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Attawapiskat suicide crisis gets help, but will it last? MPP asks

The MPP for Attawapiskat says he is skeptical about how long help for the remote First Nation community will last, as it struggles with a suicide crisis.

Northern Ontario First Nation given about $2M from the province for more support workers, youth centre

Ontario's health minister hopes to find a lasting solution to a desperate situation 2:08

The member of the Ontario Legislature for Attawapiskat says he is skeptical about how long help for the remote First Nation community will last, as it struggles with a suicide crisis.

NDP MPP Gilles Bisson, who represents Timmins-James Bay at Queen's Park, said he's seen these crises play out before.

"Three years ago, when grand chief then Stan Loutit declared a state of emergency in the similar type of situation, the province responded by giving Payukotayno [children's mental health services] about $1.5 million to be able to provide services to be able to deal with counselling, etc., so that we can help people," he said.

"And once the cameras rolled away, about two years later, the government withdrew the funding and then some. So I'm not surprised we are where we are."

Attawapiskat's MP Gilles Bisson says he is skeptical about how long help for the community will last.

Bisson about the issue with CBC Sudbury's Morning North radio show host Thursday morning.

The MPP for Timmins James Bay, Gilles Bisson, was our geust for our Report from Queen's Park. He spoke to us about the community of Attawapiskat and about the suicide crisis there. 8:32

Attawapiskat will get some help addressing its suicide crisis after the province kicked in around $2 million to pay for more support workers and a youth centre.

The First Nation near the James Bay coast declared a state of emergency over the weekend because of an increasing number of suicide attempts.

Chief Bruce Shisheesh invited provincial ministers and the chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, to see the situation first-hand.

"We're losing our future — our future chiefs, our future doctors, future nurses, future officers," Shisheesh said Wednesday.

Some big promises made in Attawapiskat as provincial Health Minister Erik Hoskins pays a visit to the community. The CBC's Olivia Stefanovich joined us from Attawapiskat to tell us what's being offered by the province. 7:28

After the meeting with the chief, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced the province would provide up to $2 million to fund four mental health workers, up to five nurses, two security people, one communications person and a co-ordinator — 13 staff in total — for 30 days.

Seventeen-year-old Syvanna Koostachin said she's grateful the government has listened to her community's cry for help.

"It gives me hope that things are changing around here," she said.

The province is expected to make more announcements in the coming weeks.

Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh, left, invited provincial ministers and the chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde to see what the situation is like on the ground first hand. After the meeting with the chief, Health Minister Eric Hoskins, right, announced up to $2 million to fund four mental health workers. (CBC)

"Our government will be working with the community in the coming days to determine other supports and investments that can be made to help address this crisis," Hoskins said in a statement.

"The provincial government, the local band council and the community will hold a forum to develop a long-term plan to support the community to ensure the people of Attawapiskat — particularly youth — feel safe, respected and supported."

Glimmer of hope?

Hoskins said his visit to Attawapiskat was just as devastating as the years he spent as a doctor in war zones around the world.

He said his meeting with a group of youth on Wednesday was overwhelmingly emotional, but also provided a glimmer of hope.

"I was so impressed at their courage," Hoskins said, "but also that there is a path and they've pointed the way as to what should happen."

Hoskins said he was taken aback when some of the children he met Wednesday were under the age of 10.

"It's deeply upsetting that when you have children that young that are in such pain or have lost hope that they're turning to that kind of consideration; it just demonstrates just how serious this situation is and how important action is," Hoskins said.

'There's choice involved'

In Ottawa, Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of indigenous and northern affairs, said she was heartened by this week's efforts to help the community.

"There is certainly a feeling on the ground that there's been good progress this week and excitement about the idea of a youth drop-in centre, the idea there'd be a youth council that would be involved in the choices and the priorities," she said outside the House of Commons.

"We're going to be able, I think, to work with that community to work on what their priorities are and what they need."

She added the federal government is "absolutely obsessed" with overhauling the child welfare system on First Nations to "support families … and support the wellness of those moms and dads, so that those kids end up not having to be removed from their communities."

People of all ages took part in a candlelight suicide awareness walk Tuesday night in Attawapiskat, Ont. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Bennett was asked about former prime minister Jean Chrétien's suggestion this week that those living on remote reserves could consider moving.

"It is about people's attachment to the land, people having a right to live a traditional life and but also with economic opportunities," she said.

"There's choice involved.… Some communities have chosen to change their location to no longer be flooded and be on higher ground. Some community members choose to go to town to get a job, but then be able to come back. But this is about us wanting to support the choices."

Acts of solidarity with Attawapiskat

A group of aboriginal rights activists, meantime, staged a sit-in at the Toronto offices of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, saying they were acting in solidarity with Attawapiskat.

Protesters took over the front lobby space of the office, housed in a building located in midtown Toronto, hanging an upside-down Canadian flag at the reception desk and a flag of the Attawapiskat First Nation on a wall.

Protesters raise an Attawapiskat First Nation flag in the Indigenous and Northern Affairs office in Toronto. They've been occupying the office since mid-morning Wednesday. (Simon Dingley/CBC)

The group said they had two key demands — that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visit Attawapiskat immediately, and that the needs of the youth of Attawapiskat, which include calls for better resources for young people, be met.

"When Trudeau says that he's going up there and that the demands of the young people who wrote this are being addressed and being taken seriously, then you're going to see us leave," said Sigrid Kneve, who had pinned a sheet with the youth demands onto her clothing.

Young people in Attawapiskat held a celebratory bonfire last night, symbolizing the sense of hope they believe is beginning to build in the community.

We go inside Attawapiskat, the First Nation that is under-resourced and overwhelmed by a suicide crisis. 2:39

With files from Olivia Stefanovich and The Canadian Press