After months of calls for action, and meetings with various federal ministers, the leader of a small Indigenous reserve that became a symbol of a suicide crisis ravaging communities across Canada met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday to discuss solutions.
Attawapiskat, a reserve of around 2,000 people in northern Ontario, has seen more than 100 suicide attempts over the last nine months, including 11 attempts one Saturday night in April that made headlines around the world and prompted the leaders to declare a state of emergency.
Before Chief Bruce Shisheesh went into the meeting on Monday, Trudeau announced his government would allocate nearly $70 million in new funding over three years for mental health services on reserves, including four crisis response teams for communities in Ontario, Manitoba, and Nunavut, and a 24-hour "culturally safe" phone help line.
"While we will continue to engage Indigenous partners in finding long-term solutions to these pressing issues, we know that urgent action is needed — and it is needed now — to address the health and mental wellness crises being faced by Indigenous people," Trudeau said in a written statement on Monday.
But First Nations leaders and politicians said the government needs to take deeper action to address the underlying issues that give rise to the wave of suicide attempts.
Last month, the Ontario government pledged $222 million dollars toward First Nations health care over three years, including increasing the number of days doctors go to northern communities, more hospital trauma response teams, and mental health workers.
Alvin Fiddler, grand chief for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, that includes Attawapiskat, told VICE News that the federal funding is a good start, but it won't necessarily solve chronic underlying issues faced by many other communities in the region, including poor housing conditions and a lack of social programs for the young people who live there. All things raised by the delegation of 22 young people from NAN communities who also met with Trudeau and federal leaders on Monday.
The group submitted a declaration of rights to the prime minister that includes the right to proper housing free of mold, the right to be protected from all forms of physical, sexual or mental abuse, and the right to fully funded, culturally appropriate education.
"We need to address the long-standing issues, not just the immediate mental health concerns," said Fiddler. "If we can build good homes, make sure that children have access to quality education, healthcare, and water. That goes beyond the mental health crises."
For Charlie Angus, the New Democratic Party's indigenous affairs critic and member of parliament for the riding that includes Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities, echoed Fiddler's concerns in a phone interview.
"The reaction we're seeing has very much come out of the Attawapiskat crisis," he said. "But the funding announcement is a little less impressive than I expected."
Most of the other First Nations communities do not have any mental health workers, and the two mental health workers promised to Attawapiskat in the new funding announcement were something the government already promised to do at an earlier date, Angus continued.
"We're focusing now on the suicide crisis, but we need a cohesive response. Young people tell us about living in a community where you can't brush your teeth, and you'll get sores if you take a shower," said Angus. "There's a systemic denial of basic services … we still have a long way to go."
Attawapiskat's chief Bruce Shisheesh told the Guardian after the meeting that he welcomed the funding. "I'm still concerned, though. We're still struggling," he said. He said the meeting came just days after another six young people attempted suicide there. "We're still in crisis mode."
Shisheesh also tweeted to Trudeau after the meeting inviting him to visit Attawapiskat, something he has been urging him to do for months. The next day, he tweeted an article about the funding announcement, saying that "band-aid solutions has made things worse — we need permanent."
In March, the Trudeau government announced it would spend $8.4 billion over the next five years on Aboriginal programming, and other issues affecting communities across the country such as a lack of clean water and a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women. It also pledged to end the water crisis on First Nations reserves, something that human rights groups in Canada and abroad have said is impossible with the current budget.