BY LINDSAY BRISCOE
Groups of demonstrators staged occupations of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) offices in Winnipeg and Toronto and forced officials to close six other offices across the country for several days over the last week.
The groups collectively refer to themselves as #OccupyINAC and began their demonstrations on April 13 after Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh called a state of emergency due to a recent spike in suicide attempts in his community. #OccupyINAC is demanding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visit the community, and that Canada’s “racist, colonial” Indian Act be abolished.
On April 8, there were 11 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat. A few days later, officials prevented a “suicide pact” involving 13 youth, including one nine-year-old girl. On April 15, there were five more youth suicide attempts.
“These crises are not new and do not exist in isolation,” reads a statement issued by #OccupyINAC Winnipeg. “Suicide has long plagued our communities due to centuries of colonization and its effects: crushing poverty, substandard housing, imprisonment, child apprehension, and lack of access to health care, nutrition and clean water. The resulting destruction of identity, lack of self worth and cognitive imperialism are the roots of suicide in our people.”
The federal government responded to the state of emergency by sending additional mental health workers, a doctor, and a psychologist to Attawapiskat. The Red Cross was called in to provide wellness programming to keep people active. The province of Ontario also announced $2 million in aid to Attawapiskat.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott told media that this year the federal government is investing $300 million in First Nations and Inuit communities specifically on mental health and wellness programming.
“It’s clearly not enough in these particular communities so we will be working to address those gaps, but our officials and our teams are working every day in these communities across the country. We’re pleased that attention has been drawn to this situation, but it’s not a new situation and it’s not isolated.”
Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, flew to Attawapiskat earlier this week after visiting Pikangikum First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation, a northern Ontario community that has been in a state of emergency due to suicide for three years.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler says the state of emergency in Attawapiskat is a “shocking reflection of the lack of action to address the suicide epidemic across NAN territory.”
“We have been overwhelmed by the international attention this tragedy has garnered. Canada is recognized as one of the best countries in which to live, and it has been difficult to explain to the foreign press why so many of our people resort to taking their own lives while living in one of the most prosperous countries in the word,” said Fiddler.
“During my meeting with the Prime Minster last week I explained the need for immediate action on the suicide and the health emergency across NAN territory and look to his government to engage with us immediately on developing solutions so that no more lives are lost.”