Day 6

Joseph Boyden says Attawapiskat is 'a microcosm of intergenerational trauma'

Author Joseph Boyden says what's happening in Attawapiskat — and what has happened in other First Nations communities dating back to Davis Inlet in 1992 — reflects on the legacy of 140 years of forced assimilation and cultural genocide. But he says there is still a way out.
Joseph Boyden and Waubgeshig Rice discuss indigenous storytelling through literature at Ottawa's Canada Read event, held at Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health. (CBC)

Joseph Boyden sees a straight and devastating line from Canada's residential school system to this week's tragic news out of Attawapiskat. 

"This is the microcosm of the fallout of residential schools," he tells host Brent Bambury. "You can't attempt cultural genocide in this country — and I'm not using that term lightly, it's a term used by the highest court in the land — you can't attempt cultural genocide for 140 years and not expect a massive fall out."

Boyden has been visiting Attawapiskat, and other remote Cree communities on the west coast of James Bay, for more than twenty years. He says the people of Attawapiskat and its neighbouring communities have inspired much of his work as a writer.

Boyden also says that to truly understand the problems Attawapiskat and other First Nations are facing, we have to look back at the trauma that has been passed down through generations.

Residents of Attawapiskat gather after a state of emergency was declared. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Suicide crises in First Nations communities, particularly for young people, have been recurring in Canada for over two decades. This year, in addition to Attawapiskat, the Cross Lake, Keeseekoose, Cote, Key and Pimicikamak First Nations have all declared similar states of emergency.

Boyden says the land, and connecting to it, can help heal desperation and help stop these recurring crises. 

"It is one of the medicines for sure. And I say that not as some kind of mystic thing. I'm involved in a camp called Camp Onakawana in James Bay near Moosonee because I loved what I saw. The youth going out there and learning to build a fire, to learn how to catch a fish. And that kind of thing gives a power to a young person. An understanding of, 'Wait a second, it's not all doom and gloom, where I come from.'"

Assimilation doesn't work.- Joseph Boyden

On Tuesday this week, former prime minister Jean Chrétien spoke about the substandard living conditions facing many remote First Nations communities and said that, "You know, people have to move sometimes. It's horrible to stay, if they want to stay, but it's not always possible." 

"We've tried assimilation that way," responds Boyden. "Assimilation doesn't work. This idea of forcing people off of the place where they've lived for thousands of years is not the way to move forward."

Instead, Boyden says we should re-examine the economy in the north, allow local First Nations a fairer share of the natural resources on their land and replace the Indian Act. 

"It's a game changer. To say this is my land. This is what we're going to do. This is the whole idea of self determination." 

When it comes to stopping the cycle of two decades of suicide epidemics, Boyden says one thing is needed for a solution.

"A level playing field in this country. First Nations, Inuit and Metis people have never had that level playing field."