'All Our Relations' by Tanya Talaga

by Tanya Talaga

13 Sep 2020

This is part of our 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize series celebrating the five non-fiction books that were shortlisted for promoting global cultural understanding. In this extract from, ‘All Our Relations', Tanya Talaga explores intergenerational trauma, the alarming rise of youth suicide and the history of Indigenous peoples.

The tragedy of suicide is that it is preventable. Each life gone is a lost opportunity for someone to have received help. The scope of the suicide problem is immense. From 1986 through December 2017, there were more than 558 suicides across NAN territory, a community comprising only 49,000 people. Last year, 2017, was the worst in recent memory, with 37 suicides. Most of the suicides are by hanging, and the majority are by young men. The number of attempts – those who try to take their lives but fail – is even greater. Since 1986, an almost incomprehensible 88 children between the ages of 10 and 14 have killed themselves.

The high youth-suicide numbers are not just found in NAN territory. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, in Canada suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to the age of 44. The centre also reports that the suicide rate for young First Nations men between the ages of 15 and 24 is 126 per 100,000, compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous young men. First Nations women have a suicide rate of 35 per 100,000, compared to 5 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous women.

Suicide among Inuit is even more pronounced. Jack Hicks is an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan in community health and epidemiology and a former suicide prevention advisor for the Government of Nunavut and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national organisation protecting and advancing the rights of Inuit in Canada. He says that for the past 15 years, the Inuit suicide rate has been 10 times the national average.

Indigenous youth suicide is not just a Canadian problem. Across the globe, Indigenous people living in colonised countries share a crushing commonality: their children are dying by their own hands. While there is no global data on how many Indigenous children and youth are taking their own lives, the statistics gathered from colonised nations point to similarities. The first is that suicide is a modern phenomenon within Indigenous Nations. In Canada, before the forced resettlement of Inuit people off the land and into towns, and before the Indian Residential Schools, suicide was uncommon. This also holds true for the Sami population in Scandinavia and the Indigenous people in Brazil and in Australia. And in each of these colonised countries, Indigenous young men have among the highest suicide rates globally.

There is a narrative, a shared history of all colonised people: trauma, exposure to suicidal tendencies when young, a history of discriminatory legislation and policies, and a lack of psycho-cultural identity. Milroy says the complex interplay of all these factors and so many more is unique to each lived experience. For Indigenous peoples, underlying that life experience is the reality of genocide: “We have come from a history of genocide, and genocide is about the deliberate annihilation of a race; it is about wanting to remove us from the Earth permanently, which is very different as a concept from transgenerational trauma. It is trauma on a more massive scale — psychologically, physically, spiritually, culturally. It is another level of trauma again.”

Indigenous children and youth are born under the staggering weight of history: the historical injustices of colonisation; the forced removal off the land by extermination or segregation; the cultural genocide effected by government policy and religious indoctrination; the intergenerational trauma stemming from years of poverty, abuse, and identity oppression. They are more often than not displaced, suffering from economic, social, and cultural marginalisation that can trigger substance abuse and violence. They are caught between historical and what the United Nations calls “present-day dynamics.”

Generations of Indigenous children have grown up largely in communities without access to the basic determinants of health – income and social status, access to clean water and air, safe houses and communities, supportive families and a connection to their traditions, and access to a basic education and health care services – even in a country like Canada, revered around the world for its fresh water, high living standards, education system, and public health care. According to the World Health Organization, a people’s health is the direct result of its social, political, and environmental circumstances. Children are not in control of their determinants of health. They are born into them.

In Indigenous communities, the lasting impact of colonial history has resulted in the near absence of these determinants of health. It has also directly resulted in a severing of the crucial spiritual, emotional, and physical tethers to the past. The historical separation of Indigenous people from their land, the separation of children from their parents, the separation from their traditional culture and ways of living – all of these things have contributed to a spiritual emptiness that has resulted in generations of children’s deaths. This book is about righting past wrongs; it is about collectively upholding and adhering to the rights of Indigenous children – the right to proper health care, an equitable education, clean drinking water, a secure community, and a warm, safe home to sleep in at night, tucked in by parents who tell them that they love them. It is about restoring their pride in who they are and where they come from.

© Tanya Talaga from All Our Relations: Indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism, Scribe UK, 2019

All Our Relations was shortlisted for the 2020 Al-Rodhan Prize.

Tanya Talaga is the acclaimed author of Seven Fallen Feathers, a multi-award winner including the RBC Taylor Prize, the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, and the First Nation Communities READ: Young Adult/Adult Award. The book was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize and the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Talaga was the 2018 CBC Massey Lecturer. She is of Polish and Ojibwe descent. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation. She lives in Toronto with her two teenage children.


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