Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Social Revolution

What is social revolution?  Wikipedia has plenty of definitions, none of which describe what I mean to discuss.  I don't want to see coercive property redistribution, or the forceful expulsion of a class of people, or even necessarily a changing of government.  Our revolution must take place within our families, in our homes, in our communities, and at our water coolers and coffee shops.

You may remember the stir the youth of Kugluktuk caused when they decided to march in the streets to protest the rampant alcoholism and related social ills affecting their community.  Their protest made national news, and generated widespread buzz and hope for the community of 1,300 people.



Marching in the streets is the hallmark of any respectable modern social revolution. From the women's rights movement to the civil rights movement to the more recent tea party and occupy movements and the Arab Spring - taking to the streets is the fastest, most accessible way to voice displeasure with the status quo.

The result of the Kugluktuk youth protest was concrete, measurable, and positive change - in municipal government policy, crime rates, and most notably in a drop in suicides.

How did this come about?  It appears to have started almost by accident - when the local RCMP detachment was being renovated they asked the hamlet to prohibit the import of alcohol into the community.  The ensuing period of relative calm saw a happier, healthier, more vibrant community emerge from the shackles of alcoholism and misery.  When the booze started flowing again, the community immediately saw youth suicides and alcohol-related social ills return.  Recognizing the root of the problem, the youth of Kugluktuk decided they had had enough of the madness - they took to the streets and demanded change.  Change from their municipal council, from their parents, from their older siblings, and from each other.

While the Kugluktuk experience does not meaningfully compare to the grander movements I mentioned above, it demonstrated that the most effective way to achieve positive change is through grassroots, community action.  Despite the well known and depressing crime and suicide statistics the community faced, it's municipal government was either unable or unwilling to address it's social problems on it's own. The simple act of taking to the streets provided a catalyst for action to address a problem that everyone knew existed, yet no one seemed willing to solve.

The substance abuse, crime rates, and suicides that plagued Kugluktuk prior to the march are widespread across Nunavut.  We all know this, and like the community of Kugluktuk we seem collectively unable or unwilling to address the root causes of these problems.  We are paralyzed by our belief that Traditional Knowledge, or Christ, or Mining Jobs, or Education, or Royalties, or Swimming Pools, or Treatment Centres, or Inuktitut, or Elders will magically rescue us from ourselves. Too many of us seem preoccupied with the notion that if we just get this one thing right we will be okay.

Relying on these sentiments s worse than foolish, it is counterproductive.  Sure, all of the things I mentioned will help, and some of them I believe to be very important to our long term prosperity.  However, it is our collective refusal to demand more of ourselves and from each other that is our biggest obstacle.  On any given day, one can listen to or read about another leader proposing their solution to our collective problems.  Some of the proposed solutions are really good, common-sense kind of stuff we should be pursuing.  Other "solutions" are vague platitudes aimed at reviving the half-remembered utopia of yesteryear - you know, when we were almost completely reliant on Government programming and services for housing and financial income.  Unless we are willing to throw off the shackles of modernity and leave our cozy homes and iPods behind and return to a nomadic lifestyle, the only way to look is forward, not backwards.

I've personally heard multiple elders say that they have no idea how to deal with the challenges we face today - that we need to be teaching them about the modern world as much as they need to be teaching us about our heritage.  I have enormous respect for most of our elders and the struggles they've had to overcome in their lifetimes, struggles I cannot imagine and hopefully will never have to face myself. The values they can teach us - of hard work, of self-reliance, of resilience and resourcefulness, and of adaptability - will undoubtedly benefit our society going into the future.  However, these are values that are taught in homes, by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles - not values that translate well into boardrooms or Government policies.

Over decades of colonialism and internal colonialism we've become accustomed to the idea that all of our problems can be blamed on, and solved by, institutions.  While this belief may hold some merit, the largest mistake that we've made and continue to make is believing that we are without the personal and social responsibility or wherewithal to figure out solution to our own ills.  If the youth of Kugluktuk have taught us anything, it's that we have the potential to make a difference within our communities, that we can affect the change we so desperately want to see if we just have the courage to act on our discontent.

The next time a report is released, or a strategy is developed, or a policy is enacted, or an agreement is signed, or an initiative is announced - remember that none of these is what triggered the small miracle that took place on the streets of Kugluktuk in 2007.  The next time someone claims that solution X is the most vital, the most important, the most necessary solution for our fragile territory, accept that this is the way of things today.  Accept that we've grown accustomed to this manner of dialogue, and that it will take time to grow beyond it.  Accept that many of us still desperately need to identify and target Institution X or Historical Injustice Y as the source of our problems - the odds are that there is some truth in the claim.

We should not forget, though, that in a tiny community on the outermost fringes of our territory, a group of youth resolved to channel the courage and strength that we claim is inherent in our culture, and took to the streets to demand change.  They did not demand change from a faraway Government, or in the form of program or funding changes, or from the outside world.  Without the "benefit" of armies of bureaucrats or consultants or reports or statistics, these youth demanded change from their community, from their peers, from their parents, and from themselves.  I have yet to see evidence of a change as dramatic or as abrupt as what is reported to have taken place in Kugluktuk, even if it was only temporary.

If we can recognize and remember the lessons those youth taught the rest of us, I think we might be ok.  And that, dear readers, is what I mean by Social Revolution.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your perspective, but you can't claim a drop in suicide in Kugluktuk as a result of an action taken in 2007. The annual toll of suicide in Kugluktuk varied from year to year _before_ the action took place. The number of suicides in other NU communities has gone up or down in recent years as well -- in some cases dramatically. These are tiny communities -- one or two more 'events' happening (or not happening) in a given time period can look significant, when it's really just standard fluctuation. There's a big difference between coincidence and correlation... It would be helpful if the GN collected suicide _attempt_ data, as this would give us a richer dataset to analyze.

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