This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Ken Coates, September 7, 2022
On the Labour Day weekend, a devastating series of attacks resulting in 10 deaths and 18 others injured instantly made the James Smith Cree Nation internationally famous.
In the coming days, as journalists delve into the backgrounds of the suspects and the dynamics surrounding the incomprehensible events, any characterization of this atrocity as a meme for Indigenous dysfunction would be, frankly, inaccurate. As we have tragically seen in recent years – in towns from Portapique, N.S. to Uvalde, Tex. – the disease of mass killings has nothing to do with a community’s ethnicity.
The traumatized Indigenous community in Saskatchewan deserves better than this. With about 2,700 people living on reserve, the settlement hosts three First Nations: the James Smith Cree Nation, the Peter Chapman First Nation and the Chakastaypasin First Nation. All three were signatories to Treaty 6 (1876) and share a reserve. Despite the inevitable complexities of such an arrangement, they collaborate successfully. Like most First Nations, they struggle with the legacy of colonialism and socioeconomic dislocation. But, they are resilient, determined and committed to renewal.
Two weeks ago, James Smith Cree Nation hosted me and 16 other visitors associated with a graduate program offered collaboratively by the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Tromso, the Arctic University of Norway. Students came from Canada, Norway and the U.K., bringing years of experience in Indigenous settings and an appreciation of issues affecting northern and Indigenous development.
James Smith Cree Nation, the self-described “home of Indian government,” welcomed us on a Wednesday afternoon. They explained how their locally controlled school (one of the first band-run facilities in Canada) enables cultural and social revitalization. Dozens of men, women and children arrived to dance and drum, quickly inviting the visitors to join in a round dance. Later, in a colourfully decorated school classroom, speakers described efforts at community renewal, language revival, economic independence and infrastructure development.
Political and business leaders spoke of transformed relations with mining companies. The head of the local Indigenous economic development corporation proudly outlined how the First Nation established Saskatchewan’s first private MRI service – no small feat in a province that introduced Canada’s universal health care system. Examples of economic renewal, covering both on- and off-reserve companies, spoke to the James Smith Cree Nation’s determination to break the demoralizing cycle of welfare dependency.
Our three-hour stay was topped off with a locally provided meal and a warm send-off.
And now, barely two weeks later, the community is devastated by a murder spree.
It is impossible to imagine what those First Nations are going through. They have lost family, friends and neighbours in the most inconceivable manner possible. They are suffering grievously and need support as they cope with this tragedy. In the coming days their people will be interviewed, prodded, studied, counselled and examined.
But it is vital that this effort to understand must not detract from what these three First Nations have achieved and what they represent.
James Smith Cree Nation reserve is not in an economically fortuitous location. Isolated, it is an hour’s drive from Prince Albert – double that from Saskatoon. They have no major resource potential close at hand, relying instead on off-reserve developments to provide employment and commercial opportunities. Their real achievements lie in their assertion of Indigenous control and their innovations in Indigenous governance. Their commitment to cultural and language revival is matched only by their pursuit of autonomy.
The Canadian and international students and faculty who so recently savoured the First Nations’ gracious hospitality do not know if the children and leaders they met are dead or wounded, but it is near certain that some of their friends and family members are among the victims.
Canadians need to keep the people of the James Smith Cree Nation and the nearby town of Weldon in their thoughts and prayers. These are resilient people, with a passion for renewal, collaboration and the pursuit of meaningful independence. But they need us to share their devastation and support their recovery from an atrocity that will resonate for decades.
Ken Coates is a distinguished fellow and director of the Indigenous affairs program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a Canada research chair at the University of Saskatchewan.