On April 9, Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency. There had been reports of eleven suicide attempts in one single day the previous weekend. Subsequently, there was a report of a suicide pact among eleven people, some as young as 9 years old.
There are also reports of more than 100 suicide attempts and at least one death since September in the remote community of nearly 2,000 people. Other First Nations dealing with recent suicides include Pimicikamak and Shamattawa in Manitoba. Across Canada, suicide rates are far higher among Indigenous peoples than others, as are contributing factors such as extreme poverty.
All of this is the horrific ongoing legacy of colonization perpetrated since day one by Canada’s settler ruling class, while corporations like the DeBeers diamond mine near Attawapiskat, exploit the planet. So what is the ruling class response?
At the insistence of Attawapiskat’s NDP MP Charlie Angus, an emergency session of the House of Commons was called in order to “discuss the situation.” At the emergency debate some 75 MPs out of a total of 338 (fewer than 25 per cent) bothered to show up. Justin "Sunny ways" Trudeau went to a book launch for an old Liberal buddy instead.
The same day, Mr. White Paper himself, former PM Jean Chretien roamed around Parliament Hill. Reporters asked him about the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and he suggested the solution for some First Nations people may be to leave their isolated communities, because of lack of economic activity. In the most condescending tone possible, he stated “They want to be close to the land. They are nostalgic about the past” but that "people have to move sometimes." He went on to say, as countless colonial governments have done in the past to cast themselves as the cure for an Indigenous problem, that "there's always tragedies of that nature that occur, and the government has to do its best to cure it."
He was blasted by NDP MPs in the House of Commons and by many others. The chair of indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg, Jacqueline Romanow, said the government forced Indigenous people onto reserves, which were far away from the resources that were available at the time. Indigenous communities are still feeling the effects, she said: "The problem is that indigenous people have had their rights to their resources and their traditional territories taken away from them, and they've been forcibly impoverished. They've been pushed on reserves...Reserves were never meant to sustain communities or human beings. They were meant as temporary holdings cells until they could be assimilated into Canadian culture through things like residential schools."
Attawapiskat youth and solidarity
The list of demands of the youth themselves is simple and straightforward and nothing more than youth in most places want, and, in economically better off situations, receive. Things like more recreational facilities with staff, better education, a community greenhouse garden, traditional teachings, a recycling centre, dust control (for the roads), clean swimming pool. The Youth Council has asked for a harvesting centre, a cinema, a youth trust fund, library, emergency mental health responders, firefighters, nurses, and for the Prime Minister to meet with their leadership.
Solidarity protests began in Toronto, where around 30 people from both Idle No More and Black Lives Matter took over part of the Indigenous Affairs office on April 13, demanding the federal government take immediate action to address recent suicide attempts in Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. One day later, a similar occupation began in the department's downtown Winnipeg office: "We have officially occupied INAC in Winnipeg in support of our brothers and sisters across Turtle Island!!!!" organizer Raquel Lavallee posted on Facebook.
First Nations across Canada need better funding and a commitment from the federal government to address the poverty, overcrowded housing, and other issues, the protesters in Winnipeg say. “It's time … to honour our commitments of healing and reconciliation in Canada," said Ko'na Cochrane, who heard about the protest and drove to the INAC office. “The population of indigenous people in Canada have had enough."
Demonstrations have since been held outside offices in Regina and Gatineau, Quebec. In an email to CBC News, a department spokesperson said offices across the country have been affected by the protests: "In order to ensure the well-being of the public and security of the buildings, INAC regional offices in Toronto and Winnipeg are currently closed. Other INAC regional offices, including Gatineau, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Quebec are currently operating but closed to the public," the email states.
More than 150 people took part in a solidarity rally in Toronto outside the INAC office, where protesters remain in the office inside. Speakers familiar with Attawapiskat talked about the ridiculously high cost of living (because most things have to be flown in), the poor water that causes rashes, poor education, housing and health services. As one speaker stated, “The government has no problem selling LCBO products at the same price there as here, but not the same for food and everything else.”
As one speaker at the Toronto solidarity rally said, “The government cares when you care. Things change when the mass of people push and push… Keep listening to the communities and what they say they need.”
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