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Indigenous Youth to Canadian Politician: ‘Tell Me Why We Live in Third World Conditions’

Canada's minister of Indigenous affairs toured on Monday Attawapiskat, which shot to international attention last week with reports that 11 people — most of them youths — had tried to commit suicide in one day. Another five tried on Friday.
Carolyn Bennett ministra de Asuntos Indígenas se reúne con Stephanie Hookimaw, cuya hija se suicido en Attawapiskat. (Imagen por Nathan Denette/CP).

A young member of the Aboriginal community at the center of a suicide crisis in Canada delivered a pointed question to a key member of Justin Trudeau's Liberal government on Monday.

"Tell me why we First Nations we live in Third World conditions," Robert Sutherland asked Carolyn Bennett, Canada's Indigenous affairs minister, as she toured Attawapiskat, a remote reserve in northern Ontario, the Canadian Press reported.


"Why is it so easy for the government to welcome refugees and offer them first-class citizenship in our country? When will Canada wake up and open its eyes to First Nations communities?"

CP did not note what, if anything, Bennett said in response. But she committed to a new, properly equipped youth center and additional youth programming in Attawapiskat, which shot to international attention last week with reports that 11 people — most of them youths — had tried to commit suicide in one day alone. More than 100 had made the attempt since September. There were reportedly five more suicide attempts by children on Friday. About 2,000 people live in the reserve off the shores of James Bay.

Bennett called on all levels of government to work together to "provide hope and a plan."

"The chief is very clear: we need to work no longer Band-Aid and piecemeal," she said in brief remarks following a meeting with leaders of the community, according to CP.

Related: More Than 100 Attempts, One Death: The Face of a Tiny Canadian Community's Suicide Crisis

Bennett was accompanied by Charlie Angus, the local member of parliament for the area, who said he was pleased to have "something deliverable for the young people."

"Is this enough given the extent of the crisis that has faced Attawapiskat? No, it's not enough yet, but we have to start with this first step."

The visit to Attawapiskat came as protesters continue to occupy offices across the country of the federal agency called Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).


About a dozen protesters have been at the Toronto office since Wednesday morning — an impromptu action that followed what they saw as an unsatisfactory response from politicians and INAC's regional director to the situation in Attawapiskat. Since then, similar actions have taken place in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Gatineau, and Regina.

Four INAC locations that were closed on Thursday and Friday as the #OccupyINAC movement buzzed on social media are now open, but not fully operational. While telephone information lines and internet services are running, walk-in services at the Gatineau, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Regina offices are not available.

But First Nations demonstrators at the Toronto INAC office say the way they have been treated by the ministry is not a great indicator of things to come.

Dee Shanger, one of the demonstrators, told VICE News that ventilation on the eighth floor of the building was turned off Wednesday evening and hasn't been switched on since then.

He said from Wednesday until Friday night, protesters had limited access to bathrooms and were forced to use buckets, creating a stench in the space that hasn't fully disappeared.

"It stinks to high heaven in there," said Shanger, who has been documenting the die-in through a live stream.

He and his colleagues are demanding a visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in a tweet called news of the attempted suicides "heartbreaking."

The news from Attawapiskat is heartbreaking. We'll continue to work to improve living conditions for all Indigenous peoples.

— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau)April 10, 2016

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk