The year I was born, 1960, there were roughly the same number of people in my hometown — Lousana — as there were in nearby Delburne. At the time, Lousana had a couple of stores, a school, a post office, a garage and two gas stations.
By the time 1985 rolled around, the population had shrunk to a few dozen, and all but one store and the post office were gone.
Delburne, in the meantime, had grown substantially. Most of the young people of my generation moved away from Lousana, so that they could make their way in life.
It’s not that it’s a bad place. It’s actually situated in a rather scenic little valley, featuring a lake and forested hills. It’s a pretty easy place to call home.
For the most part though, the world has moved on for my little town.
It’s a common story. On any street in Red Deer, you can find someone my age who grew up in some little prairie town that is only a shadow of its post-war self. Life goes on, but some little towns don’t.
So, here we are again caught up in a national paroxysm of hand-wringing over a little town for which life moved on generations ago, yet we refuse to let die. In keeping the town alive, we’re killing another generation of children, dooming them to a meaningless existence; a life without future in a town without a future.
Attawapiskat is little different than neighbouring Kashechewan, located some 80 km down the shore of James Bay. No roads connect the two settlements, because there are no roads in that neck of the woods beyond a few dirt hunting tracks.
There’s a new diamond mine not far off that carries with it the prospect of jobs for some but not all of the locals. As it stands, the few citizens of Attawapiskat who have landed jobs at the mine have also made a move of another sort — they’ve bought or rented a place down in Thunder Bay so that they can be away from the problems of the reserve during their rotating days off.
It’s worth noting that the mine has brought with it millions of dollars in royalties that have been paid out to the band.
But, aside from the prospects at the mine, there’s no “there” at Attawapiskat.
It’s the same story retold a hundred times in Canada: Native reserves filled with hopeless people; hopeless because the only economy in their entire settlement consists of a monthly stipend of federal money doled out by oftentimes incompetent and even corrupt band councils and their confederates. A lack of jobs means no duties and no purpose for thousands upon thousands of able-bodied and able-minded citizens.
It’s not just a waste of money; it’s a waste of human potential. There are a dozen ways out of the situation our native people so often find themselves in, but the two biggest roadblocks are the natives themselves, and the federal government.
A common story that has come out of Attawapiskat, and Kashechewan for that matter, is that some members of the bands have tried moving to “the city” and found the change too daunting.
For them, I have little sympathy. I’ve worked with people who moved here from halfway around the world and made a go of it. Moving from the edge of James Bay to the edge of Lake Superior can’t be that hard.
Others have made a more successful transition off-reserve but were drawn back by the need to care for family members who stayed behind and are plagued by ill health, much of which is brought on by living conditions in the settlement. Some are simply drawn back by a love of the land.
That’s all well and good, but it’s not fair to those of us footing the tab to choose to live in isolation while holding out one’s hand for financial support. It’s also not fair for tribal elders to have us educate their children at least as well as our own, and then expect that the pinnacle achievement of those children is to live out their lives on a squalid reserve on federal handouts.
It’s too easy to blame the feds here. They control the money almost all the way down to street level. But, the real blame lies with the native adults who refuse to choose to get out of a settlement that hasn’t had a future since before Deifenbaker.
The natives who give a damn about their children’s children have already up and left. The last person out of Attawapiskat just needs to shut out the lights.
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.