A First Nations organization in northern Ontario is calling out a Liberal MP for what it says is inaction on suicides in the region.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation says there have been more than 500 deaths by suicide since 1986 among the 49 First Nations it represents.
In January, chiefs from those communities declared a state of emergency after a 10-year-old died by suicide.
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"Over the last 10 years they've declared a lot of states of emergency over the suicide crisis," Thunder Bay - Rainy River MP Don Rusnak said on March 8, during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
"I'm not saying this isn't an issue that we should immediately discuss, but I don't think there's harm in putting it off a little bit to make sure we're inclusive of all the communities that are facing a crisis," Rusnak said of a motion calling for a meeting with Nishnawbe Aski Nation leaders in April.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation sent Rusnak a letter on March 15 saying it is concerned about the comments and asking him to clarify the Liberal position on First Nations suicide.
"To say that this is something that can be put off for a little bit, to me, that seemed like inaction," said Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox. "That seemed like the opposite of what this government promised to do."
Fox and Rusnak were both lawyers practicing in Thunder Bay before each took up a new political role last year.
Fox said he considers the rookie MP to be a friend, "someone I felt could be a voice, someone that could be sensitive to issues, being a First Nations MP himself and in that regard I was extremely disappointed."
Suicide crisis: 'the utmost pressing concern'
On Friday, Rusnak clarified his remarks in a statement to CBC News.
"The suicide crisis in NAN Territory is clearly not something that I take lightly," he wrote. "It's an issue of the utmost pressing concern for me."
"I also believe it is of great importance that we get all of the communities facing these hardships the assistance they require quickly."
Rusnak went on to explain that he wanted to take time to make sure a motion presented at the standing committee meeting was inclusive of other First Nation communities also struggling with suicide crises — including some in the Treaty 3 area as well as the Pimicikamak First Nation in Manitoba.
"So, I asked the committee that we take the time to reword the motion in order to make it more inclusive to benefit all First Nations impacted," he said. "Because the lives of First Nations youth in all communities deserve to be taken seriously."
The committee decided to vote on the original motion; Rusnak said he supported it to prevent delay, and that he will be speaking with NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler "as soon as possible."