Protesters are demanding that the federal government take immediate action to address the recent spate of suicide attempts in Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario.
As many as 20 members of Idle No More and Black Lives Matter have been occupying the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) since mid-morning, demanding that the federal government take action following the suicide crisis.
- Attawapiskat declares state of emergency over spate of suicide attempts
- Desperation in Attawapiskat, where First Nation leaders fear for the young
- Attawapiskat suicide crisis: MPs hold emergency debate over suicide attempts
Toronto police, who arrived at the Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue E. location after 10:45 a.m. ET Wednesday, say protesters removed a Canadian flag from the office, but that the protest has been non-violent.
Protesters started the occupation with a die-in on the floor of the office, before holding a ceremony that included the burning of sweetgrass and sage.
They say they are standing in solidarity with the Attawapiskat community, which declared a state of emergency Saturday following reports of 11 suicide attempts in one day alone last weekend. There are also reports of more than 100 suicide attempts and at least one death since September in the remote community of nearly 2,000 people.
Immediate and long-term help
Protesters say they will refuse to leave the premises until INAC officials promise more action to address the crisis.
"We're asking for immediate help and long-term help," protest organizer Sigrid Kneve told CBC Toronto over the phone.
Kneve said a representative from INAC has come out and spoken with protesters, telling them that INAC is "doing all they can" to address the situation.
"It's the same old, same old," Kneve said.
She said protesters soon will decide on how long they plan to remain inside the building.
A spokesperson for the department of Indigenous Affairs said in a statement Wednesday that since the weekend, officials have been working with the First Nation community and members of provincial government to "provide mental health and community supports to Attawapiskat and the individuals and families in need."
"It is important to address the immediate crisis," Valerie Hache wrote.
"We are working to put in place medium and long-term supports including addressing housing needs, ending boil water advisories, adequately supporting education, and ensuring child and family services are reformed and properly funded."
Officials from Health Canada said on Tuesday afternoon that 18 health workers, mental-health workers and police were being dispatched to support the Attawapiskat community.
"Our government wants to assure First Nations that we are personally and directly engaged in the recent states of emergencies that have been declared," reads a statement by Health Minister Jane Philpott.
Time for more action
Protesters say it is not enough. They want to see the federal government taking more immediate action to address the needs of the community.
"We would like to hear that they are doing more than just sending social workers after the fact. There are so many issues at stake," protester Carrie Lester told CBC Toronto by phone.
"We're prepared to stay as long as it takes," Lester said. "Once we have got that determination ... then, we are fine to go."
MPs hold emergency debate
MPs debated for more than five hours Tuesday about how the suicide crisis and other public health emergencies facing First Nations communities across the country should be addressed.
Many communities are without proper health services, adequate housing and in some cases, access to clean water.
A number of other First Nations communities have declared public health emergencies this year.
At least four aboriginal leaders are scheduled to appear before the Commons indigenous affairs committee on Thursday to discuss the health crises facing their communities.