During suicide debate Justice Minister says it’s time for First Nations to shed Indian Act ‘shackles’

NDP MP Charlie Angus called for the emergency debate in response to Attawapiskat’s suicide crisis

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Justice Minster Jody Wilson-Raybould said Tuesday the Trudeau Liberal government aims to “complete the unfinished business of Confederation” and replace the Indian Act with a “reconciliation framework” that would outlast the life of this administration.

Wilson-Raybould didn’t lead the government side in an emergency debate held late into the night which was triggered by a suicide crisis gripping the small fly-in community of Attawapiskat in Ontario’s James Bay region. Yet, her speech was the only one that revealed the extent of the historical vision the Trudeau government has when it comes to reshaping the relationship between the state and the original inhabitants on this land.

The Liberals aim to do nothing less than scrap the Indian Act. In its place the government wants to create a new relationship based on section 35 of the Constitution, which guarantees Aboriginal rights, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), according to Wilson-Raybould.

“We need to ensure we breathe life into section 35 and that we complete the unfinished business of Confederation,” said Wilson-Raybould. “If we do so we will have a strong and appropriate governance in First Nation communities wherein they have moved beyond the Indian Act.”

For about five-and-a-half hours on Tuesday evening, the House of Commons, the centre of political life in Canada, turned its full attention to the dark and painful suicide epidemic that seems to cycle through northern First Nation communities.

The latest is Attawapiskat which declared a state of emergency Saturday after recording 11 suicide attempts in a 24-hour period.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, called for the debate to not only discuss the Cree community, but also similar tragedies that have hit other First Nation communities: Pimicikamak Cree Nation which declared a state of emergency last month after suffering six suicides and 140 attempts in the span of two months and La Loche, Sask., a Dene community that suffered a school shooting that left four dead in January.

Wilson-Rayboud, a former regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, who is now the country’s top lawyer, wove her own life experience and political track record in a speech that traced the roots of the suicide crisis to the 140-year-old Indian Act. Her speech laid out the thinking behind much of the symbolism and language the Trudeau government has employed whenever it communicates about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state.

“I am proud to be an Indigenous person and stand up in this honourable house and speak to this important issue,” she said. “Indigenous peoples in this country are at an important junction in our history as they seek to deconstruct their colonial legacy and rebuild their communities….Only the colonized can decolonize themselves and change is not easy.”

Wilson-Raybould then attacked the Indian Act.

“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, in partnership with Indigenous peoples, to do just that,” she said. “For Attawapiskat and for all First Nations, the Indian Act is not a suitable system of government, it is not consistent with the rights enshrined in our constitution, the principles as set out in (UNDRIP) or calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. In addition to the need for social and economic support, urgently needed in Attawapiskat and all First Nations, all Indigenous peoples need to be empowered to take back control of their own lives.”

Then, Wilson-Raybould described the scale of the project as nothing short of historical in a portion of her speech addressed directly to Indigenous peoples.

“Indigenous peoples, the challenge is not easy, it is complex, indeed for far too long it has been ignored as a task as too difficult and monumental, but we can and must do better. This work is non-partisan, it is broader than the department of Justice and did not just fall to the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs,” she said. “The nation-to-nation relationship is one of the most challenging public policy issues of our time and I challenge all members of this House to work with us in building this relationship. There are no quick fixes to these issues, a substantive nation-to-nation discussion with Indigenous peoples is needed. We need to sit down and work jointly to ensure Indigenous communities are strong and healthy and in charge and in control of their own destiny.”

There were about 20 NDP MPs, from a caucus of 44, in the chamber during the debate at various points, and about 50 Liberal MPs from a caucus of 184. The Conservatives had the lowest number attend, with about five scattered throughout their party’s 98-seat section in the House of Commons. Their numbers jumped to 11 when their Aboriginal affairs critic Cathy McLeod stood up for her turn in the debate and most sat around her for the benefit of the House of Commons camera.

When the debate began, MPs from all sides said they wanted Tuesday night to be a turning point, the debate to finally end the debates about another crisis crippling another First Nation.

Angus compared the current suicide crisis as Canada’s “Alan Kurdi” moment, referring to the image of the body of the three-year-old Syrian refugee child who drowned in September after a failed attempt to reach Europe.

“It shocked the world,” said Angus, who triggered the emergency debate. “This is our moment….Tonight might be the beginning of a change in our country and that is what I am asking us to come together to do.”

Angus’ voice, with emotion seeping in at the edges, read out messages from First Nation youths he recently received, including the words of Abigail Mattinas, from Constance Lake First Nation, who said she wanted to bring “light in a dark time.”

NDP MP Georgina Jolibois spoke after Angus and said suicide attempts were starting to rise in La Loche, which sits in her riding, as a result of the January shooting. Jolibois said youth were not getting the help they needed. She said many youth were showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the shooting.

“But they have no one to turn to and nowhere to go,” she said. “The families are left alone on their own to mend for themselves and take care of their problems…Young people, children and their families when they are feeling the effects of PTSD they need to go to the health centre or the band office or clinic and say I need to speak to someone because I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed. They walk in and there is no one to talk to them.”

Health Minister Jane Philpott said during the debate that she believed those supports should still be there in La Loche, but would discuss the issue with Jolibois. She said the Liberal government would this year be investing $300 million in mental health and wellness in Indigenous communities

Philpott began her Commons speech with the data: First Nation male youth suicide rates are 10 times higher than male non-Indigenous youth; First Nation female youth suicide rates are 21 times than their non-Indigenous counterparts; Inuit male youth rates are 35 times higher than their Canadian counterparts.

“It is a staggering reality, it is completely unacceptable,” she said. “When I think there are communities in our country where young people as young as my young 15-year-old daughter and even younger than that, when there are young people in groups are decided that there is no hope their future, we must do better…tonight has to be a turning point for us as a country.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was praised for her passion by MPs during the debate, became emotional as she recounted her last trip to Attawapiskat when she was an in opposition and the community was in the midst of a housing crisis.

“I was thinking of my trip to Attawapiskat in one of those terrible homes and seeing this 10-month-old baby on the bed and just thinking that that baby can’t pay for whatever else is going on around, that baby deserves a chance,” said Bennett.

Bennett, who at one point referred to herself as the “minister of reconciliation,” said “these communities need hope” and the children need to know “they are valued and have value.” Bennett said she was hoping by the end of the debate that all Canadians would lift these communities up.

“Suicide is not a consequence of individual vulnerability,” she said. “It is about the causes of the causes.”

She then listed many of the causes of the causes, including racism, Indian residential schools, colonialization, child abuse, over-crowded houses, lack of health services, lack of clean water and healthy food.

“There is no single answer to addressing this,” said Bennett.

In her speech, Bennett also discussed the child welfare system, “where we have more children in care than at the height of residential schools.” She also raised the issue of child abuse.

“We have to talk out loud about that now,” said Bennett, referring to an Anglican priest who abused 500 children in Ontario’s James Bay region.

“This is 20 years of abuse in that region,” she said. “This is not difficult to understand, to make the links.”

The Conservatives took a different tack. While for a moment it seemed that the party’s Aboriginal affairs critic Cathy McLeod would continue to focus on the suicide crisis facing First Nations by recounting her first week on the job as a nurse in a First Nation community facing three suicides, she eventually shifted gears.

“Moving back from the First Nation Transparency Act is a terrible disservice to band members,” said MacLeod.

The Transparency Act was passed by the Stephen Harper government which forced band councils to publicly release their financial information. While the Act has not been repealed, the Liberal government has pulled back from court action to force non-complying First Nations to release the information.

The issue was raised repeatedly by Conservative MPs during the debate.

“To me this is a critical one step,” said McLeod. “We shine the light for communities to actually look at their leadership and what their leadership is doing.”

MacLeod also said her party remained unapologetic about refusing, while in government, to move forward with $1.9 billion in education investment after First Nation chiefs refused to support accompanying legislation.

“There should be some equal work done, not only is there money, but we are going to create a structure that is going achieve results we want to achieve,” she said, responding to a question from Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan.

However, long-time Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey, who left the Conservatives and ran under the Liberal banner in the last election, summed up the sentiment of many MPs present in the House of Commons throughout the evening.

“I was elected 28 years ago for the first time,” said Nova Scotia Liberal MP Bill Casey. “One of the first debates we had was this debate we are having tonight about the plight of Aboriginals….Are we ready to help? Are we ready to do something? Every single one of us, so we don’t do this in another 28 years, so we don’t do this debate in another eight years. That is the question for all of us.”

The debate was expected to wrap up at midnight.

[email protected]


Contribute Button  

14 thoughts on “During suicide debate Justice Minister says it’s time for First Nations to shed Indian Act ‘shackles’

  1. Making the chief accountable is one of the main items to be addressed. So much corruption where the chief makes 200k and lives in a big house with heat and hydro, while their people have no jobs and live in poverty.
    Free education would be a good step. Free university and a commitment to return to home for one year or two years after graduation to help the people. Accountant, Doctor, Veterinarian, Farmer, etc.

  2. While admiring some of the caring exchanges I read in this post this is for all you simple minded and heartless participants of this posting to show you the problems run deep…it took 200 years of neglect…it will take more than 2 years and 2 million dollars to solve the intricate and complex issues…thank God we now have a Government with heart who I hope lives up to their promises on the Aboriginal issues…it looks like they are on the right track by not engaging in same old same old tactics that has being going on for 200 years and are finally looking at new ways and new doors to helping a desperate situation

  3. Don’t forget section 25 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I think a lot of people forget that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 continues to be upheld through Canada’s Constitution Act (1982) and thus upheld in the Charter.

  4. FN leaders call for Canada to respect and comply with its treaty obligations. The James Bay Treaty 9 applicable to Attawapiskat (link below) calls for the Indians to cede, surrender and yield all of their rights in certain lands in return for the following commitments from the Crown:

    1. Access to the surrendered lands for fishing and hunting subject to Canada’s right to sell or use those lands in any way the gov’t chooses.

    2. 1 square mile of reserve land per family of 5. Canada retains the right to appropriate reserve land for any purpose it deems necessary subject to proper compensation of the Indians.

    3.A one-time payment of $8/person.

    4. An annual payment of $4/person forever.

    5. “To pay such salaries of teachers to instruct the children of said Indians, and also to provide such school buildings and educational equipment as may seem advisable to His Majesty’s government of Canada”.

    6. A flag to commemorate the treaty.

    Link: htteepee://bit.ly/1XvEQpM

  5. Yes, scrap the Indian act and Aboriginals become just like any other Canadians. No more hand-outs.

  6. throwing money at the problem is not a solution, First Nations need to do audit of their finances and while they do that, the gov’t should help with building houses, schools, health centres, hospital in each reserve and actually get workers to help. With encouraging education many First Nation people can be social workers, mental health workers, doctors, and they can go back and help their communities. The problem is that many reserves are very poor and have nothing , many have nothing but have corrupt self gov’t that don’t care about people just how much money they can screw people over. Millions are waisted because of the corruption that could go to the people and anyone that is a good person and tried to root out the corruption gets squeezed out. First Nation People should band together and get rid of crooked politicians out of the reserves and have transparent gov’t, where every dollar is accounted for. First Nation People have a beautiful culture and are proud and sometimes the politicians play on those feeling and want them not to vote for audit but if you do the audit you will know where the millions of dollars went and who is corrupt in your communities so that you can get rid of them and have money to build anything you want. How can a person live on $10,000 per year and a chief’s pay is $200,000, this is not fair at all, and some chiefs make even more then that where their fellow men and women live in poverty. It is time for people to rise up and get rid of the corrupt politicians. The new human rights act will be better for the First Nations, it will give them more money so that they can build what they need, hire who they need and overall be better equipped to deal with emergencies, but it is sad that it had to take suicides of young people for something to be done about it. Shame that it took so long to change things. My advise is to clean up what needs to be cleaned, build what needs to be build, hire whoever you need, give back dignity to your people and get rid of corrupt individuals so that you can again be proud and happy contributing members to your communities and world. Wish you all the best, my prayers are with you, that the Creator shine his light on all of you and give you hope for the future. ❤❤❤❤❤

    1. You got it “Bang on”. This is EXACTLY how it is run. I am first-nation. (and the books are “fudged”, what is reported is low.)

    2. almost right…god helps them that help them self no better words ever said…I had many First Nations men work for me in construction…the may not be Einsteins but are quick learners and good worker unfortunately not all the time and that should be changed..

  7. One of the highlights for me was when Niki Aston outlined the genocidal history of the Indian Act. The other was when the Conservative MP from Lethbridge attempted to spew the usual Conservative rant and was immediately shot down by The MP from Winnipeg Centre who showed her the math with regard to the funding inequities compared to the average Canadian and Charlie Angus who reminded her that what the conservatives claimed they sent to Attawapiskat was not actually what they sent.

  8. I am down for abolishing the indian act as long as it does not turn into a reincarnation of the Framework Agreement Initiative (FAI) of which Former National Chief Fontaine tried to pass here in MB in the 90’s. That was a lacklustre vision that would have seen the transfer of the administration of the apartheid indian act from white bureaucrats to Indian bureaucrats with out any of the administration over head to pay for the delivery of essential services in our nations….a final nail in the coffin of this war of attrition between the settler colonial state of Canada and First Nations. We need control over our land, water and atmosphere. End of story.


  9. Justice Minster Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks well. There are a great many talking points in this article, too many to discuss here. There are just as many talking points that were not mentioned especially where the Indian Act and its demise is concerned. I have serious doubts the Liberals can fix the Act in four short years. We’ll see.

    1. liberals are all talk and no action…don’t get hopes up, whatever those hopes are…promises of money will not help many of those reserves…maybe it’s time for some to move closer to civilization…living in the middle of nowhere does not help anyone

Comments are closed.