Attawapiskat crisis draws national attention to Cree community

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Suicide and attempted suicides have long plagued First Nations communities, where suicide rates can be two to 12 times higher than the Canadian average. A recent wave of suicide attempts in the Cree community of Attawapiskat – more than 100 in the last seven months in a community of just 2,000 – has once more brought the issue to international attention, and prompted the Canadian Parliament to hold an emergency debate April 12.

Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins–James Bay and his party’s Indigenous and Northern Affairs critic, told the Nation that the situation is “a national crisis and an international disgrace,” requiring immediate action from Ottawa.

On April 18, Angus flew to the western James Bay community with federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, where they joined Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh in a private two-hour talk with a recently formed youth council.

After the meeting, Bennett announced the federal government would fund a youth centre – and its programming – requested by young Attawapiskat residents.

“What I really found moving was the incredible determination of the young people who had come together and formed a council in a very traumatic period to try to map a way out and a way forward,” Angus said.

23-13 MP Charlie Angus with Attawapiskat youth

MP Charlie Angus with Attawapiskat youth

Angus sees the government’s commitment as a positive step, but noted in Parliament that Ottawa has ignored the recommendations of numerous inquiries into the conditions in First Nations communities over the years.

“There are a few things that have to change immediately, and these are big, substantive changes that have to happen,” he said, noting that despite the Liberals’ public response to the crisis, no new money was set aside for Indigenous mental-health services in the government’s recent budget.

“People are dying. People are dying all the time in Treaty 9 (territory) and across the north,” added Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat.

“We can’t just put a band-aid on it and say, ‘We’ll have a youth centre.’ If we don’t have mental-health support and counselling, these crises will continue and they will continue to spiral because we don’t have the ability to stabilize young people, work with them and heal them … to give them a chance.”

Angus says Trudeau, whose government has put a very positive face on its plans to address Indigenous concerns, needs to “stand up and say, ‘We’ll augment the budget, we’ll put the health dollars in to get the mental health wellness teams in the communities.’ This has to happen.”

Unwelcome return

Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien suggested recently that the solution to problems like poverty, unemployment and housing shortages in remote Indigenous communities is sometimes just to move. “It was extremely difficult at that time,” he said, referring to communities in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan when he was Indian Affairs minister. “It’s difficult, there was no economic base there for having jobs and so on, and sometimes they have to move like anybody else.”

The comments angered several MPs, including Angus. “In Indigenous country, people know Jean Chrétien as the guy with the White Paper,” he said, summarizing the government policy under Chrétien as “deny them services and they’ll assimilate. His latest comments explain the White Paper very succinctly.”

The 1969 White Paper, which would have abolished the Indian Act, was abandoned after widespread opposition from Indigenous groups.

“Since he was Indian Affairs minister 50 years ago, how many young people have we lost while he’s telling people to be patient and, if you don’t like it, leave?” asked Angus. “Tell everyone to move, as if that’s some kind of national vision.”

In the House of Commons April 12, Angus told MPs that “the days of Indian Affairs and Health Canada dictating to (First Nations communities) how the resources are going to be spent, that is a failed model and it has to end.”

Housing an urgent problem

Aside from a pressing need for permanent health services, housing remains a key issue for the well being of First Nations communities in the north, Angus noted.

“We need to look at the kind of housing that’s being built. We need to start thinking outside the box. There are incredible models out there of sustainable housing, but Indian Affairs housing tends to be poorly constructed and starts to fall apart, so we’re always playing catch-up.”

That didn’t stop Ottawa from “demonizing” the Attawapiskat community in 2012, when they declared a housing crisis. “All they were asking was to get people out of tents in -45º conditions.”

23-13 Attawapiskat housing 2

Housing in Attawapiskat

With renewed attention on Attawapiskat, Angus says Indigenous communities “now have a commitment to look at the housing crisis and get some solutions.” But he adds, “The government has earmarked money to respond to the housing crisis, but we know it’s completely insufficient. How are you going to build hope in communities where people are living in tents and shacks?”

In the longer term, Angus says if Native communities are to have any hope, “we need to stop designing programs in Ottawa, making the communities fit the criteria of Ottawa. We have great mental-health teams and organizations that are ready to move forward with their plans. We need to start working on solutions that work within the communities and within the culture.”


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