Canada – my country, our country, their country – is one of the richest in the world. Yet, the people of Pikangikum, a remote, Aboriginal community where nine people died last week in a tragic house fire, are living in conditions that would be considered deplorable by any world standard, let alone Canadian.
By all accounts it is not living, not in any way most of us should think right and proper in this country.
“People are dying from overcrowding, unsafe building standards and a lack of firefighting equipment, and more lives are at risk,” Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said in a statement quoted in an on-line article in The Guardian, a newspaper based in the U.K.
Pikangikum has a population of about 3,000. It’s in northwestern Ontario, about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay and accessible only by air. Robert Nault, the Member of Parliament for the area told The Guardian the community has the highest suicide rate in the western world; he said more than 400 people in the last few decades have taken their own lives. That’s a lot of despair.
The tragic Pikangikum fire “story” made international news, partly no doubt because of an element of surprise that such a thing could happen in Canada, of all places.
“Canada’s aboriginal people face dire social and economic conditions, including poor housing,” said The Guardian article, by way of explanation.
Others had similar lines, including the Irish Independent, and even the Beaumont Enterprise, based in rural Texas.
Not all Aboriginal communities in Canada are in such “dire” circumstances, I almost hesitate to say because the point, as it concerns Pikangikum and many other communities in similar crisis, should not be blunted. But my sense is that to leave it unqualified could leave a door open to disparaging comments about accuracy, or worse.
The crisis is real, and true.
That such a thing could happen in Canada, that vital resources were so lacking nothing could be done to save the lives of those nine people, including three children, is a national disgrace, a national tragedy that could have been, and should have been prevented a long time ago.
Politicians are too often in the habit of using terms like “short-term” or “long-term” regarding a course of action, no matter how pressing or urgent it may be in reality.
It may seem trivial to add those expressions to the lexicon of Orwellian obfuscation, but so be it. Here’s a modest proposal for a start, right now, right away: let’s from here on in use language that speaks plainly and directly about the dangerous, miserable, sub-standard, soul-destroying living conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada.
Now is the time to act.
Yet, no sooner had the fire happened than it seemed well on its way to becoming an unpleasant reality too easy to ignore, destined within a few days to run out its time in the daily news/entertainment cycle, to be relegated to the virtual back pages, to become nothing more than the memory of a sad, little story – one like many others involving the ongoing tragedy of Aboriginal people.
It was nowhere to be seen on the usual on-line headline pages today as I update this for blog-posting. But, to their credit, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), the CBC and a few others carried articles about the names of the victims being made public.
APTN’s on-line article included a deeply touching photo of the three children who perished in the fire, an infant and two toddlers. It must have been taken not long before the fire. They look happy in it, and full of wonder and curiosity. I think under the circumstances the publication of that photo was justified. I didn’t see it anywhere else. I don’t know why. Late last year the photo of a drowned refugee child on a beach in Turkey brought the Syrian refugee crisis to world attention and acted as a catalyst for action.
The professional news machine struggling to survive in the face of social media, on-line upstarts, and shrinking editorial resources has become confounding. There was a time – I know because I was there – when “the press” was in the vanguard of social progress, regularly producing stories even locally that exposed pressing needs for change and reform. The way elderly people lived and were treated in what we used to call “nursing homes” was a good example.
How would the death of nine people in a house fire on a “remote Indian reserve” in northern Ontario have been covered then, say, in the early 1990s even? I know what I’d like to think. But honestly I don’t know.
But I do know how the professional news media covered the tragic fire in Pikangikum.
The fire broke out late Tuesday night. By late next morning it was in the news, including reports about the number of people thought to have died. But the top news of the day, for example, on Toronto-based CBC Radio, my usual and preferred, hourly-broadcast news venue, continued to be the funeral of Rob Ford, in great detail. “Hundreds” of people lined the street to pay their respects as the funeral procession passed, we were told.
There are exceptions. But Canadians are like other people in the world: we show respect for the dead, even when their lives were controversial and open to criticism. The former mayor of Toronto certainly fell into that category. He made Toronto famous, and infamous, for all the wrong reasons. He became late-night entertainment fodder in the U.S., and therefore globally, on-line in the virtual world.
I’m not sure if Shakespeare was alive he would consider Ford a tragic figure worthy of a play; but he was some sort of tragic figure, no doubt of that. By all accounts, whatever else might be said about him, he was remembered by many people as an essentially good man; and not all of them were members of the so-called “Ford Nation.”
His tragedy is that he got himself way out of his depth as the mayor of Canada’s largest city. I think that somehow must have been a factor contributing to his death at the young age of 46 of cancer.
So, I can’t blame some news media outlets for highlighting the climactic, last act of his tragedy. But not to that extent, on a day when nine people in this province, in this country, died in a house fire.
We in non-Aboriginal Canada started patting ourselves on the back some years ago when the use of “First Nations” to describe Aboriginal, or indigenous, people became current. In our minds we elevated them to a place of honour, as the people whose ancestors inhabited this land far, far longer than any of ours, including and especially those of us who can trace our ancestry back to Europe.
First Nations people know that’s true and that it’s only right the term is used to describe them. But there is an aspect of deception in its use by others, so long as First Nations continue to be treated as second-rate Canadians.
Canada’s new Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau – he who has become a global 0n-line star in his own right – has promised to change that, to begin a “new era” in the relationship between First Nations and Canada.
For that reason alone, the tragic Pikangikum house fire should remain at the top of the Canadian public agenda and consciousness.
This is an updated version of a “Counterpoint” column originally published in The Sun Times in April, 2016.