis that white foster parents and professional child care workers are spurned so that aboriginal children can be placed under the stewardship of local natives. (The local Child and Family Services agency office in the Shamattawa area was caring for no fewer than 66 children — a shocking number for such a sparsely populated region.) Yet, as on many such reserves, the supposedly supportive, traditional, native civil society is in fact so disastrously dysfunctional that no one even knows where children go to die.

The idea that such a community might be saved by the usual elixir, “self-government,” is a farce. Consider that when the Shamattawa RCMP detachment arrived at the fire, they tried to call out the local volunteer fire department. But no one could be reached. (The emergency response system in Shamattawa consists, quite literally, of someone running to a fireman’s house and banging on his door.) For the first few days, the local Band Council Chief apparently had no idea where his men had been, and wouldn’t even disclose the name of his fire chief. (It later emerged that the man had been sleeping at a relative’s house.)

Two years ago, a drunk from the Yellow Quill, Sask., native reserve let his two toddlers freeze to death after he passed out in a snowbank. The event made international headlines. Now, we have a child from a neighbouring province dying in the opposite hell of flames and charred flesh, but no one seems to be paying much attention, perhaps because the method of death is so banal by First Nations standards: Manitoba reserves alone have been the site of at least five other deadly fires over the last two years — killing five children.

If you knew the name “Shamattawa” before last weekend, it is probably from 2002, when three people from the tiny community committed suicide — and another 39 attempted it — in the space of a week. That’s about 3% of the entire community trying to kill themselves, or actually doing so. (The equivalent per-capita figure for Canada as a whole would be about a million.)

Does this sound like the sort of place that Canadian taxpayers should be bankrolling with the billions of dollars we spend on native programs every year? Or maybe, just maybe, would it perhaps be a better idea to integrate these people into the First World, a place with professional firefighters and child care workers, working phone lines and … reasons for living?

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