The Economics of Despair And Pretty Words

Written by Cathy Elliott (

Photo by Craig A.
Photo by Craig A.

For around nine years I’ve been writing about the good news coming out of Canada’s remote and not so remote First Nations. I wish I could write something inspirational today. I wish I could list successes, accomplishments and victories. The good news about our Anishnabek, Mi’kmaw, Cree, Blackfoot, Inuit, Mohawk kids. But today, on this beautiful spring day, I just can’t.

The news coming out of our Indigenous communities is discouraging. Indigenous kids are lagging so far behind in so many ways. Our girls and women are still going missing or dying violently. Our people are dying too young from lack of adequate medical services. Children are still being taken from their mothers. Educational funding is a bad joke. Families are still fractured. I want so desperately to write something that will celebrate our youth but, as we move into Aboriginal Month, I find myself searching for the right thing to say.

I know in my heart that people are generally, good. Generous. I’ve seen it. When I talk to people about the conditions in which our kids are living, they respond in a good way, reach into their hearts and concur. They say pretty things about how much work we all have to do. We’re all Treaty People.

What I find infuriating is the fact that we all still insist that our Indigenous kids take it on themselves, without giving them the tools to do what we tell them to do:  Learn your history. Honour your culture. Listen to your Elders, who have been robbed of their own histories and cultures. Stay in school. Don’t have kids at so young an age. Don’t drink. Don’t do drugs. Don’t bully.  Be proud. Look after each other. And do all these things while your parents fall apart because they don’t have enough money to feed you because food prices are so high, and the school you go to doesn’t have toilet paper and the community you live in has radioactive particles in its water. Or no running water at all.

They just can’t. They’re kids. They don’t have the capacity yet to solve the problems their grandparents are struggling to overcome. They know about generational trauma. They know, now, because of the internet, how far behind they are. They know now, what other people’s expectations are for them. Which aren’t very high. They know now, about every murder, arrest, disappearance, beating, failure of someone just like them. They can read for themselves the TRC’s findings and take in the scope of Canada’s failings and outright genocide.

When I hear about more suicide pacts, attempts, successes, my heart breaks more. I see their faces. I see them smiling, joking, wrestling with life’s mysteries, reaching out to their grandparents and my heart bursts with love, pride and despair. When I see them dance, sing, drum, draw, write and speak eloquently about the world as they see it, my mind is overwhelmed by their potential. And I am struck dumb by the idea that their potential is being smothered. Wilfully. With impunity.

I’m not sure I can find pretty words anymore.

I know life isn’t fair. It’s just that, it seems to me, Canadians are ok with the idea that if it’s less fair for some, we can all just move on.

Yes, we’re grappling with the task of reconciliation. Yes, we all have a lot of work to do. But when are we all going to combine the same kind of effort it takes to rescue people from other countries and reach out to Albertan fire victims? (Some of whom, by the way, were Indigenous firefighters fighting the Beast while their own homes evaporated in the flames) If Attawapiskat and other First Nations can raise thousands of dollars for Albertans, why can’t an entire Nation do the same for them?

We’re moving into 150 years of confederation. I remember the 100 year mark, and had no idea what that meant to the Indigenous people in this Dominion. A new flag, Bobby Gimby’s “One, little, two little, three Canadians” Expo ’67…I remember lots of unbridled optimism about a young country ready to wow the world. I didn’t see then the irony of a celebration that didn’t take into account the nations that existed and still exist here. I didn’t know on whose ground my own feet were treading.

Nine years ago, I began my own education. One I didn’t have when I went to school. I was given this gift when DAREarts sent me out to help design a program as an answer to a call for help from the community of Webequie. They had a cluster of suicides and were reeling from shock, grief and anger. They did all the work. I was there more as a witness to their pain, with the ability to help us all channel this pain into something remarkable. It takes generations to work through this pain. There is no magical salve. But Webequie is persevering. Those kids are adults now, working hard to make a safe, warm, nurturing home for their own kids. But it’s hard.

I’ve been shocked by what I’ve seen over the past nine years. I’m still shocked by what I see, every day. We can all say pretty words about how non Indigenous kids feel about those poor kids up in Attawapiskat, and how schools are putting together letters of love and care packages.  But we can’t hide the dismal fact that Attawapiskat is only one of dozens of Canadian Indigenous communities affected by youth suicides.

There needs do be more action. No more pretty words. Stand up for your Indigenous children, Canada. Please. Because I’m not sure I’m talking to real people out there. I hear a lot of support from Child Advocates and health and wellness and arts organizations about their good news, but I’m not hearing from my neighbours down the road who’d heard stuff on CBC and shrug because they don’t know how to make it better. I’m not hearing from the cashier at the local grocery “would you like to donate a tooney for “Schools for First Nations?” I’m not hearing from you. I need to know that you, ordinary Canadian citizens, that you really care. That instead of saying,” What can I do?” or “I didn’t learn about that in school”  to Indigenous people like me, get on the internet and find the countless Twitter accounts that can help you understand more about our history. Read the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action. Get on the phone, ask the charity questions and actually DONATE some money. Organize. Go to your nearest Search Engine and type Indian Act. Educate yourself about the economics of despair. What Canada is built on. Get past guilt and YOU move on. Please. Then, maybe your children will know what THEY can do to make Canada a more equitable place as we move into and celebrate our second century.

I’m done with pretty words. I’m done with preaching to the choir.

I need to see what action can do. I need to see Canadians show the world how mature Canada is, and how capable we are as a caring, progressive people. DAREarts put me to a challenge; to think of others besides myself, to use my talents to help Indigenous kids explore and demonstrate the excellence in themselves. I challenge you, I DARE you to take to heart the responsibility we all share for our children’s future.

Then we will truly have something to celebrate about.

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