'A national tragedy': AFN demands action, funding for Attawapiskat
Published Monday, April 11, 2016 8:05AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 11, 2016 11:05PM EDT
The Assembly of First Nations is calling for "immediate action and long-term support" for the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, where a state of emergency was declared this weekend following a spike in suicide attempts.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told CTV News on Monday that the situation in Attawapiskat is a "national tragedy."
"This is a national crisis and … it's upon us, basically, because of decades, upon decades of neglect," said Bellegarde.
Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh declared a state of emergency after 11 people in the community of 2,000 attempted to take their own lives on Saturday alone.
Shisheesh said there were 28 suicide attempts in the month of March, and 103 in the past year. One person in Attawapiskat has died by suicide during that time.
Bellegarde also said in a statement that he has spoken with Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins to request resources to deal with the crisis.
He added that the tragic situation in Attawapiskat is one that is seen by "far too many" First Nations across the country, noting that, just last month, Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency due to youth suicide.
"We need a First Nations directed national strategy to address First Nations suicide rates and ensure our people are safe and thriving," he said.
"We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth," Bellegarde added, calling for investments by the federal government.
On Parliament Hill Monday, Philpott told reporters the situation in Attawapiskat is "absolutely devastating."
"I mean as a mother, not just as doctor and minister of health … when I think about what it must be like for these families, it is absolutely heartbreaking," said Philpot.
"We as a nation, we have to do better -- it is absolutely wrong."
Philpott said two mental health counsellors from Health Canada, as part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation crisis response unit, have already arrived in the community, while three others from the local Weeneebayko Area Healthy Authority have been dispatched.
The health minister also said the community needs longer-term solutions that will address issues such as employment and education.
"People become mentally ill and consider suicide in situations where they are without hope," she said.
"Until we address those social determinants of health, we will not be able to respond to the mental health needs," she added.
Philpott said much of $8.4 billion in Liberal budget earmarked for Indigenous people will go towards improving education, housing, water systems and other issues in communities such as Attawapiskat.
That funding includes $270 million over five years for health care infrastructure, part of which will go towards improving health centres in remote communities. Philpott said this will be "extremely helpful" in retaining health workers in those areas.
In a statement, Philpott also said Ottawa has set up a joint-action table with the government of Ontario, so they can work "hand-in-hand with First Nations leadership to find concrete solutions."
Indigenous leaders are also scheduled to meet over the next two days with community members in Attawapiskat as part of a suicide forum. The goal is to come up with a list of recommendations to change the lives of First Nations youth in the community and elsewhere.
The northern First Nation of Pimicikamack is also going through its own suicide crisis. Six people in the community, including a 14-year-old girl, took their own lives in just two months,
More health resources have been brought in, and since March there have been no more suicides but there have been more attempts.
Health-care workers ‘overwhelmed’
Earlier Monday, Attawapiskat officials said the handful of health-care workers in the community are "overwhelmed" by the suicide attempts.
Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon says there are only four health-care workers tasked with addressing the crisis, none of whom have specialized mental health training.
"The health facility is overwhelmed with the situation, and they're working around-the-clock," Solomon told CTV's Canada AM on Monday.
Shisheesh said he believes there are a number of factors contributing to the number of suicide attempts, including poverty, bullying and lasting trauma from the residential school system.
"Because of the residential school system and the trauma, there's a lack of parenting skills," Shisheesh told CTV News on Sunday night. "Parents don’t know how to express their feelings towards their young people."
He also pointed to a housing crisis in the remote community that sees as many as 20 people living in a three-bedroom home.
"I don't have a home, I'm homeless," he said. "How would you feel if…as Chief of Attawapiskat you sleep on a couch?"
Shisheesh said his own friends and relatives have been among those who've recently attempted suicide.
Solomon said the age range of those who have attempted suicide is broad: from 11 years old to 71.
"That's what very concerning," he said. "Very young kids, and even adults, are contemplating suicide."
Solomon said feelings of "hopelessness" as well as "Third World" living conditions are, in part, behind the recent spate of suicide attempts.
"It was just like a time bomb waiting to explode and I think we're in that crisis situation right now," he said. "We need to get people on the ground to go support these front-line workers who are overworked and exhausted."
He said there's only one crisis worker in the community and a position for a mental health worker "has been vacant for months."
The Mushkegowuk Council, of which Attawapiskat is a member nation, will hold a meeting Monday that will include provincial mental health workers and regional police to discuss an action plan.
Charlie Angus, the local MP and NDP critic for indigenous affairs, said the crisis could perhaps provide the impetus for long-overdue changes.
"Maybe this is a moment for Canada to finally recognize that the bill has come due for years of negligence," Angus told reporters on Parliament Hill Monday.
"But it is going to take a lot more than a flight in and a flight out, we need long-term commitments on the ground."
Angus called the situation in Attawapiskat a "national scandal" in an appearance on CTV News Channel on Sunday.
"Why is it that children in some parts of the country are getting all the resources they need, and children in other parts of the country are being left on their own?" he asked.
He added the state of emergency is a "cry for help."
"I'm hoping to God that all of us would be willing to respond and say no child should have to give up hope at the age of 12 or 11 or 14 and kill themselves," he said.