Federal and provincial governments have opportunity to make reconciliation happen says Attawapiskat chief

Attawapiskat chief awaits visit from Indigenous Affairs Minister Monday

(Attawapskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh will sit down Monday with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and NDP MP Charlie Angus)

Annette Francis
APTN National News
ATTAWAPISKAT – On the eve of Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett’s arrival in the James Bay community of Attawapiskat, its chief says Canada and the province of Ontario have an opportunity to make history.

“We talk about helping each other, working together, and that’s where the three parties can come together, nation-to-nation,” said Chief Bruce Shisheesh in an interview with APTN National News Sunday. “And what an opportunity for both governments to bring reconciliation, you know, to bring nation-to-nation — its right here in Attawapiskat.”

Attawapiskat found itself in the news around the world when Shisheesh declared a state of emergency after a number of young people threatened to kill themselves last weekend.

The federal government responded by sending more than a dozen mental health workers to the community 700 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay while the province promised $2 million in spending for mental health programs.

The crisis also sparked an emergency debate in the House of Commons where parties on all sides declared a commitment to work on First Nations issues across the country.


Yet, even with the extra help in the community, the threats from young and elders to end their lives hasn’t stopped. Shisheesh turned to Twitter to announce that five young people needed intervention.

“I worry about our youth,” said Shisheesh. “I worry about everybody but the community and myself are trying to be positive but at the same time it’s overwhelming.”

Shisheesh said the programs and funding in place now will not help the community. Health services are fragmented and split between Canada and the province. He said even when a young person is taken from the community for help, the healing isn’t complete.

“They send our children of Attawapiskat down south and with no proper assessment. There’s no follow up, no after care, no mental health services when they return to the community,” said Shisheesh. “And when they get sent out they come back without being properly taken care of. There’s no healing. There’s no proper assessment that has taken place. That’s where the two governments, provincial and federal needs to change the system.”

Attawapiskat has its own healing lodge but according to Shisheesh, the chronic housing shortage where 12 or 13 people share a single house means it is usually used to house families rather than help people in the comunity who are having issues.

Vigil march
200 people marched through the community Friday in solidarity. Photo: Jason Leroux/APTN

“We have the facility, we just need the provincial and federal and Attawapiskat to come together,” said Shisheef. “That’s what I’m hoping for, for the federal government to step up to the plate – for both governments to step up to the plate.”

Bennett is expected to arrive in the community Monday, along with Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus who has been advocating on behalf of the community for years.

There’s no shortage of of issues that need to be addressed in Attawapiskat by a Liberal government that is promising sweeping changes for the way it does business with First Nation communities.

“Attawapiskat needs housing, infrastructure, water, a good education, we need youth programs,” said Shisheesh. “It takes nation-to-nation discussion to address priorities that have been neglected too long.”

Shisheesh said that the funding system needs to be more flexible to be able to help people in the community and Attawapiskat must be given the ability to help its own.

“That’s where we can go – to provide our own healing,” he said.

Shisheesh confirmed that seven youth, under the age of 16 attempted suicide over the weekend.

“There’s been five suicide attempts Friday and there was two more last night and because of their age, I cannot mention their names or their age,” he said. “The people of Attawapiskat are supporting each other at this time. There’s been meetings, after meetings, gatherings and socials, just trying to bring people together to be united and strong and to stand together.”

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