OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to sit down with the chief of Attawapiskat First Nation on June 13 – a meeting that comes amid continued calls for increased mental health services to address an indigenous suicide epidemic.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Thursday he is looking forward to speaking with the chief and working together to find solutions for the challenges facing the people of the embattled Ontario reserve.
On the same day, Trudeau will also meet a special delegation of northern Ontario First Nations youth, including youth from Attawapiskat.
The meetings follow a spate of youth suicide attempts on the reserve that garnered international media attention.
Charlie Angus, the MP for the area and the NDP’s indigenous affairs critic, says concrete federal investments are desperately needed, including a significant increase to the existing number of mental wellness teams available to First Nations across the country.
At a Commons committee this week, Health Department official Tom Wong admitted the existing 10 teams fall far short of what is needed.
“As I said before, 10 teams is not sufficient and so we would like to actually increase it,” Wong said during his testimony.
“If we look at 80 teams, we would be looking at $40 million to $50 million.”
The ongoing problems plaguing northern Ontario reserves also prompted Health Minister Jane Philpott to visit both Attawapiskat and Kashechewan First Nation on Thursday to examine conditions on the ground.
Angus accompanied the minister and indigenous leaders for the trip.
In an interview prior to flying to the communities, Angus said it is both “unacceptable” and “unethical” that bureaucrats continue to deny health-care services needed on reserve.
In April, Dr. Michael Kirlew, a doctor based in Sioux Lookout, Ont., addressed this issue before a parliamentary committee and delivered an emotional testimony of why “drastic change” must be taken in order to save lives.
“The more time that we wait, the more children will die,” he said.
There are still unnecessary barriers for physicians trying to deliver care on reserves, Kirlew added.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said Thursday the federal government and Ontario governments have been developing a framework to work together to address ongoing issues.
At the end of May, the province unveiled the largest investment in indigenous health care in its history, earmarking more than $220 million over the next three years.
The announcement also included permanent funding of $104.5 million annually after the initial three years to deal with the unequal access to health care.
“I am hopeful we are making headway,” Fiddler said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.
As an immediate first step, Fiddler said, the government should look to barriers such as travel restrictions, which prevent doctors from accompanying patients for compassionate reasons.
“We are working on that right now to ensure those types of barriers are removed,” Fiddler said.
In a statement late Thursday, Philpott said the visit allowed her to connect with indigenous leaders, community members, local health providers and youth.
“I am inspired by their passion and by the ideas that have been discussed … and look forward to continued conversations, especially with youth, as we work towards improved health and wellness in these communities,” she said.
The government is committed to meaningful investments in First Nations and Inuit communities, Philpott added.