Thursday, April 14, 2016

Let's not conflate doctor assisted dying with the epidemic of attempted suicides in aboriginal communities


It is not that politicians ‘say the darndest things’ as a segment on John King’s Inside Politics show on Sunday mornings on CNN puts it. Sometimes they say the most idiotic things conceivable.

Case in Point: A young Quebec Liberal Member of Parliament declares on CBC television, “How can you tell young people who are thinking of taking their own lives that it is alright for others?” in reference to the doctor assisted dying law about to come before parliament today (and also in reference to the epidemic of attempted suicides in Attawapiskat recently). Agreed that death is the core of both issues. That, however, is the extent of the connection. And young people who are thinking of taking their lives could not care less about whether some extremely ill people facing no possibility of a turn-around in their condition seek a dignified passage from this live. If anything, such a compassionate option for those sick and dying would only enhance the picture of the country from which they are attempting to escape. If this young MP is opposed to doctor assisted dying, for some religious reason, or if his objection is based on some possibility that the option might be abused by those family members seeking to ‘cash in’ on an estate a little sooner, or if he is attempting to protect doctors from having to engage in such ‘treatment’ then articulate those positions.

Attempting to capitalize and to politicize the tragedy of attempted suicides among aboriginal children as a way of avoiding facing the doctor assisted dying bill on its own terms is a conflation “up with which we cannot put”.....(to borrow from Churchill). This country, including this MP, has to come face to face with the racism, and the negligence, even some would call it criminal negligence, that flows from every page of our history on the treatment of aboriginal peoples. Even today, the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous ruling declaring that Metis are part of the First Nations, aboriginal and ‘Indian’ community, (predicating their decision on the wider and already employed definition of that word), and are thereby eligible for provincial and federal government programs. And this is 2016!!! How do we explain our rejection of these several hundred thousand people for well over a century? The short answer is “We can’t!” There is no justification, no explanation, and no reasonable historical principle that justifies our exaggerated racism, bigotry, paternalism, and insolence. Linking the national issue of how the nation deals with the deeply embedded and potentially permanent superiority and obnoxious condescension of the ‘white’ Christian and essentially ‘wealthy’ demographic to the aboriginal peoples to the question of doctor assisted dying, even when there is a momentary national wringing of hands among the political class about inordinate numbers of young people wishing to “end the pain” as one of their number put it, is simply unacceptable. And the way of thinking contained in the MP’s objection is, perhaps, one of the main obfuscations, deflections and rationalizations why nothing has been done on the aboriginal issue file, for centuries.

Surely, our failure to accept, to integrate and to appreciate aboriginal people would only embolden our attitudes to those whose lives have reached their potential and have come to a state in which they can expect no further amelioration in their condition. Pitting those asking for doctor assisted dying against those young people whose lives have no discernible purpose or value in their eyes, is a pitiful attitude and example for an MP to set. Empathy, compassion, acceptance and integration of everyone into the national community, surely, is a goal for all political parties, and hopefully will guide those coming after the current crop of MP’s even more energetically than it has those who walk the pages of those history books. Imagine the first ‘christian’ Sunday School teachers going to the aboriginal communities one hundred years ago and feeling that these people were savage, uncivilized and not worthy of respect, as part of their mission to convert them to Christianity. No more abhorrent crimes have been committed in the name of the Christian faith. The worth of a human life, especially the worth of a young aboriginal person’s live is not only unquestionable; it is etched in the very land on which we and they live. And it ought to be etched deeply on our conscience and on our conscious and unconscious minds and hearts.

And that etching is in no way an argument against doctor assisted dying; nor is it a way to deflect our national attention from our own ethical shame, our own racism that can only be said to be surprising in the lateness of its coming to the fore. Nevertheless, as Charlie Angus says, the worry is that after the “crisis” has passed from the headlines, will the nation rip the band-aid off and leave another century of what is criminal neglect as the legacy of this hubris, and this blindness in our national character.

I grew up living between two “reservations” and found the concept deplorable even as a child. I went to school with children from both  tribes, and never found a single occasion to treat them differently than those who lived on my street. Later, I worked in an office in which were employed aboriginal office workers, who distinguished themselves and their community with the quality of their work, and the way in which they treated their co-workers and the clients. Later, I served in classrooms in which were “placed” displaced young people from communities like Attawapiskat, living in ‘white’ houses, while having to find comfort and integration through a social worker from the aboriginal community. His job was difficult yet was executed with great spirit and co-operation, in the face of difficult circumstances. I have learned, first hand, of principals of secondary schools whose policies and practices were so anti-aboriginal that the community had to remove their students and send them to a less offensive school, right in the province of Ontario. And I am sad to have to report these stories.

Even with the Supreme Court decision, there will still be a long road to ‘nationhood’ for the Metis people, and we loudly cheer, “Let the negotiations begin!”

As for the doctor assisted death bill, the government has taken a modest route to begin the debate, excluding both minors and the mentally challenged. They have also moved to protect the most vulnerable in their proposed bill. With a “free” vote, of all members of all parties in the House of Commons, after full discussion in committee, and then a debate and a vote in the Senate, this bill is also a long way from the Governor General’s signature.

We can only hope that the Liberal MP from Quebec who unfortunately conflated the two issues, especially since the doctor assisted dying bill is targeting a dignified death for those suffering unbearably, and those young people on reservations across the country would give much for a life with dignity, can see that he can and we would hope would, support both initiatives to alleviate the hopelessness in Attawapiskat and some 100 other First Nation communities, as well as the hopelessness of those who face an otherwise brutal death.

Hopelessness is not a situation or circumstance over which the nation can do nothing. In separate situations, and simultaneously, the nation can do itself proud and serve the most needy by taking two independent and necessary actions.

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