POLITICS CHATTER: How the story of one woman captures the disaster that is Canada’s First Nations
People & Places

POLITICS CHATTER: How the story of one woman captures the disaster that is Canada’s First Nations

Rebecca Drake, who was interviewed by the CBC's Jody Porter, sees no way out of the situation at Eabametoong First Nation. Photo: Jody Porter

Contributing editor Mark Bourrie looks at how the story of one woman — Rebecca Drake of the Eabametoong First Nation — captures the disaster that is Canada’s First Nations.

This week, more than 400 chiefs came to Ottawa to talk to the Prime Minister and members of the cabinet about the disaster of the country’s First Nations. The talks got a lot of hype and plenty of ink, but, in the end, accomplished very little. There were promises of more money and greater accountability, unspecified improvement of core services like education and housing, and more talks in the future. Some guys in suits think the whole thing was a wild success.

But all that won’t help Rebecca Drake, and we won’t solve First Nations problems unless we can do something about the situation of Rebecca Drake and the thousands of people like her. Drake lives in Eabametoong First Nation, in the dead centre of Northwestern Ontario. About 1,200 people live in Eabametoong. The only way into this awful place is by air, yet the place has 1,200 people. That makes it one of the largest towns in the region — and one of the very few that’s growing.

About 80 percent of the adults in Eabametoong are addicted to prescription painkillers, paying about $400 apiece for Oxycotin, an economic fact that lies behind a string of drug store robberies in Ottawa and other cities.

Drake is a young woman with five kids. The father of the family isn’t in the picture. He’s hooked on pills. She lives with her parents in a two-bedroom house.

There’s a “detox centre” in the town. It’s a house. And it’s not going to solve the problem in Eabametoong. A small town with 500 people hooked on Oxycotin is a medical disaster that will take a massive intervention to fix — and that’s if the addicts want to get off these drugs. And even if the whole place successfully went cold turkey, they’d only solve one small problem.

If you take 1,200 people — no matter what colour they are or their cultural background — and put them in the middle of the bush with no jobs and without even a road, you are going to get an Eabametoong.

You can blame white people, red people, any colour of people you want. You can point your finger at dirty deals done to ancestors a century ago. But the real point is simple: a place like Eabametoong can’t work.

There’s no way that a place like Eabametoong can support 1,200 people. If they adopted the traditional Ojibwe or Cree economy — even if they had the skills — there isn’t enough fish and game in that entire region to sustain that many people for more than a few years. The old hunting economy depended on a very few people and a lot of land.

To support 1,200 people, you need at least one real industry. And that’s a real problem in Northwestern Ontario. The lumber and pulp trade is dead. In every town around Sault Ste. Marie, you can buy a house for $25,000, and quite a nice one for $35,000 in some places.

So Eabametoong is a depressed place in the midst of economic collapse. And Ms. Drake is in the middle of this mess with no job, no known skills, no husband, and five kids. Her solution is to move to Thunder Bay. There, she’ll join about 12,000 other Northern Ontario Native people in a city that has no jobs, even for skilled workers. She’s in a very unenviable spot, and all of the smudge smoke and happy talk in Ottawa will, at the very most, get her a new house in Eabametoong and all the delights the place brings, or plane tickets to Thunder Bay for her and the kids.

And, because the Native birth rate is 1.5 times the rate of the rest of the country, someone else will take her place.

Eabametoong will still be there.

All the Crown-First Nations agreements on sustained funding and financial transparency won’t help Rebecca Drake. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll help her kids a bit. But don’t count on them creating real jobs, tackling problems of addiction, holding families together, and making communities worth living in.