Reimagining Attawapiskat:

More than a Community in Crisis

See also: Policy Options photo essay. Below is a longer version.

Despite the tough circumstances facing Attawapiskat, which declared a State of Emergency in April of this year due to an escalating rate of youth suicide attempts, there is much to love about this place. During my recent stay this June, as a visiting art educator, I witnessed the strength and beauty of the young people. Inside the high school classroom, alongside attentive art teacher Mandy Alves, we discussed places of meaning, healing and inspiration. In our collaborative project “Reimagining Attawapiskat,” which brings the University of Victoria researchers together with artists from Attawapiskat to circulate images by community members on their own terms, we spoke about visions and dreams, hopes and fears, challenges of the past and imagined brighter days for the generations to come.

Outside the classroom, we swam in the river, watched several sunsets and, on graduation day, danced into the wee hours of the night to honour the impressive seventeen high school graduates who crossed the stage to receive their diploma on June 25th. Several of these graduates express their appreciation for their home through music, dancing and drumming. Videos co-produced by artists within and external to the community documented how community-members are taking action and walking together to address health and wellness. Though the media continues to portray Attawapiskat as a “troubled” community, it is my aim to tell a different story: one about the beauty and strength of the young people who call this place their home.

State of Emergency declarations draw our attention to what life is like living on the edge, in-between hope and despair, on the fringes of mainstream society. While life may seem troubled to many, Attawapiskat is also a community that welcomes opportunities for meaningful connections. My most recent trip to the community this June coincided with the visit by a dynamic group of young soccer players from Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton high school in Toronto. They shared their skills and took the time to learn about the local culture by participating in a community sweat, making dreamcatchers and tasting local game during National Aboriginal Day festivities on June 21st.

As many of them said to me, demonstrating thoughtfulness beyond their years, they voiced concern about taking home more than they could leave behind. This crowdfunded trip is just the beginning for the boys’ soccer team. They intend to keep the dialogue going and continue to facilitate other opportunities for meaningful cross-cultural exchange in the future. This is an excellent example of how to build bridges and share knowledge in order to break down misperceptions about Indigenous peoples in Canada.

While it is important to be hopeful about a brighter future and improved relationships, Canadians cannot be naïve about the systemic injustices confronting those living in Attawapiskat. The frequency of emergency declarations chimes with American scholar Rob Nixon’s discussion of “slow violence”, violence that moves at a snail’s place and is often not considered as violence at all. While this kind of violence is often invisible, Canadian and international media have certainly shed light on Attawapiskat’s lived realities. MP for Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus demanded that Canadians take this crisis seriously, called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons, and cancelled a trip to the UN. What is missing still is a deeper discussion about the underlying structural conditions of settler-colonialism and an enhanced understanding of treaty relationships. As democratic philosopher Bonnie Honig discusses in her work about emergency politics, these times of crises are equally important for democratic deliberation. In a recent Policy Options article, Indigenous scholar Pamela Palmater astutely articulated that Canada cannot turn “a blind eye” to Indigenous mental health concerns across the country. It is time for multilayered solutions. Listening to youth voices – through the prism of artistic forms of expression – is a crucial starting point.

As the recent media coverage of the Fort McMurray disaster shows us, some crises harness more sustained attention than others. Academics, journalists and the general public need to look carefully at how communities are framed in times of crises. Creating space for community voices presents an opportunity to tell a more nuanced story both about slow-moving crises in Canada and about the agency of those affected. While watching the media stories and national support pour in to respond to the catastrophic events unfolding both in Attawapiskat and in Fort McMurray this spring, I thought about my initial visits to Attawapiskat prior to the April State of Emergency declaration.

I first arrived last August via the Victor M. Power airport in Timmins before boarding the next flight that would take me north to the western shores of James Bay. This flight path frequently shuttles workers 90km west of Attawapiskat to the neighbouring De Beers diamond mine. Greeted with laughter by Rosie Koostachin and the Pow Wow organizers upon arrival, they immediately put me to work to help organize the festivities. At that time, both the small airport and community were vibrant hubs of life. The vital signs have since changed. As Attawapiskat community-member Jackie Hookimaw since shared with CBC, the arrival sounds of emergency aircraft at the local airport increasingly became a source of distress.

The Attawapiskat First Nation’s State of Emergency declaration in April signaled the need for a much broader conversation about how we treat communities in crisis, the underlying conditions of systemic environmental injustice and renewed respect for treaty relationships. The recent State of Emergency declaration is the fifth declared by Attawapiskat leadership in just one decade. Each of these alerts our attention to built environmental concerns ranging from sewage back up to flooding. But the problem with framing it in this way – as a crisis – is that it sensationalizes the community’s devastation and eclipses on the ground lived-experiences. It leaves little room to honour the stories and the beauty of this place for those who live there and affectionately call it their home.

Current Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh gently stated to the media that mental health is an all-consuming concern and Attawapiskat is a community in pain. His words echo those of former Chief Theresa Spence, who mobilized her body in a high-profile hunger strike in December 2012 to raise awareness about the dire straights facing her community specifically and Indigenous peoples generally. Bruce and Theresa each inform us how difficult it is to stay positive when faced with long-term structural issues of environmental injustice due to inadequate infrastructure and Canada’s colonial legacy. These feelings of complicated grief resonate throughout the community, voiced by individuals of all ages.

While we focus on despair and grief, it is equally important to honour stories of hope, strength, and resistance. Community member and artist Priscella Rose said it best herself a few years ago, reminding the general public that her community is so much “more than a housing crisis”. Similarly, another youth leader Chelsea Edwards drew our attention to the challenges, but also to the beauty of this place. Her community, she noted, is one rich in language and culture. A few weeks after the State of Emergency declaration, young people in Attawapiskat began a healing walk along the 300km winter road that connects communities along the western shores of James Bay to demonstrate support and to raise awareness about the need for mental health services. Just a few years prior, in 2014, community members walked over 1,000 km to Ottawa seeking a renewed conversation about treaty relations. In these ways, young and old, the community mobilizes for change.

As I’ve learned firsthand during my three visits to the community, when witnessing and participating in ceremonies, there is much strength grounded in traditions that connect people to their lands and waters. This part of the story cannot be forgotten. Indigenous journalist Angela Sterritt reminds us that when covering Indigenous stories, it is important to get beyond the crisis and find balance. Journalists and academics alike have a responsibility to strive for this balance to document concerns and collaboratively co-define solutions. This means taking steps to avoid perpetuating the dominant narratives of “crisis”, “blame” and “accountability” that all-too-often circulate widely and frame Attawapiskat as a community in trouble.

Critically important is an analysis of context and an acknowledgement of the lived realities which reflect underlying conditions of colonization, the devastating effects of which include the legacy of Residential Schools. During Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, with her body on the line, she expressed the need for an invigorated debate about treaties, such as Treaty 9, signed in 1905, which governs the area. It involved federal, provincial and Indigenous authorities from the James Bay region, Toronto and Ottawa. When Theresa and I spoke together this February in Timmins, she reminded me that I am part of the treaty too. All Canadians are.

When I left Attawapiskat via Timmins a few weeks ago to return to my home in British Columbia, I had the good fortune of running into Indigenous motivational speaker Stan Wesley. He spoke to me about his experiences facilitating a meeting between James Bay youth leaders and Prime Minister Trudeau earlier that June. I mentioned to him the “Reimagining Attawapiskat” project, and my interest in treaty relations. He suggested convening a national conversation celebrating Treaty 9 in 2017. Cities, like Timmins where we coincidentally met at the airport, have a role to play in these discussions. All levels of government must be part of this conversation for meaningful treaty dialogue to occur. Public officials and the media each have a role to play to enhance and deepen this conversation.

November 2016 marks 20 years since the 1996 release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which recommended nation-to-nation relationships. Article 84 of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action emphasize the role of the media to support reconciliation by properly reflecting diverse cultures, languages and perspectives of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Building upon the work propelling RCAP and the TRC, in a context of respect, reciprocity and relationship-building, Indigenous, municipal, provincial and federal officials should come together to hear the stories expressed by young people from the James Bay region to engage in a dialogue about the contemporary understanding of treaties.

The April Attawapiskat State of Emergency provides an opportunity for meaningful dialogue. This requires creating space for a diverse range of voices and bringing them into a conversation about what responsibilities come with being part of a treaty today. Academics and journalists have responsibilities for reframing debates and circulating knowledge with a wider public audience in ways that are culturally respectful and nuanced. To reimagine Attawapiskat, we need to look at the past, which informs current events, in order to move forward together in pursuit of a decolonial future. When focusing on despair, emergencies, and grief, we eclipse the rich stories that ground communities in place. Centering these stories and bringing in a spectrum of voices across backgrounds and generations is a crucial conduit for meaningful dialogue about reconciliation and treaties today.

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Northern Bluebells

Flora and fauna from around the James Bay shores