To Be or Not To Be? Attawapiskat: Are There Underlying Issues?

By Valérie Céré, RN, Disaster Anthropologist and CRHNet Board Member

Picture1Sometimes, watching the news brings you back in time and makes you think about a moment in your life when you have witnessed something that didn’t make sense to you. You think about it in hindsight, looking back at the events and there are still some missing pieces to the puzzle.

It was back in last November, when I heard on the news that the Red Cross was going to help the small aboriginal village of Attawapiskat, James Bay, a month after the Band Chief declared of State of Emergency. They say it was the first time in Canadian Red Cross history that they were providing humanitarian aid within Canadian borders and not disaster help. What happened? What is going on over there?

You first have to know that for some years I have worked as an outpost relief nurse in Northern Ontario. The First Nations living conditions in the Sioux Lookout Zone and Moose Factory Zone (James Bay) hit me hard as I was sharing my daily life with them and sharing in their suffering of social issues. My work as a bush nurse over there was more about patching up the problem and hoping it would hold out a little longer than working on prevention and public health teachings.

In Kashechewan, a small community of 2,000 just south of Attawapiskat, I have seen the extremes where, on a weekly basis, you are dealing with incidents of child abuse, sexual abuse, and alcohol-related incidents involving stabbing wounds. The last time I was there, in 2006, there was a spur of violence – two murders happened within two weeks. The Nursing Station and the police were overwhelmed. There was a social work specialist onsite to analyze and make reports to the government. What the village had suffered in those last 15 months was inconceivable. In short, three complete evacuations – two for flooding and one for an e-coli waterworks contamination. Also the elementary school was condemned for a diesel leak and mould, and the high school – and a brand new school bus – had burned down as well. Though it would be complicated to explain in details what happen then, there is one thing I remember: the distress of a community that didn’t know who to blame or how to get out of this.

So when in November the Attawapiskat case came out in the news, I was thinking of what I could remember of the community back then and I thought that it seemed that not a lot of things had changed. But is that really the case? Now being a Disaster Anthropologist who studied Aboriginals and has outpost-nursing experience, I was asked to talk about it and to give my comments and analysis of the situation. I thought I had a lot to say about it and I realized that indeed I do.

I remembered that when I was in the field, I was often frustrated when facing a situation that didn’t make sense to me, as an urban girl. I often thought about how to fix it – how to find a solution, and in reality, most of the professionals over there I talked to were also trying to figure it out. We were working on a solution instead of trying to understand the underlying conditions that made it happen.

You know what? I was once told that if everyone’s knowledge was amalgamated, we might be able to change any situation. What if that was true? What if every one of us, as a Disaster Specialist, held a piece of the puzzle?

I know that experts in the disaster field – let say you – would read this paper and would probably say out loud, “Yes, I have something to say about it!”  Now I am giving you the opportunity to share your ideas with your colleagues. But how?

Well, here is my suggestion: What about sharing with me via email what you think of the Attawapiskat situation? Give me your thoughts, your ideas on how to solve the problem, or how you analyze the case from your perspective – from your field of expertise. I will take the comments, combine them with my own thoughts, and put them together for the fall issue.

What do you think? Let’s put our knowledge together and see if we can create a holistic point of view and see if we can make a positive difference!