OTTAWA – Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Monday weeks after the northern Ontario reserve’s youth suicide crisis garnered global attention.
The federal government also timed an announcement to coincide with the meeting – $69 million over the next three years for indigenous mental health services – though a detailed breakdown of the spending was not provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.
“This is the beginning of a new era, not just for Attawapiskat but for relationships with First Nations across the country,” Trudeau said on his way out of the two-hour meeting on Parliament Hill.
During the discussion, the prime minister committed to fast-tracking new land for Attawapiskat in partnership with the province of Ontario, Shisheesh said.
This will be key as the reserve looks at additional housing, he noted.
“Finally, we have a solid agreement to sit down in a practical way of solving housing, infrastructure,” Shisheesh said, adding his reserve is still struggling with youth mental health and overcrowding issues.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who also participated in Monday’s discussion, called it a “good meeting.”
“We will just keep building and building and building,” Bellegarde said, noting it will be the job of indigenous leaders to apply pressure on the government for additional funding in future budgets.
“That’s really what it is … investing in human capital,” he said.
Dollars unveiled Monday are designed to help communities tackle urgent mental health needs while the government works with indigenous leaders to negotiate a new health accord, said Health Minister Jane Philpott.
“It is an immediate step, it won’t solve everything but this is an important step along the way,” Philpott said.
The commitment includes providing four crisis response teams in Ontario, Manitoba and Nunavut – identified as having the greatest need – as well as 32 additional mental wellness teams.
Isadore Day, the AFN’s lead on the health file, noted the announcement falls short of the need for 80 mental wellness teams across the country – a number jointly developed by his organization and Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit health branch as part of a framework.
“This national crisis will not be solved with half measures,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Trudeau met with an aboriginal youth delegation from northern Ontario.
Randall Crowe, a 24-year-old from Deer Lake First Nation, said it was significant for young people to raise concerns for themselves.
“It is time that the youth take their stand … instead of being pushed aside, to actually take part in discussions that the leaders need to address,” Crowe said.
An ongoing dialogue is needed, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.
It is powerful for parliamentarians to hear directly from aboriginal youth, he added.
“I think sometimes, when we hear from politicians or leaders like myself saying the same thing over and over again, sometimes it loses its power,” he said.
The federal government will need to address the overall delivery of health care on reserve, Crowe noted.
“Back home, we don’t have the medical services and all that like people in Ottawa,” he said, stressing the need for equality.
Charlie Angus, the NDP’s indigenous affairs critic, said the government must take action to untangle structural problems.
For example, he said, the government should lift barriers such as travel restrictions preventing doctors from accompanying patients for compassionate reasons.
“Some of these policies in place are so discriminatory and so heartless,” Angus said. “We could, right now, change a number of these policies.”
Reconciliation involves looking at who makes decisions and who is accountable for the decisions, said Dr. Alika Lafontaine, the president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada.
“In indigenous health, the government makes the decisions but who is accountable? It is the communities,” he said. “They’re the ones that suffer.”