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Indigenous community at center of stabbing no stranger to suffering

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Family and friends of James Smith Cree Nation stabbing victims attend a news conference in Saskatoon, in Canada's Saskatchewan province./AFP
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Sep 08, 2022 - 01:50 PM

MONTREAL, CANADA — Isolated in the vast prairies of west-central Canada, the James Smith Cree Nation — epicenter of a deadly stabbing rampage — is a small Indigenous community that is no stranger to drama.

Like many other Indigenous communities in North America, it suffers from such problems as overcrowded housing, high unemployment, drug addiction and racial discrimination, researchers say.

Small, isolated community

Located in a territory spanning more than 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) the community’s central village is in a rural area where people live off farming and ranching.

Some 3,400 members of the Cree tribe — one of Canada’s First Nations — live in this area including 2,000 in the village itself.

On Sunday the community suffered inexplicable tragedy when nine people there were stabbed to death in an outburst of attacks whose motive remains unknown. Another person was killed in the nearby town of Weldon.

Two brothers were identified as the suspects. One was found dead Monday, and news reports said the second died of self inflicted wounds after being arrested on Wednesday, ending the manhunt.

Half of the Cree village’s population is less than 24 years of age and the jobless rate is 24 percent amid low living standards, according to figures from the 2016 census.

Housing is a huge problem: nearly two-thirds of the homes need major repairs and about a third are overcrowded.

Violence, disasters 

Almost a year ago to the day, the James Smith community was rocked by a shooting that left two people dead and one wounded.

Several times since 2012 hundreds of people have had to be evacuated from the reservation because of flooding.

In 2016, a leak from oil pipeline contaminated the river that provided the village’s water source. The people of the village sued the provincial and federation governments but nothing came of it.

Trauma of residential schools

The village also included people who spent time at now-notorious schools for Indigenous children.

Between the late 19th century and the 1990s, some 150,000 Indigenous youths in Canada were forced to attend these schools, cut off from their families, languages and culture.

Many of them suffered physical or sexual abuse and thousands never came home from the schools, dying of sickness, malnutrition or negligence.

The Canadian government eventually labeled this cultural genocide and the scars from the tragedy still haunt many Indigenous Canadians.

In late April the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, visited the James Smith Cree Nation to meet with people who survived their time at the schools. In the name of the church, the archbishop apologized for the abuse meted out at the schools.

Even today Indigenous people suffer from “overt, covert and systemic racism,” said Robert Henry, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University Saskatchewan.

In 2020, the United Nations denounced what it called a broad range of abuse suffered by Indigenous people, such as problems accessing drinking water, discrimination against children living on reserves, disproportionate presence of Indigenous people in prison, and other woes.

Drug problems 

As in many Indigenous communities of Saskatchewan province, drug abuse is a problem, said Marie-Pierre Bousquet, director of the Indigenous studies program at the University of Montreal.

“These are rather big territories with not much of a presence by police who are often overwhelmed, and drugs flow pretty freely,” said Bousquet, adding that violence often comes hand in hand with drug trafficking.

The day after the stabbing attacks Bobby Cameron, the head of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, blamed “harmful illegal drugs (that) invade our communities.”

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