'We don't ask for much': Indigenous affairs minister grilled in Attawapiskat
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was grilled by several young people during her Monday visit to the First Nation of Attawapiskat, which has recently faced a tragic spate of attempted suicides.
Several youth leaders questioned the government’s high-profile support for resettling refugees while aboriginal communities like Attawapiskat struggle with critical problems, including a mental health crisis, sky-high food costs and lack of basic supports.
“Tell me why we First Nations live in Third World conditions," said Robert Sutherland during a meeting with the minister.
"Why is it so easy for the government to welcome refugees and offer them first-class citizenship in our country? When will Canada wake up and open its eyes to First Nations communities?"
The minister was joined by NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose Timmins – James Bay riding includes Attawapiskat. The pair flew to the remote northern community to formally meet with Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh and discuss solutions.
Bennett committed to support a new youth centre and more youth programming, which were both listed among several demands for the northern reserve. She also pledged to invite a youth delegation from the isolated region to Ottawa.
The minister did not provide a dollar figure for the new youth centre, and it’s unclear when the project will break ground.
After meeting with the chief, Bennett told reporters that the government must work to “provide hope and a plan” for the community.
"The chief is very clear: we need to work no longer Band-Aid and piecemeal,” she said.
Angus said he was pleased to “have something deliverable” to the young people in Attawapiskat.
"Is this enough given the extent of the crisis that has faced Attawapiskat? No, it's not enough yet, but we have to start with this first step."
The chief said the meeting was good and “we're getting somewhere.” But youth leaders say that they are tired of waiting for the government to take action.
"If we can restore the self-identity to our youth, it gives them something to stand on, it gives them something that's theirs, it gives them something good to live for," Sutherland said.
"We don't ask for much."
Increasing suicide attempts in the remote First Nation prompted officials to declare a state of emergency on April 9. Community officials said there were 16 suicide attempts in the month of April, and 28 recorded attempts in March.
A few days after the emergency declaration, officials said they stopped a suicide pact involving more than a dozen aboriginal youth.
And over the weekend, Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh said five more young people tried to take their lives on Friday.
The crisis in Attawapiskat prompted an emergency debate in the House of Commons last week. And Health Minister Jane Philpott said 18 mental health workers have been sent to Attawapiskat to help address the crisis.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins visited Attawapiskat last week, where he announced that the province would provide $2 million in funding to help.
But Angus said more permanent solutions will require more commitment.
He notes, for example, that for the entire country there are only about 10 mental health and wellness teams trained to work with indigenous communities.
He estimates that, at best, they reach approximately 10 per cent of the communities requiring their services. However, to really make an impact, these health teams need to reach upwards of 80 per cent of these communities, he added, noting that ramping up to this level will require significant resources on the ground.
"It really has to come down to us, as politicians, recognizing our obligations to talk and listen to them," he said. "People are very emotional in Attawapiskat and they have a right to be. They want action."
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said part of what's driving this sense of hopelessness in communities like Attawapiskat is the "chronic inequality" in the services provided.
She noted the disparity in government funding for education, healthcare, and child welfare services between indigenous children living on reserves and non-indigenous children.
In January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the government spends less on social services for on-reserve children.
She noted that there's also a lack of basic services on many reserves across the country. For example, there's only one source of potable water in Attawapiskat, a community of about 2,000 people, she said.
Add up all these hardships, and over the years, children start to lose hope, she said.
Blackstock said the government needs to start taking steps to remedy these inequalities.
"There needs to be a long-term plan to eradicate these inequalities for kids, so that they are getting the kind of supports that every other child in Canada gets and deserves," she said.
With files from The Canadian Press