John Richards/Pierre Fortin: Look beyond James Smith suspect’s psyche

Averting tragedies like the James Smith Cree Nation stabbing spree means focusing on economic opportunity, health and education.

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Gabriel Wortman, who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia in 2020, was white. Myles Sanderson, who is suspected of killing 10 people and injuring 18 in the James Smith Cree Nation east of Prince Albert, has Indigenous ancestry.

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We have no insight into the factors that predispose people to go on a killing spree. Pathological killers are, fortunately, very rare among all ethnic communities.

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However, there is more to this tragedy than analyzing the psychology of Myles Sanderson. Over the three years from 2017 to 2019, pre-COVID, the average annual number of homicide victims in Canada was 673.

A quarter of all victims were Indigenous (160). Among the Indigenous victims, two-thirds were in a Prairie province (102). Overall, the Canadian homicide victim rate is low. Among the non-Indigenous, the average annual rate over the three years was just above one per 100,000.

Among the Indigenous in the Prairies and the Territories, the rates were, respectively, 14 and 19 per 100,000. These rates are not low! In other regions the Indigenous homicide rates were high, but much lower: Atlantic (one), Quebec (four), Ontario (five) and B.C. (five).

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Among all homicide perpetrators, approximately a third were Indigenous. Among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, the great majority of victims were killed by family members or acquaintances. What is the explanation?

Harold Johnson, a First Nation lawyer who grew up in northwestern Saskatchewan, was for many years a Crown prosecutor in the northern half of the province. In 2016, he published his memoir, Fire Water: How Alcohol is Killing My People (And Yours).

The title refers to the dominant theme throughout the book — the need for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders to address the abuse of alcohol and drugs among Indigenous peoples in northern Saskatchewan. We could blame it all on white settlers and residential schools.

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But, he argues, that implies history is the only relevant explanation for today’s problems: Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders have no agency, no ability to undo the damage.

Johnson’s policy recommendations deserve serious attention. First, he insisted on respect for Indigenous identity. Second, he promoted “safe houses,” places guaranteed to be free of alcohol and drugs.

Third, he called on Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders to address the syndrome of high rates of suicide, homicide, and alcohol/drug abuse by a resolute, prolonged attack on the persistence of high unemployment rates, low education levels and low earnings among those in remote Indigenous communities — in particular in the Prairies.

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Based on careful analysis at the county level in “rust belt” U.S. states over the past quarter century, Angus Deaton concluded that factory shutdowns were a central factor to explain increased local rates of suicide, alcohol/drug abuse and low health status.

Factory shutdowns in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh led to higher local unemployment rates and lower wages for those who found an alternative job. Based on his research, Deaton won the 2015 Nobel prize in economics.

He is a senior economist at Princeton; his wife, Anne Case, also a Princeton professor, has an international reputation as a health economist. They have summarized their analysis in a widely read book, Deaths of Despair.

They do not claim that deterioration of social conditions over the last quarter century in many U.S. towns and cities is the only problem, but undeniably access to employment at good wages is a crucial basis for a sound community.

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In a frank speech, Wally Burns, chief of the James Smith Cree Nation, acknowledged that use of drugs and alcohol on his reserve is widespread and that it is a very serious problem. No one knows precisely the motivation of Myles Sanderson.

Whatever it be, the underlying lack of employment in many remote reserves, such as James Smith, is a factor conducive to “deaths of despair.”

If a remote First Nation reserve has the good fortune to be near a potential mine, commercial forest or energy project, the best option may be a partnership with a resource sector company. If the reserve has effective leadership, it can benefit by employment and a share in the company’s expected profits.

A prerequisite to obtaining the good jobs, however, is good education — which is often not the case. And most remote reserves do not have the good luck of proximity to such resources.

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There is no doubt that the search for truth and reconciliation with First Nations and Métis is important. But it is equally important to pursue a second strategy: Pragmatic programs to improve education and health outcomes, and economic development among Canadian Indigenous peoples.

John Richards and Pierre Fortin are emeritus professors, respectively from Simon Fraser University and the Université du Québec à Montréal. In the 1970s, John Richards represented Saskatoon as an MLA in the 1970s.

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With Files from the Edmonton Journal and the Montreal Gazette

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