Members of Parliament held a nearly 6-hour-long emergency debate about the state of emergency in Attawapiskat Tuesday evening – and didn’t come to any decisions.
The debate was in response to the shocking number of suicide attempts in the northern Ontario reserve over the last few days. According to Chief Bruce Shisheesh, the community has had about 100 suicide attempts since August – in a population of only about 2,000. Mental health workers were sent to the community to help address the crisis.
MPs talked late into the evening about the problems in Attawapiskat and other First Nations, and the problems of suicide facing Canada’s indigenous population.
They shared personal stories and made moving speeches, but in the end, didn’t agree on much other than the need to do something. Specifically what, they didn’t say. How and when? Also unclear.
“As leaders within our communities, as leaders within our nation, as leaders in the House, let us step away from our speaking points and talk about what we are going to do for these two communities that are facing emergencies today,” said Conservative MP Todd Doherty.
Liberal MP Ken Hardie said, “Mr. Speaker, it seems clear from the commentary so far that we have a really good grasp of the symptoms. I do not know, personally, if we know enough about the malaise, certainly not about the cure. As we approach this, the will that we hear from all sides of the House is that we have to do something, so let us get something done.” He suggested asking Aboriginal communities themselves what their vision of a good community is, and taking their suggestions.
“I really think the government needs to come up with a structure and a way to move forward on what is a tragedy and an issue,” said Conservative Cathy McLeod.
Remove the ‘shackles’ of the Indian Act
But the government offered little in terms of specifics, other than reiterating their budget funding commitments for indigenous communities.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the minister of justice and a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, said that she was raised to be proud of where she came from and she wants to help create a sense of hope in indigenous communities. One way to do that, she said, is to get rid of the Indian Act – the law that governs the relationship between the federal government and indigenous populations, including many of the rules governing reserves.
“Change is not easy. It is not easy to remove the shackles of 140 years of life under the Indian Act. Our government, and I hope all members of this honourable House, is committed to ensuring that we work in partnership with indigenous peoples to do just that.”
“For Attawapiskat, and for all first nations, the Indian Act is not a suitable system of government,” she said, and indigenous communities need to be empowered to take back control of their own lives.
There are no quick fixes to the problems, she said. “A substantive nation-to-nation discussion with indigenous peoples is needed. We need to sit down and work jointly to ensure that indigenous communities are strong and healthy, and in charge and in control of their own destiny. We need to bring life to and move beyond the scattered programs and initiatives.”
When and how this will happen remains to be seen. The House adjourned at midnight.