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Burning Sweetgrass, Protesters Occupy Canadian Government Office Over Indigenous Suicide Crisis

Leaders in Attawapiskat, a tiny and remote Aboriginal reserve, declared a state of emergency on Saturday night after 11 people attempted suicide that night, including nine minors.

by Tamara Khandaker
Apr 13 2016, 8:35pm

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Protesters with an Indigenous movement called Idle No More took over part of a Canadian government building on Wednesday, demanding a conversation with its regional director to discuss the ongoing suicide crisis in Attawapiskat.

When the regional director of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the federal agency, did eventually come out of the downtown Toronto office, about three hours into their action, her response left much to be desired, they said.

"I know that you've taken time out of your busy lives and you want to make sure we hear what you have to say, and rest assured that we are passing along those concerns," Mauricette Howlett told the protesters, assuring them her office was working with local leaders and health authorities to implement short and long-term solutions.

"We are though, in the middle of dealing with the crisis, so I do need to get on to conference calls with the chief and the community there to make sure things are happening," she said, before walking back into her office.

Unsatisfied, the group chanted, "We stay, you walk away."

About 20 protesters, joined by allies from Black Lives Matter Toronto, took over the reception area, demanding that immediate action be taken to improve living conditions in the tiny northern Ontario reserve, with a Cree population of about 2,000 people.

They sat on blankets, ate pizza, and talked as two police officers guarded the entrance into the department.

One demonstrator, Davyn Calf Child burned a piece of sweetgrass, letting each person waft the smoke towards themselves. He stressed the need to remain calm.

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

They called for an end to "band-aid" solutions, and criticized the Liberal government for not being proactive, and only sending in help after the fact. Attawapiskat's chief Bruce Shisheesh and council declared a state of emergency on Saturday night after 11 people in the community attempted suicide that night, including nine minors. Since September, the reserve has seen over 100 attempts in total and the death of a 13-year-old girl.

The federal government has said it is dispatching 18 health workers, mental health workers and police to Attawapiskat. And on Wednesday, the government of Ontario announced it was dedicating up to $2 million for a youth regional co-ordination unit, along with additional healthcare workers.

"These politicians that are showing up in Attawapiskat to make themselves look good is unacceptable in my eyes," said Davyn Calf Child, who was at the protest with his 3-year-old son and wife Cathy. "Our people need more help and they need help immediately, and not just when it's convenient."

Calf Child noted that housing conditions in Attawapiskat have hardly improved, despite a declared state of emergency in 2011.

"Canadians [will] throw their money at Syria, they'll throw their money at Iraq, Haiti, Japan and all these other world conflict," he said. "But they do nothing for our people."

Had the crisis taken place in Toronto, he said, children would have immediate access to grief and family counsellors because they'd already be here.

"We're sick and tired of these people, who claim to be our spokespeople and do nothing," he said, adding that the government should be facilitating flights for chiefs and traditional elders to go to Attawapiskat where he said they're desperately needed.

By late afternoon, the protesters had no plans of leaving the building and were still waiting for INAC to promise to do more.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk