Suicide crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation reverberates on Parliament Hill
OTTAWA – The misery and neglect at the root of a suicide crisis in a remote northern First Nation have “shocked the world,” an NDP MP said Tuesday as the cascading Attiwapiskat tragedy reverberated on the floor of the House of Commons.
No one can understand “how a country as rich as Canada can leave so many young children and teenagers behind,” said Charlie Angus, whose sprawling northern Ontario horseback riding encompasses the deeply troubled and isolated Native American community.
“Will this minister commit to a complete overhaul to ensure that every child in this country receives the psychological support they need to have hope and a positive future?
Health Secretary Jane Philpott said the government must – and will – respond.
“In a country as resource-rich as Canada, it is totally unacceptable for young people to get so far that their life seems worthless and that they want to end it,” she said.
She pledged to ensure that people in need provide mental health resources and described the mental health of young people in particular as “devastating” in troubled communities.
Early Tuesday, Commons spokesman Geoff Regan paved the way for a rare emergency debate on the crisis that has so overwhelmed local leaders that additional police officers have been brought in from the surrounding communities.
Officials on Monday thwarted a so-called suicide pact involving 13 young indigenous people, including a nine-year-old, after being overheard plotting to commit suicide.
The head of Attawapiskat and eight city councilors declared a state of emergency on Saturday and have so far named 11 suicide attempts in April and 28 registered attempts in March.
“These nightmares and tragedies should serve as a wake-up call that there is no time to wait,” Angus said in a letter asking for the debate.
“An urgency debate is needed so that MPs can address this crisis and show that we MPs are ready to work together because the days of shrugging or tinkering with plastering solutions are over.”
Angus himself opened the emergency debate on Tuesday evening by saying that it is not just about Attawapiskat, “it is about who we are as Canadians and our whole nation”.
He said what is happening in the community is not new and it is time to do more than just put plasters on and send emergency flights.
“I think tonight could be the beginning of a change in our country, and that’s what I call on all of us to come together,” he said in the emergency debate.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said indigenous communities need hope and that should be the message of the debate.
“These children need to know that they are valued and have value,” she said.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who was Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1968 to 1974, happened to be on the hill Tuesday to have nothing to do with it.
The solution for some might be to leave their isolated communities, he suggested.
“It’s an extremely difficult problem,” said Chretien. “I was faced with this problem in 1968, a long time ago, it takes time and patience and there are always tragedies of this kind.”
He said he spent considerable time visiting the Manitoba and Saskatchewan reservations in the 1980s after temporarily leaving politics.
“It was extremely difficult back then,” he said. “There is no economic basis for having jobs and so on, and sometimes they have to move like everyone else.”
Newly appointed Senator Murray Sinclair, the former judge who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said it would take a long time to deal with tribal peoples’ problems.
“I said that for seven generations the indigenous people in this country have been denied their rights by law and children are being taken away to what is called boarding school, and we realistically have to assume that it will be an intergenerational approach before we get it right Answers can get place, ”he said.
There must also be mental support in the churches.
“First of all, support must be given to the children who have given their opinion and those who have given their way of thinking,” he said. “They need adequate mental health support in their communities.”
That kind of help has been lacking for years, he said.
“As a result, people suffer, so this is just a manifestation of that suffering. Therefore, it is very important to provide adequate psychological support to people and children who are in this type of need.”
He said children should not be taken out of their communities and the support they find in their extended families. The housing solution has not worked in the past and will not work now.