ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. – Ontario’s health minister announced measures Wednesday aimed at helping an isolated First Nation cope with a suicide emergency.
Eric Hoskins visited Attawapiskat, near James Bay in northern Ontario, and met with leaders to discuss the crisis.
He announced that the province will provide up to $2 million for a so-called youth regional co-ordination unit and deployment of additional health-care workers and support staff to the community.
They include four psychological health workers, up to five nurses, two security staff, one communications officer and one incident manager.
Those workers will provide around-the-clock mental health support, and evening and night nursing clinical support, Hoskins said.
“Our government will be working with the community in the coming days to determine other supports and investments that can be made to help address this crisis,” Hoskins said in a statement.
“The provincial government, the local band council and the community will hold a forum to develop a long-term plan to support the community to ensure the people of Attawapiskat – particularly youth – feel safe, respected and supported.”
On Monday, officials thwarted what they called a suicide pact by 13 young aboriginal people, including a nine-year-old, after they were overheard making plans to kill themselves.
Attawapiskat’s leaders declared a state of emergency on Saturday, citing 11 suicide attempts so far in the month of April and 28 recorded attempts in March.
In Ottawa, Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of indigenous and northern affairs, said she was heartened by this week’s efforts to help the community.
“There is certainly a feeling on the ground that there’s been good progress this week and excitement about the idea of a youth drop-in centre, the idea there’d be a youth council that would be involved in the choices and the priorities,” she said outside the House of Commons.
“We’re going to be able, I think, to work with that community to work on what their priorities are and what they need.”
She added the federal government is “absolutely obsessed” with overhauling the child welfare system on First Nations in order to “support families intact and support the wellness of those moms and dads, so that those kids end up not having to be removed from their communities.”
Bennett was asked about former prime minister Jean Chretien’s suggestion this week that those living on remote reserves could consider moving.
“It is about people’s attachment to the land, people having a right to live a traditional life and but also with economic opportunities,” she said.
“There’s choice involved …. Some communities have chosen to change their location to no longer be flooded and be on higher ground. Some community members choose to go to town to get a job, but then be able to come back, but this is about us wanting to support the choices.”
A group of aboriginal rights activists, meantime, staged a sit-in at the Toronto offices of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, saying they were acting in solidarity with Attawapiskat.
Protesters took over the front lobby space of the office, housed in a building located in mid-town Toronto, hanging an upside-down Canadian flag at the reception desk and a flag of the Attawapiskat First Nation on a wall.
The group said they had two key demands – that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visit Attawapiskat immediately, and that the demands of the youth of Attawapiskat, which include calls for better resources for young people, be met.
“When Trudeau says that he’s going up there and that the demands of the young people who wrote this are being addressed and being taken seriously, then you’re going to see us leave,” said Sigrid Kneve, who had pinned a sheet with the youth demands onto her clothing.