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Canadian aboriginal community seeks more than crisis management

A rash of suicide attempts has led to a state of emergency being called in the Canadian aboriginal community of Attawapiskat. Many among the country's First Nations suffer from trauma and need help, reports Philip Fine.

The majority of Canada's aboriginal population are referred to as Canada's First Nations, but conditions for many of the approximately 3,100 reserves spread across the vast country are often rather described as Third World. Among natives both on and off reserve, incarceration rates are high, as are drug addiction and violent crime rates. And this past week, the high rates of youth suicide have made the news after a state of emergency was declared in a remote Hudson Bay community dealing with a spate of suicide attempts.

The current government has promised to improve the lives of the approximately 1.4 million people who are of First Nation, as well as Inuit, whose lands are in Northern Canada, and the mixed European and aboriginal Metis. But a pre-eminent First Nations advocate for children says Canada needs to stop lurching from crisis to crisis and start implementing national programs that she knows can help heal aboriginal communities.

Earlier this week, two levels of government dispatched mental health nurses and social workers to the First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat. On April 9, the northern Ontario community declared a state of emergency.According to reports, more than 11 young people in the community of just over 2,000 tried to kill themselves on that one day, with more than 100 suicide attempts since September of last year. Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh told the CTV network that suicide attempts in the community were "out of control."

'Rebuilding natural supports'

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the Representative for Children and Youth in the province of British Columbia, says that while Attawapiskat and other places in the country where there are "clusters of deep trauma and stress" need intensive support, the government must think more in the long term. "Support isn't about flying in and pulling out; it's actually about rebuilding the natural supports that have always been there," says Turpel-Lafond, who received leave as a judge in Saskatchewan to take up the legislative position as children's and youth representative.

She says it's necessary to promote resilience and that having medical crisis workers can sometimes detract from that. "The clinical health model can really be disempowering for these kids," she says, imagining how easily each child could be diagnosed with a major mental illness and prescribed a medication. "Aboriginal kids in Canada have one of the highest levels of being prescribed psychotropic medications."

Turpel-Lafond has overseen 16,000 cases mostly involving aboriginal youth. A member of the Cree nation, she believes that many of the solutions to the problem of suicide in First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities in Canada can be found in listening to youth voices and giving support to their families.

She sees the dark stain of the residential school system on these problems. Church-run, it operated between the 1870s and mid-1990s and took an estimated 150,000 children away from their lands. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to survivors, many of whom suffered physical and sexual abuse and a loss of culture. Turpel-Lafond sees some of those after-effects on parents of today's aboriginal youth. "People who have been raised in that residential school system of judgment, blame and shame have a lot of challenges when it comes to parenting because they were deprived of the proper warmth themselves."

Turpel-Lafond says there have been programs such as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which the former Conservative government shut down in 2014, that with little money were able to help communities with problems such as suicide. "I've seen it do really good work, where there were no suicides in a community for 10 years." She would like to see national standards, with a federal children's commissioner and a system that could "track, monitor and support national progress, so that we don't ping-pong from crisis to crisis."

New government, new approach

The current federal government has pledged new funding for First Nations communities. The most recent federal budget earmarked $8.4 billion (5.82 billion euros) over five years for a variety of indigenous challenges, including improving water treatment plants on reserves and launching an inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women.

Turpel-Lafond says she has not seen enough coordination on serious social issues from the government but she does call the six-month-old Liberal administration a breath of fresh air. She says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "has made it possible to have the discussion we're having today. We have the potential to go deeper," she says and hopes that Canada will work to shed the laggard status it has earned from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for its treatment of its indigenous population.

Kanada Attawapiskat

Young people from First Nations communities have marched in favor of assistance measures.

For Xavier Kataquapit, a 39 year-old Cree man who grew up in Attawapiskat, improved conditions will give people more hope. "It's hard to get health care, hard to have a good education and hard to get good housing. With all those things, it makes life difficult and you almost have no option but to see a bleak and negative future."

Suicide, addiction 'a fact of life'

He grew up in a family of 12, living in a three-bedroom home, and says many of the problems that he saw as a child have not improved. He imagines many young people in Attawapiskat can't help but compare themselves with what they see outside their community. "You watch popular culture and you see this greater non-native culture where everybody has everything. And you live on a small native reserve where life is very difficult."

Kataquapit works as both a columnist on native issues and a communications professional in Timmins, Ontario, seven hours north of Toronto. He credits some of his early stability to traditional pursuits of fishing and going out on the land. He has fond memories of accompanying two of his uncles who worked as gillnet fishermen, catching and selling three-foot-long trout. He remembers his mother cooking enormous trays of fish.

But he said even back then suicides were a "normal fact of life," and he was never far away from the pervasive alcoholism of his community. "In my later teen years I started falling into that dark pit of alcoholism and just skirting the edge of drug addiction." But he credits Alcoholics Anonymous with helping him. "It was life changing to sit with this group that I had seen go through all this, and who knew all the same people and all the same stories," he said. "With their support I was able to break out of that cycle."

"When you've grown up all your life living and seeing alcoholism all around you and everybody does it, then you naturally think at one point it's okay, it's just a natural part of life."

He has many family members still living in Attawapiskat and says it's very hard to bring up the latest issues with his family, to ask them directly how things are in the community. "I don't really talk about it with them. Everybody is really saddened by all of this." But as he contemplates his next column, he's pretty sure he'll be discussing suicide and his childhood home of Attawapiskat with his readers.

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