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The Attawapiskat Crisis: What Needs To Be Done?

Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency after a skyrocketing number of suicides and suicide attempts. Justin Trudeau has promised a new relationship with indigenous people in Canada, but these latest developments are grim. What must be done to stop this scourge?  Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin weigh in.


John Capobianco:

What has happened and been happening in Attawapiskat is nothing short of a tragedy. This First Nations reserve is in a very isolated part of Northern Ontario and is home to 2,000 residents. Officials have declared a state of emergency due to recent suicides, attempted suicides and stories about suicide pacts among the youth in the community.

This sense of despair has been a chronic problem in Attawapiskat and has governments tripping over themselves to send money and find solutions. The Prime Minister has made a pledge to improve relations with indigenous peoples, including setting aside a significant amount of funds in the government's budget to improve conditions on reserves by building schools and community centres, and recently Ontario Premier Wynne announced $2 million in funding to assist.

However, while sending money obviously helps, it is a Band-Aid solution for a problem that needs much more attention. Herein lies the challenge of what needs to be done. Beyond the funds that will go to building schools and community centres, there needs to be a better way to ensure First Nation communities have opportunities to grow within their reserves or to get assistance to move out of the reserves and be assimilated into other communities.


Richard Mahoney:

It is hard not to look at recent events in Attawapiskat and weep. It is grim, as the introduction says, and tragic and frightening even to imagine the despair in one's life that would lead one to contemplate group suicide.

The first test is that government and community leaders need to listen, empathize and respond. One refreshing and hopeful thing to see is the new approach that government is taking. Ministers did not respond defensively, or with a partisan tone, to NDP MP Charlie Angus' anguished cries for action. This happened all too often under the previous government. Instead, Indigenous Affairs Minister Caroline Bennett and Angus went to the community and listened together.

That doesn't mean they won't disagree. It doesn't mean Angus won't find things to criticize the government about. But it does mean there is a chance that government will hear some of the community voices a little more clearly. That is a good place to start.


Tom Parkin:

I would like our politicians to - for once - stop talking about numbers and how much money they are - or are not! - putting into remote and indigenous communities. I believe that is a simplistic and paternalistic viewpoint.

There are hundreds of indigenous communities across Canada. Attawapiskat is a singular case. It should be approached both singularly and in the context of the broader history of Canada.

Let me approach things from a viewpoint I think we all understand: if you are feeling miserable about life, about yourself, about your prospects, identity and friends, even the biggest pile of money won't change that. What is needed is a process of healing that is a lot deeper and has to be sustained over years. 

I believe first steps need to be to listen to the community and listen for their priorities, then to become a partner to support - not lead - the development of the community back to heath.

That is why so many of us found Mr. Chretien's comment distasteful. Does he not understand that outsiders telling a broken community to move will not fix the situation? And it is extremely arrogant.

I am told by people with expertise that there is a lot of Canadian psychological research showing that remote indigenous communities with high levels of resources, a connection to traditional language and spirituality, and control of policing and education, have lower levels of suicide. I can say from my own experience that there are many "high-functioning" indigenous communities. I've had that experience in western Canada.

So I would suggest we look at these social determinates of psychological health seriously and assist in a program of healing that empowers. And stop talking about dollar amounts - at least for right now.

John Capobianco:

Many experts talk of the serious need of developing long-term solutions that include permanent access to mental health workers and wellness professionals, and which would include better health facilities on site. In the case of Attawapiskat, there have been reports that the community has not seen or had access to a mental health worker for months on end.

I mentioned above the need to create a culture where residents of Attawapiskat can grow or feel that there is hope at the end of every day. Many of the same experts and studies have maintained that closing the inequality gap between indigenous children living on reserves and non-indigenous children can go a long way to assist in creating hope, especially in areas such as education, healthcare and welfare services.

This is easier said than done, but there needs to be the will, and if the recent incidents at Attawapiskat don't motivate legislators to get moving on this I’m not sure what will.

Another area to focus on is ensuring Attawapiskat and other First Nations reserves get better services so they don’t live in what has been called “third world” status.

We need action and we need to do it before more young lives are taken. I am heartened that there seems to be a non-partisan, multi-level approach to find solutions beyond just money, which all three of us agree is not the solution on its own.

First and foremost, let's get healthcare and mental health professionals there to assist now and prevent any further unfortunate deaths. We all need to work together on this.


Richard Mahoney:

No community in Canada should ever be faced with the circumstances that led so many of their young people to lose hope. The unfortunate reality is that we know that these challenges are not isolated to Attawapiskat.

Since Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency, federal officials from Health Canada have been working together with provincial and First Nations partners to provide immediate support there.

The Trudeau government has put a massive emphasis on making concrete improvements. To truly improve the wellness, change the socio-economic reality and bring hope to indigenous communities, governments will have to work in genuine partnership on the long-term investments in infrastructure, water and education that are needed - based, as Tom suggests, on community-driven solutions.

As a result of the listening done to the community and youth leaders in Attawapiskat, the government of Canada has already begun work on identifying a safe space where youth can come together with families and elders for cultural and wellness programming, as the community requested. They are already working with the community to plan for additional housing and to get members to bring a special Indigenous youth delegation to visit Ottawa to provide youth from these communities a chance to dialogue with elected officials about the challenges they face.

The government has also announced some specific measures to form a Voices of Indigenous Youth Council to allow the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to hear directly from Métis, Inuit and First Nations youth representatives about their priorities and concerns.

On top of that, this government is already at work on ambitious ideas to improve the future for our aboriginal Canadians, such as ending the discrimination in education spending and finally spending the same amount of resources on an aboriginal student in public education as we do on non-aboriginal Canadians.

The Liberal government is also committed to changing the relationship and to completing the unfinished business of Confederation, replacing the Indian Act with a new framework for reconciliation.

Over the long term, these two measures alone will change the future for the better.


Tom Parkin:

And so Richard has taken us into the broader context of Canada.

We had a Truth and Reconciliation report last year and many action items were identified. We need to see the start of these actions and regular progress reports to sustain the momentum.

And in this context we really need to address the long-standing, long-denied need for self-government. Go back to the social determinants of suicide (I think before I said psychological health, but in fact it was more specific): when you review the factors - connection to traditional language and lands, resources, control of education and policing - you can see how closely these are associated with the problems of the Indian Act.

Many people assume that First Nations are similar in autonomy to municipalities, but in fact they are not. Municipalities can make decisions within their scope of authority. First Nations' decisions are less autonomous in many ways. Indian And Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) needs to review their decisions. It sets many compliance and review requirements (for communities that are often very small and lack the capacity to fulfill them.)

Canadians need to really imagine what a nation-to-nation relationship means and what it looks like. It is far, far different than simply shipping money. It is far different than handwringing.

If our elected representatives are to engage this discussion with indigenous people (which they should), we will need to also engage all Canadians to understand this is about finally recognizing and shaking off our colonial past. When we are ready to do that, we are ready to discuss self-government, nation-to-nation. We have work to do.

Final point - the education piece is exceedingly important, as are employment and resources. Richard covered the education piece. But it is worth noting that the DeBeers diamond mine is very close to Attawapiskat. I am not expert on this issue, but I really wonder how much effort has been made to provide local employment.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 


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