OTTAWA – The misery and neglect at the root of a suicide crisis on a remote northern First Nation has “shocked the world,” an NDP MP said Tuesday as the cascading tragedy in Attiwapiskat reverberated on the floor of the House of Commons.
No one can understand “how a country as rich as Canada can leave so many young children and young people behind,” said Charlie Angus, whose sprawling northern Ontario riding includes the deeply troubled and isolated aboriginal community.
“Will this minister commit to a total overhaul to ensure that every child in this country has the mental health supports that they need to have hope and a positive future?”
Health Minister Jane Philpott said the government must — and will — respond.
“It is completely unacceptable in a country as rich in resources as Canada that young people should get to the point that their life seems worthless and they would want to end it,” she said.
She pledged to ensure that mental health resources be applied to those who need them, describing the mental health of young people in particular in the troubled communities as “devastating.”
Earlier Tuesday, Commons Speaker Geoff Regan cleared the way for a rare emergency debate on the crisis, which has so overwhelmed local leaders that extra police officers have been called in from nearby communities.
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 chief and eight councillors declared a state of emergency on Saturday, citing 11 suicide attempts so far in the month of April and 28 recorded attempts in March.
“These nightmares and tragedies should serve as wake-up calls that there isn’t time to wait,” Angus said in a letter requesting the debate.
“An emergency debate is required in order to allow parliamentarians to address this crisis and show that as parliamentarians we are willing to work together because the days of shrugging off the tragedies or tinkering with Band-Aid solutions are over.”
Angus himself opened the emergency debate Tuesday evening by saying it wasn’t just about Attawapiskat, “this is about who we are as Canadians and our whole nation.”
He said what’s happening in the community isn’t new, and it’s time to do more than just apply Band-Aids and send in emergency flights.
“I think tonight might be the beginning of a change in our country and that’s what I’m asking us all to come together to do,” he said in the emergency debate.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said aboriginal communities need hope, and that should be the message from the debate.
“These children need to know they are valued and they have value,” she said.
Former prime minister Jean Chretien, who was minister of what was then called Indian affairs and northern development from 1968 to 1974, happened to be on the Hill for unrelated business Tuesday.
The solution for some may be to leave their isolated communities, he suggested.
“It’s an extremely difficult problem,” said Chretien. “I was with this problem in 1968, a long time ago, it takes time and patience and there’s always tragedies of that nature that occurs.”
He said he spent a lot of time visiting reserves Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the 1980s, after he left politics temporarily.
“It was extremely difficult at that time,” he said. “There is no economic base for having jobs and so on and sometimes they have to move like anybody else.”
Newly appointed Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former judge who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said dealing with the problems of indigenous peoples will take a long time.
“I said for seven generations aboriginal people have had their rights denied by legislation in this country and children have been taken away in institutions called residential schools and we need to realistically think that it’s going to be a multigenerational approach before we can get proper answers in place,” he said.
There must also be mental support in the communities.
“First of all, the children who have spoken out and the ones who have indicated what their thinking is, they need to be supported,” he said. “They need proper mental health supports in their communities.”
That kind of help has been lacking for years, he said.
“As result, people are suffering, so this is just a manifestation of that suffering, so putting proper mental health supports in for people, children who are in that kind of need is very important.”
He said children shouldn’t be taken from their communities and the support they find with their extended families. The residential solution didn’t work in the past and won’t work now.