Attawapiskat First Nation: ‘Third World’ Conditions, Suicide Crisis — What Can Be Done?

Canada’s federal indigenous affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, was under fire by youths from Attawapiskat First Nation earlier this week because of “Third World” conditions at the First Nations reserve.

“Why is it so easy for the government to welcome refugees and offer them first-class citizenship in our country?” demanded youth Robert Sutherland of the minister, according to Toronto Star. “When will Canada wake up and open its eyes to First Nations communities?”

Attawapiskat has a land area of 1.32 km and is located 5 kilometers inland from James Bay’s coast, according to the First Nations community’s website. Located in Northern Ontario, Canada, it’s an isolated community whose nearest urban center is Timmins, 500 km (310.7 miles) to the south. It is a First Nations community that has been rocked with several suicide attempts by its youth — a state of emergency was declared in the community April 9 because of it — over the last several months.

Attawapiskat only has a 15-bed hospital, and there has not been a regular mental health worker there for months. Nursing staff have been frequently overwhelmed by the rash of attempted suicides. Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh said that there had been 100 suicide attempts at the isolated reserve since September, 2015, and 30 just in March, 2016. Seven of the attempts involved those under 14, and 43 involved those under 25.

That has left Attawapiskat scrambling to find resources for a community that has struggled for years with substandard living conditions and health care, among other issues. There are many homes in Attawapiskat with black mold, and according to a 2011 Toronto Star article, there are also many that do not even have running water.

The waiting list for new homes was about five years long then.

John Saunders, provincial director of disaster management, said that Canadian Red Cross volunteers were flying in then with blankets and winter coats, noting that, “It’s with the idea of providing some protection against the cold. Our role is to address immediate needs.”

Unfortunately, what has been viewed as “immediate needs” is not going to help Attawapiskat. Long term solutions are what is going to help this troubled northern community, which for most of the year can only be accessed by flying into it, compounding some of the issues.

Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien said that issues with Attawapiskat are not new. He acknowledged that these issues have been plaguing northern First Nations communities for decades.

“It’s an extremely difficult problem,” said Chrétien. “I was with this problem in 1968, a long time ago, it takes time and patience and there’s always tragedies of that nature that occurs.”

According to the Huffington Post, youth in Attawapiskat stepped forward to address what they felt was needed in their remote community. The list looks very similar to what many youth might want in their immediate neighborhoods, but many neighborhoods may not be as poorly supplied as Attawapiskat.

“The greatest resource we have in this country is not the gold and it is not the oil. It is the children,” Ontario MP Charlie Angus declared during a federal emergency debate on the issue Tuesday. “The day we recognize that is the day that we will be the nation we were meant to be.”

Rebecca-lynn Hookimaw was among those Attawapiskat youth who attended a meeting to work out what youth needed in the isolated community, and the positive response generated from the meeting warmed her heart greatly. Hookimaw has also been rocked by the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, as her sister, Sheridan, took her life at 13-years-old.

“I hope that things will change soon for me, the youth and everyone in Attawapiskat,” she said. “I am trying to cope every day with depression and anxiety. I know it’s not easy but soon things will all get better for myself and everyone that’s going through a hard time in life right now.”

[By 40rev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)