The unasked question about Attawapiskat

Attawapiskat isn’t a hopeless slum because we haven’t been paying enough attention, says Scott Gilmore. It’s because of its location and its infrastructure.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine there is a neighbourhood in Toronto that isn’t doing very well. In fact, it is a slum. Unemployment rates are around 28 per cent, and have been for decades. Many houses don’t have indoor plumbing or electricity. Most lack any fire protection, and people die in house fires at a rate 10 times the rest of the city. It has the highest property crime rate. You are 10 times more likely to be murdered there than anywhere else in the city. Diseases like tuberculosis are 30 times the national average. It is not only the worst place to live in the city, it is the worst place to live in Canada by a very wide margin.

But the real losers in this hypothetical neighbourhood are the children. They are more than twice as likely to die at birth than other kids. A child is more likely to end up in jail than graduate from high school. Up to half the children have been sexually assaulted. Their existence is so unbearably grim the youth suicide rate in this neighbourhood is 50 times the national average. Children as young as 10 years old hang themselves.

This all sounds wildly improbable, doesn’t it? Yet this neighbourhood exists. It is our remote northern reserves, places like La Loche, Pikangikum and Kashechewan. And it is no secret. Every year, news pages are filled with stories of neglect, despair, violence, racism and mismanagement. You would need to be remarkably cloistered to still be unaware that hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Canadians live in Third World conditions. That excuse became even less plausible this week, after Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency following 39 recorded suicide attempts in the last six weeks.

In response, the Speaker of the House of Commons agreed to an emergency debate after a request by Charlie Angus, the NDP member of Parliament whose riding includes the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. I confess, I am cynical about this. In calling for the special session, Angus wrote it will “allow parliamentarians to address this crisis and show . . . we are willing to work together because the days of shrugging off the tragedies or tinkering with Band-Aid solutions are over.” The five health care workers dispatched to Attawapiskat will do far more to “address” the problem than the act of adding a few more pages to the Hansard about how we should all work together.

Related: Joseph Boyden on the true tragedy of Attawapiskat

Nonetheless, the debate was worth listening to, if only to hear the Indigenous parliamentarians talk about their own experiences and expectations. But there are two problems. First, most of this has been said and done before. Government after government has sworn this must end. For decades, prime ministers have promised policies that will stop the suffering. Every minister of Indigenous and northern affairs has charged forward with the same mandate to make “real progress.” And yet, one, two, three generations later, here we are. Second, the only thing that was not debated in Parliament is the one thing that has the greatest likelihood of actually bringing this national nightmare to a close: ending the hellish and anachronistic reserve system.

Places like Attawapiskat are not utterly hopeless slums because we haven’t been paying sufficient attention. It’s not because we haven’t consulted enough or because there have not been enough royal commissions. Attawapiskat is a sinkhole of despair because it is located on a flood plain, 1,000 km from the closest sustainable economic activity, with no permanent roads, no hospital and no college. As one resident has explained, “Attawapiskat hasn’t changed in decades. I don’t think it ever will. It can’t.”

Over half of Indigenous Canadians have already moved from the reserves to cities, where every measurable indicator of their health and well-being doubles. Those who remain believe passionately that this is their land; that this is where they belong. They’re right. It is their land, and they should own it and have access to it in perpetuity.

But here is the question the elders and adults of Attawapiskat have to ask themselves: Does their right to live on a remote reserve supersede their children’s right to grow up in a healthy and viable community? Or even to just grow up? Under no circumstance would we want to return to the forced relocations of the past. This is a question of choice, not compulsion. But at some point the residents and leadership of communities like Attawapiskat need to consider other options, and provincial and federal governments would be morally obliged to help those who choose to leave. Otherwise we will be right back here a year from now, 10 years from now, or a generation from now.

Sadly, this question was not asked in Parliament Tuesday night. But a few hours earlier, one retired politician dared to offer an answer. Jean Chrétien, the former prime minister and long-time advocate for Indigenous Canadians, was asked about Attawapiskat. He replied: “There is no economic base there for having jobs and so on, and sometimes they have to move, like anybody else.”

But no one else is willing to say this out loud, which is why we keep running in circles, and why the fatal despair will go on.

Scott Gilmore writes on international affairs and public policy. He is a member of the Conservative Party of Canada and is married to Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment.