The hurting: What can even begin to stem the tide of brutal loss?

Award-winning novelist Joseph Boyden on the link between residential schools and the devastation of native suicide

Canada, home to the suicide capital of the world

Martin Patriquin

Author Joseph Boyden is shown in a handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Penguin Canada)
Author Joseph Boyden. (Penguin Canada)

A Cree woman I’ve known for many years up in Moosonee, Ont., has been in such anguish for months that I fear for her life. This anguish, this word, can’t begin to describe her tortured suffering. She lives every day walking through what most of us would consider our worst nightmare. A year ago, her 17-year-old son, while at a house party full of friends, walked from the kitchen, where he’d found a short indoor extension cord, through the crowded living room, to the bedroom, and eventually into a closet. There, he wrapped the end of the cord around his neck, and, leaving a foot or two, he tied the other around the clothes rod. This thin young man, pimples on his chin and black hair he wore short and spiky, knelt so that his full weight took up all slack. In this way, he slowly strangled himself to death.

If you have the fortitude, think about that for a minute. He could have stopped at any time; he could have simply stood up to take the pressure off. Possibly he did once or twice or three times when the fear of what awaited overcame him, when the happy noise of his friends in the rooms next door drifted in, muffled. But eventually, with unbelievable will, with a drive he’d never exhibited in his young life before, he managed this gruesome act of self-destruction.

Last week I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first annual gathering at the Forks in Winnipeg. Residential school survivors along with their families came together from all across Canada. The first day alone an estimated 20,000 people gathered to speak about their experiences or to see old friends or to soak up the evening concert that included Buffy Sainte-Marie and Blue Rodeo. Despite the rather festive feel of the first day, the pain, the same anguish that my Cree friend feels, was palpable just below the surface. The sunny skies turned to rain the next couple of days as if in mimicry.

An Anishnabe medicine man I know, when he speaks of the creation of residential schools, says that a door was opened that should never have been unlocked. For Westerners, his rather poetic view might be comparable to letting a sinister genie out of a bottle. One of the many evils that escaped out that door, the medicine man believes, is the tremendously high Aboriginal youth suicide rate in our country. He believes, as do many, that this suicide epidemic is a direct effect of residential schools where generation after generation of families were torn apart by the system. What’s certainly fact is that suicide among Aboriginal groups before residential schools was almost unheard of.

As I’ve mentioned, this Cree woman in Moosonee, my friend, has lived in anguish since the suicide of her son. Her 15-year-old daughter did, as well. She was close to her brother and went through most all of the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, a stabbing sadness. But she wasn’t able to make it to the last stage: acceptance. Five months after her brother was found hanged at the party, my Cree friend found her daughter hanged, this time in her own closet at home, and this time actually kneeling, leaning slightly forward as if in deep prayer.

How does a mother go on after that? This Cree woman, my friend, she’s from a tiny, isolated James Bay reserve named Kashechewan, 160 km as the bush plane flies north of Moosonee. Kashechewan is like a hundred other northern Canadian reserves. But unlike most, Kashechewan made the papers a handful of years ago when more than 20 youth attempted suicide in a single month. I remember reading about it on page five of the Globe and Mail and not being surprised. I’d lived and taught up there. The reserve’s reputation preceded it.

People in Moosonee warned me each time when I was to travel to Kash and spend a few days, a week, teaching adult community members reading and writing skills. These people said, “Be careful. It’s a dangerous place. It’s a rough reserve. A lot of people up there are crazy.” No warnings ever—and strangely, I might add—more specific than that. What I found were a lot of amazing people who became dear friends.

And I found a sadness difficult to define, lingering just below the surface of day-to-day living. My Cree friend, now the mother of two dead children, she’d left Kashechewan to live in Moosonee years ago, which to her mind was moving to a big town, in part to escape that insidious sadness of her reserve.

It’s the same sadness I can feel seeping from residential school survivors as I wander through this first annual gathering at the Forks. Groups huddle in large tents, rain popping on the roofs. They sit in circles and take turns speaking about their experiences. Some are resigned and speak matter-of-factly, others in hiccups and sobs. There are very few dry eyes and my initial feeling that I’m eavesdropping on something I shouldn’t be dissipates when someone invariably cracks a joke and smiles light up the circle.

My Cree friend didn’t know then what she knows now, that this sadness I speak of, this hurting, isn’t only isolated in Kash. This hurting has spread across the northern reserves and heavily Indian communities of Canada. It spreads more easily than H1N1, and it’s been infecting northern communities for many years. It’s deadlier than any epidemic since the smallpox and tuberculosis eras.

The oldest son of one of my dearest friends in the world, he’s made something of himself. He’s a young Moose Cree man with a brand-new wife and a brand-new career as an OPP officer. On my last visit to Moosonee, he told me something that continues to devastate me, that sounds unbelievable it is so brutal. Over a six-month period recently, there were at least 100 suicide attempts among teens in Moosonee, and many others in the neighbouring reserve of Moose Factory. At last count, eight youths in Moosonee have been “successful.” They’ve hanged themselves in closets, sometimes in trees behind the high school. It appears a death cult is taking root. More than 100 attempts. Eight suicides. In a community of 2,500. Yes, it appears to be a death cult.

If this statistic darkened non-Indian towns across, say, British Columbia or Manitoba or Prince Edward Island, if this epidemic struck one of our communities, it would be national news, the media frenzy so saturated that Canadians would suffer empathy burnout within months. My quick Google search—suicide rates on Canadian reserves—pulls 36,000 results in 0.28 seconds. Within minutes, I can learn that since at least the year 2000, many experts have declared that the northern reserves of our country are the suicide capitals of the world. Statistics on these pages, I think, quickly stun then numb us. And the reasons why our Aboriginal youth are strangling themselves in closets, are shooting themselves in the head, are drowning themselves in icy rivers? A few more minutes of keyboard tapping on Google and it becomes so obvious: miserable socio-economic conditions, psycho-biological tendencies, the post-traumatic stress of a culture’s destruction.

And what can even begin to stem the tide of brutal loss? The one and only family services centre in Moosonee, Payukotayno, which serves all of the 14,000 Cree of the Ontario side of James Bay, almost had to close its doors in December 2009, not long after my good friend’s children’s suicides. That was due to a severe lack of government funding. It’s expensive to try and furnish these services in such remote areas. The experts agree, though, that it’s vital. I’ve been told of 14 youth suicides on the west coast of James Bay in 2009. One in 1,000 committed suicide last year. The Canadian average, I’m told, is one in 100,000. Suicide rates on the west coast of James Bay are 100 times higher than the Canadian average in 2009. And the only family services facility for the west coast of James Bay came within inches of closing its doors last year for a lack of funding.

Before I paint such a painfully bleak picture, let me be clear that for each story of loss there is a story of accomplishment, of perseverance. Here’s one: while wandering around the Forks last week, I ran into a young man, Patrick Etherington Jr. from Moosonee, a young man I’ve known since he was a boy. In fact, for much of one year I home-schooled him. After a brief catching-up, he told me something startling. Over a month ago, he and his father, Patrick Sr., along with a few friends, took a train from Moosonee to Cochrane and then began walking. They walked over 1,600 km in just over 30 days in order to get here for this first annual gathering.

Along the way they talked to strangers, explaining that they were walking for the people, that this was their own little way of helping to begin shutting that door that was opened when the first doors of the residential schools in Canada began opening 150 years ago.

Patrick Sr. is a man I’ve held in great regard for 15 years. When I lived in Moosonee so long ago and became close with the Etherington family, Patrick Sr. shared with me some very tough and yes, shocking stories of his years at St. Anne’s in Fort Albany, one of Ontario’s most infamous residential schools. And now, here he is walking with four young people across a substantial part of Canada because he understands that the epidemic I speak of is contagious, and one way to protect your children is to engage with them in as direct a way as you can. What better way than to spend more than a month walking and talking and laughing and sharing the joys and pain of such an adventure?

Six more Truth and Reconciliation events are planned across Canada over the next five years, six more chances for people to come together and share stories and discuss remedies and keep straining to push that door shut.

What I’m convinced of is this: the simple act of taking that first step on the highway with your father and best friends beside you, the tension of the fast-moving river through your paddle, the radiant heat in the moose’s rib cage as you reach your arm to cut out its heart, the sound of Canada geese honking as they stretch their necks for the south, the tug of the pickerel as it takes your hook, the sickening grind of the outboard’s prop as it touches submerged river rock—it’s these simple experiences that contain medicine strong enough to start some healing, to start closing that door.

Sometimes I catch myself dreaming about my Cree friend’s two dead children. In my dream they’re still alive, and they’re out in the bush, paddling the Moose River together, sun on their shoulders and good power in their stroke. They’re paddling north, I think, home to Moosonee. And although I can’t see her, I know that their mother stands on the shore by town, waiting patiently for them to come into sight.