OTTAWA – The crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation is a stark example of why Ottawa needs to better co-ordinate help efforts by all levels of government, the region’s MP declared Tuesday after an emotional visit to the remote northern Ontario community.
Charlie Angus, who chose to visit the reserve this week instead of travel to the United Nations, said the Liberal government didn’t seem to know that their permanent mental health worker in Attawapiskat wasn’t available to residents under 18.
It has now been almost a month since a spate of suicide attempts among its young people prompted the reserve to declare a state of emergency – a story that garnered attention around the world.
“For the federal government not to know what they actually had on the ground to help the community is very, very troubling,” Angus said outside the Commons while wearing a pin in honour of Sheridan Hookimaw – a 13-year-old who died by suicide.
“We lost her at the beginning of this crisis and one of the reasons I went back to Attawapiskat is I don’t want to lose another child on my watch,” he said.
“Having seen what Sheridan and her family have gone through, it is incumbent upon all of us, at every level of government, to work together to make sure no other child ends up the way Sheridan did.”
It is clear the community still requires a permanent mental health specialist for youth, which remains one of the chief’s outstanding demands, Angus added.
Under pressure in the House of Commons, Health Minister Jane Philpott said the federal government is working with Ontario and First Nations leaders to ensure the community’s immediate and long-term needs are met.
“There is no question of whose responsibility it is – we are all working together,” said Philpott, who is scheduled to visit the community in the weeks ahead.
Political assurances, however, remain cold comfort to Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh, who said he has yet to see the government live up to its commitment to engage in a nation-to-nation relationship with the community.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a note to Shisheesh and offered to meet with him in person, though a date has not been finalized.
The federal government also faced a deadline Tuesday from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to demonstrate it is implementing Jordan’s Principle – a framework for ensuring First Nations children can access health and welfare services and to avoid jurisdictional spats over who pays for service.
The principle was named after five-year-old Jordan River Anderson, a First Nations boy from Manitoba who died in hospital after two the province and the federal government argued for years over who should pay for his home care.
In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the federal government to immediately implement the full meaning and scope of Jordan’s Principle. When that didn’t happen, the tribunal issued a scathing order last month for the government to confirm it has acted on the original decision.
In a response submitted to the tribunal on Tuesday, the department said it has expanded Jordan’s Principle to apply to all jurisdictional disputes.
It also noted it has provided “necessary resources” for its application and said children will receive care in a “timely manner.”