Montreal·Q&A

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on the situation in Attawapiskat

Carolyn Bennett tells Quebec AM her job is to ensure children and youth struggling in northern communities, "see success in their future."

Emergency meeting called Tuesday to address situation in remote Ontario First Nation

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Last night, federal MPs held an emergency debate  to address the mental health crisis affecting the small Ontario community of Attawapiskat.

The community declared a state of emergency on Saturday— adding to the list of troubling events happening in Northern communities in recent months.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett spoke to Susan Campbell on CBC's Quebec AM today about how her department plans to handle this situation, and where the $8.4 billion investment in indigenous communities the federal government has promised will be directed.

Here are some key excerpts from Bennett's interview:

Q: NDP Northern Affairs critic Charlie Angus pointed to the fact that there's no new money specifically for mental health services in the federal budget. Your government has acknowledged the despair of these people — why not invest more to treat it?

A: Our hearts are with all of these people, and really how desperate they feel to not be able to actually deal with this themselves.

We will provide the resources that are necessary to deal with things in the short term, and then deal seriously with indigenous health as we move to the health accord going forward, and the agreements that need to be in place to deal with this properly, and not in a piecemeal fashion.

My job is to deal [with] … how we make sure that the children see success in their future and success in education and economically, but also the secure personal cultural identity that allows them to feel good about who they are and again, as a proud Cree young person.

Q: Another issue is the policing in indigenous communities, with men being killed by police and vice-versa in Lac-Simon. Health Minister Jane Philpott said recently, "We're beyond arguing as to whose responsibility [indigenous health issues are]."  Are we at that point with policing? Should there be more funding for aboriginal police forces?

Around 150 people of all ages took part in a candlelight suicide awareness walk Tuesday night in Attawapiskat. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

A: Absolutely. There is no question that I've been at many meetings with the regional chief. He has been very effective in insisting that there be more money for policing.

As we look at missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, the issue of police and trust in police is very important, but so is the issue you've identified with drug abuse and the real problems with foster care and child abuse.

What happens from abuse is you end up with children whose only answer is to numb themselves out with drugs or alcohol.

Ripping children out of their homes into homes that are not culturally safe is a really bad idea and that's why we know that we've got  to completely overhaul the child-welfare system as well.

Q: Not all communities want direct intervention from the federal government, like Attawapiskat — they want to deal with the problems themselves. How does a government deal with that?

Well, I think that what we've got is really impressive leadership in terms of the tribal councils in Attawapiskat with Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.

This is a shared responsibility and we are very grateful for the indigenous leadership that is there, and [he] is pointing out the things that will work, the things that won't work and directing the government to where the investments need to be and the personnel that they are asking for and requiring.

Q: Jean Chretien was on the hill yesterday. He said sometimes First Nations communities need to be moved, because isolation makes it difficult to have economic activities. How do you react to the idea of moving some of these communities?

A: We believe we can promote economic activity in many ways, and that means with revenue resource sharing being part of the solution in terms of mining and forestry and fisheries.

A huge part of Canada's economy is dealing with natural resources.

Some people may choose to move in order to get further their education, or to get work, but my experience has been people who have grown up in these communities want these communities to thrive, and want everyone to be successful with their attachment to the land, with their attachment to their culture and history and language.

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