Editor’s note. Mr. Ouellette, a 38-year-old Cree, references Attawapiskat. Last month the Canadian parliament held an emergency debate on Aboriginal suicides after 11 people, nine of them minors, attempted suicide in one weekend in Attawapiskat, a remote community of 2,000 in northern Ontario.
The following is excerpted from the speech delivered by Robert Falcon Ouellette MP (Winnipeg Centre Liberal) on Monday May 2.
Madam Speaker, a report in The Globe and Mail on April 24, 2016, says 13-year-old Sheridan Hookimaw killed herself on the banks of the river that winds through Attawapiskat. The sickly girl had been flown out for weekly medical appointments. She wanted to end her pain, and in the process, she set off a chain reaction not only in her community but in communities right across this country, which we are still dealing with today.
This debate strikes at the very heart of the meaning of life, it strikes at the heart of bureaucracy, and it strikes at the heart of how we care for the most vulnerable in our society. I have been told over and over again that this situation is different, that there is no connection.
In the indigenous world view, everything is interconnected. It is holistic, meaning that when a change is made in one place, the impact will be felt elsewhere, and the two cannot be separated. In the western world view, often we compartmentalize things. We believe that we can play, that we can control certain situations, that we can effect change here and not see change in other places. Above all, we have come to believe ourselves able to predict and control all, to control the future. This does not mean, though, that we should not take action.
The impact of this bill on people in Toronto may be very different than on the people in Nunavik or Attawapiskat. Our role as parliamentarians is to place ourselves in the moccasins of others, to place ourselves outside of our own experiences, to see the world through another cosmology and other world view, and to see the impact that our decisions may have on others.
We are making profound changes in concepts surrounding life, which cannot be undone in the future. In the indigenous tradition and philosophy, we are required to think seven generations into the future. If I am wrong and there is no connection between Attawapiskat and physician-assisted dying or suicide, if the average person does not see a connection and communities do not see a greater stress, then I will gladly say I was wrong; but if there is an impact, which is caused by the valorization of suicide, then what? …
We make laws often for the average person, but the impact is felt most by those who are on the margins of society.
Even though we have the Gladue rulings in our justice system and cases where we are supposed to take into consideration someone’s upbringing, someone’s past, unfortunately, those are not reflected in our justice system. Therefore, how can we be assured that the changes we are making today in the House will not have an equally detrimental impact on others?
My earliest memory, one of my strongest memories, is as a little six-year-old boy. My mother had just lost a house. We were in tough economic times in Calgary, Alberta, and she could no longer support us. She was a single mom, and she went off on the road looking for work. She decided at one point she could no longer raise me or my little brother by herself and she needed help, so she went to her ex-husband, my father. My father was a residential school survivor, an alcoholic, and a member of gangs. We knew all these things.
We knew he had a terrible temper. We were told this as young children, and we were very scared as children. We were dropped off at his place, with his parents, my grandmother and grandfather, and we were very upset. …
I remember climbing a tree in the back yard and wrapping a rope around my neck at the age of six. This is a true story. People often think it cannot be true, but this happens in our country, like the case of the 13-year-old girl in Attawapiskat.
I wrapped that rope around my neck and thought, “Should I jump off into this universe, which is before me?” It was in that back yard that somehow I made the decision to climb down out of that tree and unwind that rope from around my neck.
If in my life I had seen, or I had known, that my grandmother had somehow used physician-assisted dying or physician-assisted suicide, or others in my family had completed the irreparable act, then it would have made it much more difficult for me to continue.
We might not think the impact will be there, but we do not know. We assume we know these things. We are deciding the future of a few for the end of a few. …
This debate is about life itself. Indigenous people never knew of suicide. It was unheard of in indigenous communities. Yet it now continues to plague our communities, and the spirit of suicide seems to always be there.
Life is not easy. It is about struggle, about fighting for another day. If indigenous peoples had committed suicide, then we would not be here today for all the trials and tribulations we have faced.
I participate in one of the high ceremonies of the indigenous custom and tradition of the Plains Cree. It is called the sundance. It is a four-day ceremony, and for three days and three nights, no food or water shall pass my lips. I pierce my body to sacrifice myself for others, in prayer for them. I do this not for myself, not to ask for something for myself, but for others.
In the sundance, in the sundance lodge, my Sundance Chief David Blacksmith talks about the spirit of suicide, how it is coming to take our young and is starting to take our old people, how it is affecting our society, how it is destroying our sense of community, and I have to listen to it. I have to be moved by the words he brings, because the people surrounding me in the sundance have all been affected by it.
We are placing ourselves now outside of nature. Nature itself is hard, to strive, to struggle, to see another day. It is a struggle that is noble. Now placing the tasks in the hands of the state removes us from nature, telling the state that it will now be the one who will be enabling us to do these things; someone else will be deciding, bureaucracy will now be deciding.
Others may feel that they are a burden. Others may say that they are a burden. I think there is something noble in sacrifice and in striving in the struggle for life itself, to hold someone’s hands in the final moment, to have to grow up and not simply say, “I am going to hand it off to someone else to look after, but that I will stand there or I will sit there, holding your hand at that exact moment. Even in your final breaths, even though it may be difficult, we will continue on”.
Perhaps this is just another step on the road of moral relativism that we are in nowadays, but even our judiciary cannot serve as a balance between the different societies making up Canada. We are in a sorry state. We have truly entered a new age, one of the throwaway culture where all boundaries are starting to crumble.
Finally I would like to say, in the words of Elder Winston Wuttunee, “If you cry, your children will die”. It is dangerous to abandon one’s self to the luxury of grief. It deprives one of courage and even of the wish for recovery.
From an indigenous perspective, I look at this bill and I cannot support it, because it leads to a place where I do not believe we are looking out for the interests of all people within our society. It is not allowing us to fully comprehend the needs of everyone who makes up Canadian societies, but really, it is taking us down a path that is very dangerous, and we do not know where it ends.
Let us be very careful in this House, and take the time that is necessary as we make our decisions.