A Native community in northern Saskatchewan was struck by tragedy recently, when a fire quickly consumed a wooden house, killing two brothers, nine and ten years old. Another child is in hospital with severe burns.
It was an avoidable tragedy; the community’s fire truck wouldn’t start. But even if it did, there was no one there to operate it. The former chief of the local volunteer fire department, who rescued three people from the blaze said that residents don’t see the benefit of risking their lives to fight fires, because they aren’t getting paid. It’s not like the residents are busy elsewhere: the employment rate in the community is only 25%.
Unfortunately, Pelican Narrows has suffered many tragedies in recent years: fires, murder, drowning… The residents are poor, but not bad people. In the aftermath of the fire, they raised $5,000 to support the victims’ family.
There are many native communities in Canada that live with one tragedy after another. Shootings, drownings, murders; many related to alcohol, drugs, or boredom. Intelligent, creative, strong people- victims of violence or in jail for acts of violence. Broken families, broken children. And the pain goes on.
Is there a solution? Perhaps.
Throwing money at Native community problems has been a dismal failure. Canadians were horrified in the early 1990’s by reports of high suicide rates connected to alcoholism and gas-sniffing at Davis Inlet, a Labrador native community. Eighteen children were flown across the country to a native-run addiction treatment center, at a cost of $1,700,000. It didn’t take too long before seventeen of the eighteen were re-addicted.
The terrible location of Davis Inlet was blamed for the problem, so the government spent a hundred and sixty five million dollars building a new community for seven hundred people (about $230,000 per person). Yet the problems persisted.
Even throwing jobs won’t help. The Chief of an Alberta native community that gets most of its employment, most of its income from oil sands development has taken part in a very public campaign against the development. Training at least gives the people a choice.
Nothing thrown, nothing given to a community that can’t motivate volunteer firemen, will work. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations recently suffered a $1.1 million dollar budget cut from the government. Can the Indians of Saskatchewan find non-monetary motivation?
In the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt, the Jews were taken out of slavery overnight. It took forty years of wandering in the desert, however to take the slavery out of the Jews.
“…freedom can be earned only by great discipline. One needs to conquer it every moment of one’s life and work hard to maintain it. Freedom is the will to be responsible. It is a mental state, not just a physical condition. Its primary requirement is to live for something that is worth dying for. A life without a mission is not worth being born into. In the words of Avraham Joshua Heschel, “the dignity of man stands in proportion to his obligations.””
The solution has to come from the will of native people, their sense of responsibility, of freedom. No government agencies, no outside social activists can save the lives of the fire victims, the murder victims, the alcoholics. The native communities have to motivate themselves, take themselves out of the slavery of helplessness and victim-hood. Their supporters have to start with the assumption that they’re smart enough to do so.