Confronting an epidemic

The indifference is enough to make you sick. Over 975,000 Canadians are living in “third world conditions.” Their babies are more likely to die, their unemployment rate is almost double that of the general population, and suicide among their youth is becoming more common every year.

“It used to be called ‘the Indian Problem,'” sighs Shawna Cunningham, Director of the University of Calgary Native Students’ Centre.

That right there should tell you something about the way the Aboriginal situation is viewed–as an “Indian problem.” And what a problem it is.

They drink too much, they’re on welfare, one is hard pressed to find a person of Aboriginal descent in a high-profile, high-paying job. The truth is the high rates of alcoholism, high unemployment and low success rates aren’t problems at all–they’re symptoms.

When almost 1,500 Aboriginal people are killing themselves each year it is a massive red flag, one everyone seems to be ignoring, an indicator of a much larger problem stemming from a much more serious cause: apathy.

Apathy towards the cultural genocide taking place in Canada. Apathy towards a people stripped of their land, their language, their rituals and their beliefs. Apathy towards children taken from their families to the horror of residential schools, forced to endure “civilization” and “Christianization” only to enter a society that tells them they’re still not good enough.

For a country with such a shiny, happy view of multiculturalism and acceptance, a country once voted the best place in the world to live, we are doing an excellent job of ignoring the rights of those who, to put it bluntly, were here first.

The government has a terrible record in dealing with this so-called “Indian problem.” After wading through a mess of broken land treaties, solutions which didn’t really solve anything and promises which never seemed to be kept, the future looks pretty bleak.

According to Cunningham, however, things just might be starting to change.

“The initiative is there,” she says. “But the funding for the initiatives is not.”

Funding is hard to come by due to a lack of education and awareness about the problem and it’s proving extremely hard to break through the stereotypes masking the true problems. However, steps are being made in the right direction.

The government recently announced its plan to compensate survivors of residential schools involving each individual filling out a 58-page form, providing proper documentation and then potentially receiving a settlement, with the amount received being based on the amount and type of abuse endured.

It is a slow process, however steps are being made. On the wall of the U of C Native Students’ Centre is a list of Natives who have graduated each year and, each year, the list is a little longer.

It’s time to look past the symptoms of a devastated culture and work towards rebuilding it. We’ve seen the effect forcing European systems of stratification upon the Aboriginal people has had, it’s time for a new approach.

This means looking at the heritage, meanings and rituals that have been lost. It means using the fundamental elements of their culture to begin understanding the way Aboriginal society is stratified. Finally, it means working alongside the chiefs and elders of Aboriginal communities towards a solution to this epidemic that has unfortunately gone unnoticed.

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